I still can see the face of the distraught mother who came to me after I had preached at a church in Nebraska.
She approached me tentatively; I noticed her, but as I was signing books. I thought maybe she was just trying to wait until the line got a little shorter.
She was indeed waiting for the line to dwindle — but not because she wanted me to sign a book. She wanted to talk to me about her son who had shared with her that he was a girl.
She explained how her 9-year-old child had come to her. She had listened with her ears but also with her eyes. Her child had been crying out for help and support and love for some time, but she had not recognized it or heard it or seen it for what it was.
She was not a member of the church where I had preached. She was Catholic and said to me, “There’s no way I can talk to any priest about this.”
At that, she began to sob. I left the book signing and asked the pastor of the church if we could use his office. Once inside, this mother began to share what she had noticed and not understood and how what she felt most bad about was not having been able to hear the cries of her child.
This was years ago — before people acknowledging their pronouns was common. This mother did not know what to do or how to do it. She only knew that just that morning, her child had told her to begin calling her by the girl’s name she had chosen. And then came the clincher. Her new daughter asked, “Mom, do you still love me?”
“What she felt most bad about was not having been able to hear the cries of her child.”
I think about that story all the time. I honestly did not know who to tell her to talk with. I was not from Nebraska and did not know anyone there. After I got back to Ohio, I called the pastor of the church and asked for names of therapists who dealt with issues of sexuality and gender identity, and he sent some names. I shared them with the mother and did not hear from her again. But I think about her and her trans daughter all the time and wonder how they are doing.
Parents today are facing challenges parents in the past did not have to deal with, but to be clear, many children are wrestling and have been wrestling with issues of their sexuality and their gender for a long time. They could not talk about it with their parents because parents were still controlled by believing what society said was normal and abnormal. Children who dared come out as gay to their parents risked being thrown out of their homes — and many were. They were told they were an offense to God and they were going to hell, and they believed it. And so they cried, often while living on the streets, because parents could not deal with their own “stuff.”
But the increased number of people coming out as trans is presenting parents with a reality they absolutely cannot handle. Legislatures are passing laws against the trans community. Laws are being passed that prohibit doctors and medical professionals from providing care to transgender children.
People don’t even want to talk about it, but the reality is that transgender identity is real, and children who are grappling with it are too often crying alone and living horribly miserable lives.
Being Christian is not a place of comfort or help. A recent Pew survey showed six in 10 Christians believe gender is assigned at birth, while six in 10 “nones” — those with no religious affiliation — disagree. A vast number of Christians cannot or will not believe that transgender identity is real. They believe if God wanted a person to be a girl or a boy in life God would have assigned that gender in the womb.
“Creation isn’t that clean or uncomplicated.”
But creation isn’t that clean or uncomplicated. Development in the womb is frequently fraught with complications and is imperfect. Babies form with no brains; in the womb, some of them have organs that develop outside of their bodies. Babies are born with no legs, no arms, and some ailments that will allow them minutes of life, if that, after birth. Some boys are born without penises and are raised as girls, although they always consider themselves to be male.
All the science of fetal development notwithstanding, what happens after a baby is born is what parents deal with — and many of us, frankly, do not deal with it well. In this society, it takes courage to publicly love and support a child who is gay or who is transgender.
At the recent NAACP Image Awards, former NBA star Dwayne Wade and his wife, Gabrielle Union, publicly shared their love and support for their transgender daughter, Zaya, as she sat on the front row. They dedicated their award to her. It was breathtakingly powerful. I am sure Wade would have loved his son to follow in his footsteps and play sports, but there he was, owning and embracing his transgender daughter, letting other parents know it not only is OK to do that, but necessary.
The child born to you is your child, no matter what course his or her life takes.
I do not know why I can’t get the Nebraska mother’s face out of my spirit; I do not know why I cannot forget the tears she shed. What I do know, however, is that she was a mother who was desperate to know how to love and support her transgender daughter in a world that would hate her. I hope and pray both she and her daughter are thriving and somehow feeling the warm embrace of the God who loves us all.
Susan K. Smith is an ordained minister, activist and author. A graduate of Yale Divinity School, she is the director of clergy resource development for the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference. Her latest book is With Liberty and Justice for Some: The Bible, the Constitution, and Racism in America.
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