Spiritual Friendship does not have a lot in common with the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN). On most questions related to sexuality, we hold positions very different from theirs. It is unlikely that they would endorse our approach, and we do not endorse theirs. But we do share a concern with the way sexual minority youth are treated. Two years ago, Jeremy Erickson wrote a post about the Day of Silence, which also linked to this 2010 Day of Silence post from Disputed Mutability, who is a friend of this blog. Jeremy also recommended Bill Henson’s Lead Them Home and Shawn Harrison’s six:11 Ministries as organizations that address anti-gay bullying in a way that is faithful to a traditional Christian sexual ethic.
Some Christians have raised the concern that anti-bullying efforts like the Day of Silence can be used to silence Christians. I believe that the most effective way to address that problem is to make it clear that traditional Christian convictions about sexual ethics are no barrier to acknowledging and trying to fix the bullying that LGBT youth experience. I think that all bullying is important and needs to be addressed. But in order to do that effectively, it’s not enough to just say “bullying is bad.” We need to understand different types of bullying and make sure that our anti-bullying policies are adequate to address all of the problems that need to be addressed. And that means understanding and specifically addressing the concerns of sexual minority youth.
I am not involved with either primary or secondary education. I am not, therefore, in the best position to make policy recommendations, or even to understand fully what the actual situation on the ground is today. I imagine it is quite different from what it was when I was in high school, but I believe that, in at least some parts of the country, the environment is still quite hostile for LGBT youth.
And in one respect, at least, I know that the problem is much worse now than it was in the early 1990s. When I was in high school, I remember homosexuality being mentioned only a half dozen times or so at church. Today, the discussion is inescapable. And as difficult as some of the things I experienced in my teens were, I never had to read a Crisis Magazine comment thread. Internet comments sometimes bring out the very worst in human nature, and if I had read some of those comment threads as a teen, I think it is quite possible I would have been permanently alienated from Christian faith. Jesus said, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:5-6). Many of the comments about homosexuality at Crisis and other Christian publications are a very public expression of the deadly sin of wrath. This calls for a serious examination of conscience and a repentance that is as public as the original sin. Only public humility and repentance can begin to undo the damage to Christian witness done by this kind of public self-righteousness. In this regard, it’s worth remembering that Jesus was not crucified by a conspiracy of sexual sinners: it was the self-righteous religious pundits of His day who plotted to have Him murdered.
In this post, I want to talk a bit about my own experience, in order to highlight some of the ways that it is difficult to be sexually different in adolescence—especially in a culture like ours, which makes sexuality so central to identity, and is divided by such sharp conflicts over sexual ethics.
Long before I had any idea what the words “fag” or “queer” meant, I learned that they are among the worst insults in the book. I heard them thrown around at recess. I thought of them as generic terms of abuse, not words that referred to any specific desires. They were mainly emotive, rather than descriptive terms. That is, they were more often used to indicate the abuser’s contempt for his victim than to make accurate observations about the victim’s sexual orientation.
Although I heard words like “fag” and “homo” used as insults, certainly in middle school and perhaps in elementary school, I never thought they had any connection with me. I don’t remember thinking much about them before high school, though I knew the words and knew they were insults. And though I was bullied and taunted a bit in elementary and middle school, I don’t remember ever being called any of these words. I had carved out a very solid niche for myself as a nerd, which was a much more socially acceptable form of outcast. In the late 1980’s, it was relatively easy to feel unashamed about being a member of the same tribe as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
My dad sometimes warned me about the danger that “queers” posed to young boys; but I don’t think I had any clear idea of what a “queer” was (some kind of wild animal, perhaps?). But I did learn that, in my dad’s mind, “queers” were the lowest of the low, a kind of dangerous predator.
I heard pastors at church condemn the “homosexual agenda” as an abomination to God and a threat to America, but again, I didn’t connect the “homosexual agenda” specifically with the idea of two men having sex. In fact, although I knew where babies came from, I’m pretty sure that, until I was in high school, it never even occurred to me that it was possible for two men to have sex. Yet I had already learned that there was something overwhelmingly shameful about “fag,” “queer,” “gay,” “homo,” etc.
I remember, in sixth grade, when I learned that the Latin name for the human species was homo sapiens, knowing that there was something funny and rather awkward about asking someone, “Are you a homo sapiens?” But I could not have explained the joke, and I had a vague sense that it would be extraordinarily awkward to ask someone else to explain it. I did not know what a “homo” was, but I knew that there was something unspeakable there, some dark meaning that could only be hinted at through jokes and insults.
