Without emotional and spiritual support, queer youth suffer unduly.
Cheryl A. Giles
We must recognize that ethics requires us to risk ourselves precisely at moments of unknowingness, when what forms us diverges from what lies before us, when our willingness to become undone in relation to others constitutes our chance of becoming human.
—Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself
When I set out to write a book about religion and spirituality in the lives of queer teens, I knew the best way I could tell the story was to let my subjects tell it themselves. I had visited queer youth programs and nonprofit organizations in Boston, Dallas, and the Oakland/San Francisco area to conduct interviews. The expressions of honesty, insight, and courage I heard from these young people were nothing short of spectacular—I was blown away.
I will begin here with the story of Sam (not her real name), who I met in a local hospital emergency room a few years ago and who was the inspiration for my research about queer youth.
The emergency room of a large urban hospital offers a window into the conflict and confusion adolescents undergo as they navigate the developmental challenges of growing up. When teens complain of depression, report suicidal thoughts, or cut themselves, schools respond by sending them to the emergency room. To the clinically trained eye, these situations are a means by which young people act out the unbearable stresses of school, friendships, and family relationships.
Sam was one of those adolescents. Her preference for baggy pants and oversized striped shirts did little to hide her nearly six-foot frame and supermodel beauty. Her good looks and easy manner made her popular with her peers, boys and girls alike. At sixteen years old, Sam was just entering high school, having been kept back twice. But she had done well in recent years and was excited about pursuing her goal of becoming a graphic artist.
By January of that year, however, Sam had missed twenty days of school and had been late twelve times, landing her on the school's radar. School officials had identified her as an "at risk" student, and, despite her demonstrated ability to perform in class, Sam was now refusing to engage with school officials and avoiding involvement with other students.
Sam still had one close friend. They were together constantly and shared their deepest feelings with each other. But lately, Sam was despondent and wouldn't even talk to her only friend. She lost interest in school and did little or no work in class. Her homeroom teacher's attempts to contact Sam's parents at home produced little response. With no communication from her family, the teacher could not determine how to help or intervene. Out of frustration and concern that Sam was on the verge of hurting herself, the teacher sent her to the principal's office with a recommendation for a professional evaluation. Sam was sent off in an ambulance, and her parents were notified.
When Sam arrived at the hospital, the emergency room was in a state of near pandemonium. With the temperature outside in single digits, the pediatric emergency room was overflowing with sick children and adolescents suffering with the flu, asthma attacks, painful bouts of sickle cell anemia, and other medical conditions usually treated at a primary care office. On this day, every situation seemed acute.
By late afternoon, the emergency room was beyond capacity, with people waiting in the hallways and the security staff doing its best to manage the traffic. The attending physician asked me, the senior staff psychologist, to evaluate Sam. Her parents had not arrived at the hospital and had not returned the school's phone calls. If they did not arrive soon, we would have to contact the Department of Children and Family Services, which would investigate the possibility of medical neglect.
My tasks in evaluating Sam included gathering information about her history, finding out why she thought she was sent to the hospital, and meeting with Sam and her parents to make recommendations for her care. Since her parents had not arrived, I decided to meet with Sam alone to get her sense of what was happening.
Most hospitals have a standard protocol for mental health evaluations, and for assessing risk in youths, which includes ruling out suicidal thoughts, homicidal thoughts, and self-destructive behaviors like cutting or burning, together with using other tools to develop a comprehensive evaluation.
At the start of the evaluation, Sam was withdrawn and reluctant to discuss why she was there. She avoided eye contact and responded to most of my questions with only a word or two, though we both knew there was more to her story. But as I asked her the last few questions, Sam softened and seemed ready to talk. Her flat demeanor shifted and her eyes were bright and alert. I asked her about her religious beliefs and the presence of emotional support. Trembling, she began to cry.
Although Sam believed in God, she told me that she had a hard time understanding how her attraction to other girls made her a "sinner" in God's eyes, but there was no one she could talk to about these conflicted feelings. Whenever she thought about it, she felt confused and guilty for having sexual feelings for other girls.
As a young child she had enjoyed going to Mass with her parents each week and looked forward to receiving Holy Communion. She took pride in her local church and participated in events throughout the year. Her family had been active members of this church for four generations—everyone knew them. But now she felt alienated and afraid to talk, even to the priest.
