When people debate LGBTQ equality and religious liberty, we often focus on issues that revolve around adults. We talk about people being free to choose belief systems and worldviews.
LGBTQ advocates often argue that belief systems that foster toxic homophobia are intrinsically defective, and while that’s a provocative position and a debate worth having, it’s a debate about adults.
Often, we forget that toxic faith systems don’t start hurting LGBTQ people only when they reach the age of majority. Homophobic religious doctrines may do the most harm to young people who are not yet free to choose.
Parents, educators, and community leaders would do well to keep that in mind. To illustrate, I want to share a letter a gay teen wrote to me last year in my guise as an LGBTQ advice columnist. I think his question and my answer may help people understand what’s at stake.
Dear Aunty Jimothy,
I told my dad I was gay when I was 13. He doesn’t care at all, and he even talks to me about guys I might like. But I’m 14 now, and I have to stay with my aunt on weekends because of Dad’s work. She makes me go to church where they say terrible things about gay people. It makes me really mad to sit there and listen to that, but Dad says I have to because it’s family. He doesn’t get it! What should I do?
Tense in Texas
Such an important question. No wonder you’re tense! You’ve got some serious thinking to do, and maybe old Aunty Jimothy can help you with it. I hope so! When I was your age, I was very much in your shoes.
So… you get all cleaned up, put on nice clothes and go to church where nice people smile at you and tell you how glad they are to see you. But in Sunday School and during the main service, those same nice people teach you how broken you are. They use nasty words sometimes, even while they’re smiling.
You feel terrible.
You know you’re a good person, and you feel angry because you have to listen to them saying you aren’t. If you’re like most people, hearing those things makes you anxious. It’s possible that on a really deep level, you start to doubt yourself. That same deep-down, anxious part of yourself that makes you afraid of the dark starts to hiss into your ear.
It says, “Maybe those church people are right.”
So, before we talk about your dad, let’s talk about you
You are perfectly ordinary, just the way you are
Gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, whatever, you were born to be who you are. Whether God designed you or nature did, we know for sure that people with minority gender identities and sexual orientations are perfectly ordinary, as Emily Mullin reports in OneZero magazine.
As far back as we can look in history, we find examples of gay people and gender variant people. In every culture on earth! That’s pretty amazing, and it tells us LGBTQ folks clearly that we are neither alone nor unusual.
Being gay is just as healthy as being straight
Since the 1950s, doctors and mental health professionals have been studying gay people, looking for evidence that something is wrong with us. The first doctors to study that question expected to prove we aren’t healthy. But it turns out their assumptions were wrong. Click on the link to this article for studies about how healthy gay people are.
Going to church sometimes makes gay people unhealthy
When gay people suffer from mental health problems like depression and anxiety, it’s often because they feel rejected by family or religion. For most people, going to church regularly means better mental health and more happiness. For LGBTQ people, it’s just the opposite. A 2018 study that examined over 21,000 young adults found that the more LGBTQ people go to church, the more mentally unhealthy they are.
Going to the RIGHT church changes that
You didn’t ask about this, but I’m an old busybody, so … You have a right to explore faith and spirituality in a healthy, safe environment. You’re at exactly the age to start asking all the big questions in life. Who am I? Where did I come from? What’s it all about?
So many LGBTQ kids feel forced to shut faith out of their lives when it can be an important part of asking those questions. It’s not fair you should be limited because certain religions reject you as a person.
It’s also not necessary. TONS of Christian churches (not to mention other religions) fully accept LGBTQ people for who they are. You don’t have to choose between faith and accepting yourself. Nobody should try to force you to!
I know you don’t have a choice right now, but look how many churches you’d have to choose from if you wanted to go! Click on this link or the one below for a HUGE list of Christian churches that “affirm” LGBTQ people, meaning they fully welcome us into all aspects of church life and leadership.
Find an Affirming Church | GayChurch.org
The intent of our Affirming Church Directory™ is to provide an online resource for people to locate and visit welcoming…
But what about Dad and my aunt?
I haven’t answered your question yet, have I? I can hear you now! “Listen, I’m cool with being gay, but Dad and my aunt are making me go to this stupid church. So what should I do about that?”
OK, I hear you. First, let me talk to your dad for a minute, then I’ll answer.
