“Sasha” (not her real name) has just finished the third grade. She began her school year with the name given her at birth, a name reflecting that she was originally gender identified as “male.” By the end of the year, she had chosen a new name, and we were referring to her by her preferred pronouns “she, her, hers.”
Sasha is one of several transgender children and youth who I know as their substitute teacher, their neighbor, their family member and, before retirement, as their pastor. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 2% of high school students identify as transgender. This makes it highly likely that there are at least a few trans kids in every school.
Transgender children and youth are at risk. Twenty seven per cent of trans kids feel unsafe at school, compared to 5% of cisgender males and 7% of cisgender females. Thirty-five percent of trans students have been bullied and 35% have attempted suicide. Uncounted in these stats — and arguably at even higher risk — are non-student youth: those who have dropped out or are homeless, for example.
Watching Sasha navigate her transition over the school year, I observed almost all teachers respecting her story and strongly advocating for her. They found creative ways to educate classmates and respond to questions. They were aware of any aggressions directed at her, and they intervened. Elementary schools were equipped with gender neutral, one person restrooms for students and for the staff. Yet to be fully eliminated: “Boy/girl” is sometimes still used a way to separate groups or to organize lines, games, or pep rally cheers.
What would Sasha find in our “all are welcome” churches? A gender neutral restroom? Non-gender-based ways to mix up our litanies and hymn sings?
The overall political climate directly affects the safety of transgender students. A study released this month in the journal Pediatrics showed that identity-related bullying can increase for students when there is a climate of “heated political discourse over proposed laws involving marginalized groups,”
Some anti-transgender battles heating up the current political climate:
- The U.S. Pastor Council claiming a “Biblical perspective” to challenge the decades-old Austin anti-discrimination ordinance. The federal lawsuit, now dropped, sought to overturn employment protection based on gender identity and sexual orientation.
- As of April 2019, transgender recruits have been banned from joining the military by the Trump administration.
- The Department of Housing and Urban Development proposed a new rule allowing federally-funded homeless shelters to use sex and gender identity as criteria for admission.. (Rule proposed May 22, 2019)
- The Department of Health and Human Services proposed a rule that would roll back protections from discrimination against transgender patients. (Rule proposed May 24, 2019)
The very existence of these public debates declares human rights debatable, human rights optional, and threatens the safety of trans kids.
The first curiosity about each of us — “Is it a boy or a girl?” — became our first identifying label. School is one of the places where kids discover new things about themselves — “I live in a state called Texas” or, for Sasha, “I am sure I don’t belong in the ‘boys’ line.”
Church is another place of self-discovery. Am I really God’s beloved creation — wonderfully made, fully loved — no matter who I am? How is that acceptance fully extended to trans kids in my faith community? Do the lessons and the language reveal a community no longer ordered around “male and female”?
Sasha and other trans children rely on us adults because they are children. May we create safe spaces for them. May we advocate for their safety and their full potential. May they know in their bodies that God’s love is for them. And even as they are taught to recite the words, may they truly experience “liberty and justice for all.”
***Valuable information for pastors and churches, too.
Schools in Transition: A Guide for Supporting Transgender Students in K-12 Schools
(Human Rights Campaign)
Rev. Sharon M. Temple is a United Church of Christ pastor living in Austin, TX. She is a contributor to the RevGals book There’s a Woman in the Pulpit and blogs erratically at Tidings of Comfort and Joy.
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