When discussing anti-bullying initiatives, many Christians are quite concerned about parents who have to deal with school curricula discussing LGBT issues by talking to their kids about these issues earlier than they’d like. Why are they so often not as concerned about parents who have to bury their middle and high school kids knowing that they killed themselves because they couldn’t handle the pain of what they were going through? Although it’s hard to collect accurate statistics, the best research we have pretty consistently shows that around one in three LGBT teenagers goes so far as to attempt suicide. We have a very real problem on our hands, one that is killing people. While no doubt bullying is not the only cause of suicide attempts by LGBT people, it is often a huge contributing factor. As Christians, we have a responsibility to consider more than just sexual ethics, and to have compassion for “the least of these” who face mistreatment and whose lives are at risk.
Of course, nearly all Christians believe that bullying is wrong, whether related to sexuality or not. However, I think we often fail to understand some important realities regarding anti-gay bullying in particular. For example, it is important to consider the broader social and cultural environments that bullying takes place within. Far too often Christians provide condemnation without grace when it comes to LGBT issues. Even in broader environments, LGBT teenagers are frequently told that they’re disgusting perverts. They may not be told so to their face, but the message is pervasive enough that it can lead to a lot of internalized shame. I definitely faced this to some degree growing up in a conservative Christian environment and finding myself attracted to both sexes, even though I wasn’t sexually active and held to a traditional sexual ethic. Many LGBT teens are hit much harder than I was. LGBT teens often feel that they are so worthless that bullying towards them doesn’t matter, and generic opposition to bullying rings hollow. I strongly encourage people to read a powerful memoir expressing this, written by a woman who is now a Christian with a conservative understanding of sexual ethics, at My Day of Silence 2009 Post, A Year and A Month Late. She describes how it seemed that everyone hated gay people, and as a result she was “drowning in a sea of hate.” She then goes on to say that it would have been helpful to know that someone thought what was happening was wrong. Let the weight of that sink in.
In recent years, organizations and individuals that affirm gay relationships have made significant efforts to address anti-gay bullying and to save lives. They’ve created the Day of Silence and Spirit Day for straight people to express their solidarity with victims of anti-gay bullying. They’ve created the It Gets Better project to tell teenagers that there is hope for them – a necessary message for anyone considering suicide. Although the people behind these initiatives do promote gay relationships, the goal of these initiatives is primarily to provide support for people who are mistreated and may be considering suicide. We should recognize that they are responding to legitimate injustices and are not merely trying to change minds about sexual ethics. If only those who affirm gay relationships are willing to speak out against injustice, do you think LGBT people will want to listen to anyone else?
I see a few predominant responses from conservative Christians. Many are afraid to address the issue at all, for fear of appearing to affirm gay relationships. Others openly complain about anti-bullying initiatives on the basis of disagreements with the organizers, but don’t offer any alternatives that will be equally effective in saving lives. Jesus called this sort of thing “straining a gnat but swallowing a camel.” In both cases, in the minds of some, rather than appearing like we might condone gay relationships, we instead appear not to really mind bullying against gay people. This isn’t to say that sexual ethics don’t matter or that we need to compromise on them, but rather that the issues surrounding bullying matter immensely and that it is wrong to ignore them.
Here’s my question: where are the conservative Christian responses to bullying that address the real issues of shame, hopelessness, mistreatment, and such? How are we working to save the lives of these vulnerable teenagers? I do know of some excellent Christian ministries that are doing good work in this area that we should all learn from. Bill Henson’s Lead Them Home and Shawn Harrison’s six11 Ministries immediately come to mind. They both recognize that there is more at stake than whether people are living according to traditional Christian sexual ethics. They recognize that suicidal tendencies need to be dealt with, and that simply preaching about sexual ethics is often counterproductive when it makes people feel more worthless. They recognize that LGBT people need to see their worth in the eyes of God and others, and to see that life can get better. They show a great willingness to listen to LGBT people, going out of their way to do so, rather than just preaching at them. They’re not afraid to speak up for those who are mistreated, and to speak against those who bully and oppress. Above all, they treat LGBT people as human beings who have infinite worth, not primarily as issues or political opponents. My exhortation is to learn from them and to show more concern for victims of bullying – there is much more to be done. We must do this regardless of the degree to which we are (or are not) at fault for the way LGBT people are mistreated – our example is Jesus, who gave his life to redeem a situation that was clearly not his fault. Let’s show the love of Christ to those who are hurting.