‘Our state is at war with our family’: Clergy with trans kids fight back

They say their children’s lives and religious liberty are threatened by bills in Missouri and elsewhere

Rabbi Daniel Bogard and his 9-year-old son, who is transgender, went to the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City this month to testify against bills targeting transgender children. (Neeta Satam for The Washington Post)
16 min

“Daddy, do you think God could make me over again as a boy?”

Rabbi Daniel Bogard had just finished reading a story to his 6-year-old twin daughters one evening in 2019 when the older one by 15 seconds asked that question. Bogard wasn’t sure what to say, so he tucked them into bed, kissed them good night and left.

“It shook me,” he recalled.

As the months passed, and the child began asking people to use “boy words” to refer to him, cropping his hair short and joining the boys’ soccer team, the change just seemed to make sense. Friends, family and schoolmates accepted him as a boy, and he flourished.

All of which had brought the family to this fateful moment three years later. As Bogard and his now 9-year-old son piled into the family minivan at dawn for one of their regular four-hour round trips to the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City to share their story with lawmakers, the rabbi worried what might lie ahead. Bills “to protect children,” as some Republicans described their measures restricting gender-affirming health care and limiting how schools treat gender identity, have become this year’s rallying cry in this state and elsewhere.

“Our state is at war with our family,” Bogard said. “It’s not an exaggeration that we are up at night talking about when and how far we might have to flee.”

In Missouri, Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden (R) had promised “big stuff” regarding “the transgender issue” this session. At least 31 bills, one of the largest number in any U.S. state, have been introduced by the Republican supermajority, targeting youth participation in competitive school sports, the ability to revise gender on birth certificates, gender-affirming medical treatments and other rights of LGBTQ people. Similar bills have been introduced in at least 11 states.

The measures that frighten families like the Bogards the most would classify efforts to support children and teens seeking medical treatment to help them transition to their preferred gender as child abuse. The legislation would carry criminal penalties for providers and possibly parents, although such treatments are supported by the country’s major medical associations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association and the American Association of Clinical Endocrinology.

Mississippi last week became the fifth state after Alabama, Utah, South Dakota and Arkansas to pass legislation restricting minors seeking gender-affirming care. Governors in Utah and South Dakota have signed the measures into law. In Florida, the state’s board of medicine has imposed similar limits.

The bills come at a time when gender identity in the United States is at a cultural inflection point. While the percentage of teens and young adults identifying as transgender remains minuscule, it has more than doubled from one generation to the next. Whereas 0.5 percent of all adults said in a 2017-2020 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that they were transgender, 1.4 percent of 13-to-17-year-olds and 1.3 percent of those 18-to-24 identified themselves that way in the survey.

While the trend has been celebrated by those who see it as a reflection of social acceptance, there are deep divisions over the issue of gender identity, especially along religious and political lines.

On their recent trip to the state Capitol, the Bogards joined the families of two other faith leaders also intent on stopping measures they say would wreak havoc on their children’s lives. Despite being from different religious traditions — two are Jewish, and one is Christian — the leaders had become fast friends years ago while doing community service work. All had been in their 30s, idealistic and, as the years passed, had something else in common: Each ended up having a child who felt like they had been born the wrong gender.

Rori Picker Neiss, 37, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, has a child who came out as a boy at 7, while still wearing dresses, taking ballet and sporting super-long hair — to the “total shock” of Picker Neiss.

Jennifer Harris Dault, 40, is a pastor at a Mennonite church. Her child had gravitated toward pink and purple, sparkly animal toys and other stereotypically girly things for years before telling her family at 5 that she is a girl. (The names of the children are being withheld to protect their privacy.)

The three faith leaders say religious liberty is at the core of the debate over transgender rights.

“It’s the imposition of one religious group’s gender norms on the rest of us. It’s theocracy and fascism,” said Bogard, 39.

Picker Neiss said her faith “doesn’t have simple answers to any of these questions,” adding, “But I don’t think God lives in binary. I think everything in our world has so much room for complexity and multiplicity.”

Harris Dault said her congregation has also been loving and supportive toward her child, but other “people claim their Christian faith is behind a lot of these bills, and that’s been hard to grapple with.”

The house his grandfather built

When Bogard’s child first brought up the idea of being a boy, he had gone to find his wife, Karen, also a rabbi at Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis, and they stayed up all night talking.

He wondered if his child’s feelings would pass. Karen Bogard, 39, thought she had seen clues, recalling how their middle child was always swiping his older brother’s clothing to wear in place of dresses and had been teased at camp the previous summer for wearing a boy’s bathing trunks and top.

