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Supporting Trans/Non-Binary Youth in Your Congregation

As Unitarian Universalists, we celebrate the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We affirm the diversity of gender and work to create communities where people of all/no genders are free to be themselves.

We also recognize that transgender and non-binary youth have particular needs, and that there is more work to do to make sure that our circle is open to every young person called to our faith. This is part of our sacred work.

About Trans/Non-Binary Youth

Gender is much more complex than many of us were taught. The Gender Book encourages us to imagine gender as a planet—we can also imagine it as a galaxy, or a full spectrum of color, or an incredible range of ice cream flavors. This comic by Assigned Male Comics digs deeper into the history of gender (read comic page 1, page 2, and page 3 in order).

The gender binary, the idea that there are two, and only two, distinct genders—“male” and “female”—as it exists today, was violently forced on the world when Europeans colonized much of it. There are many other gender systems in other cultures. Honoring this means supporting trans/non-binary people, and dismantling racist colonial ideas. This is what we are called to do as Unitarian Universalists.

Young people are leading the way in opening up and expanding gender, and more youth and young adults show us their true selves at younger ages. This is a wonderful, beautiful thing!

Only 48% of Generation Z identifies as exclusively heterosexual, and 56% knows someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns (Gen Z goes beyond gender binaries). There has always been a need for us to show up for trans/non-binary youth in our faith communities—and there is an absolute necessity to deepen our ability to nurture trans/non-binary youth faith development and their whole selves. We have waited too long, and we cannot wait any longer. The youth in our beloved community need us—supportive adults—in their lives.

Before reading further, please familiarize yourself with Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity 101 and Transgender 101: Identity, Inclusion, and Resources. This guide is aimed at readers already familiar with these materials.

Trans/Non-Binary Youth in the World and Our Communities

Celebrating Trans Resilience

“Research shows that the most important needs for gender non-conforming young people are: To be allowed to be accepted and supported; To be heard, respected, and loved; To have professional support; To be allowed to express their gender; To feel safe and protected; To be treated and live normally; To have peer contact; To have school support; To have access to puberty-delaying hormones." (Working with Transgender Youth (PDF))

Even amid challenges and violence, trans people build families, relationships, new community groups and services, and more. These are acts of resilience worth celebrating!

The support adults give to trans youth is lifesaving. It nurtures resilience that takes root and blooms.

Support Saves Lives

Research shows that having supportive family and community drastically reduces these risk factors for trans/non-binary people. Talking about LGBT issues in school greatly increases a sense of belonging (Harsh Realities: The Experiences of Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools (PDF))—this is applicable to other settings as well.

Your support, in addition to increasing safety in general for trans/non-binary youth, provides a much better chance of trans/non-binary youth and young adults being able to be more resilient if or when they do face violence/oppression for their a/genders.

We absolutely can provide support to trans/non-binary youth and young adults in our congregations. With introspection, speaking up, and thoughtful action, we can proactively uphold the inherent worth and dignity of everyone in our faith community.

What Are Non-Binary/Trans Youth Experiencing in Our Congregations?

Many in our faith community are unfamiliar and/or uncomfortable with non-binary/trans people. Some want to be allies, but aren’t sure how. Unfortunately, some people in our faith community are actively unwelcoming to non-binary/trans people.

These experiences cause many non-binary/trans people to leave faith communities, or to be unable to fully participate.

Experiences of unwelcoming behavior include:

  • Joking about “men in dresses”
  • Using a/gender inclusive language as a joke
  • Misgendering (using the wrong name and/or pronoun)
  • Neglecting to integrate non-binary, trans, and intersex experiences in all areas of the OWL curriculum
  • Having separate girls’ and boys’ sleeping arrangements during sleepovers or trips
  • Having only binary-gendered bathrooms
  • Defacing inclusive bathroom signage
  • Expecting trans/non-binary people in the congregation to be the primary trans/non-binary informational resources for that congregation
  • Discouraging non-binary or trans people from leadership in our congregations
  • Rejecting or firing trans/non-binary ministers and other staff
  • Waiting to address gendered issues until after you have a visibly recognizable trans/non-binary visitor, member, or religious professional—see Preemptive Radical Inclusion
  • Obtaining Welcoming Community certification—and then stopping at that

Many non-binary/trans youth come to our congregations seeking a haven, and instead encounter the same oppression as in the outside world. We can change this! Below are some actions you and your congregation can take to support trans/non-binary youth.

Supporting Trans/Non-Binary Youth

Today/This Week

Over the Next Few Weeks/Months

Make Long-Term Plans

  • Invite an outside consultant to take inventory of trans/non-binary inclusivity in your congregation and offer training in a/gender inclusion. (Don’t expect trans/non-binary congregants to do this!) Act to make the changes the consultant recommends.
  • Ensure smooth transitions between youth programs and young adulthood by inviting trans/non-binary youth and young adults into leadership. Implement their suggestions and ideas (PDF).
  • Create a pastoral care program for non-binary/trans people (with focus on youth and young adults) within/outside the congregation. Here’s one example of deep welcoming and pastoral and broader spiritual care for trans and non-binary youth and young adults: Pastor Redefines 'Church' For Transgender Youth.
  • Avoid separating people by “boys”/“girls” in RE programs. Is there space for children and youth to define, explore, and play with their a/genders in your RE programs? Check out these links from Gender Spectrum for more ideas:
  • Ensure a smooth transition between youth programs and young adult experiences by inviting trans and non-binary youth and young adults into leadership into all facets of your congregation—and listening to their suggestions and ideas: Three Essentials for Effective Youth/Adult Partnerships (PDF).
  • Keep on learning, and keep asking who isn’t in the room. If there are a lot of white trans men and women in your congregation, ask yourself and others where non-binary people and trans people of color are. If your congregation has a lot of transmasculine people but less trans people who experience transmisogyny, ask why that is. When you can be deeply self-reflective as to who isn’t in the room, you can start working to make changes so that your congregation can be a home to these groups.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are called to love and care for every young person in our community, and open our doors to those who need our support. We can move forward on this journey today, and deepen it in the days, months, and years to come.

The Gender Unicorn

The Gender Unicorn by Trans Student Educational Resources makes a great exercise in exploring gender identity and expression as a group or identifying your own in relation to the concept of a spectrum.

Learn about gender

The cartoon character Steven Universe, a small smiling child with black curly hair and tears of joy welling in their eyes.

Popular animated series "Steven Universe" on the Cartoon Network.

Preach It!

"Our Trans Youth, Living Boldly: Lessons from Sci-Fi": Rev Kathleen Owens, Lead Minister, First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego, CA; July 17, 2016, Hillcrest sermon.