Eli’s Story

This is an op-ed piece that we (Liane and John) wrote for our local newspaper, the Centre Daily Times. It was published on October 21, 2016, under the headline “Events seek to build bridge between LGBTQ and faith communities”.

It does indeed publicize the events that we planned for the year, and our hopes for them – but it also seeks to tell a bit of Eli’s story, and thereby help others understand something about his life as a trans* person, with all its hopes, dreams, and struggles.

Our daughter said, “Mom, Dad, we need to talk — it’s important.”

Parents of any teenager know that momentary panic — “What can this be about?” — followed by a mental checklist of possibilities. But this time, nothing on the checklist was even close to the truth.

“I’m transgender.”

This was before Caitlyn Jenner put the word “transgender” on every front page. We had a lot of learning to do, starting with the meaning of the word itself. A transgender person is someone whose gender identity (internal sense of who they are) doesn’t correspond with the external gender markers they were born with. We learned that our child’s truer identity was as a young man — named Eli.

There are more than a million transgender adults in the United States. We made a journey to meet some of them and to learn from them as we thought together about Eli’s future.

We learned that a transgender person’s life is dangerous. Most transgender people experience bullying, as Eli did. Many report discrimination, such as being evicted from housing, fired from a job or refused medical treatment. We were shocked to discover that such discrimination was legal in many states, including Pennsylvania. Transgender individuals are also at higher risk of violence from others or of self-harm.

We learned that the acceptance of a loving family can make a huge difference, and we wanted to give Eli that acceptance. We laughed together when we mistakenly used the wrong pronoun. We rejoiced together when other family members, including those of an older generation, responded to our extraordinary news not with shock or rejection, but with a warm embrace.

Honestly, it isn’t hard to embrace your transgender child. This is the same person who you have always loved, the same child you have always cherished. Now, you have been privileged to learn something new about them, something rare and unusual. But then, didn’t you always know your child was unique?

This love and acceptance sustained Eli through the sometimes anguished struggles of the subsequent years. But there was one place where unconditional acceptance was nearly impossible to find. Perhaps you can guess where that was.

Within some faith communities, a few lines from sacred texts are often cited to justify excluding individuals who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer. As a result, many faithful LGBTQ people have a story of struggle to tell. If, like Eli, their faith journey is a Christian one, this story too often culminates in rejection by the professed followers of Jesus, who was notorious in his lifetime for his open welcome and unconditional love for the outcasts and “unclean” of society.

Our child, still a teenager, had an uncommon response to those who insisted that his Christian faith and transgender identity were incompatible. Rather than yielding to anger or bitterness, Eli invested time and energy trying to build bridges between churches and the LGBTQ community. He spoke to local congregations about what it means to be transgender, and how they could be more welcoming to LGBTQ people. With other Penn State students, he established a safe gathering and worship space on campus for LGBTQ Christian people and those who desire to share support and fellowship with them.

Sadly, Eli is no longer with us — his daily battle with depression ended when he took his own life in January. Our grief is fathomless, yet we have been greatly encouraged by hundreds of messages from those whose lives Eli touched. To honor his memory, we want to continue his bridge-building work between LGBTQ people and members of faith communities. We especially want to provide resources to those who desire to welcome everyone with unconditional love, yet who struggle to respond faithfully to traditional doctrines that seem instead to lead toward exclusion of LGBTQ individuals.

That’s why we are helping sponsor “Are You Receiving Me?,” a series of events throughout the academic year featuring speakers and performers who promote connections between the LGBTQ and Christian communities. We kick off on Nov. 13 with Justin Lee, founder of the Gay Christian Network, speaking about “Loving Through Our Differences: Churches and LGBTQ Community.”

Eli had a joyful message to share with LGBTQ people and with people of faith. We encourage you to hear this message by attending one of the events found at www.receiving withthanksgiving.org, and to discover how all of us may love and welcome one another across the barriers that can divide us.

John and Liane Roe work at Penn State; John is a math professor and Liane is a research nutritionist. They seek to live out their faith especially as it relates to environmental sustainability, inclusion of gender and sexual minorities and advocacy for mental health. This column is coordinated by www.ltlwys.org.