One in five Gen Z Americans now identify as LGBT+, double the number of millennials (one in 10) and quadruple the number of Gen X Americans (about one in 20). A surprising number of them—40 percent of Gen Z and millennials—also identify as religious. Increasingly, Christian pastors, youth pastors, and parents are fielding questions and declarations from young people examining their own gender or sexual orientation.
Eva was in a church luncheon when she got an email from her 12-year-old daughter Grace. (Their names have been changed.)
“Mom and Dad, I need to tell you I’m not actually a girl,” she read. “My pronouns are they/them.”
Eva couldn’t breathe. She felt like she’d been punched in the gut. She hadn’t seen this coming—in fact, a few months before, Grace had shared on social media her belief that God created people male and female.
Back then, Eva was sure that statement was going to earn Grace—who attended a progressive public school—some social problems. Instead, it seemed to blow over right away.
“I would’ve gotten bullied,” said Grace, who is now 16. “Instead, they decided to reeducate me. I got invited to groups where all they wanted to talk about was the transgender stuff. Over the course of a few months, I decided I was going to be agender. And then I ended up deciding I was a boy.”
Grace was experiencing what is often called “rapid-onset gender dysphoria,” in which friendship groups begin to experience similar gender questions at the same time. One in five Gen Z Americans now identify as LGBT+, double the number of millennials (one in 10) and quadruple the number of Gen X Americans (about one in 20).
A surprising number of them—40 percent of Gen Z and millennials—also identify as religious. Increasingly, Christian pastors, youth pastors, and parents are fielding questions and declarations from young people examining their own gender or sexual orientation.
“Martin Luther King Jr. talks about the long arc of justice,” said Falls Church Anglican rector Sam Ferguson, who has spent time with multiple transitioning young adults and their families. “The Bible also envisions the long arc of redemption, which aims at the resurrection of the body. There is continuity—the end reflects the beginning. Our Creator doesn’t need to start over. If your child has an XY chromosome, then he’ll be raised from the dead as a male. We need to work along the arc of redemption, not against it.”
That takes patience, Eva and her husband Seth found. (His name has also been changed.) For more than two years, they prayed for Grace. They searched the Scriptures. They built their relationships with her. They drew boundaries around how she could express herself. They took her to counseling and to church. They started homeschooling her. They asked her questions.
Basically, they played the long game. And when she was 15, Grace desisted—that is, recognized her body is female and switched her identity back.
These days, Eva and Grace often talk with other families whose children are transitioning.
“The church is the only place that has the freedom to address this, because the activism around this has been so powerful and well-funded,” Eva said. “When I think about where we were three years ago, and where we are now—God doesn’t waste anything.”
‘Ended Up Deciding I Was a Boy’
In many ways, it’s surprising that someone like Grace would struggle with gender identity. Her mom and dad love Jesus and each other. She’s got a couple of siblings, a strong church family, and a sharp mind. For as long as she can remember, she’s believed in God.
When Grace was 12, she logged onto a social networking site called DeviantArt. “At first, I was posting artwork with my friends, but eventually the ‘gay is good’ message became unavoidable,” she said.
She’d never heard of someone being transgender before. “I was like, ‘What is this?’ and they were like, ‘Oh, there are guys who are actually girls, and girls who are actually guys, and some people are actually neither.’”
Grace asked her mom about it, and Eva explained they didn’t agree with those categories of thinking. Grace, who is on the autism spectrum and thinks in black and white, told her online friends she didn’t agree with them.
They didn’t fight her or bully her. Instead, she was invited to the Gender & Sexualities Alliance (GSA) club at her school. Eva thinks she was targeted, and that’s not a crazy idea. Teachers in California have shared recruiting tactics, including “stalking” students’ Google searches or conversations for any indication they might be open to joining the faculty-advised, student-led clubs.
Grace began going to the weekly unsupervised lunchtime meetings, listening to other kids from her middle school and high school talk about sex, gender, and how they felt uncomfortable in their bodies.
Being a 12-year-old girl, Grace felt uncomfortable in her body too. She also didn’t like the tights, short shorts, and crop tops that other middle school girls were wearing.
“I believe strongly in modesty,” she said. “I started to associate womanhood with being sexualized. I wasn’t even really thinking male vs. female, but non-sexual vs. sexual.”
She thought maybe she was agender, which means not identifying with either sex. But as time went on, Grace realized she’d prefer to be male. After all, she’d love to be as tall and strong as her brother. And it seemed like all she needed was some testosterone.
“Nobody in the GSA club had gotten prescription hormones yet because we were all fairly young,” she said. “Nobody knew about all the side effects of giving girls testosterone—the bone demineralization, increased rate of cancer, heart attacks, and vaginal atrophy.”
Instead, what everyone talked about was the drama of coming out.
National Coming Out Day is October 11, and it has expanded to include National Coming Out Week and even National Coming Out Month.
“All my friends on social media and I were going around with each other, dramatizing coming out,” Grace said. “I made it way more dramatic than it had to be. I emailed my parents with my announcement and my pronouns.”
She’d already asked to cut her hair short and quit wearing skirts, but that was all the warning Seth and Eva had.
“It was a nightmare,” Eva said. “I’ve never suffered from anxiety before, but the first two weeks [after Grace’s announcement] I didn’t eat or sleep.” She couldn’t believe this was happening—didn’t kids who identified as transgender come from broken families or abusive childhoods?
Eva took Grace to the school counselor, to the pediatrician, to the principal. “They all tell you you have to affirm or your child will commit suicide,” Eva said. “But my background is in education and psychology, and I knew that didn’t make sense. I could think of 15 reasons [other than being transgender] why a young girl might do this.”
It took two weeks before she found her first ray of hope. “It was a blog run by liberals, but it had all kinds of gender-critical resources,” she said. “I found it in the middle of the night, and I just started crying. I was like, I’m not crazy.”
Theology of Gender
That website was a confirmation of what Eva already knew.
“My husband and I talked it through,” she said. “What do we know about God? We know he created us male and female. Are there true transgender people? Well, if there are, they’d be in the Bible. What about eunuchs? Jesus is certainly aware of bodily brokenness—he acknowledges people born as eunuchs in Matthew 19:12—but two distinct sexes are his good design. . . . So if we believe God is sovereign and doesn’t make mistakes, what does this mean for us?”
She couldn’t find many Christian resources—and while there are some now, they’re still few and far between (and not always allowed on Amazon). Her pastors weren’t able to help much, either. “The church helped us find a therapist, which was huge,” Eva said. “But otherwise, we did not get much support. . . . No one at the church had any guidance for us at all. I understand that, because this was all out of left field for everyone. But instead of feeling like we were working together to figure this out, I felt mostly abandoned and ignored.”
Although many Christians know someone who is struggling with gender identity, few churches are well-equipped with policies, counseling, or a deep theology of identity. The transgender movement is both young—entering the mainstream around 2015 when Bruce Jenner announced his transition to Caitlyn—and constantly evolving. Even more confusing, the transgender questions and assumptions are different from the homosexual ones.
The question isn’t “Whom do I love?” but rather “What does it mean to be human?” said Mike McGarry, founder of Youth Pastor Theologian. “The gender identity conversation is really about the created order, and turning it upside down.”