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By Mitchell Gold
In the past few weeks, the shocking number of suicides by gay teenagers has sparked a serious national discussion about the root causes of anti-gay harassment and bullying. Across the country, parents, school officials, legislators, religious leaders, and others are recognizing that young people are deeply harmed by the message that being gay is sinful and wrong. For the first time, many voices are calling for accountability from groups and public figures who misuse religion to justify anti-gay bigotry.
Not surprisingly, those who have made careers of promoting anti-gay views are fighting back. Last week, Tony Perkins, the director of the Family Research Council, attacked those who “lay blame at the feet of conservative Christians who teach that homosexual conduct is wrong.” In an guest voices column for On Faith, Perkins cynically denied any connection between the harassment of gay youth and the belief that gay people are sinful and disordered. According to Perkins, all responsibility must be placed on the bully, and not on religious teachings that condemn homosexuality as a threat to society. Incredibly, Perkins claimed that if gay youth commit suicide, it is because they “recognize intuitively that their same-sex attractions are abnormal,” not because of rejection by family, friends, and religious leaders.
Perkin’s distortion of scientific research and callous disregard for the harm caused by his anti-gay views have been widely condemned, and rightly so. And yet the views he expressed are shared by millions of Americans of integrity and good will who genuinely love and care for their gay children and family members. For decades, anti-gay religious leaders have taught that homosexuality is not an innate aspect of a person’s identity, but a sinful choice to engage in immoral and abnormal conduct. Many people of faith have been deeply influenced by those teachings and have internalized them with little thought or reflection.
But unlike professional anti-gay advocates such as Perkins, most people who hold these views are genuinely unaware of the harm they are causing to gay youth. Tragically, many well-meaning and loving parents and family members who have been exposed to these teachings mistakenly believe they are protecting a gay child by rejecting their child and doing all they can to force the child to stop being gay. As a result, many gay teens are kicked out of their homes or sent to therapists who try to change their sexual orientation because their parents have been taught their child is choosing “an immoral lifestyle.” Many loving grandparents reject a gay or lesbian grandchild because their church group said they must do so “for the child’s own good.” Too often, young people are ostracized by their families at the very time they most need their love and support–because the families have been taught that is what God would want them to do.
In reality, however, sexual orientation is a God-given trait–not a “choice.” There is not a shred of evidence it can be changed. And just as is true for heterosexual people, it is a very central and important part of one’s being. When parents reject or punish a child for being gay, they are rejecting the essence of who their children are as people.
That rejection can have deadly consequences. Gay youth who are rejected or ostracized by their families are at high risk of depression, substance abuse, HIV infection, and dropping out of school. They are also at least four times more likely than other youth to commit suicide. For gay youth who are sent to a therapist who tries to change their sexual orientation, that risk is even higher. Let me emphasize, it is not their being gay that puts them at risk but rather how they are treated by their parents and clergy. And by people like Tony Perkins.
During my visits with people of faith in all parts of the country, I have spoken with Evangelicals, Catholics, Protestants and Jews who have been taught that homosexuality is immoral and wrong. Almost invariably, they are surprised and concerned when they hear about the harms caused by those teachings. Many have told me they had not fully considered the impact on a gay young person of being told that he is sinful and abnormal, or that he will be cut off from God’s love unless he can do the impossible and change who he is.
It is tragic that it has taken the death of so many young people in the past few weeks to focus national attention on the impact of anti-gay beliefs and the central role played by anti-gay religious leaders in promoting those beliefs. Once people of faith are made aware of these facts, they must ask themselves whether causing such severe harm to young people can exist comfortably with their deepest religious values.
True faith, compassion, and love do not ask any person to harm another human being. The past weeks have made the harm caused by anti-gay attitudes painfully clear. People of faith must ask whether they are complicit in causing such devastation and whether their beliefs give them the right to judge and condemn others–even when those beliefs may convince a young person that he would rather be dead than gay.
Mitchell Gold is co-founder of renowned home furnishings brand Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, and founder of Faith in America, a 501 C-3 non profit whose mission is to educate about the harm caused to LGBT Americans by religion based bigotry; and in 2008, published a book entitled CRISIS: 40 Personal Stories Revealing The Personal, Social and Religious Pain And Trauma Of Growing Up Gay In America.