Two articles by New Direction staff members were published in the February edition of the Christian Educators Journal. We wanted to reprint the articles here for those who haven’t had an opportunity to review the journal.
In the first, Beth Carlson-Malena shares some of the experiences members of our Generous Space community shared with her about their years in Christian schools. Whether you are a Christian school teacher, a teacher in the public system, involved with students, youth, or the parent of growing kids, we hope that these articles will be helpful and that you’ll share them with others.
Practical Ways Teachers Can Support LGBTQ+ Students
When it comes to issues of sexuality and gender, I do not envy teachers at Christian schools. These are touchy, hot-button subjects, and it’s no wonder teachers often feel pressure. In many schools, there are position statements and policies in place regarding homosexuality and gender expression. Such statements are often based on scriptural interpretation but might not focus on how to actually support students who may be questioning or coming out. Parents in the community have expectations about what teachers should and should not say, but those expectations may vary or even be contradictory depending on the parent.
Most teachers I talk to are primarily concerned about the health and wellbeing of their students, especially the ones who seem most physically, emotionally, mentally and/or spiritually vulnerable. But given the diversity in many school communities, teachers may be uncertain about the potential consequences of their response to these matters. If your administration and staff have not had an open and direct conversation about how to best support students dealing with these matters, I hope this article will serve as a catalyst for that discussion.
In my work as Director of Community with New Direction Ministries, I am privileged to hear the stories of LGBTQ+ Christians on a daily basis. For those who have attended Christian schools, their memories of school years are often difficult. Here are excerpts from reflections written by five different LGBTQ+ Christians:
“I found [Christian school] traumatic. I remember when I wasn’t even out [as gay] yet I had a couple bullies in my religion class single me out constantly… I didn’t have help from the teacher, instead I had the opposite. I had him not knowing what to do in that situation. Therefore, I suffered.”
“I remember one year, grade 7, my teacher, whom I really liked, spoke with great disdain and disgust (literally, the expression on his face made it look like he had just eaten rotten liver…) about homosexuality… It reinforced the internal pact I had made with myself at the time that I would never come out to anyone, anyhow, at any time, and that as far as ‘Do not tell a lie’ was concerned, ‘except about being gay’ would always be for me footnoted in small print at the bottom of the page. Living with that tension throughout school was really traumatic for me, because on the one hand, I was taught honesty as a virtue, but in order to survive, I felt I had no choice but to lie.”
“The school clearly wasn’t a safe space to be gay. Homophobic slurs were heard all the time. And I remember feeling pressured by peers to fit a strict mould of traditional femininity. I don’t have any memories of my teachers even mentioning LGBTQ people.”
“It almost felt like my teachers were afraid of anything to do with sexuality… It was made clear that any alternative to heterosexuality was something you definitely wanted to avoid, was shameful, and was something to whisper so as to hopefully not bring too much attention to it… it created a stigma that I carried with me unconsciously. It is something that I find myself still having to unpack.”
“The thing about being queer in a Christian school is that if it’s talked about at all, it’s mentioned in inconsiderate jokes or as a sinful choice. How was I possibly supposed to realize and accept that this was actually me when this view was all I knew of being LGBTQ?”
In an increasingly LGBTQ-positive culture, church, Christian school, and faith-based homes can be some of the most difficult places for students who are questioning or considering coming out. A study by the Williams Institute found that approximately 40% of homeless youth in America identify as LGBTQ+, and the most common reason they gave for being homeless was familial rejection (2012). As I’ve talked to front-line support workers, they’ve told me that they are now focusing their energies on reducing the total time LGBTQ+ youth are homeless rather than trying to prevent their homelessness altogether. The reason? They simply don’t feel theologically equipped to convince religious parents to change their posture toward their children. In situations where parents are having difficulty processing their child’s coming out, LGBTQ+ students benefit from having additional trusted Christian adults in whom they can confide, and with whom they can work out their thoughts and feelings.
I know many teachers in Christian schools would love to be advocates and sounding boards for such students, and want to work hard to prevent the kinds of negative Christian school experiences described by my LGBTQ+ Christian friends. Below are some practical ways that teachers can demonstrate their willingness to advocate for LGBTQ+ students, and promote a more positive atmosphere for these students at their schools.
