Transformation of a Transgender Teen – Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra

Eva was in 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, it seemed to blow over right away.

“I would’ve gotten bullied,” said Grace, who is now 16. “Instead, 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 identify as LGBT+, double the number of millennials (one in 10) and quadruple the number of Gen X Americans (about one in 20).

One in five Gen Z Americans now identify as LGBT+, double the number of millennials (one in 10) and quadruple the number of Gen X Americans (about one in 20).

A surprising number of them—40 percent 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.

These days, Eva and Grace often talk with other families whose children are transitioning.

“The church is the only place that has the freedom to address this, because the activism around this has been so powerful and well-funded,” Eva said. “When I think about where we were three years ago, and where we are now—God doesn’t waste anything.”

‘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, 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. Eva thinks she was targeted, and that’s not a crazy idea. Teachers in California have shared recruiting tactics, including “stalking” students’ Google searches or conversations for any indication they might be open to joining the faculty-advised, student-led clubs.

Grace 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 non-sexual 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.

Coming Out

National Coming Out Day is October 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 made it way more dramatic than it had to be. I emailed my parents with my announcement and my pronouns.”

She’d already asked to cut her hair short and quit wearing skirts, but that was all the warning Seth and Eva had.

“It was a nightmare,” Eva said. “I’ve never suffered from anxiety before, but the first two weeks [after Grace’s announcement] I didn’t eat or sleep.” She couldn’t believe this was happening—didn’t kids who identified as transgender come from broken families or abusive childhoods?

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.”

It took two weeks before she found her first ray of hope. “It was a blog run by liberals, but it had all kinds of gender-critical resources,” she said. “I found it in the middle of the night, and I just started crying. I was like, I’m not crazy.”

Theology of Gender

That website was a confirmation of what Eva already knew.

“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—and while there are some now, they’re still few and far between (and not always allowed on Amazon). Her pastors weren’t able to help much, either. “The church helped us find a therapist, which was huge,” Eva said. “But otherwise, we did not get much support. . . . No one at the church had any guidance for us at all. I understand that, because this was all out of left field for everyone. But instead of feeling like we were working together to figure this out, I felt mostly abandoned and ignored.”

Although many Christians know someone who is struggling with gender identity, few churches are well-equipped with policies, counseling, or a deep theology of identity. The transgender movement is both young—entering the mainstream around 2015 when Bruce Jenner announced his transition to Caitlyn—and constantly evolving. Even more confusing, the transgender questions and assumptions are different from the homosexual ones.

The question isn’t “Whom do I love?” but rather “What does it mean to be human?” said Mike McGarry, founder of Youth Pastor Theologian. “The gender identity conversation is really about the created order, and turning it upside down.”

The gender identity conversation is really about the created order, and turning it upside down.

If you can think right-side-up, then you know three things, Sam Ferguson said.

First, God is the Creator, and we are the creatures. That means we don’t make our own identity—we receive it. Second, God did not split our souls and our bodies but knit us together as whole people. He doesn’t mash together male minds and female bodies, or vice versa. And third, God sets our sex into our whole bodies—maleness and femaleness are written into biology from chromosomes to hormones to anatomy including our sex organs and brains. For this reason, our physical bodies are our guide for gender. Our gender expression—being a brother or sister, wife or husband, father or mother—coincides with and arises from our physical bodies.

These were things Seth and Eva could logically explain to Grace.

But if you’re a student of Jonathan Haidt—or just an astute observer of culture—you already know that logic isn’t winning the day.

Emotional Cult

With every step Grace took toward the transgender narrative, she was applauded and congratulated at school and online. When she went public with her transition, “it was like eating the Mario Kart ability mushroom,” she said. “You start to glow and become invincible.”

As a girl, Grace struggled with socialization. “It was like walking through a minefield, and everyone had a metal detector except for me,” she said. “I just had a few good friends.”

