DAILY SIGNAL: How Childhood Experiences and Beliefs Can Shape Gender Identity

Children now are inundated from a young age with messages about sexuality and gender, the founders of the CHANGED Movement say, but those messages aren’t always positive.

“What [society is] doing is not allowing children to really explore their sexuality before labeling them as LGBT or Q or anything else, and suggesting that at 7 or 8 you could know precisely something about your identity that really takes years to develop and understand,” Elizabeth Woning, co-founder of the CHANGED Movement says.

The CHANGED Movement, founded by Woning and Ken Williams, is a Christian organization based in California that works with people who are seeking to leave a homosexual lifestyle or who are struggling with gender identity or same-sex attraction. 

Woning and Williams recently released a new booklet called “Self-Discovery: How Childhood Shaped Our Sexual Identity.” The resource is intended to help the church, and society as a whole, understand how gender identity is often influenced by childhood experiences and beliefs.

“In this booklet, what I sought to do was call into question why we’re trying to push children into this LGBT identity, and then disclose or clarify what it looks like to rediscover your childhood so that you realize you weren’t just born this way,” Woning says.

Woning and Williams join “The Daily Signal Podcast” to talk about their work, and how to help those struggling with gender identity.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:

Virginia Allen: The CHANGED Movement is a Christian organization based in California that works with people who are seeking to leave the homosexual lifestyle or who are struggling with their gender identity or same-sex attraction. And we’ve actually featured the incredible work of the CHANGED Movement on this podcast several times. That’s why today it’s my absolute joy and pleasure to welcome back to the show Elizabeth Woning and Ken Williams, the founders of CHANGED Movement. Thank you-all so much for being here.

Elizabeth Woning: Thank you.

Ken Williams: Yeah. Thanks again, Virginia.

Allen: So, for those who are not familiar with your work, who haven’t heard your past conversations on this show, just share briefly what you-all do.

Williams: Well, we started out by just trying to minister to people that were coming—like you introduced us, there are people in pain over their sexuality. And because those are the areas that God has addressed in our lives and we found so much peace that we didn’t have before, we just wanted to help people feel better and to know God better and meet him in their struggle, but then moved on to trying to equip the church and then legislation that was trying to be passed in California pulled us into that whole world.

And being that LGBT and sexual orientation, gender identity issues are more and more coming into the law today, then we’re still addressing that because we feel it’s partly our responsibility to make sure that those who have convictions like us are able to get the counseling that they need and able to find resources. And so, we are still addressing those issues as well.

Allen: Well, … three years ago, I think, was about the first time that you-all joined the podcast for the first time. And at that time in history, transgenderism wasn’t really a big part of the conversation. I’m not even sure we talked about it at all on that first podcast. And yet, now it is everywhere and families are facing, “Do I send my child to a school where behind closed doors they could be being called by different pronouns?” And right now the transgender conversation is just exploding.

How has your work shifted and changed as we’ve seen gender identity and transgenderism really explode across the country?

Woning: Well, I think that starting out, it’s caused us to focus on a better understanding of a biblical anthropology.

We are pastors in Northern California and at our church we have a ministry school and I teach in that ministry school often a sexual ethics course. … I try to use predominantly or mainly the teachings of Jesus.

And early in the series of classes, I start with just talking about the incarnation of Jesus and the miracle of the human body. And we talk about how our bodies are part of our personality. We actually can’t separate ourselves into some psyche that’s separate from our bodies. Our bodies are responsible for a great deal of our personality.

And it’s interesting always how that impacts my class. Just the revelation of how our body chemistry, our hormone system, our procreative system informs our sense of being, not just well-being, but being.

… I think we’ve watched over the last several years this incredible escalation of what I call the virtualization of self and this dualism maybe that we talk about. And I think that it’s causing us to question what it means to be human.

And so in the context of our organization, being able to say to someone who experiences same-sex attraction or some gender incongruence, “You’re a man among men.” “You’re a woman among women.” Many people who have the LGBT experience don’t feel that. They don’t feel connected to their own gender, even if they don’t experience gender dysphoria or identify as trans.

