In this country we have an epidemic whereby 40% of homeless youth are either gay, lesbian, or transgender. And the suicide rate among gay, lesbian, and transgender teens is frightening. A survey of one district, a district in famously liberal San Francisco, found that every year 1 out of 3 gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender students reportedly attempts suicide. A government report in 1989 put LGBT youth at four times the risk for a suicide attempt as any other young people. The Center For Disease Control and Prevention reports that “LGBT youth are also at increased risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors, suicide attempts, and suicide. A nationally representative study of adolescents in grades 7–12 found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth were more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide as their heterosexual peers . More studies are needed to better understand the risks for suicide among transgender youth.” The L.A. Times recently re-reported the findings of a 2011 survey that found that “A whopping 41% of people who are transgender or gender-nonconforming have attempted suicide sometime in their lives, nearly nine times the national average” while covering a more up to date analysis of this epidemic.
The statistics are easy to find. These just took me a few minutes of quick Googling. Our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth are at risk. They are distinctly vulnerable. And this cannot be the whole story. If this is what they’re going through as youths, who can calculate the lifelong damage that this group of people might have to deal with. If their relationships with their peers and parents are this traumatic during their formative years, it stands to reason that even though it gets better for many, even they too often have to live their lives with scars from abusive mistreatment.
So last night I was on a podcast called Faith and Skepticism to discuss the movie God’s Not Dead and promote my challenge to theists to study the God debates in philosophy with me, as a response to the film. During the discussion the subject turned to a sequence in the film in which a girl raised Muslim but who has secretly converted to Christianity is found out by her overbearing Muslim father. He then chases her around the house like a traditional movie monster insisting she renounce her new faith and acknowledge Allah only. She bravely defies him, standing up for her conscience. He strikes her a couple of times and then literally throws her out of the house, picking her up and carrying her out of the house with his own two hands. One of the Christians wanted to defend the scene talking about his time in Muslim countries and saying in so many words “they’re really like that”.
In response to this, I pointed out that such a one-sided portrayal of a Muslim patriarch in America was irresponsible because it stoked the excessive prejudices of an American audience that literally is prone towards thinking things like “All Muslims are terrorists.” I have also written before that it was dishonest and disgusting because the film projected the vices of the Christian God himself onto this Muslim father (and onto the over the top authoritarian atheist professor at the center of the film). And in the conversation on the podcast I pointed out that the conservative Christian church, members of which made this movie, has its own reactionary, patriarchal authoritarians.
Contemporary Christians regularly disown or otherwise manipulatively and abusively treat people for apostasy or converting to a different religion. I deal with countless atheists who recount both fears and real experiences of excruciating rejection–whether it be divorce, disownment, estrangement, financial abandonment, strained relationships, and social isolation–if they are upfront about their leaving the faith. I have been through a bit of it myself.
Then there is what gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people face–especially in their relationships with their parents and their fellow believers (when they’re believers). Depending on the family and its unique fixations, it can be far worse than declaring oneself an atheist (or seen as not as bad since at least one still believes). In either case it’s bad enough often enough that any reasonable inference must put at least some significant blame at the feet of Christian parents for the epidemic of LGBT teens who wind up on the street, dead, or on suicide watch. While homophobia is not a phenomenon unique to conservative Christianity and while school bullying plays its own serious role in this crisis, in contemporary America, the war of demonization of homosexuality is carried out endlessly by conservative Christians, be they evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons, or some other sort. Were these groups of people to flip their ideological stance overnight, full gay legal equality would be guaranteed within a year.
Yes, it would still take time to overcome ingrained heteronormativity and the well-trained “disgust” that so many people have been socially conditioned to reflexively feel at (certain) expressions of homosexuality. A good deal of heterosexual male identity has had aversion to anything sexual involving other men baked into it such that many straight men feel threatened in their straight identity itself if they are too comfortable and happy in the presence of gay male affection or sex. These sorts of deeply problematic and prejudiced ways that we construct sex and gender in our culture can, and likely will, persist for a while longer, even after Christian churches finally concede the culture war and start rewriting history so that they were the gays’ biggest supporters all along (which you know is going to happen).
