I was backed into a corner in the gym, surrounded by a small group of boys and girls, shoving me and shouting, “You look so gay!” I didn’t know what to say or what to do. I was terrified. As they continued to scream and laugh at me, making jokes about my hair, my voice, and my skinny jeans, I felt shame rush over my face. I didn’t know why this was happening to me and didn’t know how to make it stop. I jumped up, shoved my way through the crowd, and ran outside, where I collapsed behind a bush and wept.
This incident happened to me when I was fifteen and I was at my youth group event at a Baptist church in Baltimore, Maryland. This wasn’t the first time something like this happened to me, nor would it be my last. From the earliest days of going to school, I remember being made fun of and physically assaulted for looking, acting, or sounding “gay”, whatever that meant.
When I began attending a conservative Christian church at the age of twelve, things only got worse. Now the homophobic bullying I experienced was being justified, encouraged even, by church leaders who said they spoke on behalf of God. “Homosexuality is a sin”, they preached, “but we should love the sinner and hate the sin.” What that translated to, in reality, was exclude, harass, and marginalize the sinner until they either changed, until they left the church, or even worse.
Bullying is a real problem for LGBT+ youth in school. Studies show that over 64% of LGBT+ identified youth fear going to school because of the vicious bullying that they have to face, and 31% of LGBT+ youth say that their school officials do nothing to keep them safe. Now imagine how severe the situation is for LGBT+ youth in conservative religious contexts, whether private schools or church youth groups.
While I haven’t found an official study on these numbers, I would confidently suggest that an upwards of 85-90% of LGBT+ youth in conservative religious environments live in fear of being bullied from their peers, families, and religious leaders alike, and most of those who face such torment will likely not be supported or defended by anyone in authority in the religious community.
Bullying happens because we have been conditioned by our environments to fear that which isn’t perceived as “normative”. It happens because the message has been ingested that says unless someone looks, acts, dresses, and loves in a certain culturally defined standard, they are abnormal and potentially dangerous. Bullying happens when we fail to treasure the gifts that diversity and individuality bestow upon our collective culture and cling to mythic conformist ideals. And it is safe to say that no community cultivates these mindsets and environments more than our religious communities.
I write this, by the way, as a religious leader. I am the Lead Pastor of a Christian Church in San Diego, California. I have spent over a decade within religious communities and training to be a “religious professional”, and over the course of my journey I have seen both the tremendous healing that communities of faith can bring and the tremendous harm that they can perpetuate.
Now, ask almost any conservative religious leader if they support the bullying of LGBT+ youth and of course they will say “Absolutely not.” The problem is that when the fundamental ideology you perpetuate teaches that someone is fundamentally flawed because of an unchangeable part of their personhood, there is no way that your community can not perpetuate bullying. When children are taught that to be LGBT+ is to be deviant and that the LGBT+ rights movement is an affront to God (common teachings in conservative religious environments), how are they not supposed to translate that message into exclusion and bullying? What exactly does it look like to “love the sinner” while “hating their sin”, when the so-called “sin” is a part of their very identity?
On this Spirit Day, I want to be unambiguous about this truth: If your church, family, school, or community teaches that to be LGBT+ is sinful, wrong, or unnatural, you are culpable for the torment that leads LGBT+ youth to be three times more likely to attempt suicide than other youth. Similarly, if your community refuses to take a stand in support of LGBT+ people, you are also culpable in the harm that is done to LGBT+ youth, for silence is complicity.
There is no room here for disagreement- to preach a message of exclusion is to preach a message that encourages bullying and marginalization. I’ve experienced it time and time again over the course of life within conservative religious environments, and I too have been driven to the brink of suicide because of the repetitive messages and behavior I experienced at the hands of religious leaders and people.
With all that we now know about human sexuality and gender identity, and with the prevalence of studies that show the impact of exclusive religious teaching and practice on LGBT+ people, it is no longer acceptable to promote these messages of harm and exclusion, and it’s certainly not okay to remain unambiguous about where you stand. Jesus himself commanded, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no!” If you belong to a community that excludes, which in turn perpetuates harm to LGBT+ people, you must be willing to say it and own it, which is why I am so grateful for the work of a new organization called Church Clarity, which is putting pressure on churches across this country to clarify where they stand. Your people deserve to know, and LGBT+ youth deserve to be protected from the harm that will be done to them in non-affirming environments.
Likewise, those who stand as affirming religious allies or LGBT+ people must also stand and be counted, being unafraid to call out institutions and leaders that perpetuate harm and to be known as safe harbors and defenders of LGBT+ youth in your community. These kids need us and our support. They need to know they are loved and will be stood up for in the face of homophobia, which is why I am grateful for organizations like Faith In America, which is bringing together thousands of people to defend LGBT+ youth and end homophobic teachings by religious institutions.
All in all, the suffering I experienced growing up within my religious context could have been and should have been avoided. The suffering of every LGBT+ person at the hands of those who exclude and demonize us should be avoided. But for that to happen, we need our allies to stand up, speak up, and act on our behalf. We need our churches and schools and families to be committed to our equality and our flourishing as vital parts of every community. We need to dispel any and all myths of “normality” with their calls for “conformity” and embrace the beautiful complexity that is humanity. We especially need religious institutions to acknowledge and own the harm we’ve perpetuated, publicly repent, and take tangible actions to ensure the inclusion and flourishing of the LGBT+ people in our midst.
This is the Spirit at the heart of all of our religious traditions anyways. The Spirit of love, of creativity, and of grace. And on this Spirit Day, it is my sincere hope, prayer, and call to every religious leader and every person of faith to take action on behalf of LGBT+ youth in your community. We owe it to them, and their very lives depend on it.
To find out how you can get involved in fighting bullying and to learn more about Spirit Day, click here.