Ryan called us late in the summer. He did his best to mask the urgency and fear in his voice, but we knew right away that something was wrong.
He told my husband that things weren’t safe at home, and that he needed a place to stay. It was all we needed to hear- we told him to come and stay with us as long as he needed to.
This boy- my sixteen year old cousin- he is radiant. I love him so much. Hearing that fear in his voice literally broke my heart. I knew what it was about.
Ryan is sweet, smart, and funny. He loves his cat, Noodle, scary movies, and staying up late. He and I can destroy a bowl of guacamole in 2 minutes flat, and we always pick each other’s cards in Cards Against Humanity. He writes poetry, is an activist on Twitter, and likes making films. This is his Junior year of High School.
Ryan is also transgender, which basically that means that when he was born, Ryan had all the parts we typically associate with being female. But his inner self, his identity, his personhood- that’s all boy, all the way. By coming out as Trans, he’s both publicly and privately making peace with his most essential truth, and moving towards it in a healthy way.
Being transgender also means that world is a much scarier place for Ryan to navigate than it was for me as a 16 year old. Everyday, Ryan interacts with people who deeply misunderstand and fear him- parents, teachers, peers, and strangers. Coming out literally fractured the fault lines of Ryan’s life: he’s been the victim of domestic abuse, and is currently in the long, uncertain process of custody transfer from his bio mother to foster parents. He was recently forced off of his school bus by the driver because he is trans. Some of his teachers still refuse to call him “he,” humiliating him in front of his classmates.
And still, my baby cousin chooses to face this world with patient hope and optimism. He wants to educate people rather than bite them back with hate. He wants to build bridges instead of blocking the world out. I’m really proud of him for being so courageous- I just wish he didn’t have to be.
As he slept in the guestroom that first summer night, exhausted from the events that brought him to our door, I paced the kitchen nervously. I stocked the fridge with sweet tea and cheese sticks (his all time favorite) and my thoughts darted between prayer, anxiety, anger and relief. I wanted so badly to be able to wrap him in maternal wings; to shield him from the ugliness and ignorance of the outside world.
This had been the summer of the bathroom debates. Conservatives all across the country were protesting Trans people’s right to use the bathroom that matched their gender identify. Folks took to social media to announce that they were boycotting Target because it had inclusive bathrooms. Men expressed fear for the safety of their daughters, weaving hypothetical worst case scenarios which loudly insinuated that trans people were predatory and perverted. I saw people on my own timeline- some of them pastors– liken being transgender to drug addiction, disease, and mental defect. I saw videos of religious protesters waving bibles in the air, screaming about the disintegration of American family values.
It was tragically ironic to me, because the bibles they held up in defense of their bigotry didn’t actually contain a single passage condemning being transgender. Their bible do contain, however, the story of Jesus: who told us to love our enemies, embrace the outcasts of society, defend the weak, refrain from judgement, and care for the vulnerable.
You would be hard pressed to find a more vulnerable, marginalized group of people in our society than trans youth.
Transgender suicide rates are staggering: the suicide attempt rate for the general population is 4.6 percent; compare that to 40 percent among Trans people. For Trans teens, it’s worse; hovering right around 50 percent. Hear me- HALF of all trans youth internalize a message of shame, self hate, and exclusion to the point that they kill themselves.
It’s worth pointing out that calls to transgender suicide hotlines doubles in the wake of the bathroom debates. Culture wars have their casualties. When we choose to humiliate, dehumanize, and dismiss an entire demographic of human beings, there are consequences. Our words have power.
Look: I know it’s tempting to view our world in terms of strict categories: boxes of good and bad, black and white, true and false. Doing so gives us a sense of security, comfort, and control over our environment. But insisting on these sort of strict binaries leaves little room for the incredible complexity of the human soul. It can be used to downplay the validity of each unique human experience, and as a crutch to keep us from truly listening to one another.
The truth is that human gender and human sexuality are not these rigid, binary categories we they are.
Whenever I want to understand the science behind something, I turn to the writings and podcasts put out by “Science Mike” Mike McHargue. One night, Ryan and I stayed up really late our living room couch,cuddled up and listened to an episode of The Liturgists podcast in which Science Mike broke down some of the misconceptions we have about gender identity:
“Biologically speaking, these clear categories or male and female, straight and gay- they don’t exist. The fact is, the scientific picture backs up the ones we marginalize the most. Biology, neuroscience, even DNA all reinforce the idea that our popular conceptions of gender and orientation are simplistic at best, and outright harmful to come people at worst.”
He explained that during human embryonic development, DNA, hormones, and base tissue interact to create what we typically associate with a baby boy or baby girl. He was careful to clarify that “you’re talking about the same base tissue that becomes either labia or a scrotum, ovaries or testicles, a clitoris or a penis. In most cases, you get a baby boy or a baby girl in a way that appears to fit a gender binary. But it doesn’t always happen that way.”
“In fact, about 1 in a thousand children born are gender ambiguous, which means that modern trained scientists and medical professionals, with all the equipment we have today, cannot make a clear determination of whether that child is male or female… There are some boys with x chromosomes, which is what you associate with women, and there are girls with an xy chromosome, which is what you associate with men.”
So basically, none of this is cut and dry. Not biologically, not physiologically, not emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. Human beings are remarkably complex, and when Trans people talk about their experience of their own life and their own identity, it is scientifically valid, and you have no grounds to dismiss it.
I’ve often heard people try to dismiss Trans people’s experiences by saying “Well, I just think God knew what he was doing when he created male and female.”
To which I would ask, did God also know what he was doing when he created millions intersex people, who are quite literally neither male nor female? Is not the existence of gender ambiguous people a challenge to this construct you’re so desperately clinging to?
The truth is that God does not create throwaway people. He creates people in his image, on purpose, wonderfully. God knew what he was doing when he created Trans people, too. Despite what he’s been told, there is nothing wrong with Ryan.
We get must get past this in order to do better for our transgender youth.
We must do better for our trans people, because they deserve to live in a society where they free from the threat of violence.
We must call for trans rights, because people’s lives are on the line.
We must reject fear, reject silence, and embrace humility, for the sake of the gospel, because Jesus told us to love people and to seek justice.
We must create a better world.
Signing off now. Going to run through haunted houses with Jake and Ryan, stay up late, and hug him still he’s sick of me.