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On an otherwise normal Sunday morning in church, a kindly, soft-spoken woman who'd been visiting announced to everyone that she was going to have an operation soon and that her name would change from Susan to Stephen.
No one seemed to know how to respond.
What would you have done?
Article originally appeared in
I posed this question on Facebook and received a variety of responses. Gay and gay-affirming friends were quick with offers of encouragement: "May I bring you a meal or run an errand while you recover?" "My friend had that operation. She/he is much happier and more in touch with himself." "It's super important to show as much love and acceptance to Stephen as possible. Coming out is scary. Show love and acceptance of their LGBT orientation. Your kind words will change a life for the better."
A few were blandly noncommittal: "I probably wouldn't say anything. Not my business." Or, "I would tell her that I would pray for healing, wisdom, and acceptance." A few stated cut-and-dried theology: "It was God's will she was created a woman. Rebelling against His will won't lead to joy or salvation." And (thankfully!) some offered a compassionate, biblically informed invitation to engage.
All of this was about what I expected. What surprised me was the volume of private responses I received out of the public eye. Two things became clear: (1) sexual confusion and gender dysphoria are pervasive and are affecting all sectors of society, including children raised by scrupulously faithful churchgoing Christians; and (2) there is a desperate and immediate need for churches to talk about this and to prepare as many as are willing to be helpful first responders for the gender-confused.
Compassion at First Sight
Fortunately for Susan, the pastor reacted quickly. Although he'd never dealt with this before, he sought her out. "We don't agree with what you're doing," he said, "but we love you. And we want you to know that you are welcome here."
Susan was adamant that she was supposed to be a male, but he took time for her and let her bare her heart. "There are reasons why you're feeling the way you are," he said, "but you're not a failure." He could see that there was a lot of hurt underneath, but "we know you want to live the life that's real. You want to find out who you are."
At length, something inside her began to shift. "That was the first time I ever really thought that I liked myself," she said later, reflecting on the conversation.
TranZformed: The Experts Speak
Susan tells her story in TranZformed: Finding Peace with Your God-Given Gender, the latest film from David Kyle Foster of Mastering Life Ministries. TranZformed features fifteen ex-transgender individuals who candidly share their stories.And, given the outbreak of gender chaos in recent years, itis a must-see for church leaders, parents, and youth.
For clarity's sake, TranZformed begins with some background on gender confusion throughout history (it is not new), along with a few definitions. "Transgender" is a non-medical umbrella term used to describe people who have a normal male or female body but are experiencing a psychological disconnect between what their body is and how they feel about it. The condition of feeling this way used to be called "gender identity disorder," but DSM-5 moderated it to "gender dysphoria." So far, no biological, neurological, genetic, or prenatal condition has been found as a cause.
Labels aside, the condition signals that a person is struggling with his or her identity, what Freud called the ego. There's an unclear or confused "sense of me." And while each individual's story is unique, there are common threads to the backstories that stand out as the TranZformed participants speak.
Confusion may begin with a comparatively mild mixed message. When he was four years old, Walt's grandmother started cross-dressing him and then fawning over him. Thus, he became accustomed to receiving love and accolades as a "girl." In many cases, the mixed messaging also carried a rejection, either overt or implied: Daniel's mother told him he was "supposed to be a girl"; Grace's father wanted a son. Or a son raised without a father might have felt more comfortable with women or adopted traits from them. Then, when someone called him a girl or "sissy," he believed it.
Family dysfunctions, too, can affect a child's developing sense of self. KathyGrace saw her father abuse her mother and absorbed the belief that women were weak, vulnerable, and hated. When an older half-brother started molesting her, she didn't know how to respond other than to "become a man" for self-preservation.
Sadly, sexual abuse is nearly universal. Anthony's father would have "full-on sex" with him. "That's the way a father loves a son," his father said. In story after story, boundary lines were crossed, and nothing was said to set the confusion or transgression in proper context. "Dad said it would become normal," Anthony continued. "And it did." KathyGrace estimates that 99 percent of the transgender people she's known have some kind of abuse in their history, most of it sexual.
Two Treatment Alternatives
The definitions, history, and even common background factors of gender dysphoria are fairly well agreed upon. The controversy lies in different opinions regarding how to alleviate the distress it causes. The politically correct prescription, which is increasingly being enforced with a heavy hand (and in some cases with threats of government punishment), is consistent with the LGBT-affirming answers to my Facebook poll: change the body. Do the loving thing and celebrate Susan becoming Stephen. The APA is on board with this, and indeed, some therapists are themselves transgender and cheerlead for medically manipulating the body without reservation or delay.
But Susan and the ex-transgender community plead otherwise. When an individual is experiencing a disconnect between what his or her body is biologically and how he or she feels about it psychologically, there are often underlying issues and unresolved traumas, says Denise Shick, founder and executive director of Help 4 Families, a ministry to families of the gender-confused. "All we're allowing with [surgery] is for them to take on a different identity on the outside," but all the inside issues still remain. "They're still hurting, and it's not going to fix the wounds of the heart and soul."
This is a point we ignore to the detriment of all. Shouldn't we first try to understand what a troubled person is really dealing with? In any case of a mind-body disconnect, distress is to be expected, but doesn't it seem prudent to at least draw out the mind and emotions first, before making drastic and irreversible changes to the body? Certainly this is the purview of a trained counselor, but anyone with a caring heart can take time to listen and befriend.
A Better Way to Love
Susan is grateful that one unprepared pastor did so for her. Ultimately, she came to see that her dysphoria had more to do with her background and thoughts about herself than it did with her anatomy. More important, she learned she could look to Jesus Christ, who knew her, loved her, and died for her, to define her worth, and this came to carry more weight for her over time.
Rather than change her anatomy, then, in an attempt to make it fit with her thoughts and emotions, she opted to work on bringing her thoughts more in line with this new understanding. Gradually, her emotions began to follow suit.
You and I can be like that pastor. Affirming created reality is the more holistic way to show love and acceptance. It's also the way most likely to change a life for the better.
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