Many people who identify as lesbian or gay, just don’t feel like—we had a good friend who would say, “I don’t feel like I have my man card.” And so, just speaking more and more about what it means to be a man or what it means to be a woman and inviting people to discover that anthropology through Christ.

Allen: That’s very practical, I think, to give people just that knowledge to really empower them with tools and with information that’s not really talked about a lot, especially not in mainstream. And one of the conversations that you-all have just delved headfirst into is really how childhood affects and shapes our view of our sexuality and gender.

And you-all have actually just created a booklet called “Self Discovery: How Childhood Shaped Our Sexual Identity.” Share just a little bit about that, about what happens to us as kids does determine how we see our sexuality.

Woning: We are named CHANGED. That’s such a provocative and even painful name for many people who experience LGBT. We did that because of the context in which we were born.

We were trying to make a point in the Sacramento setting. We didn’t really realize at the time that we were going to be creating or we would become a part of this massive movement of people that we’re now connected to.

And so many people, when they think of change, they think, “Oh, you’re going from gay to straight,” and you’re there for either experiencing some miraculous transformation or you’re trying to force someone into this new reality that’s impossible.

But for all of us who have left LGBT and have moved on—how long have you been married to Tiffany?

Williams: Sixteen years.

Woning: Sixteen years. And you guys have?

Williams: Four kids.

Woning: Four kids. And I’ve been married to my husband for 17 years. And neither one of us—same-sex feelings are no longer a dominating part of our lives. I wouldn’t say it’s impossible for us to experience same-sex attraction, but I can’t remember the last time, actually, that I had some trigger like that.

And so, for all of us who have made really dramatic shifts in our sexual desires, we’ve got there by re-understanding our childhood. And many of us through, whether it’s simply prayerful pastoral care or it’s an actual therapy appointment, we’ve delved into the traumas of our lives, the challenges, the self-perceptions that we have borne out of our childhood, the hurts from our childhood. And as we have successfully resolved some of those hurts, we’ve experienced shifts in our desires.

And the reality is that, for all of us, we understand the sexual attractions as really an effort to get a legitimate need met. It’s not necessarily a sexual desire that’s at the root, it’s a relational issue. It’s a desire for deep intimacy and connection to another person that is often at the root.

So rediscovering “How did I get here?” is a major part of unraveling the whole LGBT identity in all of our lives. And really, when you start to maybe accept that you were molested or understand family dynamics or what the impact of porn was or the impact of bullying or any of—it’s the complexity of all those things taken together. When you start to understand those, then the mantra “you were born this way” really falls apart.

And really, science supports that. Science has never been able to conclusively explain why people have same-sex attraction. And I like to point people to the study that was published by Science magazine in 2019 by Andrea Ganna looking at the whole human genome in search of a gay gene.

They didn’t find a gay gene. What they found was human sexuality really can’t be isolated to a single gene. It’s spread across many genes. And so, in the end, what they realized is that LGBT-identifying people have no unique or significant difference genetically than anyone else. And their abstract says, well, what that tells us is that it’s environmental factors. It’s all the things that happen on top of a person’s biology that really are impacting the development of our sexual identity. And so, can we figure out what those are?

And so, leading to our booklet, I thought right now in the context of all of this anti-discrimination language that we’re seeing come across maybe from the Biden administration, legislation everywhere, the Title IX conversation, this push to really confirm LGBT identity among children is very coercive.

What we’re doing is not allowing children to really explore their sexuality before labeling them as LGBT or Q or anything else, and suggesting that at 7 or 8 you could know precisely something about your identity that really takes years to develop and understand.

And so, in this booklet, what I sought to do was call into question why we’re trying to push children into this LGBT identity and then disclose or clarify what it looks like to rediscover your childhood so that you realize you weren’t just born this way.

I wonder if I could read one of the stories?

Allen: I was going to actually ask you to share some stories because I know you-all have, over the years, both as pastors and as the founders of CHANGED Movement, you-all have worked and journeyed with hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals.

And so, I would love to hear what are some of those stories that you-all hear, and even some of the most common themes that you-all see of how we are so affected and impacted by trauma in our childhood that might lead to someone believing that they’re in that category of LGBTQ.

