Making churches safe places for gay youth

In Christian Community’s study on the sexual values and behaviors of 5,819 U.S. teenagers who are involved in congregational life (described in Faith Matters: Teenagers, Religion, and Sexuality), we found a surprisingly high number (12% of males; 9% of females) of teenagers who are involved in churches self-identified as homosexual or bisexual.  These figures—which reflect self-identification of orientation, not behavior—are among the highest percentages of gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens that have been identified in any study.

Many of these teens have concerns both about how to relate their sexual orientation to their faith and about how accepted they would be if their sexual orientation were known by the congregation.

We found that almost all the congregations participating in the Faith Matters study had at least one teen who self-identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or questioning his or her orientation.

Eighty-six percent of those teens, however, said that their clergyperson was not aware of their orientation or their struggle; 46% of them indicated that their parents did not know about their orientation or their struggle.

When we surveyed the clergy in those congregations, only 18% thought that they had one or more LGBT teens in the congregation, and only 12% knew the name of a gay or lesbian teen.

Religious gay youth more likely to consider suicide

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens in our study were almost twice as likely as heterosexual teens to have seriously considered or to have attempted suicide.  This should be a matter of significant concern for those of us in churches.  We wonder if it is possible that the risk for religious teens is slightly higher because of the frequent conflict between their orientation and the anti-gay teaching or silence of their congregations.

Openness and safety are key

If the teens perceived that their pastor or another adult in the church felt “open, accepting, or nonjudgmental” about matters of sexual orientation and gender identity, they were much more likely to have talked with someone in the congregation about the topic.  Those who were able to be open in their faith-based communities were also less likely to have considered suicide than other non-heterosexual teens in this study.

Those who are in churches where there are negative views toward homosexuality and bisexuality rarely are open about their orientation.  Those teens live with a very painful silence.

In congregations that have taken a position as welcoming and affirming of gay and transgender people, teens feel safe to talk about their orientation with others in the youth group, with their minister, and with adults in the congregation.  The congregation becomes a safe place for these teens, and many of them are desperately in need of such a safe place.

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