Sam recalled how each week during Mass, the priest reminded people they could talk to him about their troubles, but this was not a comfort to her since he also occasionally talked about the "evils" of homosexuality and the biblical passages that support those views.1 These sermons left her feeling bad about herself, and sinful.
When Sam was in the eighth grade, her parents abruptly stopped going to Mass. Because of her own internal struggle, Sam stopped going, too. Now she felt there was no safe space for her—in school, at home, or in church—a discovery that deepened her depression to a point where she felt hopeless and didn't want to live.
In spite of Sam's tendency to isolate herself when she felt most fearful and alone, she was honest and forthcoming with me, probably because she finally sensed a safe and welcoming space in which to come out. What started as a standoff between us evolved into a heart-wrenching conversation about Sam's painful effort to come out as queer, during which she shared the deep fear and loneliness she had experienced by holding this secret.
Thus began a fragile alliance with Sam that was critical to my ability to understand how to respond to her needs. Behind the veil of this evaluation was a vulnerable teenager, too fearful to acknowledge her pain, who had a deep longing to be accepted by her family, her friends, and, most especially, her church.
We spent several hours together before Sam was able to talk about her desire to come out to her parents when they arrived at the hospital (she was confident they would show up eventually). She told me she was afraid but buoyed by the support I was able to give her, and she decided this was the perfect time to tell her parents. Sam acknowledged her depression but knew she was not crazy, and she did not want to be put on medication.
Sam's parents finally arrived at 7:30 pm. They were concerned about their daughter and angry that Sam had been taken to the emergency room without their permission; neither of them had listened to the messages on their answering machine or cell phones until they'd arrived home from work. I was able to assuage their anger, and they agreed to a family meeting with Sam.
What they did not know was that their delayed arrival at the hospital had given Sam time to think. Feeling stronger now, she saw the family meeting as an opportunity to express her feelings and to come out to her parents in her own way.
Since 1993, the Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey (MYRBS) has been conducted every two years by the Massachusetts Department of Education, with funding from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This voluntary, anonymous survey monitors behaviors during high school, and the results have proven to be an important tool for teachers, school administrators, counselors, and health professionals to assess risk in teens, with the goal of decreasing the leading causes of illness and mortality among youth. The chief risk factors for this age group include unintentional injury (primarily from teen drivers in auto accidents), homicide, and suicide—the leading cause of death for those fifteen to twenty-four years old.
The most recent MYRBS was conducted in 2011 at fifty-nine randomly selected public high schools.2 The 2011 survey found that 5.4 percent of students surveyed described themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual; and 9.2 percent of all students described themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual and/or reported same-sex sexual contact.
Furthermore, students who described themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual were significantly more likely than their peers to report attacks, suicide attempts, and drug and alcohol use. When compared to peers, this group was: over four times more likely to have attempted suicide in the past year; over three times more likely to miss school in the past month because of feeling unsafe; and over four times more likely to have been injured or threatened with a weapon at school.
Attempted suicide in the past year
Required medical attention as a result of a suicide attempt
Skipped school in the past month because of feeling unsafe en route to or at school
Was threatened/injured with a weapon at school in the past year
Was in a physical fight resulting in treatment by doctor or nurse
But these numbers don't tell the full story. There are mitigating factors that help determine the health of LGBT young adults, the most important of these being family response. In a 2009 study published in Pediatrics, Caitlin Ryan and her colleagues at the Cesar Chavez Institute at San Francisco State University found a strong link between the power of parental reactions and overall health in LGBT young adults.4 Ryan's study examined the impact of family and caregiver acceptance of sexual orientation and gender expression during adolescence as a predictor of well-being in queer young adults. The study of 224 white and Latino lesbian, gay, and bisexual young adults ages twenty-one to twenty-five found that higher rates of family rejection during adolescence were linked to poor health outcomes.
While religion has usually been seen as a sanctuary for those who are at risk, suffering, or in need of support, there are often clear boundaries drawn at the front door: No homosexuals allowed.
