Making Space for Non-Binary Children In a Red State

Making Space for Non-Binary Children In a Red State September 12, 2021


This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; They worship me in vain, teaching as doctrines the commandments culture wars of men.” –Matt. 15:8-9, NIV*

Sarah is a former evangelical Christian whose life has forced her to rewire the way she sees the world so many times, she finds it difficult to identify with the woman she sees in the pictures of her younger self. Raised to orient her existence around the faith she inherited, she did as she was told and poured enough of herself into it to discover what the rest of us discovered who did the same: It’s got holes in it that are big enough to drive a barge through…without ever getting stuck.

Her family was understandably upset when she finally quit going to church. They viewed it as a personal slight against them since everybody knows parents are judged by how their kids turn out. They were equally upset when Sarah went through a divorce, but they couldn’t be overly judgmental about that since they once walked through the same ordeal themselves.

Sarah’s parents had to get over her allowing her kids to read books that were haram–books that glorify witchcraft and sorcery like Harry Potter, or Greek mythology like Percy Jackson. They even got over the fact that she likes to have wine with her meals, and while they have certainly voiced their displeasure with her becoming a progressive Democrat, none of those things turned out to be an unpardonable sin.

But then one day, one of Sarah’s children decided they no longer feel at home within binary gender identities, and guess what? That crossed a line. Sarah chose to let her child decide how they self-identify and that was a bridge too far for Sarah’s parents. They could handle everything else, but not this.

Why pick this particular issue out of all the issues available, though? Why does messing with gender identity push them beyond their breaking point? I think there are at least a couple of answers to that question.

Survival of the Fittest

I suspect part of the problem stems from people reaching the limits of their own adaptability. Everybody expects you to be like wet cement when you are still a child, but it’s a lot harder to change your mind about important things after you’ve reached adulthood. There are bills to pay and social statuses to uphold, so over time people become more fixed in their thinking than most of them will ever realize.

Some keep learning new things even into old age, but that requires a lot of hard mental work and not everyone is cut out for that. Most people seem content to outsource the most important questions to people they feel are more qualified to tell them what to think. Early on, they learn to trust certain sources of information and, provided they choose conservatives ones, their views on things will remain essentially frozen in time for the rest of their lives. Any apparent change will be merely cosmetic.

But life’s not like that anymore, in case you hadn’t noticed. Things change much faster now than they used to, and anyone who doesn’t know how to adapt to changing environments isn’t going to handle life in the 2020s very gracefully. Survival of the fittest doesn’t mean the strongest will always win. Rather, it means that it’s those capable of finding the best fit to an environment who fare the best in the end. It’s all about learning to adapt to whatever life throws your way.

Sarah’s parents lost patience with that process a long time ago, and now they’re only getting angrier and angrier toward a world that keeps shifting around them all the time. I can relate to their adaptation fatigue as a father of four and a teacher of hundreds who are racially different from me. You can finally reach a point where you’re tired of processing new information all the time and you really wish you could just retreat into a safe pocket of like-minded people and stay there forever, undisturbed.

Social media companies are eager to help you create those epistemic enclosures (a.k.a. echo chambers) and you’re going to see me spending a good deal of time in the future unpacking what that means for those of us living in the Misinformation Age. It behooves us to become a lot more aware of where we find our information and which way it is slanted. We all have to work hard to watch out for bias in the information we consume.

But adaptability isn’t a prized cultural virtue among conservatives, thus their label. They may be fine with you learning new careers or adapting to a new city because work demanded that you relocate yet again, but those are only okay because they reinforce the most important American virtue of all, which is financial productivity. Even if you don’t make very much money, what matters is that you are doing your part to keep the economy going. Everything else takes a back seat, even protecting yourself from a highly infectious disease.

The Church Unmasked

The other reason Sarah’s parents can’t abide this new development is that it infringes upon what matters most to their religion: Preserving the shape of the family unit exactly as it existed in the minds of white people in the 1950s. They like to say their religion is all about Jesus and forgiveness and grace and all that, but their actions betray them.

Hear me out: What if all that stuff about the cross and atonement and heaven is just a front for something else? What if those are just the sales pitch for a massive multi-level marketing outfit that is really about preserving a prescripted family structure? Maybe it wasn’t always about the same thing, but today that’s what the church seems to have become.

Why does a teenage girl who always does everything right suddenly fall from grace the moment she admits she likes girls as well as boys? It’s because that messes with the family structure upon which her parents’ entire religious identity depends.

