Religion-based bigotry harms youth

By Mitchell Gold In the past few weeks, the shocking number of suicides by gay teenagers has sparked a serious … Continued

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.

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  • BillJ4321

    My parents found out I was gay when I was 16. They gave me $100.00 and my backpack, and told me never to return or contact them again. That was over 25 years ago. Have not heard from mother, father or 3 siblings since, nor any extended family. I have worked very, very hard for many years and am now quite successful financially & personally, with a 10 year relationship & waiting to marry as soon as I get my rights back in California. Could not have asked for a better life. Never imagined I could or would have it so well in so many ways. Wouldn’t trade places with a single person I know – gay or otherwise.Years have earned me the deep understanding that I am far better off without people in my life who would choose religious dogma over their own son & brother.It really does get better. It is not easy. Nothing important is. But it DOES & WILL get better.

  • magriebel

    Bravo Bill. I found much the same thing. I came out later than most, at age 35, but my life is everything it should have been so many years before. Sad it took so long for me to see the reality. I too lost my family and friends, but what I have built since then is worth it all and more. Loving partner, happy kids, a financial security. Life is good and it does get better!

  • karen541

    Thank you for an excellent article.

  • joe_allen_doty

    Church denominations like the Assemblies of God and the United Pentecostal Church International actually have bigotry in their official beliefs about homosexuality. The proof-text scriptures completely out of their original contexts to suit their own agendas.

  • Sinnerviewer

    3 years ago, at the age of 38, I came out to my husband and family. When my Southern Baptist church leaders found out that I was a lesbian, they announced my “sin” in a public worship service that they requested my children to be present for. They told me that all of my prayers to God to change me were not answered because I was not sincere enough. A year later, they dis-fellowshipped me from the congregation and prayed for the death of my sin, including my physical death, to keep me from bringing reproach upon the name of Christ.The church hooked my ex up with an expensive lawyer and I lost my 2 kids, my home, my rental properties, my dog and 90% of household items. I had only been a home-maker my whole adult life and it was their joy to tell me and others who might also be considering such sin that “the way of a transgressor is hard.” Yes, it has been hard to see these “Christians” behave this way. It has been hard to do without and start my life over from scratch. It has been hard to be gossiped about at my childrens’ school and sporting events and to be left off of the family events invitations. It has been hard not to have my own mother in my life anymore.What has been easy is living my truth. I am a lesbian. I have always been a lesbian. Even when I was a foster mom, a hospice volunteer, a church librarian and a homeschooling mom of 2 amazing kids. They only difference is that now, other people have new information about me. I have not changed and am now living happily as myself, not the perfect Christian housewife that I pretended to be to get love, acceptance and approval.

  • RandiReitan

    I want to thank Mitchell Gold for this wonderful letter.When our son came out to us at age 16, we turned to a pastor for guidance. He told us that homosexuality was a sin and our son should see a therapist to change. Fortunately, we then looked to the medical community to help us understand homosexuality. We were told to love and accept our son as a young gay man. If we needed help in understanding homosexuality, we should be the ones to see a therapist. We love our son very much and it gives me such hope to know there are people like Mitchell Gold fighting hard to bring understanding and equality. My love and thanks to you, Mitchell!

  • potaboc

    I find the article totally dishonest in its presentation of the facts. It is my understanding that religions do not condemn homosexuality as such; they condemn homosexual actions by those who have that trait. Surely no one (at least I hope no one) would say a religion should not condemn an action as being morally wrong. Beyond that, I doubt many people who hold the author’s position would be comfortable with allowing pedophile behavior on the basis that the pedophile has that inclination.

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    potabocBy comparing gay people to pedophiles, when you you know there is no valid comparision, you are part of the problem.People like you are the reason why many young gay people choose suicide.I can just imagine your phoney innocent reply, “who? me?”

  • CuriousGeorge404

    Tony Perkins needs to remember the bible teaches that God has love and compassion for all of his children. The problem is Tony tends to focus on a few certain passages and then stretch what the bible actually says; especially when it comes to homosexuality.Perhaps Tony should accept that the world is full of hate and the bible teaches love – love for all people and love for people who view things in a different way than he does.If parents speak to their children and educate them about how it is wrong to bully and pick on kids due to their beliefs; due to their faith; and know that God loves all of his children maybe some of these recent suicides could have been prevented.My words to Tony is that we all live our lives to the fullest and one day when we parrish we will be judged for the person we were – we are all persons who sin and we will all be judged for those sins – Speak to your group about the ability to love your fellow friends and to accept others that view life differently than you may.To those who speak of marriage being between one man and one woman must remember the bible says marriage is for life and for the sole purpose of procreation is childbearing – so when Divorce is outlawed (yes doesnt that sound silly) and couples who do not have children are punished – I say – all men and women will be judged by our god – it is not your job to create a society that is hateful.