These findings have provided a clearer lens through which to view suicide attempts, high levels of depression, drug use, and the likelihood of engaging in unprotected sex. Compared with queer young adults who were not at all or were only rejected a little by their parents and caregivers because of their identity, queer teens who were highly rejected as adolescents were at high risk for mental and physical health problems when they became young adults. This group was: more than eight times as likely to have attempted suicide; nearly six times as likely to report high levels of depression; more than three times as likely to use illegal drugs; and more than three times as likely to be at high risk for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases.5
Many queer youth feel that they have to hide who they are to avoid being rejected or thrown out of their homes, or to keep from hurting their parents and other family members. But hiding comes with a high cost. It undermines the self-worth of queer youth, which is dangerous to their physical, emotional, and spiritual health. The risks attached to coming out are also very real. For Sam, the risk was that her parents would not only ignore her, but perhaps disown her at a time when she needed their support most. Sam quickly understood that the source of her depression was her struggle to accept her queer identity and to disclose it to her parents. While she claimed to have no expectations of her parents, she struggled with a deep longing for their acceptance and support. The visit to the emergency room proved to be an opportunity for Sam and her parents to understand what was at stake. Without the support and acceptance of her parents, Sam would continue to live in fear and on the edge of disaster.
Though Sam's parents had difficulty accepting that she was queer, they were also afraid of losing her forever. Within the past few years, there had been two teen suicides in her neighborhood, but nobody talked openly about them. There was too much shame attached to being queer and to killing yourself. Sam's parents agreed to attend family meetings to try and understand how they could support her. Acceptance would come later.
Unfortunately, Sam's story is not the norm. In 2004, with a grant from the Lilly Foundation, I conducted a small random study of queer youth in Boston, Dallas, and the Oakland/San Francisco area. My associate and I interviewed fifty-six teens between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. We included specific questions about the role of religion and spirituality in their lives.6 All the participants identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or questioning youth. No one identified as transgender.
Our research identified several major risk factors for queer youth and revealed that these risk factors were experienced by "most" or "all" of the young people we interviewed:
- Lack of support from family, school, church/place of worship. Most of the youth reported that they were not out to their parents, and those that were out reported ongoing conflict, verbal harassment, pressure not to tell other family and friends, and having their access to and connections with other queer friends blocked.
- Lack of safety, fear of harm by others. All participants reported that they were fearful of queer bashing at one time or another, and many reported that they had experienced bullying in school and in their neighborhood.
- Break in communication with parents. Most participants reported they had difficulty communicating with their parents, and coming out exacerbated this problem.
- Loss of connection with religious tradition when parents stopped attending religious institution. Most of the participants reported they stopped practicing their religious tradition when their parents ended their own observance. Some reported that they continued to attend services with their friends, but felt unwelcome.
- Misinformation about religious education and tradition. Most youth didn't exhibit a basic understanding of their religious tradition or practice. Yet nearly all of them reported they knew the biblical passages used against queer folks to cite a moral authority in judgment against homosexuals.
- Feelings of sadness about the inability to openly be oneself and active in one's religious tradition. Most participants reported that they would like to be out in their tradition and to participate in youth group activities with their friends.
- Lack of visible LGBT (queer) role models and allies in the church to help foster religious identity. Most participants reported that there were few or no openly queer role models and allies in their religious tradition to support and mentor them.
Adolescence is a time of exploration, in the realms of both sexuality and faith—a time when the family's religion is often questioned, and sometimes rejected, in favor of a personal theology or another belief system. The interviews we conducted revealed that the belief systems queer youth identify with, and how they actually see their place in the wider world, are heavily influenced by the degree of support they receive from their families and faith communities in their struggles to come to terms with their sexual orientation.
Although a few participants reported that they were out to their parents and did not experience trauma associated with being queer, many queer teens struggle with family rejection and the burden of managing physical and emotional pain alone, without support. While religion has usually been seen as a sanctuary for those who are at risk, suffering, or in need of support, there are often clear boundaries drawn at the front door: No homosexuals allowed.
Of all the queer youth we interviewed, one participant stood out as gravely in need of support. Billy was a diminutive sixteen-year-old and one of the most popular kids in the program. He smiled and giggled nervously, covering his mouth with his hand to hide his teeth, which were badly in need of dental work. He lived with his disabled mother and two younger sisters in a small public housing apartment. When his mother became angry (which was often), she reminded Billy that she really never wanted him, because he "wasn't quite right from the beginning," but that she was stuck with him and was ashamed that her only son was queer. Billy endured this daily, verbal harassment from his mother and it added to the chronic traumatic stress he experienced.
