Can You Fix My Son?
And Other Gender Roles Perpetuated by the Church
by Jen Aren
“Can I talk with you alone?” That question is never a welcome one, but often seems more ominous when it comes from a parent. “I need help with my son.” As the words came out of her mouth, I did a quick evaluation of her middle school preteen. A nice kid, never really a problem, always respectful, gets a long with others, what could be the problem? Oh yeah, he struggles a little in schoolmaybe she wanted me to find a tutor for him. “Sure,” I said, “what’s up?”
“I need you to fix my son. He really needs help.”
“Excuse me?” I asked. “I don’t understand, what do you mean, you need me to fix him?”
“His dad and I think he is really too feminine, and since you are his youth pastor, could you show him that the Bible wants him to be more manly and tough?”
What do you say to a parent like that? Was her son too feminine? Did he need to be fixed? Does the Bible tell us that men are supposed to be manly? Was she actually just worried that her son might turn out gay?
Why was she asking me to fix her son? I’m a woman; what do I know about being manly? All of my childhood insecurities came to the surface as I did a quick personal assessment – does she see me as masculine? Is she thinking I could make him tougher because of my infamous escapades as a soccer goalie or my college scholarships for field hockey? Or possibly because I’m the only woman she knows who played tuba, or maybe the fact that my booming tenor voice often resonates through her dreams at night.
Then I thought about my own son. Just two years younger than this kid, he takes piano lessons, dabbles in classical ballet and Irish dance. He’s considered the star of our church hip-hop group, and his only athletic pursuit consists of dodging his mother’s frantic hand jabs when the Red Wings are in the NHL playoffs. Sure, I thought, my son’s a little sensitive, but most 10 year olds love to hold their mother’s hand, hug their mothers in front of other kids, and still enjoy skipping to school, right?
Whoa, can I fix her son? Perhaps my gender roles were the ones that were broken. Am I too boyish? What was I doing to damage my own kid? What biblical principles was I violating by allowing my son to be completely and totally girlie while I’m unwavering as the ultimate in-your-face, take-charge chick? Then I thought about it. What is girlie or manly anyway? Where did we come up with the idea of how men and women should act? Has the church just perpetuated stereotypes that have haunted us for centuries but have no biblical foundation? Did I, and this kid in my youth group, as well as my own son, need to be fixed? Or does the church need to reevaluate the way they project gender roles to their congregations?
The first thing I did was go to my on-line Bible. Certainly a high-speed cross-referencing, concordance/commentary/lexicon (does anyone but theology students use lexicons?), Bible-toting Web site would be the answer to all of my questions. I tried to pull up the words masculine, feminine, and gender in 35 different translations, and do you know what I found? Only two examples of the word gender, both of which did not denote gender as the difference between sexes, no hits on the word masculine, and only one quotation by Solomon to the word feminine (and that was completely in the context of a woman’s body and not her actions). So, what does the Bible say about gender roles?
If I couldn’t find the words masculine or feminine, I thought I would explore some of the stories that provide a biblical basis for stereotypical gender roles. You could always study Samson; every man’s man – virile, macho, and downright cool. If Samson lived today, I think he would be a lot like Joey Tribiani from Friends. Can you imagine Delilah getting the “How you doing?” from Samson? Every young boy dreams of becoming a guy like Samson. I mean who wouldn’t want to kill a bunch of bad guys with the jawbone of an ass (frankly, I just think little boys like to say the word ass, but I digress). But do we really want our young men growing up like Samson? Do we want them to be so in love with women that they leave their morals behind? Is Samson really the gender role we want to project to the guys in our youth groups?
And what about the young women in our youth groups? What is a story that they can follow? Who led a life that they can emulate? What about Esther; who wouldn’t be feminine after one year of beauty treatments? She was considered beautiful beyond compare. The king fell in love with her at first sight, but is that the kind of woman we want our young girls to emulate? Sure, she did the right thing in the end, and God used it all, but here was a woman who hid her faith, was willing to become part of the king’s harem (the penalty if he didn’t marry her) and, frankly, really got in the Bible because she married right. Are we trying to teach our girls the importance of marrying right, or of being godly women?
So I probed a little further. Could I find any biblical basis against stereotypical gender roles? Are there any stories about God’s children who don’t fit into our societal norms that we have so willingly accepted?
There’s Solomon; sure he was a womanizer, but he wrote some great poetry. He wrote a lot of poetry, and the poetry he wrote was exactly what women like to hear. What self-respecting macho man today would be able to talk to women the way Solomon did? But then again, if Solomon lived today, the world would tell us he was trying to hide something (wink-wink), and that he really just married all those women as a way to fight his true feelings.
Then there was Deborah, a woman who was in leadership before Paul could tell her she was wrong. She was tough. She was a military leader. Joan of Arc had nothing on Deborah, and yet if she lived today, she would be taunted or teased or even questioned about her sexuality. Can you imagine Deborah at a woman’s Bible study in your church? How would she get along with the teens in your youth group?
When did we start accepting cookie cutter Christians? At what moment in our church history did we decide being different meant you were weird, or even worse, wrong? Is there a place in the church for passive men and strong women? Or have we become strict adherents to the idea that Jesus said that men need to be the rock of the church and women need to be the rockettes?
