Gender-Optional Birth Certifcates: A Parental Lesson

I’ve been parenting for over fourteen years now, and I’d think it should offer some seasoning and an accumulation of wisdom. Yet the parental “goalposts” are continually being moved as my own children grow into young adults, and (to throw in another metaphor) I enter uncharted waters every day. Current parenting choices are often met with rejoinders by myself and others, and regrets mount over past choices. Cheerfully, based on reports from those who preceded me, I find that it’s entirely expected. Parenting means making mistakes. And as my older children enter high school, I catch myself living vicariously through their triumphs, joys, and agonies. The tension is great to give them space to be their own people, not enlightened versions of me that will triumph over that which I never could. But it’s a struggle.

At the same time, and I don’t know if it’s advancing age or a sign of our times, I think I appreciate the satirical more now than ever. It seems that, if we can laugh about ourselves, we may be able to put our differences in perspective and not take ourselves quite so seriously. Sometimes “hard news” even reads like satire. It has been a few months now, but I thought that a friend who linked me to an article in the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s story was sharing a satirical piece. He was not.

My high school English teacher would read the pronouns and capitalization choices in that piece as an aneurism-inducing affront to all she held dear. I’m not sure I’ll be able to comment without upsetting her, me, and many others, in grammatical terms alone. In short, a transgender Canadian, Kori Doty, fought to keep the gender identification on their (grammatical groan) child, Searyl Atli, unspecified, stipulating that the child would not…and should not be expected to…have fully formed a gender identity until later in life. Gender identity is fluid, and a birth certificate should recognize that. According to Kori’s attorney, “assigning gender at birth is a violation of a child’s human rights to freely express their gender identity.” Cis-entitlement is not a satirical construct, but a point of great contention and injustice, and the violation of a basic human right, to those included in this piece.

A few months of pondering later, as a parent I can, in some ways, relate to Kori, who is making a choice with which I disagree, with some sympathy. Kori wants baby Searyl to be empowered to overcome the pain that gender identity struggles have already been lived in their life. Yes, there is also a clear political agenda, in the creation of a human right that society has never recognized, and I have far less respect for that. But I know the evangelical church has a history of poor responses to issues of sexual identity, on a political and relational level. I have limited personal experience with transgender individuals, and recognize that ethical decisions are not best made anecdotally, but even that limited experience has revealed that they have complex and challenging, and often extraordinarily painful, life stories. None have seemed capricious in their decisions. Some have been born with undetermined genitalia that truly weren’t clearly determinative of their gender. Others struggled with the very essence of who they were, even as anatomy would have seemed determinative.

The complexity of this issue should be sobering to us all, and particularly to those who embrace the Christian message that fully recognizes the devastation of a fallen world and the remarkable promise of grace that is not yet fully realized. I encourage the church to look at a complex issue with cautious, winsome eyes. The evangelical church lost its place at the table on the discussions of homosexuality (one where its voice could and should have been compelling) because too many showed graceless insensitivity. The high suicide rate of those who identify as transgender should be heartbreaking to the church. I am convicted as I initially read the article as unintentional satire.

Yet this is another issue where the complexity of medicine and social science is subordinated to a cultural agenda. There is, frankly, nothing wrong with asking for time and space to better study and understand the many pieces of the puzzle that transgenderism includes. The cry to “affirm” that which I can’t yet understand is unreasonable, even in the name of compassion. The appeal of bioethics is the way it synthesizes the disciplines of medicine, social science, theology, philosophy, and public policy, and recognizes the importance of each. I would like to think parents are the best arbiters of their children’s interests. Sadly, this story, and my own vicarious desires for my children, remind me otherwise. This parent has instrumentalized a child. The choice, if repeated on a mass scale, leads to social chaos and places a staggering stress on children whose developmental biology already faces challenges in our culture. Even now, we see gender reassignment surgery performed on young people. A sobering piece from a bit ago in The Federalist likens these surgeries with the frontal lobotomies of the 1930’s. Medicine needs to be exceedingly cautious as it encounters the “human right” that is gender identity. May bioethicists recognize the great complexity of transgenderism through eyes of compassion and grace, yet not submit medical and ethical wisdom to a cultural agenda. And may parents be wise enough to realize when we place the burdens of our agendas upon our children, whatever those agendas may be.