Eva was at a church luncheon when she got an email from her 12-year-old daughter, Grace. (Their names have been changed.) “Mom and Dad, I need to tell you I’m not actually a girl,” she read. “My pronouns are they/them.”
Eva couldn’t breathe. She felt like she’d been punched in the gut. She hadn’t seen this coming—in fact, a few months before, Grace had shared on social media her belief that God created people male and female.
Back then, Eva was sure that statement was going to earn Grace—who attended a progressive public school—some social problems.
“Instead,” said Grace, who is now 17, “they decided to reeducate me. I got invited to groups where all they wanted to talk about was the transgender stuff. Over the course of a few months, I decided I was going to be agender. And then I ended up deciding I was a boy.”
Grace was experiencing what is often called “rapid-onset gender dysphoria,” in which friendship groups begin to experience similar gender questions at the same time. One in five Gen Z Americans now identifies as LGBT, almost double the number of millennials (just over one in 10) and some six times the number of Gen X Americans (about one in 30).
A surprising number of them—40% of Gen Z and millennials—also identify as religious. Increasingly, Christian pastors, youth pastors, and parents are fielding questions and declarations from young people examining their own gender or sexual orientation.
“Martin Luther King Jr. talks about the long arc of justice,” said Falls Church Anglican rector Sam Ferguson, who has spent time with multiple transitioning young adults and their families. “The Bible also envisions the long arc of redemption, which aims at the resurrection of the body. There is continuity—the end reflects the beginning. Our Creator doesn’t need to start over. If your child has an XY chromosome, then he’ll be raised from the dead as a male. We need to work along the arc of redemption, not against it.”
That takes patience, Eva and her husband, Seth, found. (His name has also been changed.) For more than two years, they prayed for Grace. They searched the Scriptures. They built their relationships with her. They drew boundaries around how she could express herself. They took her to counseling and to church. They started homeschooling her. They asked her questions.
Basically, they played the long game. And when she was 15, Grace desisted—that is, recognized her body is female and switched her identity back.
‘Ended Up Deciding I Was a Boy’
In many ways, it’s surprising that someone like Grace would struggle with gender identity. Her mom and dad love Jesus and each other. She’s got a couple of siblings, a strong church family, and a sharp mind. For as long as she can remember, she’s believed in God.
When Grace was 12, she logged onto a social networking site called DeviantArt. “At first, I was posting artwork with my friends, but eventually the ‘gay is good’ message became unavoidable,” she said.
She’d never heard of someone being transgender before. “I was like, ‘What is this?’ and they were like, ‘Oh, there are guys who are actually girls, and girls who are actually guys, and some people are actually neither.’”
Grace asked her mom about it, and Eva explained they didn’t agree with those categories of thinking. Grace, who is on the autism spectrum and thinks in black and white terms, told her online friends she didn’t agree with them.
They didn’t fight her or bully her. Instead, she was invited to the Gender & Sexualities Alliance (GSA) club at her school. She began going to the weekly unsupervised lunchtime meetings, listening to other kids from her middle school and high school talk about sex, gender, and how they felt uncomfortable in their bodies.
Being a 12-year-old girl, Grace felt uncomfortable in her body too. She also didn’t like the tights, short shorts, and crop tops that other middle school girls were wearing.
“I believe strongly in modesty,” she said. “I started to associate womanhood with being sexualized. I wasn’t even really thinking male vs. female, but nonsexual vs. sexual.”
She thought maybe she was agender, which means not identifying with either sex. But as time went on, Grace realized she’d prefer to be male. After all, she’d love to be as tall and strong as her brother. And it seemed like all she needed was some testosterone.
“Nobody in the GSA club had gotten prescription hormones yet because we were all fairly young,” she said. “Nobody knew about all the side effects of giving girls testosterone—the bone demineralization, increased rate of cancer, heart attacks and vaginal atrophy.”
Instead, what everyone talked about was the drama of coming out.
National Coming Out Day is Oct. 11, and it has expanded to include National Coming Out Week and even National Coming Out Month.
“All my friends on social media and I were going around with each other, dramatizing coming out,” Grace said. “I emailed my parents with my announcement and my pronouns.”
