Why Quiet Tolerance Isn’t Enough: The Danger of Anti-LGBTQ Bullying in Youth and the Church’s Response

* First, I must mention the compelling recent essay by John Russell Stanger about the silence around LGBTQ youth in the church–my rumination on which ultimately inspired this post.

Her name is Hannah, and she is thirteen years old. What she knows about “being gay” is what she’s seen on TV and that part of town her parents grumble about when they go into the city. She doesn’t know if she’s gay. “How do you know for sure?” she wonders. But it doesn’t matter because everyone else at school seems to know for her.

She wakes up in the morning from a dream that terrifies her because it’s about a girl. She counts the steps it takes to walk from her mother’s car to the doors at school, and every step is resistance against the urge to run away. 72.

She’s barely inside the door when it starts, just like she knew it would–just like every day. The whispers, the laughter, the looks. They call her “dyke” and “faggot” as if they’re pronouns—sometimes behind her back, but often to her face. The bathrooms are the worst—no cameras and no teachers. She doesn’t even know what started it, but by now it feels like it’s always been this way.

After school she goes to youth group with her best friend. Things have been weird since someone accused them of being a couple last week, and she wants to make it better. When another kid in the youth group tells his friend that she’s a “dyke from school,” the youth pastor glares at him and says, “We don’t talk like that here.” Hannah can’t tell if it’s more of a warning for the boy or for her.

When her mother asks what’s wrong, the words curdle inside of her. How can she talk about any of this with her mother, who’s never even said the word “sex” in front of her? She wonders if her mother would cry if she came out. Or disown her. She resolves to never find out.

That night she cries instead of sleeping and drags her fingernails deep across the skin of her arm to distract herself from her thoughts. It hurts, but she’s pretty sure her body deserves it. She counts the days until she turns eighteen and wonders if she’ll make it till then. 1,615.

Imagine that Hannah is a teenager you know. And then consider that—statistically speaking—she probably is.

Countless youth face intense, chronic bullying every day. At their heartbreaking worst, these realities far too often lead to suicide and violence. This child-on-child abuse is disturbingly problematic in all of its forms, but there is particular danger in the abusive bullying rooted in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and harassment.

In 2012, the Human Rights Campaign released a comprehensive study of 10,000 American LGBT youth. It revealed that more than twice as many LGBT youth reported being verbally or physically harassed at school than their straight peers. 1/3 of those surveyed disagreed with the statement, “there is at least one adult I can speak to about my problems.” The Trevor Project reports that LGB youth are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers, with a quarter of all transgender teens having made an attempt. Moreover, “each episode of LGBT victimization, such as physical or verbal harassment or abuse, increases the likelihood of self-harming behavior by 2.5 times on average.”

We cannot stand silent in the face of such a reality.

The pervasive shaming and stigma around sex and sexuality in our culture make the prospect of reaching out to adults about anti-LGBTQ bullying an added trauma to the abuse itself. The more intense the nature of such bullying, the more humiliating the idea of reaching out becomes. These youth are more likely to withdraw and repress, which—when it doesn’t lead to overtly self-harming behavior—certainly leads to lasting issues around self worth, identity, and trust.

It is not enough to pick up the pieces after a teen has been shattered. It is not enough to focus on the bullying itself. We must recognize that for LGBTQ young people, our whole society is a bully. Our culture is abusive when it teaches its children to feel ashamed of their own bodies and their own physical desires. We cannot be surprised when they don’t talk if we are teaching them that what they’re struggling with isn’t allowed to be talked about.

We need to build a culture where sex doesn’t mean shame or disgust and where thoughtful, mutual intimacy between people is celebrated. We need to create a society where being LGBTQ is a named and accepted reality and not an insult or a death sentence.

The Church can and must be a major force in this healing work. Nearly 6 in 10 LGBT youth say that the places of worship in their community are not accepting of them (HRC). Historically the church has played a major role in perpetuating oppressive social perspectives on sex generally and particularly non-heterosexuality. But our gospel imperative is to proclaim the God who loves—completely and without qualification—all of God’s children. If the Christian faith is about the sacredness of relationship, then tell me: what space is more appropriate for the celebration of joyful intimacy in its many forms than the church itself? If there are children in our pews or walking past our doors that still wonder if God loves them if they are gay or bi or trans, who wonder if the love and attraction they feel is evil, then we have work to do.

And this is important: We cannot accomplish that work by being quietly tolerant. Youth can only hear the voices that are speaking, and if we are not speaking then we are complicit in the status quo that tramples them and blinds them to the gift of their own life. If we want to liberate them from the shame that they’ve been forced to feel, then we must be unashamed in claiming them. We cannot be afraid to talk about sex and homosexuality because then we teach our children—the bullied and the bullies—that there is something to be afraid of. We cannot worry that it is inappropriate because what they hear is that they are inappropriate. Our silence tells them that they should be silent.

We must name and claim them and seek them out because God seeks them out. We must speak to their experiences because God speaks to their experiences. Not just every once in awhile either, because they are not just LGBTQ every once in awhile. We need to check our hetero-normative assumptions because they tell our young people that there is a certain way to be “normal.” And we need to do this, not just for our LGBTQ youth, but for all of our youth because if it is our job to teach them to reflect the love of God, then we must start by teaching them that love is diverse. That is its beauty. And ours.

We cannot stand silent. Our silence speaks, and we have better things to say.

One thought on “Why Quiet Tolerance Isn’t Enough: The Danger of Anti-LGBTQ Bullying in Youth and the Church’s Response

  1. The real horror in this, is in the very first paragraph… she is only 13, only knows that she sees on tv and hears from others what ‘gay’ even means, and doesn’t know whether she is or not, others have decided it FOR her. Whether it is being ‘gay’, a ‘whore’, or any other ugly word thrown at people like a poisoned dart, even for things there is nothing “wrong” with or about, but made to seem shameful just by speaking them in tones of disgust and shaming, that is the very basis for bullying. It is used to tear others down, whether it is to accuse the athletic girl or studious boy of being gay, the attractive girl/woman of being a whore, or the gifted of “thinking they are better than everyone else.”
    I have grandchildren in school, that at the tender ages under 10 yrs, little boys as rambunctious and typical boy in all ways, have already come home upset at having been cruelly treated, pushed around, spat upon, being called “gay”, and not even knowing what the word meant! Along with a granddaughter, as young as first grade, coming home from school equally upset, sometimes even with clothes torn, and scratched and bruised, being called a ‘whore!’
    Do we have to ask where the kinds doing this came up with such outrageous things to fling at other children?

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