Why does a middle schooler identifying as non-binary cause such a stir? It’s because without rigid gender roles, the church’s entire enterprise will collapse. How can you keep women out of the pulpit or priesthood if the line between male and female gets blurred? And who will be the head of the family, calling the shots? How can a woman be evaluated by the way her children turn out if she won’t have any?

Their message loses relevance the more the family unit diverges from the norms they set up years ago. The church needs children most of all because they are the only ones young enough to believe what they are told. Without a steady crop of credulous humans being brought into their buildings on a regular basis, the message fades and the next generation will find other things to care about.

Do you see why so much of the culture war up until this point has been about marriage and reproduction? Before it veered off into fighting about masks, vaccines, and stolen elections, it was always about maintaining the shape of the family, come hell or high water. Lately it seems we’ve been getting both at the same time.

Picking Your Battles

I don’t mind admitting that it takes work for me to use different names and pronouns for children I’ve parented or step-parented. I’m accustomed to traditional ways to thinking about gender myself, and I’ve thought of each person in a certain way for years, so it takes time and effort to adjust.

I also struggle as a parent with striking a balance between encouraging them to be at home in their own skin and affirming the person they are still in the process of becoming. Raised in the evangelical church, I’ve seen the damage that body shame brings, so I’m driven to avoid that as much as I can, teaching my children to accept who they are. But what if my child decides their body doesn’t match who they are? What do I do then?

I encourage my children to explore and figure it out for themselves, that’s what I do. My job as a parent is to help them discover who they are, supporting them in the best ways I know how. I can’t tell them who they are, but I can provide a safe place for them to figure it out.

If I see my child engaging in behavior that I think will cause them harm, I’ll obviously do what I have to do to care for them. But right now the only harm I’m seeing comes from everybody else refusing to give them the space they need to be who they are now, not just who they were when they first got here. How many of us are really the same person at 45 that we were at 15, anyway?

The evangelical church has chosen to die on this hill, trusting that God will somehow bring it back from the dead. After all, as every pastor will surely quip, they worship someone who died on a hill so they’re really just doing the only thing they know to do. They’re picking battles they know they will lose.

Related: “Persecute Me, Please: God’s Not Dead 2 and the Evangelical Lust for Victimhood

American Christians want to be persecuted–at least just a little–because as long as they’re not, they’re reminded how dissimilar they really are from the savior they believe they are emulating. Jesus said the world would hate them just as it hated him, so I think they’re subconsciously looking for issues that will make those words true.

This is why they can’t quit fighting the culture wars. It’s not always because they think they’re going to win. Sometimes it’s because they’ll lose and they know it. The tragedy is they can’t see that they’re only bringing more harm on themselves.

Hating Your Family for Jesus’ Sake

Fighting people over their sexual identity guarantees that you will damage your relationship with them, whether it’s your child, your grandchild, or just someone in your life for whom you feel responsible. Taking a hard line against them only increases the likelihood of estrangement, which means you’re setting yourself up to fail.

But then again, what could be more Christian than driving away family for the sake of preserving your own faith? Jesus said you can’t follow him unless you’re willing to forsake all others, your children included. If you don’t believe he said that, go read it for yourself. Prioritizing faith over family goes all the way back to the beginnings of this religion, so don’t tell me that it doesn’t.

The great irony is that in the passage I included at the beginning of this post, Jesus was chastising his audience for using their faith as a cover for neglecting their family. It’s almost as if the Jesus we meet in the Bible is a self-conflicted composite of several different people and priorities blended into one over decades by people who didn’t even know him in the first place. It explains a lot.

Sarah’s parents won’t be changing their minds about their grandchild, and they won’t be calling them by their new name, which means they’re probably not going to be seeing each other much. I wish I could use Jesus or the Bible to persuade them to rethink their priorities, but I know better. Their faith isn’t about those things anyway, even if they are convinced it is. It’s really about maintaining their preferred social structures and everything else takes a back seat.

Their beliefs don’t make people more compassionate or empathetic, and right now most of their concerns are being generated by conservative media. Most of it boils down either to what kind of genitalia you possess or to what you do with it. Sarah’s parents seem convinced this is why Jesus came to earth: to police gender identity and to prescribe gender roles. If they want to make their religion entirely about that, they can have at it. We are done with it.

[Image Source: Adobe Stock]

* NIV = Neil’s Improvised Version
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About Neil Carter
Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a writer, a speaker, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture. You can read more about the author here.

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