Advocacy + Outreach · October 10, 2022

Finding a Faithful Way to Embrace Transgender Students

When her school needed help meeting the needs of transgender students, Emily Sytsma turned to a Fifth Avenue mission partner.

By Emily Sytsma

Affirming transgender youth is about more than pronouns and bathrooms. My colleagues and I at Mustard Seed School knew that. We also knew that creating an affirming, inclusive environment for trans students would be complex, especially for a Christian school in today’s divided climate. As we began to hear from students that they wanted our school’s support in coming out about their gender identity, we began to see how dimly lit and poorly marked the road ahead of us was.

There are many secular organizations with resources at the ready to help schools establish a climate where students gain confidence in their gender identity and gender expression. With help from these experts (Gender Spectrum, GLSEN, PFLAG), it felt like our school could keep everyone safe.

But we wanted to do more than create safety. As Christian school educators, we believe that education involves the whole child. That includes academic learning, intellectual growth, and social and emotional well-being. It also includes a child’s spiritual development. The secular school resources did not provide a spiritual lens.

I became aware of the work of Parity because it is one of Fifth Avenue’s mission partners. I knew that their mission and work deal with the intersection of LGBTQ+ and faith. So I wrote an email to Parity’s executive director, the Rev. Marian Edmonds-Allen, and I hoped. I hoped Parity might be able to support our school in engaging in complex conversations about gender differences within a faith context. Marian agreed right away to meet with our leadership.

Offering support for several years now, Marian has connected our teachers to Parity’s experts who work at supporting LGBTQ+ youth in schools. Her team has helped us to learn what it looks like to be a transgender person of faith. Marian and the team have been available for many questions and calls; Parity stepped into the gap for us.

Anyone who loves an LGBTQ+ person knows that, sadly, Christian organizations can be some of the most toxic, even dangerous, places for this community. So many LGBTQ+ individuals feel forced to walk away from the church and even from their faith. With generosity and grace, Parity is helping our Christian school break that trend. We are becoming a place where LGBTQ+ students, families and staff experience true belonging.

This relationship wouldn’t have happened were it not for the church’s mission partner covenant with Parity. I wouldn’t have known about their work, nor about many of the organizations they work with, such as the Family Acceptance Project and Blessed by Difference, without the connection that Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church has established.

Recently, more members of the Mustard Seed School community—students, parents and staff—have begun to open up about their gender identities and sexuality. They now feel welcome to share their whole selves at school.

Held up by the support Parity has offered, Mustard Seed School teaches children and young people that they are children of God, created in God’s image and loved by others who want to follow him, because of, not in spite of, their gender or sexuality. It is the kind of thing a small school like ours could not have done alone.

Emily Systma has been a member of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church since 2003. She is a program director at Mustard Seed School in Hoboken, New Jersey.

The Rev. Marian Edmonds-Allen at the Mustard Seed School