Tell us your story and what shaped your thinking about gender dysphoria and transgenderism.
Alec Tooms: I think I always knew I was ‘different’. I didn’t relate to my body the way my female friends did. I wasn’t clear in my head that I wanted to be a boy, but there was certainly a feeling of: “This isn’t right, that’s not me.” It didn’t align with how I saw myself. I’ve been living as a transgender man for just over a year, although I realised that I was transgender around the time I went to university. I suddenly discovered language to describe how I was feeling, and decided to go with it and see where it took me. I’ve been a Christian pretty much all of my life. I had a bit of a blip in my teenage years, but who doesn’t! I was questioning my sexuality quite a lot in those years. Gender wasn’t as much of a thing, although I experimented with short hair and things like that, but I knew I was definitely LGBT or somewhere under that umbrella. There were times when I really struggled. It was a struggle to find a community that was accepting, but I found a community online first through Diverse Church. I’m aware that I’m young and quite early on in my transition, I’m just coming to terms with things. I think I always struggled with whether God loves me and whether he created me like this. What’s sinful? What’s not? Because the Bible isn’t very clear cut on any of this. I think for me, it’s always been important to come back to the fact that God loves me, and he loves everyone regardless of what is going on in their life.
Jeanette Howard: I remember even when I was being potty-trained feeling absolutely different. I knew I was a girl, biologically, but I had no identification with anything ‘female’. I felt so detached from my gender. My greatest joy was being mistaken for a boy. During puberty, when my attractions became evident, they were towards women and so I had this gender and sexuality dilemma as a teenager. I wasn’t a believer at this stage.
Alec and I grew up in entirely different worlds, transitioning just wasn’t an option, you just got on with hiding. I went to university in 1977 and the dress code was androgynous; the style was ‘punk’ and ‘nu-romantics’ so it fitted brilliantly with how I felt. I could wear boys’ clothes and no one blinked. My life was very much a ‘shame-based life’ and there was no one to talk to about it. I had this split life, I was ‘out’ in the clubs and in Brighton, and back ‘in’ again in Eastbourne. I was a school teacher and there was no way you could be a gay teacher so I led a double life. When I became a Christian, it was a real challenge. I knew that if I converted it meant stopping all that I had ever believed in and acted upon. It meant leaving the love of my life, and I’ve not had a relationship since.
As a children’s or youth worker, you’re not there to solve people’s problems. You walk alongside, love them and support them
I’ve had to look at all my issues through the lens of creation, fall, redemption and glorification. If I had the option to transition now as a believer, I wouldn’t. If God is sover-eign and creator, then I need to take that seriously. He is creator and I am created. If God is not sovereign in all things, how do I determine what he is sovereign in, and what I can just overturn? Jesus’ life was one of submission and surrender and therefore isn’t that what my life is meant to be?
How can we support children and young people who are questioning their assigned gender?
JH: I longed to speak to someone who would listen and respect how I felt. I had been a Christian for a couple of years and this man said to me: “I want you to stand in front of the mirror every morning and say, ‘Thank you God for making me a woman’.” The first morning I couldn’t even meet my gaze in the mirror and for two and a half years I worked at doing that, not believing a word, but choosing to try. I didn’t believe Psalm 139, that I was “fearfully and wonderfully made”. But I had to choose between either God being right, or me being right. I would have longed for an acknowledgement of how I felt. I would have loved someone to say: “Jeanette, this is who you are, in Christ, this is your identity. This is how you feel, let’s talk about how you feel, which is where the incongruence is.” I would have loved to have known that my feelings colour who I am, but they do not determine who I am.
AT: I would have loved the space to talk. I think all teenagers probably resonate with that, the space to ‘sound out’ feelings, and to explore identity. It’s important to have theological discussion, but while you’re struggling with something like this, it’s important to build that relationship with a child or a young person first and create that space for them to open up.
The church that I grew up in knew that I was attracted to women. I haven’t been back since I came out as transgender because they struggled enough with my sexuality. It was really difficult. People didn’t know how to interact with me. They felt they had to have a response straight away and that was so stifling. I would walk into church and ask: “How was your week?” they’d start to answer and then say: “So we’ve been thinking… we’ve been reading the Bible…there is one verse…” I’ve just started going to a new church, because I’ve recently moved and they’re very accepting. I’m aware that once you state something like this about yourself, you immediately, apparently, seem to invite responses from other people and that’s not always the best thing.
JH: As a children’s or youth worker, you’re not there to solve people’s problems but to walk alongside, love them and support them. Even though I would make clear God’s creational intent, you are still with them whatever decisions they make.
How can we support parents who have children struggling with this?
AT: My mum said she would never want anyone to tell her that her child was a problem, or that her child was wrong. She wouldn’t want anyone to tell her what to feel or say. Even though it is me transitioning, it obviously impacts my parents and that needs to be acknowledged and respected. There’s a sense of loss. My parents have taken time to come to their conclusions about me and they have developed their own theological understanding about what is going on. Something they often got at our previous church was blame. They got a lot of problem solving and a lot of suggestions: “We’ll pray for Al, for her to be healed.”
We need to give parents space to talk, to own their feelings, to say: “I’m really gutted” or: “I’m really angry, where has this come from?” I guess even if it’s a ‘phase’, whatever the child or the young person is going through, the parent should walk through them in that.
JH: They need people to talk to and with. Parents are going to go through every emotion, especially when their young person starts ‘changing’. There is loss and embrace here. Whatever ‘dream’ they hold for you, they’re going to have to release that and that’s a big deal. Parents need masses of space, a respectful listening ear and someone walking alongside, not being judgmental, but encouraging. Most of the current support available is to help parents accept their child’s choices. I believe the Church has to find a way to support loved ones while maintaining an orthodox biblical view.
AT: I would encourage parents not to feel like it’s the end of the world. No matter where their biblical foundations are, no matter where they or their church stand on this, their child is still loved by God, and whatever choices they make, whatever position they choose, even though there is a feeling of loss, there will also be growth.
I always struggled with whether God loves me and whether he created me like this
There’s lots of negativity around how parents have responded to trans young people, and I don’t need to bring up stats of young LGBT people who really struggle with acceptance and belonging, so the parents’ reaction to that is so important. It doesn’t have to be the end of a relationship; it doesn’t have to be the end of a faith journey. There are ways that you can go forward.
Do you think churches and youth groups can be fully inclusive of children and young people while believing they should remain with their assigned gender?
JH: I do. Everyone in my church knows me. They know the struggles I’ve had with gender, mental health and my sexuality. They know they can talk to me at any point. I think you can be biblically inclusive as a church. It’s like: "This is what we believe God’s word says and how his Holy Spirit’s leading, but we want to include you, because you are loved by God, no matter how you feel." And within that loving and accepting environment how are you going to live? How are you going to flourish with the feelings that you have? Investigate these feelings in the light of God’s truth. Jesus says in John 10:10: "I came to give you life in all its fullness." How do we embrace that? How do we share that? How do we live that?
AT: That verse is one of my absolute favourites. I think for me, life in its fullest is to pursue the path of aligning how I feel in my mind with how I physically am. While a traditional view is fine - and I’d heartily encourage people to have different opinions within church - I don’t know if you can be fully inclusive if you completely endorse just the one stance of remaining with your assigned gender.
If they read the Bible and think: "No, this is how God intended me to be", that’s fine, but you need to let a young person reach that conclusion. Ultimately from a position of mental wellbeing, if you give a person one view and say: "This is the way forward", I don’t think you can be as inclusive. As a young person I think it is so damaging to place those restrictions on someone while they are trying to figure out who they are.