Woning: What I like to say is there may be a temperament element. There may be an element of biology involved. Temperament is really born out of our whole lineage, we get that from our family. But it’s what happens on top of that and how you perceive it, what your interpretation is of those experiences that, I think, are the largest factor in leading you to adopt an LGBT identity and pushing you toward sexualizing some of these relationships.

So this initiative that we’ve called “Self-Discovery” is a downloadable booklet. You can find it at our website. And really, on our website, mostly what we do is collect testimonies. So you can find—I don’t know. I haven’t counted how many there are on there.

Williams: There are dozens.

Woning: There’s well over 100 testimonies on our website that you can find and read. But on the Self-Discovery page, what we’ve isolated are your childhood experiences.

And so, I’m just going to read one of the stories. This is Dr. Linda Seiler’sstory. She never transitioned, but from a very young age, she felt like she was a boy born into a girl’s body. And so, let me just read this:

When I was born, my mother was conflicted about having a daughter instead of a son. As a young child, my mom’s unspoken desire influenced my life and my mother and I never fully connected emotionally. I remember feeling frustrated by her expectations while, at the same time, longing for her affection and attention.

My mother loved me deeply, but I interpreted our disconnect as rejection, which heightened my attention toward my father. He offered safety and stability, and I desired to be like him growing up. Yet, he was not consistently emotionally available and couldn’t fill this void. I desperately longed for a deeper connection with my mom, and when I couldn’t create it, rejected her as a defense to protect my heart.

As I grew older, I attempted to replace my need for her nurture through sexual fantasies and connections with women, a twisted and confused tether to female intimacy. Most devastating, my rejection of her grew into a rejection of myself.

I grew up feeling emotionally abandoned, leaving me vulnerable and in need, so when a female junior high teacher showed inappropriate interest, I became fixated on her. What should have been a student-teacher relationship became something wholly different. She shared with me things that were not appropriate and planted seeds of confusion in my heart and mind.

Childhood sexual abuse greatly impacted my view of my sexuality and how I perceived the sexuality of others. Some friends introduced me to pornography in grade school, which awakened in me desire and intrigue. However, I wanted to be the man, not the woman, in what I saw portrayed in pornography.

In fourth grade, I heard about sex-change operations, now called gender-confirmation surgeries. “That’s the answer to my dilemma,” I thought. I believed changing my gender would give me freedom and decided when I had the means to become a boy, I would change my name to David and live happily ever after.

Hitting puberty in junior high was devastating. I despised my changing body. Not only did I want to be male, but I began to develop jealousy of my male peers. Their voices were changing and their male characteristics were becoming more defined. In addition, around this time, I was becoming increasingly attracted to women. This affirmed my belief that I truly was a male trapped in a female body, but it was a helpless feeling I couldn’t control and I didn’t want.

I tried to rationalize my life by myself and kept these feelings hidden from my parents and others. Fear of telling my family and the drama of coming out were the biggest hindrances to telling the truth about what I was feeling. I didn’t know how to communicate and sharing with people, especially my family, felt impossible.

This looming secrecy felt like rejection. I knew I would be lonely and isolated living the life I wanted without my family and friends around me. So I decided not to have the operation and tried my best to fit in.

Resigned to living a miserable life of incongruency with my gender, I thought depression and suicidal feelings were my lot. Taking cues from my sister on how to be a girl, I hoped growing my hair out and experimenting sexually with boys would cure my confusion. The opposite happened. I became intensely jealous, wanting to be the guy with the girl, not the girl with the guy.

When I received Christ late in high school, I thought all my feelings of wanting to live a different life would disappear. Sadly, this didn’t happen. My double life persisted, faking it until I partially made it, until I confided in a pastor whose kindness and sensitivity pointed me to counseling.

Counseling opened up a new world of self-understanding, emotional healing, and self-discovery. The life-dominating struggle of gender dysphoria and same-sex sexual feelings has faded and today, these are no longer a struggle.

My childhood detachment from mom created a deep longing for a female connection. Eventually, I realized that my attraction to female affection was rooted in my desire to be genuinely connected to her.

To satisfy the need for an intimate connection to femininity, I sexualized relationships with women. I saw the admirable qualities in them that I felt inadequate in or incapable of. Engaging physically and sexually with women was the only way I could see myself attaining those attributes.

