Recently, the Toronto District School Board released their guidelines for the accommodation of transgender and gender non-conformity students and staff. As I step back and look at our society right now, things seem to be more complex than ever.

I’ve often said that one of the key goals in youth ministry (or adolescence) is to answer the question “Who am I?” Erik Erikson suggested that this is a key question that needs to be addressed before a person moves into adulthood. There are a variety of elements that contribute to that question: geographical, cultural, socio-economic, spiritual, gender, etc.

In the past, many of these factors were assumed in identity formation. For example, if I lived in China back in 700 AD on a farm, my identity would have been defined to a large extent because of nuances/presuppositions dictated by my culture, my socio-economic status and my gender. While there was still some formation to discover, a lot of it was (in a sense) predetermined and rarely questioned.

As migration patterns increased and there was a lot more crossover of cultures, some of those givens could no longer be assumed. In spiritual issues (at least based on individual salvivic theology), one cannot assume that Christian faith automatically is part of your identity just because you were raised in a Christian environment. There is a sense of individual ownership before it does become part of one’s identity. Cultural assumptions were no longer givens. When I was growing up, in many ways, I rejected my Chinese heritage so I could be more “Canadian”. Before, certain presuppositions were expected and infused into a Chinese man’s identity; this was no longer the case with me. The fact is, we’ve already removed some of the presuppositions that were assumed before.

We’re at the point where gender  no longer has pre-set assumptions. Many people drive against gender assumptions (e.g. only girls play with dolls, only boys play with trucks, etc.). With gender confusion now, many of those elements that used to shape “what it means to be a man” are no longer accepted or applicable.

What I’m noticing now is that identity formation is more complex and tougher than ever. Let’s say for example your identity was represented by a piece of paper. In the past, 50% (I’m just throwing out a number) of it was already predetermined and you had to figure out the rest. Now, it seems only 2% of it is predetermined (for now e.g. our classification of species), there’s a lot more to figure out and it’s all up for grabs.

There’s always been a tension between having no assumptions at all (which can be VERY confusing) to conformity to specific influences/assumptions (while would be less confusing may be very restrictive). Each generation tries to figure out where that balance is. It seems now that in North American society, we are moving more towards having fewer presuppositions. With that comes a host of complexities that we don’t always respond well to.

So where should that balance be? Right now, I don’t have the answer. I don’t know where is the proper balance is between those tensions. While some in my faith community will simplistically offer “just follow whoever God has made you to be” and while I do ultimately aim to discern who God has made me to be specifically, identity formation should not be so easily trivialized. It will take hard work for most adolescents to really wrestle with their identity. While I wouldn’t consider this the solution, one main component required is caring adults who are willing to support them (not be “yes men” and let them do whatever they feel like doing, but to journey with them in love and truth).

The coming years in adolescent development will indeed be a game-changer.