– Explicitly welcome LGBTQ+ students to talk to you. Acknowledge that it can be challenging to be LGBTQ+ in a Christian school. Tell your students to come to you if they or someone else is being bullied, or if they need someone safe with whom to discuss sexuality, gender, or other personal questions. One student told me that he once wrote an essay on the topic of sexuality, and after it had been marked, he discovered a comment from his teacher telling him he was welcome to drop by his office to chat at any time, which the student described as a “breath of fresh air.”
– When students come out to you, honour them. Thank them, and recognize their courage. Avoid making assumptions that their coming out is indicative of a particular theological stance or degree of sexual activity. Ask lots of questions, and let them become your teachers. Use the descriptive terms and the pronouns they use for themselves. Ensure that they are not treated differently than any of your other students. Maintain confidentiality; don’t “out” them to anyone else. Ask how you can best support them.
– Stand up for and highlight all kinds of marginalized people. Study history and read literature from the perspective of women, slaves, or Indigenous people. Be a vocal champion of underdogs. Discuss how Jesus went out of his way to befriend those whom others rejected: prostituted women, tax collectors, and demon-possessed people. Help your students to empathize with and learn from those very different from themselves so that they can become active participants in ensuring everyone is treated fairly.
– Refuse to tolerate hurtful names, comments and jokes. If you overhear students using words like “fag,” “dyke,” the put-down “that’s so gay,” or jokes for which LGBTQ+ people are the punchline, address it immediately and firmly. Remind them of the hurtful effect of their words, especially for their classmates who aren’t straight but who aren’t yet out. Discuss the power of the tongue (James 3:1-12) and the Christian call to use words that bring life and dignity to people made in the image of God.
– Be inclusive in your own language and teaching. We live in a heteronormative society, and this bias is often amplified in Christian contexts. Would a sexual minority student feel invisible or excluded based on the content of your class? Acknowledge with your students that people are sometimes attracted to the same sex, or that they feel like their physical body doesn’t match their gender identity, and that these are realities they don’t choose to experience. Recognize the existence of a variety of families, including LGBTQ+ families. Consider how you might reference LGBTQ+ people who have contributed to the study of the subject(s) you teach, for example, Christian writers like Henri Nouwen, Gerard Manley Hopkins, or Sara Miles.
– Promote more inclusive and extensive sex education in your school. Several former students shared with me that their teachers seemed afraid to even talk about sex, let alone sexuality. This communicated to them that sex, attraction, and even their bodies were dirty and shameful, and that any questions about these things were inappropriate. A lack of education about sex leaves all students vulnerable to diseases and unwanted pregnancies (even same-sex attracted students may engage in “straight sex” in attempt to demonstrate they are not gay). Christian schools are the perfect place for students to not only learn the biology and risks of sex, but more importantly, to examine the deeper meaning of embodiment and the spiritual purpose for God’s good gift of sex.
– Expose students to multiple viewpoints, trusting the Holy Spirit to guide them into all truth. Share your own views (and/or your school’s position) about sexuality and gender identity, but also acknowledge that Christians who take the Bible seriously often disagree on this topic. Familiarize yourself with different views so that you can help students understand and ask critical questions. Point to resources from a variety of perspectives. Encourage vibrant conversation and thorough study, as you do on other subjects. Teach your students to respect one another in the midst of disagreement around theological and ethical questions.
One former Christian school student told me, “The first teachers I [came out] to were ones that I knew weren’t afraid of questions. They had open personalities and exuded empathy and respect for difference.” With this kind of posture, and by putting into practice some of the ideas described above, teachers can become beacons of hope and compassion for students who are mired in self-hatred, shame and fear. For students who may be especially inclined to doubt that they are the beloved of God, teachers can become tangible conduits of God’s love.
If you’re looking for Christian resources about sexuality and gender identity for your classroom, or if you know of LGBTQ+ students who would benefit from connecting with Danice, our Coordinator of Youth Services, please contact us at New Direction Ministries (www.newdirection.ca).
Durso, L.E., and G.J Gates. “Serving Our Youth: Findings from a National Survey of Service Providers Working with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth who are Homeless or At Risk of Becoming Homeless.” 2012. Web. 10 December 2015. http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/Durso-Gates-LGBT-Homeless-Youth-Survey-July-2012.pdf