We Need to Rethink How We Talk about LGBTQ

We journalists like studies. They help us put stories and topics in context.

So a study released in 2018 exploring the association between importance of religion and suicide ideation is obviously going to interest me.

If you’ve followed my writing for any length of time, or you’re a friend of mine, you know that religion and mental health are two of my favorite topics. So of course, I wanted to learn about this study. Unfortunately, it’s $4 to access, but thankfully there was a news article about it from Reuters titled “Religious faith linked to suicidal behavior in LGBQ adults.”

If you’ve followed news somewhat closely, you’ve got to be aware of the stories of LGBTQ individuals, teens in particular, that take their own lives with motivations strongly related to their sexuality. According to The Trevor Project, a nonprofit that provides mental health support to LGBTQ youth, gay/lesbian teens “seriously contemplate suicide” nearly three times more than straight youth and are five times as likely to attempt suicide.

So this study, reported in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, can’t be that surprising. Analyzing data from the multiple surveys on mental health of college students, the numbers were startling. While 3.7 percent of heterosexual young adults reported recent thoughts of suicide, the numbers increased for those questioning their sexuality (16.4 percent), living bisexual (11.4 percent) or identifying as gay or lesbian (6.5 percent). 

The numbers jump when it comes to attempting suicide: 5 percent for heterosexual youth, 20 percent for bisexual, 17 percent for questioning and 14 percent for gay or lesbian. 

The heartbreaking statistic came here:

“For bisexual youth, the importance of religion was not associated with suicidal behavior, while religiosity was protective against thoughts of suicide and suicidal attempts in the heterosexual youth. But lesbians and gays who reported that religion was important to them were 38 percent more likely to have had recent suicidal thoughts. For lesbians only, religion was associated with a 52 percent increased likelihood of suicidal thinking.

Questioning individuals were almost three times as likely to have attempted suicide recently if they reported that religion was very important to them.”

One of the study’s authors, John R. Blosnich of West Virginia’s Injury Control Research Center, told the Huffington Post that studies for years have said considering religion important has limited the number of people considering suicide. But this study, as well as other surveys and data, indicates that things are different when it comes to sexual minorities.

So what do we do?

What Role Did the Church Play?

Before we get going: this is not an evaluation of whether or not homosexuality is a sin. That’s not the point of this piece. 

Anyway, most scientists of any stripe — social, physical, organic, chemistry, etc. — will tell you that correlation does not equal causation, and I agree. But this study begs a question:

Has the Christian church played a role in this?

The HuffPo article says, accurately, that “some of America’s largest religious denominations still hold non-affirming views of queer sexuality,” including the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention and the United Methodist Church *(see note at the bottom of this article)*. HuffPo quotes Amelia Markham, described as a “queer Christian activist” with The Reformation Project, an LBTQ-affirming Christian group, saying more needs to be done in helping Christians have “a more nuanced view of queer sexuality.”

“There are some serious questions we have to begin asking ourselves if maintaining one interpretation of our sacred text is demonstrably linked to bodily harm and spiritual devastation for an entire group of people,” Markham said. “That is something I hope religious folks across the board would begin to think and pray more critically through.”

Markham’s call is serious, and based on the numbers, I think it would be dishonest if the Christian church, particularly the evangelical wing, didn’t ask itself if it played a role in these numbers, these realities. 

Again, correlation doesn’t equal causation, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it did in this case. I’ve lived my whole life in a church culture that severely stigmatizes LGBTQ people, intentionally or not. The Christian evangelical community for many years has said flat-out that homosexuality is a sin, with some churches creating little to no space for LGBTQ people in churches, sometimes to negative consequences.

Countless stories have been told of teens or youth that have come out to their families and been rejected, sometimes kicked out. I listened to a podcast recently featuring Trey Pearson, former lead singer of the Christian band Everyday Sunday, who said he experienced severe trauma and pain due to fighting his sexual feelings for years because of his church upbringing. Countless Christian authors and speakers, including Rachel Held Evans and Jen Hatmaker, were more or less banished from evangelical circles due to their belief that homosexuality is not a sin.

Very often, evangelical Christians defend their actions and beliefs with the statement that they’re just sticking to the Bible, defending God’s Word and loving people to tell them they’re sinners. “Hate the sin, love the sinner,” they say. And while I’m sure there are many that are properly loving their LGBTQ family and friends and reflecting Christ in doing it, there are many LGBTQ people who have left the church and left God at least in part due to how they were treated by so-called Christians.

What Did Jesus Do?

Again, this is not a conversation about the sinfulness or non-sinfulness of homosexuality. This is a conversation about the effect the church’s position and attitude and approach to same-sex attraction and homosexuality has had on real people and real lives.

The culture hasn’t always done well with it, first of all. In 1998, gay college student Matthew Shepard was murdered in Wyoming, an event that became a lynchpin for hate crimes due to looming suspicion the attack was motivated by Shepard’s sexuality. In 2010, 18-year-old Rutgers student Tyler Clementi committed suicide after his roommate recorded Clementi’s intimate encounter with another male. 

