Many of you may already have read this piece on Rolling Stone about the rash of suicides in Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin School District. In a nutshell, the districts “no homo promo” policy has resulted in a very negative school atmosphere for gay teens, a half a dozen of whom have taken their lives in response. The district is now reexamining its policies in this area. As it does so, the local Parents Action League has submitted its own proposal, urging the school to teach “ex-homosexual therapy.”
Just what is going on here? To understand, you have to be able to get into the minds of each side. You see, each side thinks it’s doing what’s in the best interests of these gay teens. Each side thinks the other wants to ruin these teens lives. It’s the sort of irreconcilable conflict that makes actual communication between the two sides difficult if not impossible.
First, some excerpts from Rolling Stone.
Every morning, Brittany Geldert stepped off the bus and bolted through the double doors of Fred Moore Middle School, her nerves already on high alert, bracing for the inevitable.
Pretending not to hear, Brittany would walk briskly to her locker, past the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders who loitered in menacing packs.
Like many 13-year-olds, Brittany knew seventh grade was a living hell. But what she didn’t know was that she was caught in the crossfire of a culture war being waged by local evangelicals inspired by their high-profile congressional representative Michele Bachmann, who graduated from Anoka High School and, until recently, was a member of one of the most conservative churches in the area. When Christian activists who considered gays an abomination forced a measure through the school board forbidding the discussion of homosexuality in the district’s public schools, kids like Brittany were unknowingly thrust into the heart of a clash that was about to become intertwined with tragedy.
There was another common thread: Four of the nine dead were either gay or perceived as such by other kids, and were reportedly bullied. The tragedies come at a national moment when bullying is on everyone’s lips, and a devastating number of gay teens across the country are in the news for killing themselves. Suicide rates among gay and lesbian kids are frighteningly high, with attempt rates four times that of their straight counterparts; studies show that one-third of all gay youth have attempted suicide at some point (versus 13 percent of hetero kids), and that internalized homophobia contributes to suicide risk.
Against this supercharged backdrop, the Anoka-Hennepin school district finds itself in the spotlight not only for the sheer number of suicides but because it is accused of having contributed to the death toll by cultivating an extreme anti-gay climate. “LGBTQ students don’t feel safe at school,” says Anoka Middle School for the Arts teacher Jefferson Fietek, using the acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning. “They’re made to feel ashamed of who they are. They’re bullied. And there’s no one to stand up for them, because teachers are afraid of being fired.”
These teens, then, were victims of the anti-gay climate fostered in the school district by school rules against discussion of homosexuality put in place under pressure from local evangelicals. If you’re told that you are an abomination every day, day after day, you eventually start to feel like there’s something wrong with you. If even teachers don’t stand up for you, you start to feel like you’re not worth protecting. Maybe you should just end it all. And an alarming number of these teens did.
In April, Justin came home from school and found his mother at the top of the stairs, tending to the saltwater fish tank. “Mom,” he said tentatively, “a kid told me at school today I’m gonna go to hell because I’m gay.”
“That’s not true. God loves everybody,” his mom replied. “That kid needs to go home and read his Bible.”
Justin shrugged and smiled, then retreated to his room. It had been a hard day: the annual “Day of Truth” had been held at school, an evangelical event then-sponsored by the anti-gay ministry Exodus International, whose mission is to usher gays back to wholeness and “victory in Christ” by converting them to heterosexuality. Day of Truth has been a font of controversy that has bounced in and out of the courts; its legality was affirmed last March, when a federal appeals court ruled that two Naperville, Illinois, high school students’ Day of Truth T-shirts reading BE HAPPY, NOT GAY were protected by their First Amendment rights. (However, the event, now sponsored by Focus on the Family, has been renamed “Day of Dialogue.”) Local churches had been touting the program, and students had obediently shown up at Anoka High School wearing day of truth T-shirts, preaching in the halls about the sin of homosexuality. Justin wanted to brush them off, but was troubled by their proselytizing. Secretly, he had begun to worry that maybe he was an abomination, like the Bible said.
This is what is meant by creating an “anti-gay” climate. And yes, Justin went on to commit suicide. How did evangelicals respond to accusations that they had created an anti-gay climate that had led these gay teens to commit suicide?
Minnesota Family Council president Tom Prichard blogged that Justin’s suicide could only be blamed upon one thing: his gayness. “Youth who embrace homosexuality are at greater risk [of suicide], because they’ve embraced an unhealthy sexual identity and lifestyle,” Prichard wrote. Anoka-Hennepin conservatives formally organized into the Parents Action League, declaring opposition to the “radical homosexual” agenda in schools. Its stated goals, advertised on its website, included promoting Day of Truth, providing resources for students “seeking to leave the homosexual lifestyle,” supporting the neutrality policy and targeting “pro-gay activist teachers who fail to abide by district policies.”
Asked on a radio program whether the anti-gay agenda of her ilk bore any responsibility for the bullying and suicides, Barb Anderson, co-author of the original “No Homo Promo,” held fast to her principles, blaming pro-gay groups for the tragedies. She explained that such “child corruption” agencies allow “quote-unquote gay kids” to wrongly feel legitimized. “And then these kids are locked into a lifestyle with their choices limited, and many times this can be disastrous to them as they get into the behavior which leads to disease and death,” Anderson said. She added that if LGBT kids weren’t encouraged to come out of the closet in the first place, they wouldn’t be in a position to be bullied.