As a transgender-identified male, Grace was suddenly popular. “Everyone in the school was like, ‘You’re amazing! We love you!’” she said. “All these kids who I’d previously occasionally said hi to in the hallway were going out of their way to say hi to me. I was cool.”

She was also powerful, because now she was a victim. “People were so obsessed with victimhood,” she said. “We’d be in GSA club, listing all the ways we were minorities. . . . I started telling people about the tiny sliver of Jewish I have in me because I wanted to be anything other than white.”

God is the Creator, and we are the creatures. That means we don’t make our own identity—we receive it.

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.

“One of the biggest themes is, 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.”

It took a few months for Eva to recognize what this reminded her of. She watched as Grace finished seventh grade and spent the summer with her family.

“By the end of that summer, she had calmed down a lot and was less militant,” Eva said. “We thought we were on the way back to sanity.” Then, the first day of eighth grade, “she was right back into it up to her neck.”

A daughter whose feelings about transgender identity changed with her social environment? Who told her parents if they didn’t agree with her choices, they hated her? Who was able to hide what she was doing at school from her family?

Eva bought another book—this time on how to help a loved one leave a cult.

“Steven Hassan lays out a strategy for getting people out,” she said. “I marked his book up with comments, because it confirmed everything I’d been thinking.”

Getting Out: Physical Removal

“The second worst thing we did, besides giving Grace social media, was let her stay in public school another year,” Eva said.

That’s because 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. In the spring, Eva found out she was using the boys’ bathroom at school.

“I said to the principal that I didn’t want my 13-year-old autistic daughter in the bathroom with boys,” Eva said. “She said, ‘That’s our policy. Everyone can use the bathroom they want.’ And I thought, I cannot protect my child at school.”

Eva ordered homeschooling curriculum and signed up for a co-op. “I never thought I’d homeschool,” she said. “I was never a supporter of homeschooling. But that April I decided she wasn’t going back to public school.”

Changing schools—especially when your child is in junior high or high school, and especially when they’re receiving piles of affirmation—is not easy. Grace hated the idea so much she ran away for a night to a neighbor’s house.

“That was a nightmare,” Eva said. “And the first six weeks of high school were pretty miserable.”

But she stuck with it.

Getting Out: Building Relationships

Homeschooling also helped with another strategy in cult rescue, which is to build loyalty and healthy relationships inside the family.

“I remember going to Five Guys with Dad,” Grace said. “I was so furious with him. And we were sitting there, not even talking, eating our burgers. But I couldn’t stay mad at him, because I was eating a burger he bought me.”

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 it was just superficial and didn’t require us to lie or go against our conscience, we didn’t fight it,” Eva said. She and Seth wouldn’t buy Grace a man’s suit, but they did let her purge her feminine clothes and jewelry. They didn’t call her by her chosen male name but would let her introduce herself with “Hi. My name is Grace, but my friends call me Duke.” Grace didn’t have to wear a dress to church, but she did have to attend.

“Some Christian psychologists allow space for letting the kid try out another gender,” Ferguson said. “I encourage parents not to give a lot of ground, because there is a usurping of the parents’ authority that is deeply problematic.” And on a practical level, the less a child transitions—pronouns, clothing, hormones—the fewer barriers are erected to a transition back.

“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

In one study, parents of children with rapid onset gender dysphoria said their kids seemed like parrots of online trans-positive content. They described how that sounded—like the kids were “reading from a script,” “wooden,” “like a form letter,” “verbatim,” “word for word,” “practically copy and paste,” or “sounding scripted.”

Questions such as “What if some girls don’t want biological boys in their bathrooms or locker rooms?” or “How is it fair that a biological male competes as a female in women’s sports?” are met with slogans such as “Trans women are women” or “Trans rights are human rights.”

This makes it hard to engage in meaningful conversation—and so does the enmity between parents and children that’s built into the movement. Anything other than full acceptance means the older generation doesn’t get it, is transphobic, or doesn’t want their child to be happy.

For Grace, the first questions that got through didn’t come from her parents, but from the kids in her homeschool co-op.

