Santee YMCA controversy shows deep divisions among Christians over transgender rights

People attend a rally at the Cameron Family YMCA in Santee.
People attend a rally at the Cameron Family YMCA on Jan. 18 in Santee.
(K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Questions about gender, Scripture and who belongs in what spaces have been with the church for decades.


Pastors stood on raised stages.

Speakers prayed and quoted Scripture.

One podium held a banner with a cross.

Last month, there were strong religious overtones at two protests outside the Santee YMCA over a policy, based on state law, that allows transgender people to use locker rooms aligning with their gender identity. Ever since a teenage girl publicly said she felt unsafe showering near a transgender woman, many Christians have said the situation is evidence of a society turning its back on God.

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At the same time, dozens of clergy around the region have pushed back. Seventy-two church leaders and rabbis recently signed a letter declaring their “unabashed support” for the Cameron Family YMCA, arguing that open acceptance of the transgender community was the godly approach.

The diverging responses reflect a broader debate among Christians about gender, who belongs in what spaces and how Scripture should be read.


“That history is much older,” said William Stell, a former Presbyterian pastor who’s researching evangelicalism’s relationship with the LGBTQ community at Princeton University.

The disagreement isn’t just partisan. It can pit newer nondenominational churches against older Protestant organizations, which have splintered over related issues. Several male pastors have spoken out against the YMCA’s rules, while many faith leaders defending the facility are women.

The controversy has roots in the 1950s and ‘60s, Stell said. After progressive ministers began working to destigmatize homosexuality around the country, the resulting conservative backlash often mixed religious and political rhetoric, sometimes in an effort to bar gay people from areas of public life.

It’s perhaps fitting that the latest catalyst should involve a YMCA, as the name stands for “Young Men’s Christian Assn.” and the national nonprofit still describes its mission as putting “Christian principles into practice.”

Believers just can’t always agree on what those are.

Opponents to transgender rights often hold up the Bible, sometimes literally.

One pastor spoke at the second rally at the YMCA with the book in his hands. “When you reject truth, we embrace death,” said Samuel Deuth, from the local Awaken Church. “We embrace evil.”

A few famous verses are often cited. The Book of Genesis shows God creating a man and a woman. Old Testament law gives different rules for each. Jesus later describes marriage as the joining of the two.


“If you dial in on gender and sexuality, I think the Bible clearly sets limits,” Mike Van Meter, a pastor at El Cajon’s Foothills Church and a speaker at the first rally, said in an interview. “Blurring those lines is not something that falls within God’s parameters.”

Van Meter reads Scripture as a “universal explainer” that covers every part of life, and his church similarly believes in “biblical inerrancy,” which holds that the text has no errors. Since certain verses describe firm gender roles, Foothills does not let women serve as pastors, although they may hold other leadership positions.

Others see the Bible differently.

“I don’t believe that there is one way to read Holy Scripture,” said Melissa James, a deacon with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who teaches at the University of San Diego. “It is more complex than an instruction book.”

The Bible includes poetry and prophesy, letters and laws. James says it’s a mistake to take it all literally and wants the text interpreted within a community, which allows tradition, reason and lived experience to factor in.

James was one of the faith leaders who signed the letter in support of the YMCA.

Facility staff should be applauded for protecting Christynne Wood, the transgender woman spotted by the teen girl, wrote members and supporters of the Faith Coalition of La Mesa. “It is an act of violence to use faith and family as shallow veneers to mask discrimination and hate.”

Another area of division comes from who each side sees as most vulnerable.

Some opposed to the YMCA’s policy worry it will be exploited by non-transgender men to attack children, while those in favor cite the violence and threats transgender people often face.


Santee leaders are trying to broker a compromise. The YMCA will soon limit nudity in shared spaces and rebuild its locker rooms so nobody has to change clothes in front of others.

That may not be enough for some YMCA critics.

While church attendance has declined nationwide, parts of Christianity appear ascendant. One recent survey found more than a quarter of Americans were adherents of or sympathetic to Christian nationalism, a worldview that sees the United States as a Christian nation that should have laws based on conservative Christian values.

Strains of that viewpoint could be heard at recent Santee City Council meetings, when some members of the public warned of societal collapse, urged the nation to return to Jesus and spoke with seemingly equal reverence for the Bible and the U.S. Constitution.

Similar turmoil has long existed within the Catholic Church.

The head of San Diego’s diocese, who was recently promoted by the pope to the church’s highest-ranking body, says leaders need to be more welcoming, especially when it comes to who can take communion.

It is a “demonic mystery” why so many people have such “profound and visceral animus toward members of the L.G.B.T. communities,” Cardinal Robert McElroy wrote last month in the Jesuit magazine America. “The church’s primary witness in the face of this bigotry must be one of embrace rather than distance.”

All of this can weigh on transgender believers.

Micah Renner, a 23-year-old transgender man who partially grew up in Santee, found God as an adult.


He initially felt Christianity offered the community he’d always been looking for, so he joined a United Methodist Church in Normal Heights and took a job at another in La Mesa.

But he’s increasingly felt burdened both by pastors who believe something’s wrong with him and progressive ministers who only “show up when it’s convenient.”

“I don’t get to choose when I’m trans and when I’m not, and that impacts everything about being a Christian in the world,” Renner said. “That’s not a world that I can live in and it’s not a thing I can continue to bear.”

He recently stopped calling himself a Christian.

But he said he’s still pursuing the mystery of God.

Nelson writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.