A VIRTUAL LISTENING TOUR: Saving the Lives of Our LGBTQ Youth

This is the sixth instalment in Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s Fifty Years after Stonewall: A Virtual Listening Tour. We urge our readers to forward the articles in this series to their diocesan bishops and parish priests. We beg our hierarchy and clergy to listen, attentively, reflectively, and prayerfully.
We ensure complete anonymity if you wish to write for this series between now and the end of June.

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When I was a college student in a Logic & Rhetoric class, the professor asked me to participate in a debate taking the position that “practicing homosexuality is morally okay.” As a liturgically-minded Presbyterian attending a Southern Baptist University and majoring in Philosophy and Biblical Studies, I didn’t have any clue where to begin. I was clearly meant to lose the debate. I mean, the other team had the Bible on their side.

So I called up my gay cousin.

He attended church! He was out and proud. How did he reconcile these two seemingly diametrically opposed positions?

My conversations with him were literally the first time—the very first time in my entire life—that I’d heard any position other than the standard Evangelical one that argues that “the gays” are “living in sin” and are maybe even bound for hell if they don’t repent.

I began to see that so much of how Evangelicals interpret the Bible is based upon the teachings of different traditions, that good (and even great) people with sincerely held Christian beliefs disagreed about fundamental things. From infant baptism to the meaning of salvation, it’s all a toss-up and entirely possible to be argued into and out of certain denominations.

Years later, I found Orthodoxy.

Fast forward fifteen years from then, and I’m now a mother of three who still calls myself Orthodox, although now with a small measure of trepidation. It is, hands down, the truest, least misleading way to talk about, know, and enjoy God. The tools that the Church gives us—from daily Psalter readings to cycles of prayer to confession—all work together with God’s grace to transform us into the kind of people who can literally commune with God. God is Himself a triunity, a community within Himself of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and I believe He revels in our finding community not only with Him, but with each other as a way for us to know and be known.

With that said, I struggle with finding my place in the Church.

Why’s that?

I think it began one Monday morning four years ago. I sat in my living room enjoying a quiet cup of coffee and contemplated what to do with this new phase of life. All my kids were in school now, you see. I suddenly faced a lot of free time and asked God how I would fill this void. The answer was simple: volunteer work.

I’d recently heard about The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention crisis center for LGBTQ+ youth (with “youth” defined as 24 and under). I’d read that the suicide rate for LGBTQ teens was five times that of their non-LGBTQ peers, that suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 10-24, and that 1 out of 6 students in the US contemplated suicide in the past year.

So I began a journey that morning. I decided to open my heart like the mother I am, and like our mother Mary to find my purpose in giving birth to Christ in the world.

What did that look like?

Well, first, it involved a whole lot of listening. Jesus said, “Let the little children come unto me, and do not forbid them, for such is the kingdom of heaven.” His point was clear. Children are not a disturbance. They are treasures worthy of His time and attention (and ours).

At a different point, the disciples were arguing about who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven and finally asked Jesus to settle their debate. So He called over a child and said, “Listen up, homies, unless you change and become like a child, you will never even see the kingdom of heaven.”

What can these LGBTQ children even teach us?

I heard story after story of Christian children telling me they’d prayed ceaselessly that God would make them straight and/or gender-conforming. They wanted, with a fiery passion and all their hearts’ desire, to be holy and loved and normal. They didn’t want to be LGBTQ. They struggled with the thought that their parents may not love them unconditionally, that God may not love them unconditionally. They all felt that something inside them was just … broken. That only God could fix it. Many of them had been praying these things and feeling this way faithfully for a decade or longer.

I learned that almost no children raised in religious homes actually want or “decide” to be LGBTQ when they’re young.

I heard stories from children who’d been kicked out of their Christian homes when they were 14 for telling their parents they were gay. They’d gone years living on people’s couches; some had fallen into prostitution as the only way to make ends meet. They were children, and then had been rejected by the people who were supposed to give them safe harbor. Were they even worthy of love?

I learned that despite the Church’s unfailing teachings that God made us in His image and is Himself LOVE, many LGBTQ youth struggle to accept God’s unconditional love because they feel unworthy and betrayed by the people they’d previously trusted to love them.

I heard from LGB young people who’d been sent away to “conversion therapy” camps.  They’d been forced to endure what the US government calls “enhanced interrogation techniques,” but these torturous methods were deployed by a group of Christians in authority over them—with the consent of their parents—in order to “rehabilitate” them so that they could be straight again. Worse still, they’d discovered through personal experience what doctors and psychiatrists have been telling us for a while. You can’t actually stop being LGBTQ. These kinds of therapy can only harm the spirit and psyche.

I learned that while many LGBTQ children can endure unimaginable personal suffering and still find the strength to face each new day, others have all hope of a kind future stripped from them and wish only for the blissful release from suffering that they imagine death to be.

I heard from children in unsafe homes and school environments. They’d been beaten by their parents for being LGBTQ, bullied by other kids at school. They’d been called crude and unimaginative names, over and over. They’d been re-traumatized on a weekly or sometimes daily basis. One young woman reported looking at her reflection in the eyes and repeating these words like a mantra as she wiped away tears, “Suck it up, self. You can do this. You can endure anything. Just smile. Nod. That’s good. Put all this in a box and file it away in a dark closet. There you go. Now is what matters. Right now you can go out there and face those people.” She’d looked into an intact mirror and seen the shattered reflection of her compartmentalized self, a coping strategy that mental health professionals will tell you works…until it doesn’t.

I learned that LGBTQ youth feel unsafe, and they’ve self-taught sophisticated compartmentalization strategies in order to cope with the trauma of their everyday life. 

Who exactly are these LGBTQ youth? Is it likely you know some? The answer is a resounding yes.

According to a recent study reported on by both Vice and Out, less than half of US teens identify as straight (“exclusively heterosexual”). The future? It’s “queer as a two dollar bill,” to use a Southern colloquialism. We are facing a generation of mostly non-heterosexual youth, or at least a generation of young people where the majority are unwilling to rule out the possibility of same-sex love for their own lives.

How then are we supposed to respond to this new generation? How are we supposed to do as the Most-Holy Theotokos did and give birth to Christ in their lives and hearts? How are we supposed to do as Jesus did and welcome them to us and become like them for the sake of our own salvation?

I believe it starts with listening. We must have open hearts that hear what they say and measure our responses with compassion. A compassionate response to trauma is almost always validation.

A conspiracy of silence, or worse yet telling people who suffer this trauma that they are “better off never having been born,” is the opposite of validation. Telling LGBTQ youth that their mere existence is an affront to God is the opposite of validation. Responding negatively to an LGBTQ person’s story with phrases like “Why can’t you just not talk about that around me? I love you, but I don’t need to hear about this,” and “That was over a decade ago, why can’t you let go of the past?” are the opposite of validation. A lack of validation undermines a trauma victim’s sense of reality and puts him or her in danger of developing psychosis.

Validation is simple. It’s easy. It literally costs the listener nothing. Validation means believing what the other person is telling you about themselves, what they experienced, and what they’re feeling. That’s it.

Research has repeatedly shown that when trauma victims can talk freely about their trauma to someone who is compassionately listening and who validates their experience, they show signs of healing and improvement. Even without active therapy. Even without medical intervention.

When thought about in light of LGBTQ youth suicide risks, validation can literally save lives.

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