Failing LGBTQ Teens Who Are Faithful

“Love Your Child No Matter What” should be a commandment

In middle school, I remember learning that two gay men were living in a house on my walking route to school. Some kids in my class told me. They said if I walked through the couple’s yard, I would get AIDS. In high school I remember the preacher at my family’s church yelling until he was purple in the face (he often yelled about sin until he was purple) about the evils of homosexuality and how dangerous homosexuals were to our immortal souls. In college I remember my parents trying to coerce me into conversion therapy. To get me there they asked me to first go to family therapy with them—they had disowned me for my bisexuality four years prior, so I thought family therapy (not conversation therapy) was an important first step for us.

A recent study by the American Journal of Preventative Medicine suggests that suicide rates among LBGTQ teenagers are higher than those of their straight or unquestioning peers, and that religion can compound this difference. Growing up as a bisexual teenager in rural and very religious Arkansas, it doesn’t surprise me that queer teens who are part of a religious tradition struggle more with suicide than religious straight kids. Being queer and Christian is a tough combination. Believing that you are innately flawed and required to give up who you are to please your god—or else spend eternity burning in blackness and eaten alive by worms—is tough for adults, much less teenagers whose brains are still developing reasoning and decision-making capacities.

According to the study, 5 percent of religious heterosexual youth reported attempting suicide in their lifetimes, compared to 20 percent of bisexual youth, 17 percent of questioning youth, and 14 percent of gay or lesbian youth are also religious. “Questioning youth who said religion was important to them were nearly three times as likely to have attempted suicide recently, compared to questioning youth who reported religion was less important.”

These numbers are striking. How is it that the religious right still hasn’t recognized the organizational benefits of using acceptance rather than fire and brimstone to grow congregations, establish a stronger national presence, and ultimately gain more political power? Even moreso, how is it that they care so little for their own children that they would rather lose them to suicide than mitigate ancient religious teachings just enough to save their children’s lives?

Being a recovering evangelical, it’s still hard for me to explain why sexuality is such a hot topic for the fundamentally religious. They definitely do plenty of damage to straight kids’ sexuality—girls specifically. (Boys somehow get a free pass on most everything unless they are gay or queer). But there is more forgiveness available for premarital sex, for example, than for falling in love with someone of your same sex. Or, heaven forbid, choosing to live your life as a different gender.  There is no forgiveness for that—or at least not in the same way. A girl who has sex before marriage and gets pregnant has a few options. Obviously, she isn’t a virgin anymore so this will impact her future marital bliss and in some religions minimizes her innate value as a human being. But there are a lot of counseling options available to her, if she is repentant, and some people even believe in born-again virginity. Regarding the evidence of her immorality, she can go to a pregnancy center for support to have the baby or she can put the baby up for adoption. Obviously, she’s not allowed to abort the fetus, but the Christian community will support her through the pregnancy and God will eventually forgive her for her sexual waywardness. An even better option for her, from the Christian perspective at least, is to marry the father of the baby. Become an honest woman. Even when you’re sixteen. Even when he’s abusive. It’s not healthy or good for anyone, but it’s a route to forgiveness without having to completely change your own personal identity. You aren’t evil, you just made a mistake, however big it may seem. You made a mistake that’s easy to make and easier to forgive (and only if you get caught).

If you’re queer, on the other hand, the only way you can be forgiven is to never act on it (lifetime celibacy) and of course never tell anyone that you’re gay, or convert back to active heterosexuality. Besides the fact that there isn’t anything to forgive, neither of these options are remotely realistic. Think of being a questioning Christian teenager—with all those hormones, immature thoughts, ignorance of the larger world, “inappropriate” sex drives, and religious brainwashing. For an adult there’s always the option of leaving the religion or finding a sect that accepts all sexual identities. But for a teenager who believes the dogma she’s been fed, there isn’t a clear out, especially one that doesn’t risk her relationship with her family and her god. “It can be very scary to be caught in a space where your religion tells you that you are a ‘sinner’ just for being who you are,” study co-author John R. Blosnich told the Huffington Post. “Sexual minority people may feel abandoned, they may experience deep sadness and anger, and they may worry what this means for their families―especially if their families are very religious too.”

Religious parents who don’t support their LBGTQ children (or straight, sexually active children for that matter) are choosing badly written, very old books of myths and dogmas over the health and wellbeing of their own offspring. There is an amazing lack of unconditional love here, or of a tangible understanding of it. By definition, it means affection without limitation. Love without conditions. My parents said they never stopped loving me when I was with women, but they did cut me off from my entire family for the duration of my six-year relationship with my college girlfriend. That is not affection without limitation. These kinds of family dynamics are life-altering when you face them as a religious adult. Why should we be surprised that religious teenagers would find death more palatable than a life without family or God?

In Utah, researchers have documented a recent spike in teen suicides. A spike of 141 percent to be exact. Some advocates for LGBTQ Mormon teens have asserted that this is connected to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ policy on queer sexuality, although research hasn’t confirmed this link. “There is absolutely no room for homosexuality anywhere in the doctrine,” Diane Oviatt, a Mormon mother with a gay son quoted in the same Huffington Post story referenced above. “Our kids are stripped of hope and faced with the notion that they, by virtue of their sexual identity, are ruining their celestial ‘forever’ family and will be separated from them in the hereafter if they choose a same-sex partner.”

It’s hard enough to be a sexual minority in this country without also believing that you will be damned for eternity because of it. Religious communities need to do better. They need to recognize that a person’s life is more important than a 2,000-year-old “rule.” That living honestly is better than living a lie. That loving your children unconditionally matters, not only to the child’s wellbeing and development, but to the development of our society as a whole. That no one is genetically sinful. That love is beautiful and valuable and crucial to the betterment of humanity, regardless of who loves whom.