Did the church just bury its head in the sand during that whole affirmative action ruling, or was there some big church summit that I missed in which people of faith came together to decide that equal gender roles are a thing of the world and that we do not want to be that worldly? Seriously, if you took a genuine inventory of the ministries offered at your church, would you find equal opportunities for both men and women? Who does the majority of the leading and disciplining in your congregation? Do the young girls in your youth group know that there will be a place for them in your church to serve, or do they have to resign themselves to the nursery or Sunday school? Or, even worse, do your young men know it’s okay for them to work in the nursery or as Sunday school teachers not just as teens, but also as a lifetime ministry opportunity?
Besides my current dilemma of being responsible to “fix” the young man in my youth group, one of the worst issues I’ve ever had to deal with was what happened to my friend, John. John was a handsome young man who spent his summers working within my children’s programs. A theatre major in college, John was the antithesis of macho. He was sensitive, sweet, could sing like an angel, and yes, he was a little effeminate. But gay? The thought never crossed my mind. Then one day he asked me out for coffee. He needed to talk he said, and he was looking for my advice. We talked for hours and finally he opened up, only to tell me a horrifying story.
“I think I am gay,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I replied, because his statement took me completely off guard.
“Well, I never thought I was gay,” he explained. “I’ve dated and all, but then my youth pastor pulled me aside at our retreat and asked me if I was gay. I meanthink about it, all the signs are thereI am in theatre, I cry at the drop of a hat, and you know I am not very athletic, so maybe he’s right. Maybe I am gay.”
“John,” I said calmly, “Are you attracted to men?”
“Well, no,” he said without any hesitation.
Wow, what are we doing to our kids? Why do we naturally jump to the conclusion that anyone who is different needs to be fixed? Here was a young man who was seriously considering changing his whole way of life because his youth pastor didn’t know how to deal with someone who was different. It concerns me that in the Christian church as a whole, we leave very little room for non-traditional gender roles. Additionally, it seems as if the church in general is extremely anxious that unconventional personalities automatically influence our sexual preferences.
So, how do we look past gender biases and into the hearts of our kids? What do we do when a parent asks us to fix their kid?
1. Don’t buy into stereotypes. We need to remember that a person’s outward personality has nothing to do with their inward feelings. There have been many professional football players and beauty queens who have admitted to being homosexual, and at the same time there have been many famous people with non-traditional gender traits who have surprised the world by getting married to a person of the opposite sex. No one can tell from outward actions how a person is feeling inwardly. Don’t allow yourself or your youth to stereotype those who don’t fit the “norm.”
2. Do a legitimate self-evaluation. How do you view others who may not fit into your own stereotypes of how men and women should act? Have you allowed yourself to fall into the fear and trepidation about anyone who is different? Do you sometimes judge, even subconsciously, the feelings or sexual preferences of others just by the way they act?
3. Be open for anything. Have you already pegged the girl’s soccer captain as a lesbian waiting to happen? How would you react if the quarterback of the football team told you he was gay? How open and ready for anything a youth leader is will directly reflect upon your youth group’s actions and thinking. If you are not tolerant of name calling, the kid who is being teased at school will feel comfortable sharing his hurts and pain with you. Likewise, if you do not allow your youth group to be judgmental of others’ lifestyles, kids who actually are struggling with lifestyle choices will feel at ease with talking with you as a nonjudgmental person.
4. Cut the crap. How do the kids in your youth group talk to each other? How tolerant are you and your leaders of name-calling? Has the phrase, “that’s so gay” become commonplace in your youth group? Would a homosexual teen feel welcome amongst your kids if he was seeking Jesus, or would he feel isolated and rejected?
5. Remain calm. This is probably the best advice anyone can give. Don’t jump to conclusions about what any of your kids are dealing with. If a kid in your youth group was dealing with substance abuse or even being an extreme gossip, how would you handle it? Most likely you would deal with either issue in a calm and nurturing manner. Kids struggling with gender issues or sexual preferences are in need of the same kind of treatment. If a teen comes to you with these struggles, don’t blow it off as something they will get over or something that is a huge catastrophe. Deal with it in the same manner as you deal with all youth issues. Love them first, and above all, remain calm.
So, how did I deal with the parent who wanted me to fix their kid? As a Deborah-like woman, I wanted to tell them to&um&I guess I couldn’t say that as a youth worker, so instead I was honest. I told them that as a kid, I was a person who could have gone either way with my lifestyle choice. I told them that if my parents had nagged me about being too tomboyish, I probably would have rebelled and become more masculine than I already was. Most likely, as a teen, if my parents had harassed me about my mannerisms, I would have emphasized those mannerisms, because teenagers often do things just to tick their parents off. I also told them that my job was not to “fix” anybody but love them for who they are. My job, and the job of every parent, is to give our youth moral compasses that they can follow, and hopefully because we have shown them love and compassion despite their uniqueness, they will grow up believing they are loved by God for who they are and not for whom the world tells them to be.
Jen Arens is an urban youth worker for The Salvation Army. Her San Francisco neighborhood, original home of the U.N, is home to youth who speak 19 languages and come from 52 countries.
Orginally published in May/June 2003 issue of Youthworker, copyright 2003, CCM Communications. Reprinted/Used with permission. For subscription
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