When Billy arrived at school each day, he knew he would be taunted and subjected to virulent attacks of cruelty by his peers. Because he was small and openly gay, Billy was harassed in the neighborhood and bullied by kids in school, whose idea of a joke was to stuff him in his locker. Focusing on his schoolwork was hard, though he struggled to keep up and wanted to finish high school. Most of his energy was expended in trying to survive among his peers and at home.
His family was barely subsisting on his mother's disability check and food stamps, and there was never enough money. In addition to being the primary caretaker for his bedridden mother, Billy was working long hours after school to try to fill the gap. Overwhelmed by these stressors, he dropped out of school to work full time and help pay the bills. Even though he no longer had to defend himself against bullies at school, he continued to be at risk in his own home and neighborhood.
Billy is representative of so many of the queer teens that I have met. Many come from households with single working mothers juggling the responsibilities of having to support their children while nurturing them and keeping them safe. Like Billy, some queer youth are out to their parents but are reluctant to involve their parents in their struggles as gay teens. Many, like Billy, look to outside organizations for emotional support and nurturing.
At the end of my interview, I asked Billy what he thought church leaders should know about queer youth. He paused for a moment, and then he said simply, "I would tell them the soul has no gender."
The words "fag" and "dyke" are epithets used by homophobic heterosexuals to disparage queer folks. Of late, these terms have become euphemisms to disparage any styles or behaviors that are out of sync with teen protocol (e.g., "that's so gay"). But the real power of this language is that it has become part of the arsenal of hate speech focused on vulnerable, often fragile individuals—on those perceived to have little or no value. The real tragedy here is that hate speech and bullying signal a spiritual and ethical bankruptcy in our culture; they are representative of a toxic environment that supports abuse. There is a widespread notion that, right or wrong, by bullying someone, or by being subjected to bullying, boys (and girls) are experiencing a rite of passage that moves them along the developmental pathway to adulthood. This is terrifying. Bullying is wrong under any circumstance and should never be accepted as a step in the process toward maturity. Even more, it is particularly important to understand it as yet another smothering layer of oppression that undermines the health of queer youth. There is no place for bullying, harassment, and violence in our schools, in our churches and places of worship, or in our families; these should all be the places where we practice relating to each other with respect and compassion.
Unless we create strict national legislation to protect our youth, they will continue to be easy targets for those who feed on violence and hatred. But we also need to challenge the undergirding ideas that fuel these acts of violence and hate speech. For instance, queer youth have been "educated" about how the Bible can be used to bring shame and guilt upon them. For many young people, these "texts of terror" represent the extent of their knowledge of the Bible, which has been passed on to them by peers and, to a much lesser extent, through religious education. Despite (or perhaps because of) the controversial nature of these texts, queer youth find themselves confused and left entirely alone to sort out the mixed messages they have received. Too many find themselves without the support of friends, family, or their community (including their faith communities), all of which are necessary for the development of healthy adolescents.
If we claim to be ethical or spiritual human beings, can we stand by and watch these young people be abused? Or do we have some responsibility to those who are being bullied?
For adolescents, the announcement of one's identity is a critical milestone in their lives, fraught with risk and a sense of vulnerability. Under the best of circumstances, teens are on a developmental road trip, constantly questioning themselves and their internal and external systems: Who am I? What do I believe? What do I want to do with my life? But they do not want to ask these questions in isolation. Parents and caregivers, teachers and spiritual leaders, all are integral parts of how teens ultimately choose to approach and address life's complexities. Our success in guiding them means we have to honor our ongoing practice of discovery, by traveling deep into our own weaknesses and fears.
What are the consequences of not doing our own inner work? Patterns of poor communication, isolation, and lack of support for one another exist widely within families, but these patterns weigh more heavily on adolescents who are struggling to come out. Practitioners and health professionals must be fully present to the pain of queer youth in order to help them move through their developmental and coming-out crises toward healing. Each of us must take responsibility for what we make of our own lives. If we, as parents, teachers, and caregivers, are not committed to our own growth, we put the development of healthy adolescents at risk.
I have learned this firsthand as I have worked with young people like Sam and Billy. Sam was one of many teenagers I first met in the emergency room who helped me to let go of my own fear of not being a "good enough" practitioner and to trust in my own inner strength. Despite her setbacks, Sam's determination to get an education, finish high school, and follow her dreams was a powerful lesson for me.
Unbeknownst to them, the children and adolescents who came to the emergency room seeking care and comfort were my teachers, prodding me to pay attention and be mindful. The process of delivering care in a hospital is never a one-way encounter where treatment is merely passed down. The most successful encounters are collaborative and often steer us in the direction of what needs tending in ourselves.
