A surprisingly high number of teenagers involved in religious communities (up to 14%, according to one national studyClapp, Steve, Kristen Leverton Helbert and Angela Zizak. Faith Matters: Teenagers, Religion, and Sexuality (Fort Wayne, IN: LifeQuest, 2003), 96.) identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual. But only a fraction of them discuss their sexuality with their clergy or adult lay leaders.
That’s unfortunate, considering that incidents of bullying, homelessness, depression and suicide are disproportionately high among these youth:
- Four in 10 LGBT students report that they experience physical harassment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. LGBT students who experience harassment are less likely than the student population at large to plan to attend college.Kosciw, J.G. and E.M. Diaz, The 2005 National School Climate Survey: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools (New York: GLSEN, 2006), 4–7, http://www.glsen.org/binary-data/GLSEN_ATTACHMENTS/file/585-1.pdf.
- LGBT youth represent 20-40% of all homeless young people. Many were forced to leave their homes because their families’ religious beliefs did not accept them.Ray, Nicholas, et.al. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth: An Epidemic of Homelessness (Washington: National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute and the National Coalition for the Homeless, 2007), 1, http://www.thetaskforce.org/reports_and_research/homeless_youth.
- Multiple studies in the United States and abroad have shown “disproportionately high rates of suicidal behavior among LGBT adolescents and young adults.””Consensus Conference Addresses Suicide Risk among LGBT Populations,” American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, http://www.afsp.org/
Faith communities can be places of refuge and support for young people. Clergy and youth leaders who understand sexual orientation and gender identity issues can help ease the isolation of teenagers struggling with questions of sexual identity, concerns about coming out, conflicts at home or at school. Clergy and youth leaders can play a particularly valuable role in helping young people reconcile their emerging sexual identity with their faith.
Such support can be life-saving. As the 2003 Christian Community report, Faith Matters, said: “Those [youth] who were able to be open in their faith-based communities were also less likely to have considered suicide than other non-heterosexual teens. Those who are in faith-based institutions where there are negative views toward homosexuality and bisexuality rarely are open about their orientation. Those teens live with a very painful silence.”Clapp, et.al., 100.
Perhaps the first question clergy and lay leaders must consider ask themselves is this: Would youth who are questioning their sexual or gender orientation feel comfortable raising the issue with our clergy, youth minister or youth leaders? If not, what can we do about that?