I was blind to the beauty of who I was and the characteristics about me that were worth loving and cherishing. I saw a lack and thought finding someone with what I needed and wanted would make me whole.

There had been a deep wound of rejection of myself that I carried. I didn’t feel comfortable in my gender and, therefore, I rejected it. I hated my own body and couldn’t embrace femininity as my own. My self-perception of my own gender was that the deficiencies greatly outweighed the good. I wasn’t female. I wasn’t a girl. I desired to express my femininity in strength and confidence, but felt less capable.

I started to see that my attractions became the bread crumbs to a wound on the inside. I wanted to connect with feminine love. This was the place I longed desperately to share with my mother. Eventually, my faith enabled me to face this need. I met mature women whom God used as spiritual mothers to affirm my femininity and womanhood, which enabled me to diffuse sexual desires for other women. In my mid-30s, I began developing attraction to men.

Today I have an understanding of my feelings and the myriad of temptations that come my way. I can healthfully address both intrapersonal and interpersonal situations that arise and no longer struggle with same-sex attraction.

Allen: Thank you so much for sharing that. I think it’s just incredible to hear that full journey that she went on and I think those aha moments of, “Oh, this is where that all started,” was coming from.

And, I mean, I imagine that that’s not too uncommon of a story, right? That, as a young child, you have needs from a parent for affection and love and if those aren’t met, things can get warped and you look for those elsewhere.

Woning: And Linda, she has wonderful parents. She didn’t have an abusive situation. Her mom wanted to connect with her, but Linda’s self-perception disrupted that.

And so, can we just start to open up this conversation for people to better understand themselves rather than being pigeonholed into this identity that seems to offer affirmation and care and belonging?

Most of us who’ve delved into the LGBT world have found a great sense of relief from belonging and feeling seen. But then, you never go through this journey of discovering how you got there.

Allen: Well, and that ability to unravel the story, whether it be with a pastor or with a counselor, is, I think, really at the heart of so many of the stories that you-all tell in the booklet that are on your website. And yet we’re seeing that counseling is really under attack across the country. And I know that this is an issue you-all have been on the forefront of for years in California and now, really, across the country.

Some have labeled this counseling conversion therapy and we hear about conversion therapy bans. So share just briefly, if you would, about the status across the country of where are the states where they’re saying, if someone’s struggling with LGBTQ, as a counselor, as a pastor, you can’t intervene and push back on that and question that identity.

Williams: I just want to jump in and say, our heart, of course, is for healing. Our heart is for well-being for people. That’s why we left our lives maybe in the corporate world and have leaned into pastoral, is because we care about how people feel.

And that’s part of why we put together this “Self-Discovery” booklet and do everything we do, is to get the message out there that, “Look, if you’re in pain, counseling can help. Knowing the Lord more deeply and inviting him into these painful areas of our lives can bring fulfillment, peace, change.”

And what’s so sad about the “conversion therapy” conversation is that there’s so much left out of the conversation. There are words and phrases thrown out without any clarification about what that actually means. And that’s why the “Self-Discovery” booklet, we open all of that up so that you can say, “OK, what are we specifically talking about as far as what happens to people and what God can do to address it?”

And Elizabeth, you can talk, if you want, about the specifics of some of the—I know there’s the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act, I think is one, and there’s ones in different states, but we really have to start being clear about what therapies are happening out there and whether it’s beneficial or not instead of putting a label on it and just deleting all of it.

Woning: Throwing the baby out—

Williams: With the bath water. Yes.

Woning: Because, I mean, on the most superficial level, a therapy ban, essentially, is saying, “Hey, if you have LGBT-identifying feelings, it’s illegal for you to leave that culture or worldview or seek an alternative for yourself,” any place where there’s a counseling ban in the United States. And then, most of the counseling bans are directed toward children.

And as I’ve just described, that’s, honestly, the place where children need the most help and guidance. Partially because organizations like the American Psychological Association have really become major proponents of the LGBT identity and LGBT-identifying community, there isn’t much professional teaching or education offered to counselors who are willing to help people with unwanted same-sex desires or gender incongruence.

