This week in the world of Christian craziness, stories about the death of Westboro Baptist Church’s Fred Phelps brought lots of responses, some—including this one by Marg Herder—expressing far more grace than I ever could for a man who picketed veterans’ funerals, letting mourners know that “God Hates Fags.” A few days later, the online evangelical conversation turned to the decision by World Vision to allow gays and lesbians in married relationships the opportunity to work for the non-profit organization, with various bloggers responding in ways I found hopeful and depressing.
But while these important events made me a little sad and cynical and also willing to Try Harder and Be Better, this smallest of stories—reported in several of the news outlets I follow—made my heart break. An eight-year-old girl named Sunnie Kahle was deemed unfit to continue attending her private Christian school because she had short hair, wore “boyish” clothes, and enjoyed playing outside.
My heart broke, because I was that girl. (And maybe still am.)
I didn’t get kicked out of Christian schools, but my preferences for short hair, boys’ clothes, and playing sports made me an easy target for bullies. I looked like a boy—or what we assume a boy should look like—and was often chased out of women’s restrooms for trespassing. To this day, it’s hard for me to walk into a public restroom without worrying that someone will tell me I don’t belong there.
When I announced to peers that I wanted to play football, they laughed at me, because of course girls didn’t do things like that. I chaffed against wearing dresses to church, and my mom fielded phone calls from church ladies, letting her know I needed to change. My mom, bless her, allowed me to wear pants. I hated home economics, and wanted to take shop, but that was for boys. Several teachers told me I was too opinionated (. . . for a girl, was the clear subtext).
So my heart breaks for Sunnie Kahl, who apparently loved her Christian school, or at least her friends there, and who reportedly cries every night, wanting to go back. My heart breaks because I know the shame of people interrogating you, wondering aloud whether you are a girl or a boy, letting everyone know you are somehow odd or different. I also know what it’s like to have other people judge you because you don’t fit their expectations for what a girl should act or be like.
In a letter to Sunnie Kahle’s grandparents, who have adopted and are raising her, the school says “students have been confused about whether Sunnie is a boy or girl and [the letter] specifies that administrators can refuse enrollment for condoning sexual immorality, practicing a homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity.” The letter also argues that they have made this decision based on “biblical standards.”
Like a lot of assertions made by the crazier components of Christiandom, I’m not entirely sure what “biblical standards” Timberlake Christian is addressing, but the assumptions in their letter, and the small-mindedness, and the ignorance, and the hatefulness, makes me think they are reading a different Bible than am I.
Although I couldn’t ever live up to expectations about society expected of girls (and especially of female preacher’s children), my parents also never expected me to change; they allowed me to be who I wanted to be, Wrangler jeans, tennis shoes, feisty opinions and all. This no doubt saved me from a lifetime of trying to squeeze in to some kind of “biblical standard” box unfit for me: though of course I still try at times, wanting to be what society tells me I should be.
I have thrived because of my family, and because of my marriage to a husband who loves me as I am, knowing full well my limited domestic skills and my impatience with high heels and a zillion other things a supposed “real woman” should cherish. And I’ve thrived because of friends, both in my childhood and now, who don’t shame me into being someone I’m not, and who help encourage me to be the person God intended me to be.
I hope the same for Sunnie Kahle: that she will find people who love her for who she is, and not because she follows some “biblical standard” for femininity existing only in the minds of small-hearted Christians, who cannot abide a girl who looks and acts a little different than what is expected.
(Another news story, published after I wrote this post, reports that a girl in Grand Junction, Colo., has been kicked out of school for shaving her head as part of the St. Baldrick campaign to fight childhood cancer. Bald heads on girls = not acceptable. Gratefully, the school has changed its policy.)