An activist in the LGBTQ community whom Daniel Bogard confided in was the first to bring up the idea they had a “trans kid.” Bogard remembers being taken aback and stopping them, “Oh, don’t use labels.” But as weeks and then months went by, it became clear it was not a phase.

Their daughter kept asking for a boy’s haircut. Bogard and his wife hesitated and went through several, successively shorter iterations — first to the shoulders, then to the ears, and higher. “You could see us processing our internalized transphobia,” he said.

Finally, on March 13, 2020, Bogard’s child told his teacher that he was a boy and that he had picked a new name. The transition, it turned out, was almost a nonevent. Bogard recalled, “The school was like, ‘Great, change his name on the form. Just making sure this is the same human being?’ And that was that.”

Their synagogue, part of the Reform movement, also embraced the child as a boy. The largest Jewish denomination in the United States, Reform congregations have welcomed LGBTQ members for decades. In 2015, its Religious Action Center released a trans inclusion guide, and last week its rabbis vowed to play a leading role against anti-transgender bills. “It is our holy obligation to nurture and nourish each sacred human being, in all our diverse expressions and experiences of gender,” the Central Conference of American Rabbis said in a resolution.

In supporting their view that God intended there to be only two genders, some Christian groups have focused on the biblical story of how God created a man and a woman in his own image. But Bogard said the same text has been interpreted by some Jewish scholars as showing how we started out as having an amorphous gender and then were split apart — an analysis they say affirms all types of gender identities.

As a student of theology, Bogard remembered finding references to nonbinary people in the Talmud and classical Jewish law going back thousands of years, such as a trans man born female who was taught to lead prayers, marries a woman and is described as an upstanding member of the community.

“There’s this idea that being trans is something new, but it goes back all the way to the very beginning,” he said.

A local rabbi knitted the Bogards’ son a yarmulke, a skull cap worn by Jewish men, in the light blue, pink and white colors of the transgender pride flag, and a few families asked some questions about pronouns. But his son’s friends remained his friends. And he still had the same outgoing personality and loves all things sports. These days, he plays on the boys’ basketball and soccer teams and is starting baseball in the spring. He is also into chess, ceramics and 3D modeling software; teaching himself the ukulele; and talks about becoming a space scientist.

“Being trans is just about the least interesting thing about him,” Bogard likes to say.

His twin sister initially had a harder time accepting the change. She expressed sadness she might not have anyone to play dolls with anymore — until her dad pointed out that her brother had never played dolls with her. These days, she said, she feels lucky to have had a sister but is used to her twin being a boy.

“Trans people are regular people, but they just want to change a little bit,” she said.

Her twin brother, meanwhile, has matured enough to worry about how his life might change if new laws force children like him to play on sports teams according to their sex at birth.

“I would quit sports if I had to play on a girls’ team,” he said in an interview. “It’s not because I don’t like girls. I don’t want to play on a girls’ team because I’m a boy. I want to be fair.”

The Bogards’ son is still too young to be thinking about adolescence, but it’s something that his parents agonize about.

Many trans teens and adults have described the special pain of those years, of waking up each day feeling like their body is changing all of a sudden into the wrong gender, and the swirl of confusion, sadness and horror they felt. Gender-affirming care, such as hormone therapy, can delay puberty to give kids time to decide on the best treatment for them, or to help them develop masculine or feminine physical characteristics.

“We don’t know the future of what care looks like for him, but these are decisions that should be made by families and doctors,” Karen Bogard said.

Daniel Bogard is unsure whether the family will stay in Missouri if one of the sports bills passes, but he said they would be compelled to leave if lawmakers limit or, worse, criminalize medical treatments for children like his son.

That pains him on several levels because it recalls his family’s history of persecution and how that had led them to Missouri.

The Bogards live in a house built by his grandfather, whose own grandfather came to the United States in the late 1800s fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. Bogard’s father grew up in the same room that Bogard occupied as a child and that his son is now in — the fourth generation of his family to be in the home and the sixth in Missouri.

In the attacks on trans people in the United States, Bogard sees parallels to his great-great-grandfather’s plight and that of the Jewish community preceding the Holocaust.

“These are the conversations Jewish families were having in the late ’20s and early ’30s,” he said. “We’ll be talking about who’s taking the kids to soccer practice tomorrow one minute, and then it’s what’s the plan if we have to leave?”

Jefferson City

Daniel Bogard's 11-year-old son testified before the Missouri Senate in February about his 9-year-old brother, who is trans and identifies as a boy. (Video: ravbogard/TikTok)

As the family made their way along the bumpy ride to Jefferson City this month, Bogard’s 9-year-old was playing games on a phone, his wife was in the back working, and his mother, Denise, was anxiously wondering what to expect. Denise, 68, who has Parkinson’s disease, had been isolated for most of the past three years because of the coronavirus but had insisted on tagging along to support her grandchild.