To all the dads and other family members out there —
Raising kids is hard. I get that, because I’ve been there. You do the best you can and hope that’s good enough. It usually is, because kids are resilient. Even when we make mistakes, things often work out. Raising an LGBTQ teenager, though, can require some insight and skills that straight/cisgender parents might need some help with.
We LGBTQ people swim in toxins
LGBTQ kids live in world where gay means bad and where casual, cutting jokes are background noise. We internalize a LOT of that.
Even today when being LGBTQ might appear fashionable to you, self esteem and self acceptance are huge problems for many teens with minority sexual orientation and gender identity.
Kids with accepting parents do really well, though. So, Dad, you owe yourself a pat on the back. Seriously. Your son is confident in your love, and he trusts you to look out for him. That’s great!
Family acceptance is critical for LGBTQ youth
Studies show that family acceptance helps protect LGBTQ adolescents from suicidal behavior, depression, and substance abuse. Young people with accepting families report higher self-esteem, social support, and overall health. The more accepting the family, the healthier the kid.
Toxic religion is a big problem
Dad, you might want to go over those numbers in the study I already cited about religion’s toxic effects. Your son is only 14. At his age, authority figures are very important. What he’s learning in church is troubling him deeply.
How do I know that?
He went to the trouble of writing to me — a complete stranger — for advice. I understand you don’t agree with the teachings of your sister’s church, and that you’re advising your kid to ignore them like you did when you were his age. If only it were that easy!
Put yourself in his shoes
He’s being taken to a nice church, with nice people who look and act eminently respectable. Like any kid his age, he wants to please them. What does he get in return? Moral condemnation and sexual stigmatization. They tell him God doesn’t approve of who he is — on a deep-down, fundamental, sexual level.
Can you imagine how traumatizing that is for a young adolescent? It’s not the same thing you had to deal with as a straight teenager. It’s fundamentally more serious, more difficult, and more toxic.
I understand that for you, going to church is just a boring family obligation. Please understand that it’s different for your son. When your sister takes him to services, he swallows poison.
He gets plenty of that already in daily life. He doesn’t need it from respectable authority figures at church. He needs you as a dad to protect him from that. It’s time to be his hero!
And now to answer the question —
Tense in Texas, what should you do? How can you handle being forced to go to a church where people teach that you’re a bad person? Here are Aunty’s thoughts!
- Talk to your dad openly and honestly. Show him this column. Ask him to follow the links and read about problems gay kids have in church.
- Get support. Join a GSA (Gender and Sexual Alliance) club at school where you can learn all sort of positive things about LGBTQ people and history.
- Get ammunition. Learn about how many Christian churches SUPPORT LGBTQ people. Many Christians accept and affirm you. Click this link to read about how they view religion and the Bible.
- Get tough. Learn how to develop an “I don’t give a flip” sort of attitude. You’re going to have to put up with a lot of haters in your life. You can’t let them get you down.
- Get ready. At some point, you’re going to have to make a decision. Whether it’s tomorrow, next month, or a few years from now, you’re going to have to reach a point where you won’t take it anymore. At some point, when the preacher (this one or some other one) starts disrespecting LGBTQ people, you’re going to have to stand up and walk out. You’re going to have to say no to hate.
Until that day comes, Tense, do the best you can. Lean on your family and friends for support. Understand that things get better. Being a gay adult is way cooler and more fun than being a gay teen.
So what’s at stake for LGBTQ kids forced to swallow religious toxins? Like I wrote to this gay teen, mental health and self worth hang in the balance. It’s not right to force a child to onboard messages that they’re defective. It’s abusive.
Religions that do that do wrong, failing to evaluate their faith systems in the light of increasing human knowledge.
It’s one thing for an adult to choose to internalize messages of sexual shame. It’s something else entirely for a teenager to be be forced to.
Teaching kids LGBTQ people are defective ought to be considered child abuse. Of course it isn’t under the law, and in the US it might never be. But decent, loving people who value diversity and equality don’t need the law to know the difference between right and wrong.
It’s right to affirm and celebrate people who are different. It’s wrong to to shame members of biological minorities.
Let’s all try to keep those important principles in mind when it comes to setting examples for our kids. Let’s make the world a better place.
James Finn is a long-time HIV/LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Act Up NYC, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.