Eva took Grace to the school counselor, to the pediatrician, to the principal. “They all tell you, ‘You have to affirm, or your child will commit suicide,’” Eva said. “But my background is in education and psychology, and I knew that didn’t make sense. I could think of 15 reasons [other than being transgender] why a young girl might do this.”
“My husband and I talked it through,” she said. “What do we know about God? We know He created us male and female. Are there true transgender people? Well, if there are, they’d be in the Bible. What about eunuchs? Jesus is certainly aware of bodily brokenness—He acknowledges people born as eunuchs in Matthew 19:12—but two distinct sexes are His good design. … So if we believe God is sovereign and doesn’t make mistakes, what does this mean for us?”
She couldn’t find many Christian resources, but the church helped them find a therapist, which was helpful, Eva said.
With every step Grace took toward the transgender narrative, she was applauded and congratulated at school and online.
She was suddenly popular. She was also powerful, because now she was a victim. When you claim a transgender identity, “you’re untouchable,” Eva said. “Nobody can question you. You can get teachers fired. Adults have to kowtow to you.”
Even your parents.
“If your parent agrees with you, you need to be kind and loving,” Grace said. “But if your parents are opposed, hurt them as much as you like. They aren’t even human beings.”
Grace finished seventh grade and spent the summer with her family. “We thought we were on the way back to sanity,” Eva said. But the first day of eighth grade, “she was right back into it up to her neck.”
It took Eva a while to recognize what Grace’s actions reminded her of: A daughter whose feelings changed with her social environment? Who told her parents that if they didn’t agree with her choices, they hated her?
Eva bought a book on how to help a loved one leave a cult.
“It confirmed everything I’d been thinking,” she said.
Getting Out: Physical Removal
The first rule of getting a family member out of a cult is to physically remove them from it. Even though Seth and Eva had pulled her internet access, by the end of eighth grade, Grace was firmly entrenched in her male identity.
“That April I decided she wasn’t going back to public school,” Eva said.
Grace hated the idea. “The first six weeks of high school were pretty miserable,” Eva said.
But she stuck with it.
Another strategy in cult rescue is to build loyalty and healthy relationships inside the family. Eva talked to Grace about things other than gender—her schoolwork, her artwork, their weekend plans. She asked Grace to help her with things or to go places with her.
This was tricky to navigate because, of course, there was always an elephant in the room.
“If you loved me, you’d use my pronouns,” Grace told Eva.
“You are asking me to make a choice between offending God and offending you,” Eva said. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to offend you.”
Getting Out: Asking Questions
Grace’s homeschool classmates started asking her questions about gender identity.
“I decided to come up with irrefutable arguments,” Grace said, “so I researched and researched. But I couldn’t do it. I searched and searched for the logic behind it, but there was nothing to find, because there is no logic behind it.”
She started to boomerang.
“One day she painted her nails pink, and I tried not to show any reaction,” said Eva, who was dancing inside. “But the very next day, she wrote ‘he/him’ on all her nails.”
That continued for six months—a step toward feminine expression, followed by a doubling down on her masculine identity.
“I always tell parents that’s a good sign,” Eva said. “They’re starting to come back to you.”
Through it all, Grace still believed in God, and eventually, she began thinking clearly again: “Logic brought me to prayer, and prayer brought me back,” she said.
“I knew I couldn’t be a trans kid and a Christian at the same time. I had to choose. Very begrudgingly, I told God, ‘Fine. If You made me to be a woman, whatever. Fine.’”
A week later, her gender dysphoria was gone. She felt uncomfortable but immensely relieved at the same time.
As weeks passed and Grace began acting more like herself, Eva slowly let herself relax.
“I cried with relief,” she said. “I slowly began telling family and friends that we’d gotten her back.”
Grace is glad to be back: “I’m far happier now.” ©2023 Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra
Abridged from an article that originally appeared on The Gospel Coalition website. The full version is available at thegospelcoalition.org.
Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra is senior writer and faith-and-work editor for The Gospel Coalition. She is also the coauthor of Gospelbound: Living with Resolute Hope in an Anxious Age and editor of Social Sanity in an Insta World.
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