"One of my friends from school last year says she wants to be called by a different name, a boy's name. What should I do?"
"There's a new kid at school. I can't figure out if 'he' is a boy or a girl. 'He' says 'I'm pansexual and gender fluid.' What's that?"
As summer ends and children of all ages are returning to school, some (despite the media attention, thankfully very few) may be confronted with these or similar situations. How should you feel as a parent if you are so approached? What should you say or do?
While there are no easy answers, there are some sound anthropological, philosophical and spiritual principles upon which we can rely to navigate the unchartered waters.
Perhaps you should feel grateful. If your child is raising these questions, you are likely in the minority. The immense propaganda of the pro-sexual-diversity crowd is yielding startling and disheartening confusion. Most children and adolescents will assume - if their parents or other concerned adults are not proactively protecting and educating them - that the aforementioned situations are something to be accepted, if not celebrated. Your child's questioning what he is observing is a strength and an opportunity to keep the dialogue open, which is essential to good parenting and healthy child development. At the same time, feeling fearful, concerned, and at a loss for how to respond is also perfectly natural.
If your child is not asking questions, it may be wise to summon the courage to start the conversation yourself, because if you do not, it is likely that some misguided peer (or teacher or school counselor) is having "the talk" and usurping your primary role as educator of your child in this most important matter: properly understanding human sexuality.
Despite any assertions to the contrary, there is no evidence that a child's life is improved in the long term by the opportunity to explore living as a different gender, expressing same-sex attractions, or choosing the labels by which he or she prefers to be addressed. I have written on this many times (see Confusion-Yet-Hope , Bathroom Debate , Regret and Student Health ), and a recent review of the research continues to confirm this. It is very clear that youth experiencing same-sex attractions, or what until recently was aptly called "gender identity disorder," manifest a host of psychological and emotional problems. Despite popular opinion, however, these problems are not caused by bullying or discrimination [though undoubtedly such instances exacerbate problems], but are fundamental to the conditions themselves .
The issue of labeling was cogently discussed a decade ago in First Things , by Fr. Paul Scalia who agreed with school administrators who counseled against the use of labels which "reinforce stereotypes and prejudices [and] prevent us from accepting individuals and getting to know the real person." While that advice was sound then and now, Fr. Scalia noted the administrators made one exception: for those students who experience same-sex attractions.
Today, the exceptions continue to mount and now include those claiming gender fluidity. These exceptions are all ill-advised; labels fail to address the underlying mental health issues and lend credence to the media-fueled message that transgenderism is common when, in fact, the incidence of the actual condition as a persistent experience is miniscule. The number of people claiming the condition is increasing not so much because of some un-closeting of people who experience themselves as a different gender, but because hurting people (particularly children and adolescents) find more comfort in a collective label than in a nameless, and at times solitary, though necessary, struggle.
I can do no better than to repeat the wisdom offered by Fr. Scalia: "Love must be the leading edge of the response." Parents must assist their children in recognizing the reality of the disorder of a peer's behavior while simultaneously practicing the virtues of charity and compassion, never failing to acknowledge the dignity of the person and his or her need to be loved.
And, parents need to be ready to be accused by their children of being narrow-minded and old-fashioned - this is what the culture tells them. Such accusations can be addressed by focusing on the peer's suffering. Which is more compassionate : to affirm or celebrate gender or sexual "diversity," knowing that in the long run it will only result in disappointment, disillusionment, and/or pain; or to charitably attempt to show the suffering peer the truth and a path to healing?
The fundamental point to make is that a person's sexual inclinations or gendered feelings do not determine his or her identity. So, your child's friend Sally ought to be referred to as "Sally" and as "she," even if she proclaims herself to be "Billy." Your child should sensitively and compassionately emphasize how Sally is valued as a whole person apart from her name, how Sally's dignity rests in how she was made. In other words, try to remain a trusted friend and avoid buying into the label.
Identity struggles manifest a natural desire to know "who one is" and "where one belongs." They are not new; they are quintessential dilemmas for youth throughout the ages. If possible and prudent, the best advice for your child is to be a good friend to those who may be different in whatever way, while not compromising the truth. Standing firm provides a friend an opportunity for growth and discovery, rather than pigeon-holed labeling, during the most exciting time of one's young life.