This past summer, my wife Beth and I packed everything we own into a uhaul van, loaded up an ipod with playlists and audiobooks, equipped the cab with a cooler full of snacks, and said goodbye to our friends and family in Vancouver before heading east across the country to start a new life in Toronto. Having never spent significant time in Toronto, and leaving an incredible community of friends and family on the west coast, this move was one of the hardest decisions either Beth or I had ever had to make. But an opportunity was knocking that was impossible to ignore.
When I had left youth ministry in my denomination in order to marry the woman I love, I knew that someday I would work with teenagers again, but I had no idea when or in what capacity. My education really only qualified me to pastor, and I had yet to feel at home in another denominational context. Maybe I could care for youth as a school teacher or social worker, but either would require more schooling, and neither felt like quite the right fit for me.
In the wake of my coming out and attempts at sorting through my vocational options, both Beth and I were offered work with New Direction Ministries. Even before deciding to take the jobs, we felt they were signs of hope that there was exciting work out there for us.
So here I am, introducing myself on the blog as the Co-ordinator of Youth Services, a job that allows me to connect and support LGBTQ+ youth themselves as well as those who want to create safe spaces for them in the context of faith communities. Regardless of our sexual orientation or gender identity, adolescence is a messy, confusing, and awkward time of changing emotions, bodies, and hormones, when we begin to make sense of our world and make decisions about what kind of adults we will become. What is a unique pattern for LGBTQ+ teens is that they are too often treated poorly by their communities and loved ones, taught to hide a part of themselves, making them far more vulnerable to all kinds of abuse. In my new role, I get to listen to and support these youth in shaking off their sense of shame and begin to accept their particular realities. I look forward to journeying with them as they discover and clarify their own values and beliefs, and to help discern how these things might shape the many decisions that face them.
In the past year, Rolling Stone Magazine has published two major articles focused specifically on how Christians are treating LGBT youth. Alex Morris is the journalist who is shedding light on this demographic that so easily falls through the cracks, and she does this with a whole lot of honesty and care. In October of last year she wrote The Hidden War Against Gay Teens, telling the stories of youth in Christian schools who were discriminated against in some way, either because they were gay, or thought to be gay. This month Rolling Stone published The Forsaken: A Rising Number of Homeless Gay Teens Are Being Cast Out by Religious Families. It’s excellent, and if you haven’t already read it, and have some time (it’s rather long), I highly recommend it. It follows five youth and their experiences of being edged/kicked out of their homes for coming out as gay or lesbian.
The stats on this are not hard to find, at least in the USA. While LGBT identifying youth make up roughly 5% of the youth population, they account for 40% of the homeless youth population. North of the border, the percentage seems slightly lower and less researched (I’ve read that it’s somewhere between 25-40% in Canada), but this is still a substantial and humbling number. Why many are tying this divide to religious families in particular is not hard to imagine or understand. The five youth in Morris’ article are all from Christian backgrounds, and at least three of them are children of a church leader or minister. And unfortunately, this does not come as much of a surprise.
One paragraph stood out to me as especially thought provoking and relevant to my new job here at ND:
The problem is, running away, as Ben did, may deliver youth from their parents’ judgment, but not from that of God – whom more than half of the youth I spoke with said they still believed in – and once on the street, the psychological trauma that’s inherent in this deeply internalized shame often plays out to their detriment. And yet, as hard as it might be to imagine conservative faiths backing down from their demonization of homosexuality, it can be equally hard to get activists to address the issue. “LGBT- advocacy groups don’t want to talk about religion,” says Mitchell Gold, founder of Faith in America. “One, they don’t want to come across as anti-religion. And two, they just aren’t familiar with it. But the number-one hurdle to LGBT equality is religious-based bigotry.”
These youth may still believe in a God, but not all of them believe that they are loved by that God. Though they may have escaped a rigid environment where they could not safely explore or talk about their sexuality, they find themselves in new territory, often without a place to safely explore and talk about their faith. Though a recent study has suggested that religious acceptance of gays and lesbians as both attendees and participants in churches is on the rise, we still have a long way to go. The overwhelming association for the average North American is that Christian = Anti-Gay, making even the most openly affirming congregation one of the last places a queer youth is likely to look for refuge. We can’t promise these kids “it gets better” unless we are willing to do much, much better as communities of faith, communities called to love those on the margins.
We need to find new ways to love these teens, and show them that they are valuable to both God and this world. We need to find a way to prevent the tragic realities – homelessness, depression and other mental illnesses, suicide, survival sex, hard drug use, etc. – that LGBTQ+ youth are far more likely to face than their straight peers. Youth need to know that there are safe people out there who will listen and let them be themselves. We need to offer a new narrative of unconditional love that makes articles like Morris’ no longer necessary.
One of my hopes in working with New Direction as the Coordinator of Youth Services is to create a network across the country of people of faith particularly interested in supporting queer youth. This could certainly include youth pastors and workers, and interested lay allies and mentors as well. If this describes you, please get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to have a network strong enough that whether we hear from a teen in Three Hills, AB, Trois Rivieres, QC, or Trinity Bay, NL, we’d be able to connect them in person with a trusted ally or mentor willing to hear their story and offer support and friendship.