  • Carstonio

    Surely no one (at least I hope no one) would say a religion should not condemn an action as being morally wrong.The problem is not the condemnations themselves, but the justifications often made for them. Many (not all) of those justifications are simply appeals to alleged authority. Morality is about pursuing one’s own happiness in ways that do not hinder others’ pursuit of their own happiness. The morality of a specific action is about whether the action helps or harm others. By that standard, there’s nothing intrinsically immoral about either homosexuality or “homosexual actions.” And even outside of religion, homosexuality is often deemed immoral because it’s “abnormal” or “deviant.” That wrongly assumes that morality is about conformance, as if prevalence or the lack of it was an indicator of something’s goodness or badness. That’s really another form of appeal to authority. It’s almost the reverse of the old parental adage about jumping off bridges, where the fact that most people don’t jump is treated as a reason that one shouldn’t do it as well.

  • karenhou

    I was taught “love the sinner, hate the sin” and so I often worried about the salvation of the many gay friends God brought into my life. My church’s teaching did make me feel wrong to even encourage and support my friends in leading a happy gay life. That is until I realized that the sin my church was instructing me to hate was the very existence of my gay friends who could not possibly change what God had made them to be. “Hating the sin” is hating our brothers, sisters, sons and daughters and it must stop. We’ve gone through a time where educated and progressive folk have minimized the impact of religion and churches on our lives as quaint or irrelevant. Thank God for Gold who has stood up and said organized religion is still important in our culture and religious leaders must take seriously the seeds of hate they knowingly or unknowingly sow. Spiritual leaders should be happy for this opportunity to take love and caring for our society to the next level.

  • Carstonio

    the sin my church was instructing me to hate was the very existence of my gay friends who could not possibly change what God had made them to beWhile I appreciate the principles of your post, I’m leery of using the immutability of sexual orientation as a reason not to hate gays. That might imply that gays would deserve that hate if it was their choice to be gay.

  • BenInOakland

    Love the sinner, hate the sin– what an easy way to avoid any responsibility, and make yourself out to be so much better than you actually are.Of course you don’t hate us. you really, really love us. you love us so much that you will do anything you can to make the our lives as difficult, unpleasant, and dangerous as possible– the lives of people you don’t know, know nothing about, and who have done you no harm except to exist and demand our right to be treated the same as everyone else.Of course you love us. You really, REALLY love us. You just hate our disease spreading, love perverting, child molesting, morality endangering, religious freedom destroying, military compromising, family unravelling, country decaying, same-sex-lusting, public-fornicating, marriage ruining, family wrecking, military compromising, religious freedom hating, god detesting, Christian disparaging, faith villifying, society-endangering ways. And really, where on earth is there room for hate in all of that?It is one thing to disapprove of homosexuality. i think it is stupid, wasteful, soul destroying, pointless, and wrong headed, based upon fear, prejudice, and ignornace, but who am I to judge?It is quite another thing to tell lies, distort research, bastardize biblical “truth’, and demonize people you don’t know and who have done you no harm.But the true evil is to pretend that you do all of that out of love.but the real evil

  • anonymouszion

    Instead of finding fault in the university for not being stringent on privacy regulations, anti-bully behavior and cyber harassment, Gold is using these suicides as a platform to say that religious rhetoric needs to change. What needs to change is gay-bashing and the idea that homosexuality is the greatest sin of all. True Christians understand that no part of the Bible condones bullying and ostracizing anyone for any sin. But don’t ask Christians to rewrite the Bible. No matter how loving and compassionate a Christian is, no matter how much they denounce hate crime, and those who misconstrue Christianity to support hateful acts, some want the Bible itself to be reworded. Why can’t people respect religious views as long as they don’t interfere with their personal lifestyle? What happened to respecting American ideology of separation of church and state and freedoms of religion? Gold instead chooses to cite hateful acts from fringe groups of those who do disparaging things in the name of Christianity, and paints all Christians with a broad brush. He pushes his agenda further by saying that all gay people who commit suicide, suffer with depression or a mental illness, take abusive substances or act in any destructive behavior are doing so as a result of religious teachings. Gold’s political motive is clear–to paint all unhappy homosexuals as victims of religious, anti-gay bullying that lead to their detriment–no matter what bad experiences he or she may have had.