The actor Elliot Page, formerly known as Ellen Page, cried in a recent interview with Oprah Winfrey. She had asked Page, “What brings you joy after transitioning from identifying as female to male?”
“It’s the little things,” Page replied.
Page choked up recounting looking in the mirror after having a mastectomy. Page had felt deep inner distress before the surgery when wearing a t-shirt. That distress was real — so real that Page went under the knife for breast removal surgery. Page’s relief at having them removed was obvious. That is serious distress.
In Genesis 1–2, God created two distinct biological sexes in his image to reflect something of himself. But humanity’s fall quickly followed. The fall affected all of the human condition, including biological sex, both internally and externally. Within our own bodies, the chromosomes that determine biological sex have been affected by the fall as much as those that determine Down syndrome, autoimmune disease, or infertility. Intersex is the modern term for a person born with a chromosomal abnormality and/or reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit the typical definition of female or male. According to statistics put out by The Intersex Society of North America, roughly 1 in 1000 people experience an actual biological chromosomal abnormality related to gender.
The American Psychiatric Association also acknowledges a mental condition known as gender dysphoria. It involves acute mental distress resulting from a perceived mismatch between biological sex and gender identity, a person’s self-conception about their gender. This is not the same as gender nonconformity, in which someone of one distinct biological sex prefers to behave or dress in a way more closely associated with the other. It is also distinct from being gay or lesbian. Page and others who experience gender dysphoria have felt such distress that they cut off their breasts or genitals as a result.
If you are a Christian who believes God created two distinct biological sexes to fully image him to the world, how do you walk faithfully with a son or daughter who is experiencing such a mental crisis? How can we equip our kids to walk faithfully with others as well? Here are a few principles that guide me, principles that I work to pass on to my children as well.
1. Listen first.
My children don’t struggle with listening to their friends the way that I do, so this is more of the lecture I must give myself as a parent. I often think I know the answer from Scripture upon the moment I perceive there is a problem. That is pride, though. If ever there was a situation for the wisdom of James 1:19, distress around gender dysphoria is it. James says, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”
I have often given the wrong advice — despite the best of motives to help someone honor God and Scripture — because I didn’t understand the situation. I had pride and unearned confidence in my own ability to diagnose what was going on and correct according to the Scriptures. Gender dysphoria is a particularly complicated mental health issue. The origins of body hatred to the point someone would cut off their penis or cut off their breasts are deep and complicated.
James tells me to slow down as a parent, listen to what my child or one of their friends is actually saying, not what I assume they mean, and carefully seek to understand before responding with my own words. Kids experiencing true gender dysphoria are in a mental crisis. Listening can help diffuse the weights of conflict they feel, while advice one might give in response, even with the best of intentions, could push an already fragile teen to a scary place.
2. Ask deeper questions.
Once the time comes to finally speak, start by asking deeper questions, not by simply dispensing advice. Kiera Bell recently won a lawsuit in the United Kingdom against the doctors who performed transition surgery on her when she was a youth. She recounts the distress she felt at the time: “I was an unhappy girl who needed help. . . . As I matured, I recognized that gender dysphoria was a symptom of my overall misery, not its cause.”
Kiera had an abusive home situation. Her deepest struggle was with self loathing after her parents’ rejection. Many who experienced gender dysphoria in their teen years report that their acute distress with their bodies lessened as they aged. As they matured in their ability to handle other struggles in their life, or they moved out of abusive home situations, their mental distress over their bodies lessened as well.
If we or our kids have friends that are in such distress, it’s worthwhile to ask how things are with their parents or their friends at school. Are they feeling rejected? Do they feel unloveable as they are? Have cutting words from those around them caused them to hate themselves? Ask deeper questions, and listen well before offering advice or attempting to “fix” the problem.
3. Pray with gospel hope to the God we can all trust.
I tell my kids that if a friend in acute distress shares their struggle, then after you have listened and asked deeper questions, the best words to respond with are those of prayer: “I don’t have all the answers, but can I ask the God who created us for help?” Their friend may or may not know Christ. But we can still pray with them in hope, which leads to number 4.
4. Speak gospel truth.
The good news of Jesus speaks into both the inner struggles of our broken sexual bodies and the outer struggles between our broken relationships. Jesus’ body was literally broken physically so ours could be literally healed. Some of us experience miraculous healing of various physical abnormalities during life on earth, but all of us are assured an eternity at peace with our perfectly resurrected physical bodies, perfectly male or female in the image of God. While some heavenly creatures do not inhabit eternal bodies, human beings do.
Dr. Gregg Allison reminds us in Embodied, “God’s design for his embodied image bearers is that as we are in this earthly life, so we will be for all eternity: embodied.” Our bodies matter. God did not make a mistake when he made us male or female. We may wrestle with how God made us, but Christ’s embodied resurrection gives us hope that we will be at peace with the bodies he gave us for eternity. There is no dysphoria in heaven.
As we train our children to engage culture wisely, we must recognize the very real issues that our broken bodies in our broken world experience in relation to biological sex. And in the midst of it all, we point our children to Christ as the hope we have for redeemed sexual bodies both on earth and in eternity. Christ, too, is our source to endure in broken bodies while they last on earth as we confidently wait for Jesus to return and make all things new.