This was a key difference. I was sometimes teased for being a nerd, but it was also completely acceptable to claim that for my own, get to know the other nerds, and talk about nerdy things together. I never feared that I would be thrown out of the house if my dad found out I was a nerd. Nobody said that nerds couldn’t go to heaven. To be a nerd was to occupy a (somewhat awkward) social role. It was not, however, a possible death sentence.
I was a bit of a late bloomer, so hormones didn’t hit until my freshman year of high school. And until that time, I had no reason to even consider the possibility that I would turn out to be physically attracted to guys. I assumed that I would marry a woman and have children, and I thought about which of my female acquaintances would make a suitable match. The desire to marry a particular person is much more complex than just the desire to have sex with that person. It also involves emotional connection, the desire to become a father (or mother) and to raise a family together. So even though I didn’t feel any physical desire for any of the girls I knew, I could still daydream about the possibility of a future together. And in this, I was quite ordinary—most children think about marriage long before they know what sex is or have any desire for it. (Indeed, I sometimes wonder whether children may not understand marriage better than adolescents.)
During my freshman year of high school, however, my hormones began to awaken, and I realized with some shock that I was fantasizing about my male friends. These fantasies meant I was attracted to men the way most of my peers were attracted to women. These attractions were what words like “fag,” “homo,” “queer,” and “homosexual agenda” were about.
I said, a moment ago, that being a nerd wasn’t a death sentence. But I quickly realized that being gay could be. I had a friend (or at least an acquaintance) with whom I graduated high school. He would sometimes boast that when he was in middle school (he and I attended different middle schools), he and some of his friends beat up another boy with baseball bats, leaving him hospitalized for several days and permanently disfigured. Why? Because he was a “fag” who got an erection in the showers after P.E.
As an adult, I wonder about this story. Could he really have participated in an assault serious enough to send his victim to the hospital for several days without being prosecuted? Would the authorities have excused even an assault this serious if they believed the victim was gay? They might. I have certainly heard horror stories from that era. But I also wonder if he was not exaggerating or even fabricating the story in order to build up a reputation as a tough guy, a manly man. At the time, however, I it didn’t even occur to me that he might be lying or exaggerating: I just assumed that if he found out I was gay, he would organize a similarly brutal attack that might leave me disfigured or dead.
And so at age 15, I suddenly began to deal with the hormone rush of adolescence, and to grapple with the fact that if anyone found out—if anyone even guessed—who I was attracted to, I might be kicked out of my house onto the streets, and could even be brutally beaten up or killed. Yet I had to deal with this in high school, among other teenagers, who couldn’t stop talking about sex, about who was interested in whom, who was going with whom. Other boys boasted of their conquests in the locker room. Then there were the Homecoming Dance, Junior Prom, and Senior Ball. If you were not dating, friends asked who you liked. If you mentioned someone, they were likely to try to set you up. If you said you weren’t interested in anyone, they keep pressing. If you said that you’re interested in another guy… Actually, I have no clue what would have happened. I may at times have wanted to die, but I wasn’t that suicidal.
Adolescence is, of course, a very difficult time for everyone; everyone has secrets, fears, and insecurities. Social life, dating, and romance can be very frustrating for heterosexuals as well. But most don’t have to worry that their friends will come after them with baseball bats if they ever give an honest answer to the question, “Who are you interested in?” However wide the gap is between their real self with all its insecurities and fears and their carefully packaged public face, there are significant connections. Even if the girl they are interested in thinks they are a pimple-faced geek, they can at least tell their other pimple-faced geek friends whom they are interested in. Even if society has labeled them a nerd, they can band together with other nerds for support. Students mocked for their race can go home to a family which understands racism and can be supportive and sympathetic. Girls frustrated with boys’ sexual harassment can go to their mothers, who likely dealt with the same issues growing up. But when I realized that I was attracted to other guys, the last thing I wanted to do was to tell anyone.
This had two results. First, it meant that I found myself relentlessly splitting into two parts: an academically focused over-achiever who didn’t have time for dating, but enjoyed many friendships, won honors and awards, and who seemed to have almost everything; and a very lonely, sometimes suicidal, often very confused kid trying to find his way, to find friendship, and maybe love.
