Discipling Young People On Gender
How can we help children and young people to navigate the changing understanding of gender in our society? What does it look like for us–whether as parents, church family, youth leaders, or pastors–to care for and disciple young people on the topic of gender? Well, perhaps surprisingly, I think a recent article in The Guardian can help us.
Earlier this week, I posted some reflections on non-binary gender identities, drawing on the opening article in The Guardian’s new series, Genderqueer Generation. The article shares the words of four teenagers who have all come to identify as non-binary. In the process, it highlights several areas on which we can focus in order to help our young people.
The Centrality of Identity
Identity is central to conversations about gender. As I observed in my previous post, non-binary gender identities are an example of internal identity formation and they therefore display all the problems of an internal identity.
It is vitally important that we talk about identity with our young people. We need to help them to understand Christian identity, to see why it is so good and life-giving, and how to live it out. Our young like people–like the rest of us–are already being discipled on the topic of identity. Every day through social media and popular media they are being told how to discover who they are and how this will allow them to find their best life. Those narratives will always fail to deliver. We have the true narrative and we need to help that to be more influential in their lives than the culture’s narrative.
The Influence of Stereotypes
Several of the young people interviewed in The Guardian reveal the influence of strict gender stereotypes on their experience and their thinking. ‘Until I was seven, I loved dresses and glitter and sparkles and everything. And then something changed. I don’t know what it was. I was like, I hate girly things. I hate the color pink.’ ‘For me, I like the color purple, I like some things that are traditionally feminine, but I also like my hair short.’
Young people often recognise themselves as non-binary through their discomfort with strict gender binaries. In a sense, this isn’t surprising. If you feel that being a man or a woman is about how you feel, there’s not much other than gender stereotypes that can be used to measure your gender. The problem, of course, is that these stereotypes are exactly that–they are just stereotypes. They may be true in many cases, but they’re not true in every case and are not intrinsic to being a man or a woman (as a quick look at other cultures or back through history will reveal).
If we want to help our young people, we need to avoid unnecessarily strict gender stereotypes and we need to talk about the given nature of our gender as something given to us by God, not something we have to attain through our tastes or our actions.
The Influence of the Internet
In three of the four accounts in the Guardian article, the internet plays a significant part. This is a very common thread in the stories of those who identify with non-binary identities (and those who identify as transgender in their teens without having experienced childhood dysphoria).
A repeated pattern in such stories is a vague awareness of discomfort with one’s gender, perhaps through failing to fit gender stereotypes, for which the internet then provides language and a conceptual understanding. This is seen in the young people’s own words: ‘I didn’t know at all what I was experiencing or doing until I had the internet to give me the words to describe it.’ ‘The internet had a big role in me discovering myself.’
This raises important points about safe internet usage. Parents should think carefully about how they ensure their children’s safety on the internet and should make it a normal thing to be talking with their young people about what they are engaging with online. Youth groups can also help teenagers to understand that all of us are shaped by what we read and see online and that we should therefore seek to be wise about what we engage with.
What’s also striking in the accounts of the young people in the article is the way they talk about the internet being the only place they could go to for information and answers. ‘I feel like the internet tells us stuff that we can’t learn in real life. People never hesitated to explain stuff to me even if I asked the dumbest questions.’ Young people are desperately looking for places where they can ask personal and difficult questions and where they can be honest about what they’re experiencing. We need to create these kinds of environments in our families and our churches so that young people don’t see an online community as the only place they can turn.
The Importance of Community
The importance of community is another point that comes through in the young people’s accounts. ‘Online, I felt understood. I felt helped.’ The importance of community is often prominent in the stories of LGBTQ+ people. LGBTQ+ experience can be isolating since fewer people are able to understand it from personal experience and since people do not always feel comfortable to talk about their experience.
If we want to help our young people, we need to create communities where people can truly know they belong and where it is safe to talk about their life experiences. We should be uniquely equipped to do this. The gospel has the power to unite people who are otherwise completely different–we become united as children in the family of God. The gospel is also the key to a community where we can be honest and vulnerable about what’s going on in our lives. We may not always be able to understand through shared experience, but we can do our best to understand through listening and through the humility that seeks to learn from others.
Our young people are already being discipled on the topic of gender. That reality is unavoidable. The choice we have to make is whether we will leave the world to be their teacher or whether we believe the true Teacher offers a better way.