Editor’s Note: Paula Stone Williams is a pastor and internationally known speaker on gender equity, LGBTQ advocacy and religious tolerance. She is the author of “As a Woman: What I Learned about Power, Sex, and the Patriarchy after I Transitioned.” The views expressed here are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
From the time I was 3 or 4 years old, I knew I was transgender.
I didn’t know it in those words, of course. In my naivete, I remember thinking I could choose my gender, that maybe a gender fairy would arrive and say, “OK, what’s it going to be?” Of course, I would choose what I understood myself to be – a girl. But alas, no gender fairy ever arrived.
As the child of an evangelical pastor, I knew telling my family what I knew about myself was out of the question. It was the 1950s and not much was known about gender dysphoria. The word transgender did not even exist. Nevertheless, I was certain I was supposed to have been born a girl. I was equally as certain that if I told anyone my secret, I would be in big trouble.
I did not believe I was a girl trapped in a boy’s body. I just felt I was supposed to have been born a girl. When I realized that was not a possibility, I did not despair. I just went about my life.
Puberty was when my real problems began. My body changed in ways I despised, while my female friends had bodies changing in all the ways I desperately wanted mine to change. I hated my body, but I had nowhere to turn. I lived in a conservative area of the South and was immersed in an evangelical subculture that kept a powerful hold on its adherents.
Following in my brother’s footsteps, I attended a Christian college, married, had children and built a career. I ultimately became the CEO of an international Christian ministry, the editor-at-large of a national Christian magazine and a regular speaker in some of the largest churches in the nation. While I was hiding my true self, at least I was providing for my family.
After our children left home, my gender dysphoria returned with a vengeance. When I began to contemplate ending my life, I knew I had to act.
I began a low dose of anti-androgens and estrogen, hoping it might somehow assuage my longing to transition and allow me to continue living as a male. It did just the opposite. The hormones convinced me I needed to transition. My wife and I decided it was time to tell our children and several months later, I told the Christian ministries with which I worked.
Within seven days I lost every single one of my jobs. I was abandoned by my evangelical community and unable to find work. I earned more money in my last two months as a man than in the next 48 months as a woman.
Had I not found a wonderful new affirming church, I do not know if I would have survived. Three years after transitioning, I was asked to speak for TEDxMileHigh, followed by TEDWomen and other TED events, which led to a full speaking schedule on issues related to gender equity. I now serve as a pastor with Left Hand Church in Longmont, Colorado.
I brought a lot of privilege and skills with me when I transitioned, and the post-transition opportunities that have come my way have left me in far better circumstances than many.
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, 54% of transgender people with unsupportive families have attempted suicide and 29% live in poverty. Transgender women of color disproportionately face the interconnected threats of poverty, violence and bigotry.
For transgender children, the statistics are even more disturbing. According to a 2018 study, female to male transgender adolescents attempt suicide at a rate of 50.8%. Male to female trans adolescents have a 29.9% suicide attempt rate.
The legislative tracker of Freedom for all Americans indicates there are dozens of bills across multiple states focused on prohibiting transgender athletes from competing in interscholastic sports or focused on denying gender affirming care to transgender adolescents. Arkansas House Bill 1570, enacted over the governor’s veto, made that state the first to outlaw such care for minors, endangering the lives of adolescents in the process.
A recent PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll indicated that two-thirds of Americans of every political ideology and age group oppose laws that would limit transgender rights. If this is the case, what is driving these legislative actions? According to research from Pew, 84% of White evangelical Protestants say that gender is determined by sex at birth.
In my memoir, I grappled with these driving forces, writing that over recent decades, White evangelicals have focused their political energy primarily on two social issues – abortion and LGBTQ+ rights. As someone who has lived with White male privilege, I find it particularly interesting that they have staked so much on two debates that cost their straight male leadership almost nothing.
Focusing on other issues – systemic racism or wealth inequality – might require making changes in their own lives or altering their own sense of power. Instead, they target the rights of transgender children, one of the most at-risk groups in the nation.
To my White evangelical friends and former coworkers, I implore you, leave transgender children alone. Your misguided activism is putting vulnerable adolescents at risk.
I can handle your rejection. These children cannot. They do not bring years of privilege and experience with them. They do not have the resources that I have to withstand your attacks. Research suggests that only 25% of you know someone who is transgender. Acquaint yourself with transgender people before you decide that you know what is best. Leave the decisions about medical treatment to the medical professionals. Educate yourself about the causes and complexities of gender dysphoria.
The lives of many hang in the balance. I am lucky that mine is not one of them.