As federal, state, and local governments continue to expand their laws and regulations regarding gender identity, conflicts over religious objections are sure to grow. Judging by an item on the website of the Department of Health and Human Services, one flash point could well be foster parenting.
As if the issues surrounding gender identity were not controversial enough, adding children to the mix increases the potential for rancor. Both sides claim the high ground and in some cases insist that those who disagree are guilty of child abuse. LGBTQ advocates—who say children need complete autonomy over their self-identification as lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders, or individuals questioning their sexual identity—accuse traditionalists of discrimination and maltreatment. Those with traditional views about sex, meanwhile, may see an abdication of adult responsibility when such children, often in the midst of personal and emotional crises, are allowed or encouraged to select a “gender expression” at variance with their biological sex.
As this debate unfolds, the federal Department of Health and Human Services has weighed in, recommending on its website guidelines issued by New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services in “Safe & Respected: Policy, Best Practices, and Guidance for Serving Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Children and Youth Involved in the Child Welfare, Detention, and Juvenile Justice Systems.” An article on the website of HHS’s Family and Youth Services Bureau calls these guidelines “a great primer for anyone who may come into contact with transgender and gender non-conforming children and youth” and suggests that other localities may want to adopt them.
This “first guide to best practices for working with transgender youth” was put together for New York children’s services by Rhodes Perry, the director of the city’s Ofﬁce of LGBTQ Policy and Practice, and a consultant, Eli R. Green, whose website says he is an “interdisciplinary scholar in Gender and Sexuality Studies, specializing in transgender education and inclusion.” Various other commissioners and consultants from LGBTQ agencies and organizations also contributed, along with a family court judge. The guidelines are intended for use in child welfare, detention, and juvenile justice systems, not only by city workers, but also by foster parents and volunteers.
The guidelines run for more than 60 pages, and their overriding message is “affirmation.” This guiding principle was retained from New York’s LGBTQ policy issued in July 2011: “Under no circumstance is any staff member of Children’s Services or its provider agencies to attempt to convince a [LGBTQ] youth to reject or modify his/her sexual orientation or gender identity.” ACS takes this policy very seriously, instructing staff, “Every time you see other staff or youth making negative remarks, bias statements, verbal or physical remarks, or not respecting name and pronoun preferences, it is your responsibility to intervene and report the incident.” And religious beliefs are no excuse.
The new “Safe & Respected” guidelines broach the subject of religion early. Under the heading “Practices to Avoid,” they say:
Do not use personal, organizational, and/or religious beliefs to justify discrimination, harassment, or disrespectful treatment of a [Transgender/Gender Non-Conforming] person’s gender identity or gender expression. TGNC people have the right under NYC’s Human Rights Law and the Children’s Services Non-Discrimination Policy to have a safe and afﬁrming environment. Furthermore, the Children’s Services LGBTQ Policy prohibits staff, providers, volunteers, and foster parents from using these beliefs to negatively impact TGNC children, youth, and adults. It is important to seek out training to better understand what words and actions negatively impact TGNC young people.
In the section entitled “Assessing Cultural Competency of Foster Homes,” one of the “practices to avoid” reads:
Do not ignore safety or risk concerns when it is discovered that the foster parent, approved emergency relative foster home, and certiﬁed emergency foster parent refuses to connect a TGNC young person to afﬁrming health providers, will not purchase clothing corresponding to the TGNC young person’s gender identity, refuses to address the TGNC young person by preferred name/pronoun, uses their personal or religious beliefs to justify discrimination, physical or verbal harassment, and other forms of maltreatment, etc.