For the past thirty years, I have worked as a college chaplain, a clinical psychologist at a teaching hospital, the director of a mental health program for adolescents, and a professor of pastoral care and counseling. While I was immersed in my career, my mother died, and I struggled with an emptiness that refused to heal. As a black lesbian, I was accustomed to trying to keep my life "on point" in the face of racism and homophobia. But, in the face of my mother's death, I was shaken and inconsolable. When my father died five years later, I fell into a deeper depression. I was an orphan and I felt lost in the world. Buddhist friends reached out to me and encouraged me to go on retreat to "sit" with my anger, fear, and deep sadness. I followed their advice and found my introduction to Buddhism. I desperately wanted to be free of suffering. Of course, this meant making a commitment to the practice of meditation: paying attention, moment to moment, to what is arising; letting go of the attachment to how things should be rather than how they are; and working with reactivity as a conditioned state that filters my experience.
Aside from finding my own path to healing, my Buddhist practice has been teaching me how to be present to the suffering of others in a world that is constantly changing and impermanent. My questions have changed, too. Now I find myself asking: How do we perceive the truth of pain and suffering beneath the layers of social identity that we construct? I have learned that if we "drop down" beneath the personality, beneath the socially constructed identities, we can clearly see the truth about ourselves, and help others to do the same.
I am a strong believer in the need for caregivers to make an ongoing commitment to a spiritual practice and to be working continually on our own spiritual formation—especially those of us who work with suffering adolescents. These kinds of practices (in whatever tradition) make us better listeners and help us to get out of the competitive mindset that is so common in the academic and medical institutions in which so many of us train and practice.
It is too easy for schools, churches, and political institutions to put queer youth and their needs on the back burner, because the issues raised by these children and adolescents are perceived to be so threatening, politically and theologically. In my work, I see firsthand the way this neglect causes young people who are already struggling to feel even more invisible, as if they have no way to gain a foothold in the world. But I also see some reasons for hope, especially in the kind of organizing that is being done around the issue of bullying. For me, these important efforts push to the foreground bullying as a theological issue. If we claim to be ethical or spiritual or religious human beings, can we stand by and watch these young people be abused in all the different ways they are? Or do we have some responsibility to those who are being bullied on a daily basis? In my experience, advocating for LGBT youth goes beyond simply putting up a sign that says, "we welcome you," and involves active work to seek and create justice for those who are experiencing ongoing abuse and neglect. It is true that accepting this responsibility may require "risk . . . at moments of unknowingness," and a "willingness to become undone in relation to others"; but, as Judith Butler reminds us, this is at the core of what it means to be fully human.7
- Phyllis Trible, in her feminist-literary readings of biblical narratives, refers to the tragic stories of Hagar, Tamar, an unnamed concubine, and the daughter of Jephthah as "texts of terror," and I think this is a fitting description for the biblical texts that are used to terrorize LGBT people: Genesis 19:5, Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26–27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:9–10.
- In total, 3,131 students in grades nine through twelve participated in the 2011 survey. Because of the high student and school response rates, the results of this survey can be generalized to be applicable to public high school students across Massachusetts.
- All differences between GLB students and others are statistically significant, p. < .05.
- Caitlin Ryan et al., "Family Rejection as a Predictor of Negative Health Outcomes in White and Latino Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Young Adults," Pediatrics 123, no. 1 (January 1, 2009): 346–352.
- From a guide by Caitlin Ryan published by the Family Acceptance Project in 2009, "Supportive Families, Healthy Children: Helping Families with LGBT Children."
- "Exploring the Spirituality of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender (GLBT) Youth," Association of Theological Schools (ATS) Lilly Theological Research Grant, 2004–05. I would like to thank the ATS and the Lilly Foundation for providing me with this research grant, which allowed me to further explore this important issue.
Deep gratitude to Colby Swettberg, executive director of Adoption and Foster Care Mentoring (AFC Mentoring), for her work on this project and her enduring support of queer youth and their families.
Cheryl A. Giles is Francis Greenwood Peabody Professor of the Practice in Pastoral Care and Counseling at Harvard Divinity School and editor of The Arts of Contemplative Care: Pioneering Voices in Buddhist Chaplaincy and Pastoral Work (forthcoming from Wisdom Publications, 2012).