But nonetheless for Christians not to take responsibility for the lethally reckless way that their public messaging, their pulpit preaching, and their brethren’s parenting all are psychologically devastating vulnerable youth is appalling. I lost my temper on the show last night (in a verbally raging way I will apologize for when the audio comes out) because in the face of this climate in which conservative Christians systematically demonize homosexuality and gay kids suffer immensely, sometimes in statistically demonstrable life destroying ways, one of the other Christians on the show flatly declared that there is no widespread problem of Christian parents disowning their kids in an authoritarian way like the Muslim father in God’s Not Dead. Citing his own anecdotal experience, he doesn’t see any problem in the church. (So that means there is none?)
So that’s where I got suddenly extremely angry. Jesus commands that before you remove the speck of dust in your neighbor’s eye, you must tend to the plank in your own. It infuriates me when I see Christians with no desire to introspect about their own church’s behavior. This is not just the atheist in me. This is the disillusioned former Christian in me. This is the Christian who used to rail against hypocrisy in the church as my way of being faithful to Jesus. So to discover that Christians are oblivious to the harm that their church is doing to apostates and gay and trans kids and disinclined to investigate? To discover they were willing to respond to statistics about a double suicide rate for the group of people their church is demonizing by nonchalantly waving away all possibility for responsibility?
I got in reply, both during the show and afterwards, responses like the following paraphrases: “Oh, that’s just bullying! They will bully you for anything in school!” Instead of, “We need to prayerfully think about how our attempts to love the sinner while hating the sin are not cutting it. We need to introspect about whether the disgust and enmity we routinely express towards gays when we treat them as our primary political enemy is filtering into how our children in school feel free to treat gay kids.”
Or I was told, “I can’t imagine any parent would ever disown their kids” instead of saying, “I would never disown my kids and I repudiate any parent who would, and the numbers you are citing about homeless gay teens makes me want to make sure my fellow Christians know that that’s not acceptable, in case they’re contributing to this problem.”
Bemusingly, I was told homophobia was a thing of the past because the show Will and Grace was a top rated TV show all the way back in the ’90s already. Gay people have tons of outlets and resources and social support now. And all I got was obstinate refusal to concede anything when I insisted that to a child their parents’ rejection has far more devastating psychological impact than than a TV show’s moral support bolsters them, in most cases. What their pastor says about what God says will affect religious kids in particular in serious ways. It’s not even just religious kids. Even only nominally believing kids can find the religious condemnations compound their feeling of persecution and unworthiness. But it’s especially bad when these kids’ identities are tied in tightly with an evangelical Christian community that right now is, astoundingly unbiblically, defining Christian identity itself by its rejection of gays. And horrifyingly some even say that suicidal gay kids kill themselves because they rightly understand it’s a sin–inexcusably validating their potentially deadly reasoning process instead of compassionately countering it.
Gay kids in any number of conservative Christian homes are growing up in an environment where not only do their parents happen to disapprove of homosexuality in some abstract, theoretical, afterthought, unexamined, obsolete, ineffectual, and irrelevant way. It’s not like a moral “blue law” that is not really taken seriously or enforced by all Christian parents. It’s not seen as ancillary to the center of the faith. It’s not treated like an embarrassing holdover that we don’t have to really worry about the way innumerable wretched things one finds in the Bible are.
No. Opposition to homosexuality and abortion are the fundamental rallying points of conservative Christian identity itself in the political and social spheres. Catholics and evangelicals are marking themselves off from “the world” (including sizable numbers of Christians and Catholics who are now pro-gay and so therefore “worldly”) by their opposition to homosexuality. This is the hill to die on. They are even casting their religious freedoms as the right to disparage homosexuality. The wrongness of homosexual love and sex is the Great Truth that they are bravely willing to risk being fired over, to make the bell-weathers of religious freedom, and to cry persecution if they get any social pushback against expressing.
This has become the sine qua non of the faith. This is the stance they demand their politicians take to prove they’re authentic believers on their theocratic side. This is the new test of orthodoxy, in practice, in this country. It’s to the point where Christians, in high fever irrationality of the first order, will express in full earnestness the view that were they to change on this, Christianity itself is lost. “We can’t defy the Bible in this way!” “The whole faith is gone if we do not stand up for it here where it’s inconvenient!” “We cannot just interpret God’s Word however we wish!”
This mindset is incredibly ridiculous. Christians selectively ignore the Bible all the time. They invent creative hermeneutics and loop holes to rationalize their modern values a hundred ways. The conservatives, for all their self-righteousness, are just as guilty as the liberals of doing this. Jesus never condemned gays. But he gave men (and only men–no women) the right to divorce only in cases of adultery. And he forbade women from ever remarrying. Christians used to be harsher on divorce, even excommunicating on account of it. To do so vigorously today in America would completely alienate such wide swaths of the church that the very words of Jesus are (rightly) ignored.
