This season, Americans of all religious stripes this year may have to admit to their children that they’ve been perpetrating an untruth. At a time when we’re told not to forget the “reason for the season,” many must close the door on a part of their son’s or daughter’s childhood and tell him or her that certain stories about mostly-eaten cookies, hand-scrawled notes, and soot smeared on the floor were really not true. But life for those children will go on. They’ll just be a little older and a little wiser. Not so for our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender children.
For some families like Jane and Joe Clementi, whose son Tyler killed himself in 2010 after being bullied and humiliated for being gay, this holiday season will be a far more difficult one. These families and others have suffered a tragic loss because their children were made to believe ending their lives would be better than growing up gay in America. The day-to-day gifts of joy they gave their parents, siblings and friends stopped with their deaths – and nothing will make what could have been their futures, their lives and their gifts to those around them a reality.
There is a common culprit here: the misuse of religious teachings to justify stigma and hostility against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals, especially youth. Let’s hope that during this season, people across this nation will pause for a moment to recognize that this is just as wrong today as it has been in the past.
I used to be on the side of that stigma. I used to believe that LGBT identity was incompatible with scripture – that LGBT youth had no choice but to either attempt to become straight, or to lead celibate lives, denying their sexuality altogether. But I came to recognize that I was wrong, and that we are all equal in the sight of God. To that end, I helped co-found Faith in America, which works to end the harm to LGBT Americans from religion-based bigotry. And we have just launched a new Web site, Faith and Equality, which features the voices of men and women like Jane Clementi, to promote a message that all of us – especially LGBT youth and their families – need to hear: that religious conviction and LGBT equality are not opposing values, but are one and the same.
For if there is not clarity in the minds of some people of faith as to why the anti-gay religious industry’s war must end now, it really should be obvious. Do we as communities of faith want to support a social climate that would make a young person feel death is preferable over life? What a terrible lot for a faith community if that is the case – and unfortunately it is, thanks to many in our society who seek to plunder the souls of LGBT youth.
James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, recently linked marriage equality to the school shooting in Newtown, Conn. As astonishing as that sounds, some pastors have been even more direct in saying God is punishing America because of the mere existence of gay people.
For most adults, such diatribes seem absurd. However, to an LGBT 12-year-old, 15-year-old, or 19-year-old, these painful messages are often taken in rather than cast off. As it enters the psyche of that young person, it tears them to pieces. Our youth hear that they are sinners, unclean, undeserving of the same rights that other Americans enjoy, and unworthy of God’s love – much less ours. We believe that anti-LGBT rhetoric becomes an action.
Gay and lesbian individuals are not the only Americans who have been relegated to second-class citizenship at the hand of misguided religious teachings. African-Americans were once labeled as a cursed lot. Women also have been denied equality in this country, as many believed they stood more in favor with their God by standing opposed to full equality for women.
Many religious Americans look back on those periods in history and recognize these teachings as misused and misconstrued to deny African Americans and women full equality. Yet too many Americans today fail to view the history of religion-based bigotry against gay and lesbian citizens with the same clarity and fairness.
If one segment of society should shout out its opposition to violence against youth, it should be our faith communities and persons of faith. Whether the outward violence of a sick individual or the violence that is inflicted through more subtle emotional, psychological and spiritual wounds, this holiday season must mark a new beginning.
Let’s resolve that 2013 will be the point in history where we no longer offer the imprimatur of respectability to the notion that a person’s sexual orientation is something to be shamed and condemned, nor to anyone who promotes that notion
Here Faith In America asks of people of faith of all stripes beginning today, throughout the holiday period and throughout every year to come: When you are sitting at the table of fellowship, and someone implies that the affirmation of LGBT people is somehow a moral stain on our society, speak up for what you know is right.
Let the person know that his or her attitudes and words in fact demean the very ideals of joy and peace that the holiday represents. In your own way, tell those sitting around you that it is time to put religion-based stigma and hostility against gay and lesbian people in its rightful place as a great social injustice of the past.
Let the youth sitting at that table hear this truth.
Brent Childers serves as executive director of Faith In America, an advocacy organization working to educate the public about the harm caused to LGBT youth and families by religion-based bigotry.