Bogard was contemplating strategy.

Over the years, he had come to believe the best — and possibly only — hope for heading off aggressive anti-trans bills is to humanize the children and their families to help lawmakers understand they are scarcely different from their own — which is why he had allowed both his sons to go with him to tell lawmakers about their lives, despite the online vitriol and even death threats they have gotten in the past.

“We want them to see the cost of what they are doing to families like ours,” Bogard said.

The Democrats had been welcoming, and more moderate Republicans had been willing to listen. But on previous trips, some lawmakers and staff members had asked the children about their genitals, unapologetically used the wrong pronouns and offered to help them if they ever felt they needed protection from their parents.

The first time Harris Dault’s daughter, now 8, went to Jefferson City last year to talk about the anti-trans bills, Harris Dault recalled, “she had a breakdown.”

“She was clearly upset, and she didn’t have names for the emotions she was feeling,” Harris Dault, 40, recalled. It took her daughter a while to say, “I’m scared.”

Like Bogard’s son, Harris Dault’s daughter had enjoyed a childhood in which her gender identity had not been much of an issue: At 2, when she still identified as a boy, she wore tutus on special occasions. She had asked for dresses to wear to preschool. A couple of days after she told her family she was a girl, she logged onto her virtual kindergarten Zoom and typed into the chat: “im a girl.” She’s now an active Girl Scout and loves to play video games such as Animal Crossing and Minecraft when her parents allow.

Picker Ness, whose son told his first-grade teacher he wanted to be treated like a boy, is also a regular presence at the state Capitol now that he is 11. She said one of her most difficult moments as the parent of a transgender child was when she had to explain the bills being introduced in the state legislature.

“My son didn’t know a world where he was discriminated against, and it was really painful to have to be the one to introduce that concept to him,” she said.

During this trip to the state Capitol, discrimination was the theme of an emotional plea from the Bogards’ eldest son, an 11-year-old who wants to be a meteorologist.

“I’m here because I have a trans brother and a trans friend,” he said in remarks that he wrote himself. “I am here because you, the Missouri government, keep trying to take away what they have a passion for … Kids just want to have fun playing sports.”

A video of the testimony on TikTok, posted by his dad, has garnered 57,000 likes and counting.

Later, the adolescent recalled that he was nervous but happy to see that the lawmakers were silent and appeared to be listening: “It made me feel like I have some power to say stuff.”

“My biggest fear is probably: Is this bill going to lead to more bills that will be worse?” he added in an interview. He then paused. “I don’t know if it’s even possible. Is it possible for a bill to say that you’re not even allowed to be transgender? Is that even possible?”

Dueling views

In Missouri, many lawmakers promoting transgender legislation cite their Christian faith.

Like several sponsors of transgender legislation, state Rep. Justin Sparks (R) lists his church in his official House biography. He introduced the Children Deserve Help Not Harm Act, which would bar health professionals from providing, and others from aiding, gender-affirming care for minors. He said that while some people “believe for moral or religious reasons, gender transition should be fully outlawed, I am not one of those people.”

Sparks said he worried some children would regret having had such treatments when they were older. He spoke of a family member who had transitioned to another gender, then changed their mind after several years and transitioned back.

“I am a man of faith and I am a Christian, and I believe the Lord gives us free will,” Sparks said. “And when you are above the age of 18, you will have free will.”

State Rep. Michael Davis (R), a 20-something from Kansas City, Mo., who used to work as a grass-roots director for a conservative advocacy group and for an elementary school after-care program, also proclaims his Christian faith. He tweeted recently that his “religious views oppose allowing transgenders to place their nonbiological sex onto their birth certificates.”

“Laws allowing the practice creates an undue burden on my faith, violating the free exercise clause,” he wrote.

Those views reflect a fault line in American attitudes about policies regarding transgender individuals that often follows religious ties. White evangelicals, in particular, more strongly favor bans on teaching about gender identity in public schools, and requiring transgender athletes compete on teams that match their sex at birth, for example, than those who are not religiously affiliated, according to a 2022 Pew Research Center survey.

With emotions running so high this session, state Sen. Greg Razer (D), the chamber’s only openly gay member, worried the fight this year is stacked against transgender children and their families. “The extremes are driving the agenda, and every year, the extremes get more extreme,” said Razer, a Missouri native who previously worked for former senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).

Bogard shares that view. He said he once felt hopeful that “progress was possible, and even if we weren’t winning, we would win eventually.”

“That’s not what it feels like anymore,” he said. “It feels like we’ve lost and the levers of power have been stolen.”