To the defiant Christian reading this and becoming furious with me, I cautious you not to take the temptation to say, “well then let’s clamp down on divorce too!” Don’t go there unless you want to make your campaign “Domestic violence is not an excuse. Jesus says no divorce. Period.” You want to argue that? You want to argue that since Jesus gave no exceptions to the divorce rule besides adultery that that means women (and men!) need to stay with violent people and put their lives and their kids’ lives in danger and live in terror? No? You want people to be able to be freed from such terrorizing circumstances?
rationalizing ”more properly interpreting” what Jesus “really” meant so you can do the right thing morally and pretend it was Jesus’s idea.
And while you’re at it stop being a hypocrite and stop causing the suffering of gay people. Stop insisting their only ways to please God are to not love who they love, not be sexually attracted to who they are attracted to, and instead to be either celibate or married to someone of the sex they’re not attracted to. You’re not ”just following the Bible” with your anti-gay obstinance. You’re choosing not to reinterpret because either it doesn’t affect you or, if it does, because as a fluke of historical curiosity your church right now is obsessively making this issue the tribal marker when it doesn’t have to be.
The Christian kid who is raised saturated with evangelical or conservative Christian messaging about the nature of his faith, the nature of morality itself, what God Himself wants, and who is identifying with the fundamental markers of identity that his religious parents are giving him is in danger. That kid has been raised not to internalize the messages of Will and Grace or Glee but to define himself in opposition. That kid knows that all the homosexuality he sees praised around him is to be feared as the fundamental threat to his faith, to his God, to his country, to the salvation of millions of people. That kid knows in a hundred subtle and explicit ways that his parents define their morality, their faith, their politics, and their sense of disgust using an anti-gay standard. That kid is raised to fear the world as the persecuter of himself and his family and his church. I grew up as this kid. I know this embattled, persecution complex intimately. It was constitutive of my identity. I see it blown up huge on the screen in God’s Not Dead. The movie screams out this persecution complex.
And this evil threatening world out to destroy all that is good and holy has four faces: Atheist. Liberal. Feminist. Homosexual. That’s what the enemy looks like. And so when a boy raised in this context starts feeling sexual and romantic attraction towards other boys, can you imagine–can you bring yourself to empathize for just one second and understand–the terror and panic he must feel? He is now the enemy. He is the enemy within. His own sexuality, his desire for love, for sex, for romance–is all the enemy of his God, his family, his church, his country, and his very self.
He will never be able to be happily married. He does not know whether his family will disown him for this abomination. He is prone towards the most wretched of all sins. The one that his entire faith is currently defined by opposing.
This is the psychological hell that untold numbers of scared gay kids are dealing with right now in untold numbers of Christian homes. This is the context in which gay kids deal with bullying at school. So many of them do not see their parents as a haven. They are terrified they’re failing their parents. They’re terrified of being disowned. And they appallingly often are. They’re trying to kill themselves. They’re submitting themselves to churches’ desperate, futile, destructive, reckless efforts to change them.
And in the midst of all this, a Christian dad scoffs at me when I say that it doesn’t matter if gay marriage is legal in more and more states or if Will and Grace was a popular TV show a decade ago, kids are more affected by their parents and their churches on the most fundamental psychological level than they are by TV shows. Instead of any introspection, instead of any grappling with the severity of potential misuse of parental power over kids’ minds, instead of any fear and trembling prayerfulness, this Christian just informs me that as a parent he knows kids are more susceptible to the media than what parents say. So, nothing to see here, move along.
I’m reassured that Christians are not the monstrous ogres of popular depiction. They’re kind, gentle, caring people who pay their taxes, coach little league, and don’t bible beat (or hate) anyone. I used to be a Christian. My problem is not that I learned everything I know about Christians from that supposedly thoroughly antagonizing secular media that conservative Christians resent so much. I know from the inside how wonderful Christians can seem. I loved being a Christian. And I also know how destructive I could be despite being a loving Christian. I know the ins and outs of how evangelicals can be hurtful without being hateful. That’s the problem.
