Braids, bathrooms, gender identity and faith

Last month when school started I was touched by a story from Saskatoon of a First Nations boy with braids. Seven-year-old Quannah Duquette has long braided hair that signifies strength in his culture. He wants to wear his hair long, but people mistake him for a girl and sometimes he is teased. The good news is that his school now allows students to make their own decisions about hair. But it doesn’t get easier from there; gender is actually much more complicated than many of us were taught. Quannah Duquette is a boy, happy being a boy, but at times mistaken for a girl. There are many other people, however, who are born male or female and know their gender identity to be incorrect. Others are born with genitalia that lack gender clarity and surgical decisions are made that may or may not match what the person actually is.

This may surprise you; it surprised me when I started to learn about it.

Gender dysphoria is a medical term that describes people who believe the sex they were assigned at birth does not match who they really are. Scientists tell us that this can occur for a variety of reasons including genetics, the structure of the brain and prenatal exposure to hormones. We do not know with certainty how many people experience gender dysphoria but different studies say that it can be anywhere from one in 100 to one in 2,000. Furthermore, some evidence suggests that one percent of live births demonstrate atypical genitalia. One in fifteen hundred births results in some form of genital surgery to “normalize” appearance. Though most of us were taught in high school biology that people have either XX or XY chromosomes, the truth is that some are born XXY or XXYY, which results in gender-nonconforming attributes. This means that thousands of people live somewhere on the gender spectrum between two places; they live between what we might think of when we read Genesis 1:27: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

These matters are complicated but they deserve our thoughtful attention. Christians have to be willing to learn from those who experience sexual identity in ways that challenge our thinking. We must welcome these people into our community and encourage them to help us think through what it means to respond to God in all the different ways that we are made. Sadly, we are not doing a very good job at this.

A spectrum
A year ago a theologian at a Christian university revealed that he was transgender. He was celibate and had followed all of the university’s rules, but he was asked to leave.

Transgender students are not welcome at many Christian universities, and even when they are institutions really struggle to determine what sorts of housing and other facilities are best.

Nonetheless, there are instructive examples. I recently got to know two sets of Christian parents raising gender-nonconforming children. In both cases the children are girls who are often perceived to be boys. When the children were very young they called themselves boys and the parents had to decide whether they should correct them or ignore it. Today, largely because of their supportive parents, the girls are comfortable with themselves. They wear what they want to wear and they respond casually when people mistake them for boys. But the parents have also explained to me how traumatic it can be when teachers tell young children to line up by gender or when people in authority chastise these children for using the girl’s bathroom. Others chastise the parents of these girls for failing to dress their children in gender conforming clothes and the families have experienced trepidation in almost every new social encounter.

Gender and sexual identity raise complicated questions, and I don’t know the answers. I was 50 years old before I met an openly transgender person and I continue to learn more all the time. Christians uncomfortable with these topics insist that the Genesis story answers every question, but I think that fails to deal honestly with people’s pain and experience. As I meet people in the midst of these challenges a different Biblical passage comes to mind and I repeat it often. It has special meaning to me in this Thanksgiving season: “I will give thanks to you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14).

  • Julia Stronks has practiced law and is the Edward B. Lindaman Chair at Whitworth University, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. She lives in Spokane, Wash.

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