Sandra grew up in a Christian home. She was a good girl in church — read the Bible, prayed, did her quiet time. She was homeschooled by solid parents. She never snuck out or did anything crazy. She’d never even been to a high school prom. On the outside, it looked like Sandra had a sheltered and safe Christian childhood, but on the inside, there was a lot more going on.
During her freshman year of college, Sandra met June, a girl who quickly became her best friend. They spent hours each day together, and, over time, their worlds began to revolve around each other. Their emotional closeness became codependent and inappropriately physical. One day it happened, and they freaked out. They cried and prayed and asked God to help nothing like that happen again. But it did. And Sandra and June never told anyone. They even promised one another they’d never tell their future husbands.
A kid like Sandra should feel safe confessing her sins to Christian parents and her church community. But there’s understandable shame for a kid confessing same-sex attraction or transgender feelings, especially if that child has grown up around coarse gay jokes or politically charged opinions about the LGBTQ movement. It’s understandable for a kid who grows up in that context to fear losing friendships if they allow their struggles to become public knowledge.
What can a parent or a church leader do in the face of such shame? What does it look like to show love and compassion for a child who experiences the discord of gender confusion or same-sex attraction?
First, cultivate empathy. If we’re honest, we know kids’ fears about confessing disordered desires are not unfounded. Many parents don’t react well. Some parents’ first instincts are to run from the situation and ignore it. Some become overwhelmed emotionally and get angry, whether with God or with their child: “How can this be happening? You were raised better than this!” These kinds of responses only create more distance between parents and their children. Like the Pharisees, many Christian communities sometimes teach true doctrine all the while judging and marginalizing those who publicly confess sin that makes us particularly uncomfortable or is socially unacceptable (Luke 18:9–14). We must remember that those who experience gender confusion or same-sex attraction are not unique in battling brokenness or sinful desires. Cooper Pinson asks:
Can you relate to a student who wants to follow Christ, but finds strong, competing, sinful tendencies within himself that moves him in destructive directions?1Cooper Pinson, Helping Students with Same-Sex Attraction: Guidance for Parents and Youth Leaders, (Greensboro: New Growth, 2017), 8.
If so, you’re more like your child than you may have originally thought. When we acknowledge what we have in common and move toward kids who struggle rather than away from them, we reflect the kind of love with which Jesus loved us (1 John 4:19).
Second, acknowledge the courage it took to be honest.2Adapted from Tim Geiger, Your Child Says, “I’m Gay,” (Greensboro: New Growth, 2013), 8–9. Even if your child’s confession is hard to hear, thank them for being honest enough to tell you the truth. Acknowledge how hard it must have been for your child to speak this secret and get it out in the open. Thank them for trusting you, reaffirm your love for them, and assure them that your relationship will not end because of this confession. Affirming your love for your child and expressing gratitude for their truthfulness will help you cultivate an ongoing relationship that is built on authenticity.
Third, listen before you speak or act. If your child begins the conversation, respect their initiative by allowing the dialogue to be about what you can learn from them and not what you feel they need to hear from you. When seeking to understand, the most important thing is to ask comfortable open-ended questions.3Brian Hambrick, “Talking to My Boys after the Transgender Talk at Their Public School” (May 16, 2016), accessed online at http://bradhambrick.com/talking-to-my-boys-after-the-transgender-talk-at-their-public-school/. If your child says, “I’m gay,” “lesbian,” or “I want to transition,” for instance, it’s important to understand what they mean by that. Ask your child how they came to this understanding, how long they have been considering this, how certain they feel it is true, and why. Ask whether or not your child is content with this expressed identity, or if this is something they don’t want. Don’t assume your child or their friends understand these terms in the same way you do.
It may be that your child is confessing a sinful experiment with a new gender identity or same-sex sexual intimacy in the same way a cheating husband who wants to turn away from unfaithfulness confesses, “I’m an adulterer.” When a Christian owns his or her identity as a sinner in this way, it should never be discouraged (1 Tim. 1:15). Your child is most likely describing an ongoing battle in which they feel oppressed and helpless. As Tim Geiger observes, “He might really be saying, ‘I’ve been struggling with these feelings for years, and the only reasonable conclusion I can draw is that I must be gay.’”4Geiger, Your Child Says, “I’m Gay,” 21.
Fourth, acknowledge your child’s suffering. Kids who struggle with gender confusion or same-sex attraction may have heard many times from the church that homosexuality is wrong. But rarely have we acknowledged their unique form of suffering and intense temptations. Students who experience same-sex attraction “often contend with intense loneliness, confusion, fear, and even despair as they wrestle with something that seems as if it’s an essential part of who they are.”5Pinson, Helping Students with Same-Sex Attraction, 14. The same is true for kids who experience gender dysphoria.
Having disordered desires, whether these desires consist in same-sex sexual lust or gender confusion, is not the same thing as giving in to these sinful desires, that is, dwelling on those desires and acting upon them. Both are sinful, but the kind of repentance required and the kind of change we can expect is different. We must turn from all sinful behavior. But where we can repent and refrain from sinful actions related to sexual temptation, disordered desires — while they should be resisted, confessed, and put to death — may nevertheless remain throughout our lives. Sharing your own struggles — how you may not always feel at home or comfortable in your own body, or, as appropriate, your own ongoing battles with lust and temptation — will demonstrate that brokenness and sexual sin is not unique to your child.
Fifth, pray for your child. We can educate our children as much as we want, have conversations, and teach them the biblical point of view. But in the end, their hearts must be in submission to God or these words will fall on deaf ears. A child’s repentance ultimately depends on the Holy Spirit’s work in their heart and not on a parent’s actions. Some things only come out by prayer (Mark 9:29). So, as parents, we must appeal to God to act on behalf of our children.
The parents of Sandra or June may be in for a long journey. Sometimes it seems that we do and say all the right things, but our hearts break because our children continue to choose the wrong path. In these times, one of the best ways to care for our children is to advocate for them while on our knees.
Finally, gently communicate what it looks like to follow Jesus. By adopting an empathetic posture and listening carefully, you set the stage for speaking redemptive truth. If your child is determined to pursue an intimate same-gender, sexual relationship or transition their gender, there may be no way of avoiding defensiveness on their part. Remember that it’s God’s kindness that leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4). Your child needs kindness too. It’s doubtful that arguments will convince your child their perspective is wrong. But if they are open to dialogue, share sensitively a biblical and compassionate perspective on suffering with sexual brokenness. We can encourage a child who experiences besetting and persistent trials with the truth that all Christians are called to suffer. As Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will find it” (Matt. 16:24–25).
Following Christ while enduring gender dysphoria or same-sex attraction will involve taking up crosses. It will mean rejecting impulses that run counter to God’s created design. It may mean that your child remains single and celibate into adulthood or resists temptation while their psychological distress increases. You should never gloss over or minimize these hard realities, but you can remind your children that they have a high priest who can sympathize with them in their weaknesses (Heb. 4:15). As Andrew Walker observes, “No one ever experienced greater dysphoria than the perfect Son of God being treated as a sinner.”6Walker, God and the Transgender Debate, 89. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Pet. 2:24).
As you encourage your child to persevere, keep in mind that this most likely will be a long journey. Change is slow. A girl like Sandra, whose story I told above, may gain confidence to confess her sins and grow both to live a life in obedience to the Bible’s commands and even to disciple others who experience same-sex attraction. But that same girl may still struggle to discern whether or not missing one of her girlfriends who is out of town is just a normal part of friendship or evidence that she’s still battling a sinful pull toward codependence. As Chris Torchia writes:
We all appreciate the success stories of someone coming to Christ and experiencing complete freedom from ingrained sin patterns, but God doesn’t always work that way. A more accurate picture of repentance is a gradual process of turning away from sin and turning to God more and more, usually with many bumps along the way.Chris Torchia, “Coming Out as Gay or Transgender: Five things parents must do—part 4,” The Student Outreach, (Sept. 21, 2017), accessed online at http://thestudentoutreach.org/2017/09/21/coming-gay-transgender-five-things-parents-must-part-4/.
Parents, you should find the kind of support network that will stick with you through the long haul. Don’t hide your weakness from your Christian friends. And don’t be afraid to reach out for help from your pastors and biblical counselors like those at Harvest USA (www.harvestusa.org).
We can be confident that Christ is ready, willing, and waiting to meet us even where brokenness seems profound and irreparable. We can persevere with faith, knowing that we share in Christ’s sufferings so we may also share in his glory (Rom. 8:17). For those who do not shrink back, God has prepared a great reward. We do not belong to those who shrink back to destruction but to those who persevere and are saved (Heb. 10:36-39).
This article was adapted from A Parent’s Guide to Teaching Your Children About Gender: Helping Kids Navigate a Confusing Culture.