To evangelicals, the problem is gay activism. These teens, evangelicals argue, committed suicide not because they were bullied or made to feel worthless, but rather because they were gay. Being gay is a “destructive lifestyle” that leads to high suicide rates, spiritual darkness, devastating diseases, and, finally, death. The solution is not to validate these teens’ “homosexual temptations” as gay activists would. The solution is not to tell these teens that “this is how you are and you can’t change” but rather to work to change these teens so that they can live long happy godly lives.
This is why evangelicals in the Parents Action League have responded to these suicides by urging that ex-gay therapy be taught in the schools. It is also the reason the PAL wants the district to teach students about “Gay Related Immune Deficiency” (“GRID”) and the other health risks of the “gay lifestyle.” AIDS has not been referred to as GRID in the medical community for over twenty-five years, and is no longer seen as a “gay” problem, but you have to understand that when AIDS first came to public attention in the 1980s it was seen as a gay problem and was even seen by many as God’s judgement on gay people for their gross immorality.
The evangelicals in the Parents Action League mean well. They’re not rubbing their hands in glee wondering how many other gay teens they can rid the earth of. They believe what they’re saying. They believe that gay tendencies can be cured, that the “gay lifestyle” is destructive and harmful, and that the most loving thing you can do for these “gay teens” is to teach them the Truth, not tell them that they are stuck with their immoral feelings and locked into a tragic life.
And that is why I say it’s almost impossible for these two groups to communicate. Anytime a gay rights advocate says “we just need equal rights, freedom, and safety for all, including in our schools” these evangelicals hear “we want to tell these kids they have to follow our immoral and destructive lifestyle.” When the evangelicals say “we just need to cure these kids and turn them away from destructive lifestyles,” gays hear “we need to make these kids’ lives hell and fill them with self loathing.” It makes me think of this poster that was recently sent home with high school kids in Maryland:
[Poster since removed]
This poster turns everything on its head. It’s all about explaining that people with gay attractions can change their sexual orientations and be straight. They don’t have to be gay and shouldn’t be forced to. The most relevant excerpt is this:
However, there are those in society who refuse to respect an individual’s right to self-determination. Consequently, formerly gay men and women are discriminated against simply because they dare to exist. Ex-gays and their supporters are denied equal access and support, forcing them to remain silent for fear of negative reactions and disapproval.
In other words, the ones who are being discriminated against are the ones who are spreading the message that gays can change, that they don’t have to live those destructive “lifestyles,” they can live long, happy, normal lives if they want. The problem is the gay rights advocates who are trying to make people gay whether they want to be or not. If they would stop telling people with gay tendencies that they’re gay and it’s okay, those people could find a way to change and gain love, acceptance, and spiritual healing.
Of course, this is all predicated on several myths.
Myth #1: People aren’t born gay, they are made gay by environmental factors.
Myth #2: Gay people can actually become straight through reparative therapy.
Myth #3: The “gay lifestyle” is destructive and leads to depression and early death.
Myth #4: Gay people commit suicide because it gives them a tendency toward suicide.
The truth is that gay people don’t “choose” to be gay any more than straight people “choose” to be straight. You can’t choose who you feel physically attracted to. Try looking at a picture of someone you feel no sexual attraction for, and then forcing yourself to feel sexually attracted to him/her. Or vice versa, try looking at a picture of someone you find very sexually attractive and then feeling no sexual attraction for him/her. It doesn’t work that way. Gay people can choose to love celibate lives or can marry someone of the opposite gender in an attempt to “fix” themselves, but that doesn’t change their sexual attractions. Oh, and no one is trying to tell gay people want to be celibate or marry those of the opposite gender that they can’t do that, but rather that there are other valid options out there for them.
The truth is that gay people are at higher risk from suicide because of homophobia, not because they’re gay. I know a gay guy who tried to kill himself in high school because of the messages he received in church. He didn’t try to kill himself because he had gay attractions, but rather because he believed those gay attractions meant he was sinful and evil, and he try as he might he couldn’t change those attractions. Those gay teens killed themselves because they couldn’t see a worthwhile future in the midst of the hell they were living in, a hell created by homophobia, not by their gayness.
But there’s a deeper problem. Even dispelling these myths won’t change the minds of evangelicals like those on the Parents Action League. Why? Because their real objections come from the Bible. They dress it up by talking about the “destructiveness” of the “gay lifestyle” (and they really do believe that), but their objections come, at the base, from Bible verses condemning homosexuality as “an abomination.” Now there are gay Christians who explain that those verses are all misunderstood, but evangelicals, like their fundamentalist kin, generally take the Bible fairly literally and look askance at attempts to “reinterpret” the traditional understandings of key Bible passages. For them, the Bible says it’s wrong, so it’s wrong.
Given that, I’m not completely sure how to fix this problem. The best solution, I suppose, is to continue the strategy of normalizing homosexuality – the more gay people someone knows, normal, worthwhile, fulfilled gay people, the harder it becomes to sustain beliefs in the immorality and destructive nature of the “gay lifestyle.” In other words, we can keep working to dispel the four myths listed above. And if poll numbers are any indication, this strategy is succeeding. But it’s important to remember that as long as there are those who believe the Bible condemns homosexuality as sinful, immoral, and destructive, though, we will always have people like those on the Parents Action League urging that the real solution is to “cure” gay teens. Deeply held religious beliefs don’t always allow for a lot of give, and this is one situation where we see that loud and clear.