These events have caused a societal push for LGBTQ acceptance and understanding and further discussion about mental health and suicide. That’s all awesome, in my opinion. And while some Christian congregations are actively addressing these issues in the right way, it’s my opinion that the church at large is falling behind on both counts.

How often are Christian blog posts written about helping people that identify as LGBTQ that doesn’t involve telling them they’re sinful? How often are sermons given where we’re encouraged to learn from and understand our gay and lesbian neighbors, friends and family members? I’m sure those things happen, but not enough. We’re often more concerned with being “right” than being “a good neighbor.”

What did Paul do, and what did Jesus do, more importantly? The people that were considered outside the “religious crowd,” how did he handle them?

He loved them. And no, I’m not talking about loving people by “telling them the truth.” Yes, that is a form of love, but anything LGBTQ person that’s been around an evangelical Christian has more likely than not already received that kind of love. 

What Jesus did is eat. Matthew 9:10-13 —

“And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard it, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’”

Eating was a very intimate thing to do in those times. You’d sit at a table and take your shoes off, recline and spend time. There were no cell phones, no menus, no TVs nearby. Just the food and the people. 

Jesus ate with people labeled “sinners,” both in this passage and other times. In this particular passage, both Matthew and the Pharisees refer to Jesus’ dinner guests as “sinners.” Everyone at the time sinned, so the distinction made here is about identity. These people were identified by their sin — not their profession, not their father or family, but their sin. They were outcasts, pariahs, weirdos. But Jesus loved them the same.

In the current evangelical Christian culture, members of the LGBTQ community are among today’s “sinners.” They’re outcasts, pariahs, weirdos, different. Far too often, the church today is known for shunning those “sinners” instead of eating with them, loving them, appreciating them as people created in the image of God.

The Concept Falls Short

This is where “hate the sin, love the sinner” falls short on so many levels. I get the concept: love the people, hate what they do. But in practice, it fails far too often.

What happens when someone drinks too much alcohol? We may say, “Hey, he/she is drunk.” That person becomes defined by their actions. We do it with so many things: profession, interests, religion, etc. 

Members of the LGBTQ community often take pride in their sexuality and make that a primary identifier, something the evangelical church picks up on. Because the “sin” begins to identify the “sinner” in our minds, they become interchangeable, and we begin to hate the sinner. 

Most of this happens subconsciously and unintentionally, I believe, but we begin to treat people the way the biblical culture treated “sinners,” making them outsiders and pariahs. We spend more time trying to change them than love them. 

And then we go in on how bad the LGBTQ culture is. It’s all about how they need to change and how the “militant gay agenda” is ruining America and allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with is dangerous for our children. Again, not everyone is like that, but it’s said way too often.

First of all, imagine if Christians had been treated like members of the LGBTQ community have been treated over most of the last 40-50 years. Wouldn’t we be frustrated with the persecution? For a long time, sexual orientation and gender identity weren’t protected classes in discrimination laws. Imagine if religion was in the same place.

Second, to group the entire LGBTQ community, as some do, with the “militant gay agenda” is dishonest. Most, I believe, just want to live their lives and be treated fairly. To see extremists who call themselves “born again” compare LGBTQ people to the Ku Klux Klan would make anybody mad.

It’s insulting. It’s humiliating. It’s discriminatory. No wonder they don’t like us.

But some of them like Jesus. I wonder why. 

Maybe it was because He never spoke about the “militant pantheistic agenda” of the Roman Empire. Maybe it was because He hung out with the pariahs. He listened, loved and taught. He was condemning of the religious people, those who were gleeful in telling people why they were wrong. He encouraged all to repent while turning water to wine and five loaves and two fish into an overwhelming feast.

As Jesus said in Matthew 9, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” His ultimate desire was for people to love one another. Yes, His message was one of repentance and of turning from sin, but how did He go about His ministry? Where do we see His efforts? In the good news of salvation, in the dying on the cross for our sins to be forgiven. “Follow me,” he told the disciples, “and I will make you fishers of men.” He says to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” He started with mercy and love and following Him. 

Maybe we should try to look more like him. Be listeners. Ask questions. Learn. Sympathize. Be compassionate. Treat people the way you would wish to be treated. 

That’s the Golden Rule, right?

I’ll end with a quote from a guy named Jeff Johnston with Focus on the Family. He wrote an incredibly powerful and helpful piece on “9 Ways to Reach Out to a Gay-Identified Friend,” which you should really check out. Here’s a bit:

“Imagine attending a gay pride parade and hearing insults shouted by church people standing on the sidelines. Would you want to follow a God like the one they’re displaying? Or imagine attending church and hearing derogatory language from the pulpit. Would you want to develop relationships with those people?”

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*Side note: the UMC’s official Book of Doctrine states that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” but most, American Methodists affirm LGBTQ individuals in their theology. (https://www.prri.org/spotlight/slim-majority-of-methodists-support-same-sex-marriage/)

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