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Advocates discuss ways to support transgender, nonbinary youth

Panelists listen to a question from the audience during a forum on supporting transgender and nonbinary youth on Monday, May 1, 2023 at Wheatland Middle School. Panelists are, from left: Dr. Adam Lake, the Rev. Angela Hammer, Ollie Wenditz, MK Strohman and Parker Webb. (Photo: Max Weidman)

Community members were full of questions for the panelists at a forum Monday evening on supporting transgender and nonbinary youth.

Held at Wheatland Middle School by Embrace Lancaster, the Lancaster City Human Relations Commission and the School District of Lancaster, much of the conversation focused on policies, especially those regarding gender-affirming care and school athletics. The panelists included:

  • Dr. Adam Lake, a physician who specializes in care for those who identify as LGBTQ+
  • The Rev. Angela Hammer, Pastor of St. Paul Penryn Evangelical Lutheran Church
  • Ollie Wenditz: a student at Landisville Middle School, Hempfield School District, who identifies as transmasculine,
  • MK Strohman: a social worker and consultant specializing in diversity, equity, and inclusion who identifies as transgender.

Parker Webb, president and co-founder of Lititz Chooses Love, served as emcee and also answered questions.

About 1.3 million U.S. adults and 300,000 children in the United States identify as transgender, according to the New York Times. Transgender rights have become a major political issue and societal fault line, with social conservatives backing hundreds of measures in state capitols and school districts around the country and in Congress to limit gender-affirming care, school instruction on gender and participation in sports. LGBTQ+ activists, conversely, are pushing for greater acceptance and legal protections for transgender and nonbinary gender identity and gender expression.

In Lancaster County, Hempfield School District last summer approved a policy limiting participation in boys’ and girls’ sports based on athletes’ sex at birth, the first such policy in Pennsylvania. The issue has since come up at the Conestoga Valley and Manheim Township districts.

Lake responded at length to the question “Can you legally change your gender?” Pennsylvania once required a health professional to sign off on gender marker changes, he said, but this is no longer the case.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation now allows the non-binary designation “X” on driver’s licenses and photo IDs. Lake said such policies have positive effects on mental health, especially a reduction in suicidality.

Strohman mentioned their own suicide attempt in college and said many such attempts could be avoided if schools employ healthy practices for students.

Strohman said the simple visibility of other transgender and non-binary individuals, in forums such as the evening’s, supports the mental health of young people in similar situations.

Webb criticized some of the rhetoric surrounding gender affirming healthcare: “Gender affirming care for children is wearing the clothing of their choice and having their hair cut in certain ways … and maybe going to therapy. Once they hit puberty, puberty blockers may be an option.”

Lake said doctors prefer to limit the use of puberty blockers to two years. Because they halt all growth, extending their use beyond that window can have adverse effects.

Some in the audience were curious about definitions for words like “transgender” and “transmasculine.” Webb said he no longer uses the acronym FTM (female-to-male) to describe himself. Strohman explained that “words have their limits.”

So, Strohman went on, while the provisional definition may be given that “trans” refers to people with genders not those assigned at birth, some who fall into that category may not use the word in reference to themselves.

The panel, from left: The Rev. Angela Hammer, Dr. Adam Lake, Ollie Wenditz, MK Strohman and Parker Webb. (Photo: Brian Nguyen)

A number of questions were directed to Wenditz in regard to his experience at Landisville Middle School. While Ollie praised his teachers, he said he does not feel supported by the administration.

Ollie’s mother, Lynn Wenditz, provided additional details on the family’s experience, including their efforts to persuade the administration to allow Ollie to play on the boys’ basketball team.

Many of the panelists were eager to discuss the issue of school sports. Strohman emphasized the importance of extracurricular activities for kids to feel the “safety and belonging” that support learning.

Lake said any attempt to implement gender policies for sports quickly gets “completely ridiculous” and that following such policies could end up requiring genital exams for children.

Hammer was adamant that “the church should be the place where any person feels safe to be who they are.” She refuses to debate people about what the bible says and stressed the community-building aspect of her work over theological instruction.

One questioner asked how to bridge the gap between the LGBTQ+ community and those congregants who might not be ready to accept them. What would Hammer do if another congregant threatened to leave the church over the acceptance of trans members? Hammer said her church’s membership has actually grown since it began explicitly welcoming those who identify as trans or nonbinary.

The evening concluded with advice from the panelists on supporting transgender and non-binary individuals. Webb recommended listing pronouns in e-mail signatures. Lake encouraged people to “take the opportunity to stand up” for members of the trans community.

Strohman urged people not to be afraid to have difficult conversations and to be receptive. They maintain the belief that mistakes — due to vocabulary, ignorance, or other issues — will be forgiven by members of the transgender community if dialogue is undertaken in earnest.

“Just try to be respectful,” Ollie Wenditz said. “It’s OK to be curious. It’s OK to ask questions. Just remember that we are all living, breathing people who have feelings.”