Help, I have a transgender friend

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Dear Bronwyn,

I have a new friend who recently asked if she could share something with me without me judging her. She told me she was actually born a boy and has been living as a girl since she was 14 (now 17). He had wanted to be a girl since a young age, but his mom would not allow it until he almost committed suicide. Questions that followed were in regards to dating, if she should tell the person she is with, what to wear, how do do makeup for the date, etc. I have been struggling with how to respond to such things so that I am not being too involved and encouraging living as a girl, but also not coming off as judgmental while still living out my own christian beliefs and making them clear. How can I continue to build a trusting and positive friendship with her, and lovingly share Gods truths? – P.C.

Dear P.C.,

A few years ago, I met someone who had had gender reassignment surgery. She had lived as a man until well into her adult life, had married and had kids, and then in her 30s made the choice to start living as a woman. After a few years, she followed it up with surgery to ‘seal the deal’. It cost her her marriage, her career, her relationship with her kids – and it caused a terrific amount of stress in the extended family: some were accepting, others refused to ever come to a family meeting where she (or ‘he’, as they insisted) was present.

I knew some of this background before meeting her, but I was still a little unprepared when I finally met her and her boyfriend (!!) I did my best to be loving, friendly and attentive – but I confess I was really unnerved when I got up to use the restroom and she got up and accompanied me, “because we girls go to the restroom in pairs.” A few minutes later I was washing my hands and she came up next to me and observed: “You also have big feet – don’t you find it a hassle to find nice shoes that fit?” I didn’t have a clue what to say. Yes, I find it hard to find big shoes – but I have big feet for someone who was born a woman. I mumbled something and skedaddled out of there.

All of this is to say: I can relate to your feeling of confusion, but I don’t feel I have excellent answers for situations like this. What I can say, though, is this:

You are already showing love and friendship to her by being a safe person who listened without judgment. You have shown welcome. I do believe this is the most important thing Jesus would have us do: he welcomed people and did not lecture or judge those who were hurting. It is one of the most wonderful things in all the gospel that Jesus did not require us to change before he loved us or bid us ‘come’ (Romans 5:8).  That you have shown a willingness to love her as she is in itself is a powerful witness to the gospel.

Secondly, your job as a friend is not to be a counselor or psychologist: you cannot possibly untangle all the things going on in her head. But you can listen. You can try to understand. And that is more powerful than you might realize.

Thirdly, your job as a friend is not to be the Holy Spirit. He is the one who prompts and enables real change in us, when it is time for that change. I want you to know you can love her freely without feeling like you need to act as her conscience too.

Fourthly, your job as a friend IS to be honest about who you are, even as she is being honest about who she is. So just as she is entrusting her true self to you, when the time comes – you must honor and respect her enough to entrust your true thoughts to her – but do this with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). Remember: “I don’t know” is often a very useful and honest answer to know you have. If she asks your thoughts about how to apply lipstick or dating, I would say it is okay to answer “I don’t know. I have never been in your situation or had a friend in your situation, and I have no idea what to suggest.” It is okay to say “this is an awkward question for me, and I don’t have an answer but I’m glad you feel safe asking me.”

Fifthly, if she asks about your faith, tell her about Jesus. Tell her about the hope that you have, and what God means to you – she needs that more than she needs a position statement on being LGBT. We are saved by grace, not by keeping the 10 commandments. I know that her sexuality might seem like the “big sin issue” from one perspective – but in truth it is only one of a NUMBER of complex issues which God, in his love and wisdom, cares about.

Finally, I would offer this one piece of advice if she’s wondering whether to disclose her situation to other friends. She is in an awful situation where not telling someone about her identity means that she can never be fully known in that friendship. She will always be afraid of being found out or rejected – and in truth, the longer one keeps that information, the harder it is to disclose it later in a relationship without someone feeling really betrayed. However, telling someone from the get-go  risks a huge amount of rejection and enmity with people who may not have made good friends either. So I would say: she doesn’t have to tell everyone or wear it on a pin – but if there is a relationship which she feels has potential for being a significant friendship, she will have to make the decision to trust them with that information… and I daresay earlier might be less damaging than later.

Unequipped as you may feel to be her friend, you are being a friend right now. I want to encourage you to keep being that friend: be kind, generous, loving. Be honest. And I do believe God will use your friendship to her to show her something of His welcome.

Related posts: Why I Won’t Take a Stand On Gay Marriage, The Parable of the (Gay) Samaritan

Photo Credit: Giulia Cortigiano -Ci piace! La vogliamo in: Friendship never ends (Flickr Creative Commons)