I was a Christian youth leader. Now I’m proud to be transgender.

Joan Westenberg
5 min readNov 24, 2023

I used to have a job teaching kids not to be themselves.

I was a Catholic youth leader, running activities and leading prayer circles every Friday night, organising events and outings, and acting as an extremely unqualified counsellor for a collection of 13–18 year olds. I held a seat on my parish council, and I played in the Church youth band.

I grew up in a religious environment, but by the time I hit my late teens, I was already wearing stockings whenever I had the chance to be alone, crushing on the punk boys down at the skatepark, and hanging out online under a series of feminine usernames.

But that was a secret life, a life that I kept hidden from the people around me.

To the eyes of the world, I belonged with my Catholic friends, and with my Catholic girlfriend, and at the Church Hall.

Identity and sex education were the worst part of the youth group’s culture. In between the laser tag, the dodgeball games and the pizza nights, there were always talks and events to go to where the message was clear — being gay was wrong, being transgender was a mental disorder, having sex was immoral, and you did not have autonomy over your own body.

We had a Franciscan Friar come in to give a talk to the kids in our group about “Adulthood” — a loosely defined topic that was always going to wind up being about sex.

And sure enough, once we all sat down in a circle in the Church Hall, he opened with the memorable words, “if you’ve ever looked at yourself in the shower, you might have discovered that humans have certain parts that God meant to fit together and certain parts that God meant for you to keep apart…”

I went out the back to hide because I couldn’t contain my laughter. But it really wasn’t funny. It was a captive audience who were being told that there were wrong and right ways to have a sexual identity.

The talk went on for about an hour, and it kept coming back to why men and women were supposed to be men and women, and why being gay was just plain unnatural.

These were ideas that we had to spread constantly. That the gender divide was intended by God. Heterosexuality was decreed by God…

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