And so, in the vacuum that’s been created, there’s a whole lot of misleading care out there or misperceptions that have arisen.

And so, a lot of people who experience LGBT, people don’t know how to help. And you go to a church and often we know that we pray and we pray and we pray, but then when you pursue the Lord and you pray for freedom from these feelings and you don’t get that breakthrough, sometimes because you have this huge backstory that the Lord wants to unravel with you, it’s not a simple fix.

I have a friend who would say, “Look, if I came to the altar and immediately had an experience of breakthrough, I still wouldn’t know how to establish a healthy relationship with a man.” And so, the Lord doesn’t often work that way.

And we’ve met and talked to people who have had miraculous experiences, but the majority of us need a rebirth experience. We need to be reborn into a new identity as a son or a daughter of God and journey that out like everyone else, allowing the Lord to expose the places that most need his touch.

And so, I think it’s in the vacuum of understanding and the lack of real professional understanding and research that a lot of people have been hurt. And we would never deny that harm has happened.

But mostly, what we hear from Trevor Foundation and others is this hyperbolic language that there are aversive techniques, you’re being sent off to a camp, those kinds of things ended 30 years ago. APA used techniques like that, aversive techniques, but that ended so long ago. But yet, that’s being used to force the door to close for people who might want alternatives.

And I think one of the biggest crises in America right now is childhood sexual abuse, generally, not just related to people who end up developing LGBT feelings. That’s not being looked at quite closely enough. And we have a school system that’s ready and eager to sexualize children and teach them how to have sex together at very young ages.

And so, the harms of that we’re watching unfold in the LGBT community as suicide rates increase, the more affirming our culture is becoming, the higher the suicide rate.

… I wanted to draw your attention to a study that was just released last week or the week before in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, a study done by Dr. Paul Sullins.

One of the big studies, scientific studies that is used to undergird a conversion therapy ban is a study done by the Williams Institute, which is an arm of UCLA. And they published, I think, in 2020, a study that used what’s called the Generations Data. It was a federally funded study on LGB wellness over a few generations. And so that data is public record, it’s publicly accessible.

And the outcome of their study was that sexual orientation change efforts, or some call SOCE, cause higher rates of suicidality. And so, everywhere you go, that study is referenced in legislation or in rhetoric.

Well, Dr. Sullins, who is an emeritus professor from Catholic University, he is a researcher for the Ruth Institute, which is a Catholic family organization. He will say, “I’m just a skeptic.” So, Dr. Sullins is a sociologist. He began looking at the outcomes of these studies and began reinvestigating. He reran all of the statistics that they concluded. And what he discovered was that they didn’t control for pre-sexual orientation change efforts, suicidality.

So they didn’t control for the number of people who were suicidal and went to get help and the effect. Instead, they just blocked that out, they ignored it, and just said, “How many people after seeking this help were suicidal or had suicidal feelings?”

And so, when you control for the number of people who were suicidal before they sought help, … this is a quote from the abstract, “Undergoing SOCE after expressing suicidal behavior reduced subsequent suicide attempts from 72% to 80% compared to those not undergoing SOCE when SOCE followed a prior expression of suicidal ideation”—72% to 80% reduction in suicidal feelings after seeking help.

Williams: As opposed to the claim that this treatment causes suicide, it, in fact, reduces it.

Allen: Now, actually, I just love that you-all are on the forefront of this, that you’re sharing information like this, that you’re speaking truth. And through things like the “Self-Discovery” booklet, you’re putting tools in the hands of individuals who are struggling, of parents, of teachers, of pastors, of counselors.

Because I think right now we’re at a moment where everyone knows someone, right? Everyone knows someone who’s struggling in some way, has a family member, a friend, someone in their church. And so, to have something practical to say, “OK, I can help this person move forward. I can send them resources,” is huge.

So I really want to encourage everyone to visit changedmovement.com to get the booklet, to learn more about what you-all do, to get those resources. And I really want to thank you-all for your time today.

Woning: Thank you so much. It’s always such an honor to be able to be here.

Williams: Thank you, Virginia. They can also follow us on Instagram as well.

Allen: Awesome. What’s your handle on Instagram?

Williams: @changedmvmt.

Allen: Awesome. Thank you guys so much.

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