When Pastor Joel Olsteen tells Oprah and his congregation that "homosexuality is a sin," I don't think he is considering the impact those words have on the millions of gays and lesbians -- especially the children and teenagers. The message isn't saying, "You have committed a sin"; rather, it says, "You are a sin." The gay or lesbian child and teenager listening to Olsteen believes that he or she is a sin.
When most children are told their bad behaviors are a sin, they can pray to God at bedtime to be forgiven and hope to be heard. Lesbian and gay children cannot pray because they are told that God sees who they are as a sin, so they don't even have a God to talk to. This is brutally isolating for children and adolescents.
What Joel Olsteen doesn't realize is that homosexuality is more than just a behavior; it is an identity -- just like heterosexuality. Whereas acts can be sinful, saying homosexuality is a sin speaks to a person's entire identity, not just what they do sexually. If I never had sex with another man, I'd still be gay, just as a heterosexual person who chose to be celibate would still be heterosexual.
While growing up, we are like gay and lesbian spies. We are hypervigilant, listening for every word and watching every move that is anti-gay. Because no one considers children to be gay, people say many homo-negative and hostile things about gays in their presence. In family therapy sessions, lesbian and gay clients have turned to their parents, telling them they were afraid to come out because they remembered hearing negativity about homosexuality from their parents. These parents are often horrified by how much it hurt their gay sons and daughters and shaped their fears about coming out.
I'm commonly asked, "How can you tell if a child or teenager is gay or lesbian?" I don't have an answer for that, and I haven't found much scientific literature that claims to, either. There are anecdotal writings from mothers and fathers who, looking back, recall signs that their children might be gay. One thing I do stress is that, as I mentioned earlier, every lesbian or gay adult was once a gay or lesbian child.
When people think about children, rarely do they think of them as being gay. But we have no problem thinking of children as heterosexual. As the popularity of Hummel figurines attests, we do think of children as romantic -- holding hands, even kissing. We don't sexualize grade-school crushes but justify them as healthy "practice" for future teenage dating and adult marriage. We often ask little girls if they have crushes on their male teachers, or a little boy if he has a girlfriend yet. As early as kindergarten, teachers have students send each other Valentine's Day cards -- albeit in a round-robin fashion. Later on, we tolerate little girls having crushes on other girls without labeling them lesbians. No one flinches if first- and second-grade boys hold hands.
The underlying assumption in all of these cases is that the child will grow up to be straight, and encouraging or allowing these childhood behaviors is considered acceptable because everyone recognizes that heterosexuality involves more than just adult sexual behavior -- it also involves romance. Gayness, on the other hand, is typically seen as purely sexual behavior rather than as a multifaceted identity that involves affection, romance, and sex, just like heterosexuality. So if a child or adolescent does express romantic feelings toward someone of the same gender or actually embraces a gay identity, the immediate reaction is to sexualize him or her.
Growing up with messages that you are a sin is very traumatic. Children take very seriously what adults say to them -- especially their parents, doctors, teachers, and ministers. Trying to belong by pretending to be straight and suppressing one's core identity and sexuality can be one of the hardest things to do. Most gays and lesbians don't do it very well and therefore are bullied and isolated and have no one to talk to. Even though gay-affirmative images can be found in the media more than ever before, children and teens are still living with a secret and don't know whom they can turn to and who will turn away from them.
Developing gay or lesbian adolescents can handle their sexual orientation. What they can't cope with is the negativity that comes their way regarding who they are, in the form of statements they encounter in the media or in their schools, homes, or communities. A heterosexual adolescent can no more handle acts of homophobia against him or her, either. We are seeing this first-hand with the suicides of bullied teenagers -- both gay teens and those simply perceived as gay.
When listening to Joel Osteen repeat several times to Oprah that homosexuality is a sin, I feel a chill thinking about those gay and lesbian children and teens going to bed at night having no God to pray to, no one to turn to, and having to live with a secret.
I think Joel Olsteen should keep his judgments and opinions to himself about homosexuality. Putting out more negative energy in the world isn't the purpose of a spiritual leader. His goal is to lead people to acceptance and understanding that we are all connected and all one. Anything less is just divisive and not helpful.