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CEDAR RAPIDS — As Sid High tried to reconcile his gender identity with his faith, he remembers sitting in the car crying with his mother.
“Am I going to hell for this?” he asked her in distress.
At 15, he remembers being challenged as the only openly LGBTQ person in his former church youth group, where the youth pastor cited the Old Testament in support of the church’s stance opposing same-sex marriage and full acceptance of people like him.
It wasn’t the first time his faith was challenged. But unlike many others, he can’t turn to just any church when he wants to find faith-based support.
Unlike religious people who are cisgender or heterosexual, transgender people like High find it tough to be accepted for who they are at church. They’re too queer for many religious institutions, but unable to find support for their faith in often secular LGBTQ circles where community members have been driven away from the church.
High came to terms with his gender identity even before he started identifying as a Christian around age 13. An epileptic with other chronic health issues, he found comfort in praying during grand mal seizures.
He came out as transgender at 17. But he hasn’t embraced his faith despite his gender identity — he’s done it because of his gender identity as a trans man.
“In school, I tried to fit in my best, from wearing girlie clothes to wearing makeup, but I never felt like myself,” he said in a video to thousands of youth who are part of Beloved Arise, a national support organization for queer people of faith. “It wasn’t until I accepted myself for being trans that I felt closer to God.”
Growing up, Sid was told by people of faith and those outside the church alike that being transgender and being a Christian didn’t mix. He had to justify his faith to both groups.
“Love the sinner, not the sin,” is what he often heard at church.
“But that’s not loving that person. You’re refusing to see a part of that person,” High said.
The way he knew God loved him didn’t match what other people said God felt about him.
Now, he’s helping other LGBTQ youth keep the faith by showing that God isn’t the one who doesn’t accept them — it’s other religious people who often act as the barrier between them and their faith.
This month, High will be recognized as a queer ambassador of faith by Beloved Arise, where he found support to keep the faith with 45,000 other social media followers. On June 30, ambassadors like High will be celebrated with the third annual Queer Youth of Faith Day with the organization, where youth can find belonging as who they are in their faith.
“One in four LGBTQIA+ youth say faith is important to them, but many struggle with embracing both their faith and their queer identity. I hope our five queer youth of faith ambassadors, who come from various faith traditions, can be a source of inspiration and encouragement,” said Dr. Jun Love Young, founder of Beloved Arise.
The greatest challenge facing queer youth of faith today, he said, is a lack of support from faith communities. As many are kicked out of their church, synagogue, mosques or temples for existing as who they are, they are forced to choose between accepting who they are and their faith.
For several years, High has written hundreds of letters to LGBTQ youth seeking advice on issues of faith and how to be who they are. Kids like the one he once was ask about things that their straight, cisgender peers take for granted: finding hair stylists who will affirm their gender identity, how to bind their chest safely and look more masculine, how to come out to parents safely and what to do when parents don’t accept them.
With many topics, he reassures others in replies with a faith-based approach, when appropriate.
“God has your back every step of your journey, while it may be tough he is always there for you,” he wrote to one. “He still loves you. He still cares for you. He’s still sustaining you.”
The most common topic in letters is coming out and dealing with the aftermath of family rejection.
High said a favorite verse for many replies is Isaiah 41:10: “Do not fear, for I am with you; Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, Surely I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
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