I know that Christian love for gays is going to hit a decision point each time that a Christian family has a gay wedding and the parents need to decide what’s more important, supporting their child or calling the most important day of their child’s life a sinful abomination that never should have happened. If you, Christian parent who could very well wind up with a gay kid, think that you can manage both–showing up to the wedding in support and yet not giving them your full blown joy and excitement–you are in denial. You have to choose. Either treat them as sinners, deny their spouse and children in your home, or you start embracing the most valued relationships in their lives. This is not a hypothetical. This choice is made by Christian families the whole world over. Even if you don’t have to face it, all you Christians are responsible for the cultural religious environment in which it happens and are responsible to influence those families so they’re not decimated by an all consuming hatred and fear of homosexuality.
And all potential parents of gay kids need to be fully prepared to nurture their kids if they come out as gay (or even hint at being gay). It’s not going to cut it for you to affirm that “you won’t be comfortable with it but you’ll find a way to love your kids”. Your response has to be I will unconditionally love and support my children as who they are, for who they are, and no matter who they love. If you are not training your emotions to respond to their potential homosexuality, and sending this clear signal to them just in case, you could be setting your child up for a fall. If you’re casually expressing disgust at gays or how weird they are, bashing gay TV shows and celebrities, or engaging in homophobic jokes or demonization of gay activists, etc., make no mistake you’re risking your child being terrified and self-loathing if he’s gay. Is this stuff getting to your kid through the church if not through you? The whole church needs to get on board with this ending this and encourage an affirmative attitude in parents or the whole church is responsible for the needless strife, suffering, suicide, homelessness, and addiction LGBT kids raised in Christian homes wind up with.
But too many churches are currently more interested in nursing imaginary wounds for having to play nice with people who have different values from them, and calling themselves a persecuted majority when they’re a dominant majority. They need to start inspecting the planks of wood in their own self-absorbed eyes and stop persecuting the real minorities who are really socially and politically marginalized by them in this country.
But instead of receiving any introspection in reply to these sorts of arguments, I’m accused of trying to violate these parents’ free speech. Because their free speech rights to create a toxic environment in which their kids will grow up with great potential for fear and self-loathing if their minds lead them to atheism, homosexuality, or feminism, trumps my free speech right to say Stop fucking hurting your kids with your thoughtless recklessness driven by baseless dogma.
Right, because this is a “free speech” issue and not a “how can we stop parents who put their faith-based prejudices above their kids’ well being” issue.
In a few days I am told you will be able to hear You can now listen to the podcast version of this debate (though not the part that happened after it was over). I am not happy that my voice was so ragingly loud and aggressive. But I don’t apologize for being livid at the lack of willingness to scrupulously make sure members of one’s own church are not routinely conditioned to hurt kids, but instead to say, “I would never disown my kids” and to ruefully complain that the gays are winning, assert that homophobia is over, and insist Christianity holds no fault in whether kids try to kill themselves or wind up on the streets” and try to leave it at that. After the show I was literally told that if a young person, due to internalized homophobia given to her by the church, tries to kill herself that it’s her fault and the teaching of the sinfulness of her homosexuality holds no blame. Apparently this means it is to blame neither in its content nor in the profuse ways it’s propounded. I find that claim outrageous.
If you know what I’m talking about from firsthand experience with “seemingly normal” but nonetheless authoritarian Christian parents (or other church friends and authorities) who disowned you, excommunicated you, divorced you, emotionally abused you, physically assaulted you, tried to keep you from your siblings or children, or otherwise punished you and made you feel unsafe because you came out as an atheist, gay, bisexual, transgender, mentally ill, a convert to another religion, a feminist or some other sort of non-conformer, please write me your story at firstname.lastname@example.org and indicate how you want to be identified (I’ll honor all confidentiality requests).
I will do a future post filled with your consciousness raising stories.
Since posting this article, I discovered the must-see documentary For the Bible Tells Me So (see the video below) that shows the demonization of gays and the internalization of such hatred that LGBT youth suffer. I’ve also been alerted to a study quantifying the influence of religiously homophobic parents on their LGBT and atheist kids’ suicidal tendencies.
For a must-read from a Christian, read Fred Clark’s scathing indictment of evangelicals’ flip out over the drafting of Michael Sam, Tribal gatekeepers officially enshrine Phelpsian bigotry as ‘evangelical’ and ‘Too Christian’.
For more from me on gays and Christianity read How I Wish The Homosexuality Debate Would Go and My Discussion of Gays With Right Wing Radio Host Jesse Lee Peterson (Free Audio and Transcript). And to understand the deep roots of my anger both at Christian attempts to demonize atheists and at their mistreatment of gays, see this key post: After My Deconversion, I Refuse to Let Christians Judge Me.