As a gay youth, I attended church like I attempted suicide: half-heartedly, with a lack of conviction, and pretty sure it wasn’t for me. That makes me one of the lucky ones.
Growing up in Wilmington, Del., in the 1970s and 1980s, I had no idea how lucky I was to be brought up in a hodge-podge of faith traditions. My parents were raised in different Protestant traditions, but my mother had converted to Catholicism to marry (and shortly divorce) her first husband. They had an ethical and moral basis in the teachings of Christianity, but neither was particularly connected to the trappings of any specific tradition. They were married in the Episcopal Church, the best option for a divorced woman in 1971. Early on, and because of that choice, they were part of a congregation that was less judgmental of difference.
Additionally, since my parents had met onstage in community theatre, they had many friends who were gay and this was the world into which I was born. I went to Sunday school for a few years and went to services on Christmas Eve and on Easter Sunday. We always said grace before dinner, and even if it was a simple “God is Great, God is Good” version, acknowledged that we were part of something bigger and greater. That was the extent of my religious upbringing. God existed, we had a tradition of casually thanking him, and there were some good teachings in the stories of the Bible.
It wasn’t until I came out to them in the late '80s that the subtle insidiousness of church teachings reared its head. Despite having gay friends in the theatre, in their social groups and even in our living room on a regular basis, having a gay son was not an option my mother wanted to consider. I was told I could never bring a boyfriend home, and she openly confessed to worrying what people would think of her. She worried that people would think she was a bad mother and that she’d done something wrong when they found out she had a gay son.
This was not the reaction I expected. Nowhere in her secular life was I given any clue that she would feel any differently about a gay son. Years later, as I reflected on this painful (and thankfully, brief) period, I came to understand that it must have been feelings ingrained by her own religious upbringing. No, I don’t think she believed that being gay was a sin, or that I was going to hell, but we never went to church for God. We went to church because that is what was done. We went to church to be seen going to church, and whether or not she personally believed in sin, she may have worried that some of the people in her church-going social circle might.
I was lucky. Like most LGBTQ+ youth, when I started feeling different and out of place (Steven Carrington on Dynasty was the only significant LGBTQ+ character on TV in those days), I was confused. I was depressed. I was anxious. I’d been the subject of bullying for most of my life, (although as a ginger who couldn’t catch a baseball, it’s hard to attribute all of that to being pre-gay). There was even a night when suicidal ideation drove me to the point of scratching my wrists. I struggled, but I never struggled because of a direct fear of God or hell. Even as my mother reacted out of character, it was never my perception that religion was an issue. In the absence of other factors and in the presence of other LGBTQ+ people in her social circles leads me to believe that the religion of her upbringing had coded these feelings deep into her subconscious, and that is where religion became an issue for me.
For too many LGBTQ+ teens, though, religion IS the issue. According to data from a 2011 study from the University of Texas at Austin’s Research Consortium , gay and lesbian youth who reported that religion was important to them were 38 percent more likely to have had recent suicidal thoughts. (The inherent sexism in our society is also evident when you consider that the same data set reports that for lesbians alone, religion was associated with a 52 percent increased likelihood of suicidal ideation). Only 5 percent of the heterosexual youth surveyed had considered suicide.
No person, no matter their sexual or affectional orientation, their gender, their class, their beliefs or their interests should be made to feel inferior, particularly in a community that is meant to provide support and love. Religious bullying, whether direct, or in my mother’s case, subconscious, can serve as one of the most destructive forms of bullying and more has to be done to prevent it. Faith communities must support their most marginalized members, including those who are LGBTQ+ and already at highest risk of suicide.
Religious-based bullying of LGBTQ+ people is insidious. It can lead to isolation, disrespect, and exclusion. According to the National LGBTQ Task Force, nearly 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ+, and many of them are likely homeless because their families’ faith could not accept them for who they are. Worse, it is killing LGBTQ+ young people.
It could have been much worse for me; my parents’ church didn’t preach that homosexuality was bad. However, it also didn’t affirm that we can embrace and accept people of different sexual orientation or gender identities. In the 1970s and 1980s, that might have been asking too much, but today is different. About 15 years ago, I was working for an independent school that followed the Episcopal tradition. The chaplain of the school worked with me to create a World AIDS Day Evensong for the 5th-to-8th-grade students and was eager to embrace difference and diversity.
We need more faith-based institutions to take that path. If indeed we are all God’s creatures, created in Her image, then we have a moral obligation to embrace each other’s differences: true faith doesn’t bully. It is about love and support. I’m proud to have recently joined the team at the Tyler Clementi Foundation, where our “True Faith Doesn’t Bully” campaign is working to provide tailored resources to help faith communities affirm the value of the lives of every single individual, no matter their identity.
I’m now proud of my mother and her journey. As she got older, she reassessed her own needs for a faith tradition and joined a Unitarian fellowship. Her own personal connection to the god of her understanding was strengthened in an atmosphere of love and acceptance, and she finally found a community that reflected who she was, not who she thought she ought to be. We all deserve that.
MICHAEL BARRET JONES is the director of development at the Tyler Clementi Foundation.