Over the past few months, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton have called gender-affirming care for trans children “child abuse,” and ordered investigations into the parents of trans children. As a stepparent of a trans teenager and the pastor of a historic LGBTQ congregation, this news hits close to home.

As I observe such legal disputes and cultural clashes on social media, I am struck by just how strongly people feel about the positions taken in this debate. Some believe that supporting trans children’s gender identities is misguided, at best, and “child abuse” at worst. Others believe that parents who do not support their trans children’s gender identities are guilty of imposing avoidable suffering on their own children.

‘Society As We Know It Hangs In The Balance’

A reporter recently asked me why I believe there are such strong responses to the existence and legitimacy of trans people. My response was that, ultimately, it’s about the existence of society as we know it. The reporter expressed surprise. This isn’t the response he was expecting from a pastor and parent of a trans teen.

Perhaps he thought I would talk about the perpetuation of religious ideas, or particular values being taught in families or the general difficulty people have with change. These things are, of course, involved. But when we drill down to the bottom of this debate, I see some people fighting for the continuation of current societal power structures and others fighting for the survival of their children. Both groups, however, understand on a deep level that society as we know it hangs in the balance.

In the broad history of the United States, straight, masculine (white, rich, educated, non-disabled) males have wielded most of the socio-political power in our society.

For instance, we were not surprised to learn that in January 2021, less than one-third of the U.S. Congress was composed of women, and that 10 years ago that number was half what it is today. Most people also recognize that those who currently hold power are not likely to give it up willingly.

An inside view of the swearing in of the members of the 177th Congress
Phi Nguyen was elected during a special election in December 2017. Nguyen is the first Vietnamese-American elected to the Georgia House of Representatives. Photo by Phi Nguyen / US House of Representatives

The idea that is especially debated about trans people is whether biological maleness ought to be correlated with masculinity, and biological femaleness with femininity. Some insist that this sex-gender correlation is biologically and/or ethically required, while others do not.

Those of us with trans children have personally witnessed, perhaps more dramatically than others, that people assigned male or female at birth do not always “naturally” become masculine or feminine, respectively. Sometimes, biologically male children exhibit feminine traits, and biologically female children exhibit masculine traits.

Most people are familiar with the traits we’re talking about here: masculine stereotypes include being reasonable, strong, useful and assertive, while feminine stereotypes include being overly emotional, weak, decorative and submissive. We all know people who don’t fit into these stereotypes, but the stereotypes are well known and they guide our behavior.

Taking all of that into account, we can see how the sex-gender correlation is integral to understanding who maintains power in our society. Most people would agree that people who fit the feminine stereotype to the “T” are not the most qualified to lead. Most of us would not list “overly emotional, weak, pretty and submissive” on our resumes if we were trying to land high-powered jobs. The fact that we now have more women in Congress than in previous decades suggests that more voters are willing to concede that stereotypes about females are somewhat inaccurate.

To go further, however, and say that not only are stereotypes in some ways inaccurate, but also the sex-gender correlation itself is not biologically and/or ethically required, could have significant effects on the way our society is currently shaped. In short, the societal power of “cisgender men” (that is, people assigned male at birth who grow up to become masculine) would be threatened. Cisgender men would no longer be seen as inherently more qualified to hold positions of power, and there would be a much wider group of competitors who would be considered qualified to hold power in our society.

The debate about trans people is not just about trans people—it’s also about how our society is constructed, and who holds the power within it.

“If we allow our children to explore and affirm their gender identities, then we will also threaten current socio-culturally constructed power structures,” Shelli Poe writes. Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Question Stereotypes and Empower the People

Parents of trans children, like me, therefore find ourselves in the midst of a debate about what kind of society we want to establish for the future.

We are faced with a choice. On the one hand, if we affirm society as it currently exists and do not allow our children to explore their gender identities, then we will almost certainly have to watch our children suffer for years with emotional and psychological distress that has led 82% of trans youth to consider suicide and 40% to attempt it.

On the other hand, if we allow our children to explore and affirm their gender identities, then we will also threaten current socio-culturally constructed power structures. Quite literally, both the existence of our children and society as we currently know it hang in the balance.

My trans stepson is a high schooler now, and his favorite subjects are computer science and theater. He enjoys spending time with his friends, being creative through cooking and playing video games. Although he is a young man now, when I look into his face, I still see an 8-year-old who is excited to go to the zoo; a 10-year-old who can’t wait to go to church so he can show off his new bow tie; and a 12-year-old who reads a book a day over the weekend.

My stepson is not broken. He is wonderfully made, and he is loved.

I love him more than stereotypes and current power structures. Our world would be a better place if more people like my stepson existed—those who help us to question assumptions and stereotypes, and those who could help us empower others who are still being held at bay: women, people of color, LGBTQ people, poor people, uneducated people and differently abled people.

What a world that would be.

It’s a world that, according to my faith, was preached and inaugurated by Jesus of Nazareth—a Jewish carpenter raised in a blended family from a nothing town who talked to outsiders, taught women, cared for outcasts, had time for children, forgave and ate with sinners, fed hungry crowds, preached against the reigning authorities and was executed with criminals.

He aimed to turn this world and its power structures upside down. I suppose that’s why people had strong responses to Him—some loved Him and others saw Him as a threat to their own power.

Both kinds of people got the message: if we accept this person and His teachings, the world would dramatically change.

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Crirec, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to [email protected]. We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

Shelli M. Poe is the pastor at Safe Harbor Family Church in Clinton, Miss., and the president of PFLAG Jackson. She is also a visiting professor at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colo., and the author of numerous academic books, edited volumes and journal articles. For more information about PFLAG, please email [email protected] or text/call 601-345-3175.