“I was born a female but identify with the male gender. My sexual identity is gay. I am 16 years old and was kicked out of my home recently. Sometimes I think killing myself would save everyone a lot of trouble. I don’t know what else to do or where to go. There is no place that I know of that will accept me as I am. I never wanted this. It’s not like I want to be hated by everyone and all alone. I’m basically on my own now.” – Homeless transgendered teen
In an attempt to better understand the lives of young LGBTQ students I interviewed several teens looking for common themes related to the topics of rejection/acceptance, coming out, LGBTQ-related stress, other intersections of identity, trauma/bullying, mental health/substance use, suicide, community/sense of belonging, and faith and spirituality. What I discovered has changed me and I don’t think I will ever be the same and I’m hoping it will change how the church engages these precious and beloved children of God as well.
During the course of one interview, the student I was talking with used the term “straight privilege”. It stopped me in my tracks. It wasn’t something I’d ever considered, let alone heard of. Those with privilege rarely do consider it. I mean, come on. I get white privilege or male privilege, but straight privilege? How much privilege could one man have? I quickly learned that the world I lived in lent itself to being straight. I have never experienced the stress of coming out or being rejected because I liked the opposite sex. The term “Hetero” has never been used as a derogatory term. Nobody shouts, “Look at that dude, he looks so straight!” or “That shirt is so straight. He must like girls.” I have never had to wonder if me being heterosexual was pleasing to God or if I was damned to hell because I was attracted to the opposite sex. I learned through these interviews that I am biased because of straight privilege and it was preventing me from seeing the world through the eyes of an LGBTQ individual.
All of the students interviewed had a sense they were different at a very early age, some reporting as early as 7 or 8 years old. Most had a definitive awareness by 10 – 13 years of age. Most report initially rejecting the notion that they had same-sex attraction and many said they were repulsed by the idea. One teenage boy, who identifies as gender fluid and gay shared that when he was 6 years old he asked his mother if he could like boys.
The most common fear of identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered was the fear of rejection and all correlated this with not coming out at an earlier age. This shouldn’t surprise anyone reading this but it was an overwhelming majority of LGBTQ students that echoed this sentiment. Mallory, a 22-year-old lesbian told a story about being the center of gossip in her small rural town when she came out. She said repeatedly that her fear was that those closest to her would begin to look at her differently, like a pedophile who intended to steal and eat all of the children in town like a monster.
Most of the students interviewed report coming out to the safest people possible at first. This usually consisted of closest friends and siblings. Ironically, most of them report that the individuals they first came out to already had suspicion that they were not heterosexual. The average age of coming out among those interview was 16-18 years old. They all indicate that the time period between accepting they were gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered and when they came out were the most difficult years. We’ll explore that a little later.
Several indicated that the process of coming out never ends. With each new person they tell the process starts over for them. The fear of rejection and anxiety resets and with each new person they meet for the rest of their lives will likely provoke some measure of anxiety as well.
One young woman shared that she believed there were three layers of coming out; to the first individual, family and friends, and publicly, each with their own unique factors.
Bree, a 20-year-old lesbian reminded me that these are issues I will never have to deal with because I identify as a white, heterosexual, Christian male and since I won’t have to deal with them I am likely biased to expect the rest of the world (including LGBTQ individuals) to experience the world just like I do.
If it’s possible to summarize issues so complex I would say this; the time between when a young person identifies internally that they are gay, lesbian, bi, or trans and when they actually come out to others is the time they are at the greatest risk for substance abuse, depression, self-harm, suicide and other mental health related concerns.
If that is even remotely true it beckons a response. So, then what is the best response(s) from people of faith?