“[The co-op] was so incredibly conservative,” she said. “For the first time, I had to defend my opinions or I would risk looking stupid.”

When her classmates started asking her questions about gender identity that she couldn’t answer she “doubled down.” Grace said, “I decided to come up with irrefutable arguments, 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.”

Mainly, she couldn’t figure out why transgender identity was so prevalent in the modern West, but nearly nonexistent in other cultures and times. She wondered, Have I been fighting on the wrong side this whole time?

Grace 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, who knows of other children who did this before desisting. “They’re starting to come back to you.”

She’s Back

Through it all, Grace never lost her faith.

“Atheism is too illogical,” she said. “There are far too many fallacies in it to even think of it as a viable logical option. So I never walked away from God, but I led myself into believing God made me a male, but the brokenness of the world caused me to be in a girl’s body.”

She began thinking clearly again: “Logic brought me to prayer, and prayer brought me back.”

She remembers walking her neighbor’s dog, wrestling with God, near the end of her freshman year of high school. “I knew I couldn’t be a trans kid and a Christian at the same time,” she said. “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—“Like when you really have to go to the bathroom and you finally get to,” she said.

Eva wasn’t as relieved. “You’d think I’d have been jumping up and down screaming ‘Hallelujah!’ but I didn’t,” she said. “I was wondering if this was just another episode of boomeranging, and if tomorrow or the next day she’d fall back into it.”

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.”

The Long Game

Through online and in-person conversations, Eva’s been able to hear from other families battling transgender identity.

“It’s all the same story,” she said. “The child just came home and said they were transgender or nonbinary. They were on social media. They were invited to the GSA club. It’s almost like I can tell you the story before they even start talking.”

She can spot complications—children who come out after they leave home are harder to get back. So are those who stay in their schools, who have any type of medical intervention, or who have at least one parent who chooses to affirm.

But she can also see hope.

“When this first happened, I was crying and said to God, ‘What did I do wrong?’” she said. “I very kindly heard him say, ‘What did I do wrong?’ God is the perfect parent, and every single one of us has sinned.”

Perfect parenting is no guard against a child’s sin or mistakes. What they need—what we all need—is transformation, Ferguson said.
“In Latin, the prefix trans just means to move across or beyond,” he said. While gender transitioning starts on the outside, trying to align it with a person’s insides, Christian transformation starts on the inside and moves outward.

While gender transitioning starts on the outside, trying to align it with a person’s insides, Christian transformation starts on the inside and moves outward.

“Our outside body is wasting away,” Ferguson said. “The Christian hope is to entrust our physical bodies to the Maker, who will raise it from the dead, and in the meantime, we work for the transformation of the inner man. By contrast, the gender movement says, ‘I will arrest control of the body from the Maker and remake it in the image of my own inner self.’”

He tries to tell those struggling that Jesus offers a closer community, a deeper change, and a true and better transformation from dysphoria to joy.

“But I’m batting like zero,” he said. “I don’t have kids [I’ve counseled] calling me up, telling me, ‘You got me.’ We’re playing the long game here.”

About a year ago, a man in his 60s with gender dysphoria gave Ferguson a call out of the blue.

“He was real-deal gender dysphoria,” Ferguson said. “When he was a little boy, he was wearing his mom’s underwear and sneaking into TJ Maxx to go into the women’s dressing rooms.”

He’d gone through three marriages before getting surgery to help him present as a woman.

“When he was in high school, someone shared the gospel with him, but he’d rejected it,” Ferguson said. Then, several years ago, someone shared with him a talk Ferguson had done on transgender identity.

“God spoke to me and said, ‘I made you a man,’” the man told Ferguson. On fire for the Lord, he began passing out gospel tracts on street corners.

Ferguson asked him, “When you were in your 20s, what could I have said to you to get you on the right path?”

“Nothing,” the man told him. “But what I did need was somebody like you to tell me what was wrong and what was true. Keep telling people the truth.”

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