How should we respond to a member of the extended family who has recently undergone a gender reassignment procedure and now identifies as transgender? I used to know this person as my sister-in-law. Now she looks like a man, dresses like one, and goes by a new masculine name. She even insists that all the relatives use masculine pronouns when referring to her in conversation. It's really awkward! There's a big family gathering coming up this summer and my wife wants to go. I'd like to go too, but we have three children and I don't know how it will affect them to be around this person. What do you think we should do?
This is a delicate situation. You have good reason to be concerned about the potential impact on your kids, especially in view of the changes we're seeing in social attitudes towards sexuality in this country. As a parent, you do have a responsibility to carefully consider who or what has influence in the lives of your children, and you're to be commended on taking that aspect of your role so seriously.
At the same time, we also think it would be a good idea to keep up a positive influence and a solid Christian witness with your sister-in-law and the rest of your extended family. After all, she's still a person created in God's image and an object of His unfailing love. We realize you feel as if you're facing a real dilemma, but we believe you can achieve both objectives without compromising.
As Christians living in a secular world, we always have to be "wise as serpents and innocent as doves." In the parenting context, this means figuring out how to protect your children physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually while still maintaining an open heart and demonstrating Christ's love to those who don't necessarily share your convictions.
It may be helpful to remind yourselves of this important biblical truth: We are all sinners. Why do we say this? There's a good chance that you have other relatives who don't believe as you do or who don't measure up to Christian standards of behavior. Maybe someone in the family drinks too much. Maybe another can't control his tongue. Maybe a loved one lives with her boyfriend. In each of these circumstances the individual is not acting in obedience to God's Word, and you have to determine how to respond to that choice.
If you're still on speaking terms with your sister-in-law, why not call her to discuss your concerns about the family reunion? As you address your concerns, avoid any language that might come across as judgmental or condemning. Instead, we suggest that you try turning the focus on yourself. Talk candidly about your Christian values. Share your parental concerns about the upcoming reunion. Tell your sister-in-law that you're looking forward to seeing her, but make it clear that you feel like you're between a rock and a hard place. It might be helpful to say something like, "We care about you and sincerely want to continue our relationship with you. At the same time, we are still helping our children form their sexual values, and we’ve been in the process of learning ourselves how best to navigate this topic with them. Thank you for your consideration as we do so. We don’t wish to be offensive, but our intent is to teach our children that God wants us to remain, celebrate, and grow in the sex He made us at birth. We also want to teach them kindness and compassion for those individuals who have experienced what you have felt. You matter to us, and we want our kids to know that as well."
In the meantime, prepare your kids to interact with your sister-in-law by having some direct, age-appropriate discussions about sexuality at home. If they have questions, don't be afraid to give them straightforward answers. Remember that the best way to counteract negative outside influences is to model healthy attitudes toward sex in your own lives. When it comes to sex-related issues, you are the best and most effective teachers your children could ever hope to have. Show them by your own example what it means for husband and wife to cooperate and live together in harmony and peace. Kiss, hug, and openly demonstrate your affection for one another. Celebrate the differences between male and female by helping your boys and girls develop healthy masculine and feminine traits. Then, when summer rolls around, you can pack your bags, load up the car, and head off to the big family gathering in the confidence that you've done your homework. In this way, it's possible that everybody there might benefit by your presence.
If, as part of your preparations for this discussion, you feel the need to educate yourself more thoroughly on the subject of transgenderism, we highly recommend that you visit Focus on the Family's web site and take a look at our series of articles on the topic. We think you'll find the first installment, "Male and Female He Created Them: Genesis and God's Design of Two Sexes," especially helpful.
Regarding the use of names and pronouns, this is a sticky problem. Equally committed believers often come to different conclusions on such questions. From our perspective, the important thing is to preserve your connection with your sister-in-law by elevating the relationship above other considerations.
Here's a thought that may help: Resist the urge to make her integrity issue your integrity issue. In other words, it's not necessary to assume that you are offending God by calling your sister-in-law by a masculine name if that's what she has specifically requested. But, if you are bothered by this – if you feel as if you're violating your own conscience and confusing your children by using such language – perhaps it's a good idea to say so with compassion ("truth with love"). As you address this with your sister-in-law, explain your feelings as calmly and respectfully as possible. Say something like, "It's obviously taken you a long time to come to this conclusion about your sexual identity. Consider giving us at least the same amount of time to catch up. Please don't expect us to change our perspective and our feelings about you overnight." Express your care and concern while simultaneously doing what you can to slow things down. Ask your sister-in-law if she would be willing to journey with you to a place where you can work through the implications of the situation together.
If you'd like to discuss this question at greater length with a member of our staff, feel free to give our Counseling department a call. We have a number of trained family therapists available to speak with you over the phone.