There are a number of reasons why a student might choose to come out to more than one person at a time. They might be concerned about gossip and hearsay, and telling everyone at once ensures no one hears about their sexual orientation through the rumour mill. They might be testing the waters, attempting to find out quickly whether or not your group will be a safe space for them to be honest about who they are. Regardless of their reasons, your response is likely the response they will be watching most closely. The rest of the youth in your group will also be watching closely to see what you say and do. This is both a blessing and a curse: you have the responsibility not only to love this particular teen well, but also to model to the rest of your youth and leadership how to respond well to a teen who opens up about anything vulnerable.
When a student comes out in a group setting
When youth come out in the context of a youth ministry gathering, whether it’s at a bible study, camp or other event, we often jump to react (sometimes in panic), and don’t stop to celebrate the fact that we successfully fostered a space where someone can be honest with themselves and others. People feel safe and open enough to share deeper experiences and questions in the community you lead – this is a sign that you are doing something right!
It’s a good idea to think in advance about how you might respond to this kind of situation in a way that honours the honesty and openness of the LGBTQ+ student. Knee-jerk responses and facial expressions that communicate disgust or shock can shut down conversation in the group and lead other students to ask, “if this person is not safe to be themselves here, how do I know I am safe?” How might our response help teach our youth to love others – even those we disagree with – rather than teaching them to reject what they don’t understand? Here are some fairly simple guidelines to remember.
Recognize the courage displayed by this student. Even in contexts where the group is highly likely to respond with support, sharing this kind of thing is always nerve-wracking, and it can mean a lot to simply have that act of courage respected and honoured.
Thank them for trusting the group with this part of themselves.
Ask questions that allow them to tell you more about how they have felt leading up to this moment, and how they came to decide to share this with all of you at this time. This is probably the easiest way to ensure that the person feels heard and cared about. Consider a possible follow-up question such as, “What made you feel safe enough to share this with us now?”, “What has being in this group with this secret been like for you?” or, “Have you come out to any of your family members – how did they react?”
Affirm that they are still the same person they were before they came out, and will continue to be treated in the same way. By saying something to this effect, you signal to the other members of the group what your expectations are for their own responses, and you remind everyone that they can feel free to be honest about their thoughts and doubts and experiences in this space.
Admit that this is a new situation for your group, especially if you have any uncertainty about how to respond. Let them know that you might have to take some time to do your own homework to get to a better understanding or decide what comes next for your group.
Ask how your group can best support this person.
Follow up with the student, who may be feeling vulnerable after sharing. Check in with them the next day to see how they’re feeling, and how they feel their disclosure went.
This scenario could be a catalyst for your group to do some heavy thinking and growing together as you process what happened. Consider seeking out some other Christian LGBTQ+ stories to listen to together, either as a leadership team or as a whole youth group. One fantastic resource – the film Through My Eyes – has been made freely accessible by The Gay Christian Network. If you decide to enter a learning process with your whole group, be sure to talk to your LGBTQ+ student(s) about it first. Ask whether and how they would like to be involved, and what their hopes and concerns would be moving forward.
When a student comes out online
There are a few added dynamics that come into play when a public coming out happens online. On the positive side, it often means that you have more time to formulate and edit your response, and you don’t have to be as concerned about managing the facial expressions or body language that accompany your initial reaction. On the other hand, this could be more complex, as it may not only be your youth or leaders who are watching your response online. I have heard several stories about people who were fired from their youth ministry positions for expressing support for an LGBTQ+ student on social media. Whether or not you think your job is at risk, responding to a public outing online opens you up to judgment from many different angles.
When you notice that one of your youth comes out online, you basically have three options.
The first option is silence.
This might be tempting, especially when we consider the aforementioned risk of losing our jobs. However, because of the overwhelming correlation in North America between Christianity and anti-gay sentiments, silence will almost always be interpreted as criticism, even if that’s not your intention. If you never contact this teen in any way after they have made their “friends” or “followers” aware of their gender identity or sexuality, they will probably understand your silence as rejection. However, silence might be an acceptable response if you no longer have an active pastoral relationship with the person who has come out.
The second option is a private message.
If you are in a position where your job is at stake, but find yourself pastorally responsible for this teen, a private message is your best option. Regardless of how you may feel about their coming out, consider finding a way to congratulate them for their courage and invite them to share more of their story with you in person. You may want to explain why you didn’t feel you could comment on their post publicly. Ideally, a private message will lead to a face-to-face conversation, and you can prepare for this with the suggestions in my last blog post. If they do not want to meet up, respect their need for space, and allow them to initiate. You have done what you can do to communicate that you are open to a conversation down the road.
If you are hoping to meet them in person, try to give them a head’s up in your message about where you are coming from on this topic. I do not suggest that you outline everything you think or believe, but if you’re uncertain about how to respond, or if you have concerns, be upfront and honest about that ahead of time. This way you can avoid ambushing the person by making them feel that you are supportive in your message, and then revealing yourself to be less supportive in person. This will also give the LGBTQ+ student a chance to opt out or bring along a third party if they wish. No matter what happens, be sure you enter this discussion with a willingness to learn.
The third option is to engage publicly.
If you are quite sure that there is room for you to express your own opinions without denominational or organizational backlash (or if you are willing to take that risk), by all means, engage the youth’s post publicly! This can be an amazing opportunity not only to model a respectful and honouring response for your other youth, but also to publicly combat the stereotype of the homophobic evangelical pastor.
There are also plenty of ways to honour the student without making an explicit statement about your theological views on LGBTQ+ matters. Think about things you can affirm, honour, and encourage in this student in a public way. Let them know that you are proud of their courage or that you admire their openness and honesty. You can always say more in a private message, but it could speak volumes to other youth online that you are willing to publicly acknowledge this announcement.
You might want to take some time now to consider what your current online presence suggests about your willingness to be an advocate, and the safety of your group. Do you include diverse perspectives on your Facebook page? How do you engage with those you disagree with online? When you share posts on LGBTQ+ topics, do you include some that are not critical? Have you made jokes at the expense of LGBTQ+ celebrities or other minorities, or do you find ways to honour their humanity? Do you jump to defend religious organizations that condemn LGBTQ+ folks, or have you spent time acknowledging the fact that Christians have been devastatingly abusive to LGBTQ+ people? Youth in your congregation are always listening and watching for clues that you will accept them (and their friends) as they are. Consider dropping some purposeful clues that you will respect them no matter their sexual or gender identity.
I’ll expand on the kind of hints youth are looking for in an upcoming post, so if you are looking for some practical ways you can make your youth group a more inclusive space, look out for that soon. In the meantime, if you have questions or a particular situation you’d like to talk through, feel free to drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.