The second result of remaining silent, and of the silence of others in my high school who were dealing with the same issues, was that we were alone. The nerds could commiserate with other nerds; the minorities could talk to other minority students and to their parents; and we had nobody.
My successful and confident mask achieved a lot both academically and socially. It had friends, it won honors, and it made my parents, my Church, and my community proud. But it was too far removed from my real self to give me any sense of connection to its accomplishments. I knew that it had made my parents and my Church and my friends proud. But I knew my father’s attitude toward gays; I knew my Church’s attitude toward gays; and I knew my friends’ attitude toward gays. It had made them proud; but I knew that there was nothing more shameful than a homosexual, and so clearly I would not make them proud.
I once read a novel about convoy duty in the Atlantic during World War II that helped me to understand the anxiety I felt as a teen. The Atlantic is a huge ocean, and the Germans did not have that many submarines. Some convoys made it across without encountering any U-boats. Even those that were attacked usually were not attacked continuously. Yet though a convoy might go for days without any contact with German submarines at all, the first warning might be the explosion of a torpedo against your hull; five minutes later you might be in the cold Atlantic desperately hoping another ship would stop to pick you up (a dangerous proposition with U-Boats nearby). So even on the best crossing—a crossing where you completely avoided any contact with German submarines and didn’t lose any ships or men—could still be filled with debilitating anxiety. Even on the best of days, you knew that everything could change before you’d finished exhaling your current breath. When you went to bed at night, you knew you might be awakened by an explosion and find the cruel sea rushing into your cabin, blocking your escape. For some men, the nightmares they met when they retired to their cabins were worse than the Germans they faced during the day. Torpedoes could destroy their bodies, but this interior torture could rob the souls even of those who survived the physical violence.
I never got beaten up for being gay. I don’t even remember being taunted for being gay in high school. On the surface, I had it easy (much easier than Disputed Mutability, for example). Teachers, my parents, other students thought I could look forward to one of the brightest futures of any of the students in my class. And they were right. I did have a bright future. But it was also a future which could be destroyed in an instant if my dad found out and kicked me out of the house, or if classmates found out and beat me to death. And this anxiety took form again and again in my dreams. My happy dreams would be suddenly interrupted by nuclear war, with the explosions rendered like Hollywood special effects, repeating the destruction over and over again from different angles. I dreamed of being locked out of the house at night in winter, or of being beaten up, struggling to resist the attackers through the fatal sluggishness of the paralysis you experience in dreams.
Having called out the sometimes brutally unChristian environment to be found in the comment threads at Crisis and some other Christian publications, I want express my appreciation for this recent post at Crisis by Jennifer Roback Morse, which not only speaks very clearly to the Christian hypocrisy that fueled my alienation from the church as a teen, but also articulates the frustration with the sexual revolution that was, for me, one of the most powerful arguments for trusting the Bible’s teaching on sexuality, and which eventually led me to the Catholic Church:
We need a different strategy: argue against the Sexual Revolution because it has hurt people.
And I do mean the whole Sexual Revolution. We are tacitly giving a pass to the earlier phases of the Sexual Revolution, by saying so little about them. The only serious exception to this generalization is abortion: the Catholic Church, and more recently, other Christians, have put up a noble fight against the Big Abortion Machine. But other aspects of the Sexual Revolution? Divorce? Contraception? Taxpayer-funded Sexual Miseducation in the schools? Not so much.
It is as if we are saying, “We like the Sexual Revolution just fine: we just don’t like the Gay Parts.” That simply will not do. It is not fair to individuals who are same sex attracted. And, it is intellectually incoherent, since the acceptance of genderless marriage actually depends upon our acceptance of those earlier phases of the Sexual Revolution.
If Christians want to credibly challenge the sexual revolution, and credibly argue that it has hurt people and that we have a better way, we have to be able to speak out in defense of LGBT youth. If we cannot acknowledge the problem of anti-LGBT bullying in schools, and can’t acknowledge the way that Christian preaching which treats homosexuality as the most serious sin has contributed to this climate, then we cannot speak credibly to the harms of the sexual revolution, and cannot credibly offer the Gospel as a more loving alternative.
Update, via Jeremy Erickson: There’s also this tragic list of posts on Bill Henson’s blog about people who went through with suicide after being bullied. Sadly, we’re dealing with something that has a death toll with names and faces of people who ended their lives far too young: