Monday, October 25, 2010

Devouring Our Young

Unless you live “off the grid,” it’s been impossible to miss the news coverage that has placed the gay community in the center of a media firestorm this past month. It began with the stories of five young people, all in their teens, who committed suicide as a result of bullying or harassment connected to their real or perceived sexual orientation. During the months of September and October we have heard one heartbreaking story after another of lives cut short due to the cruelty of others.

If you live in the Atlanta area or are connected to a church community, another story that has undoubtedly caught your attention involved accusations of sexual coercion made by four young men against Bishop Eddie Long, the pastor of a prominent mega-church of over 20,000 members in the Atlanta suburbs. In this case, four young men who were part of Bishop Long’s ministry through either his church or boys’ academy have detailed the use of expensive gifts, overseas trips and even cash to manipulate them into sexual relationships and then to keep quiet. All the while, Bishop Long has used his church pulpit as a bully pulpit to spew messages condemning gay people while passing the offering plate to collect millions of dollars from his followers.

And just in case you missed both of these stories, earlier this month a federal judge ruled to overturn the controversial “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” legislation that has been in effect for over 15 years as the military’s policy on gay people serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. That decision, while in effect for only one day, was stayed by swift action from the Obama administration and the Attorney General’s office. Apparently allowing gay people to be open about their sexual orientation would send the military into such turmoil that our national security would be at risk. Really, America? Are people (mostly teenagers and young adults) who have the courage and character to put their lives on the line to defend our country really a threat to national security?

For a blog that is primarily focused on issues facing young gay people, my silence in the face of these recent news stories has probably been rather conspicuous. There are a number of reasons why I’ve waited until now to write. The first is that I haven’t felt I had anything new to add to the conversation. The second is that this blog is typically a forum for me to share my life experiences rather than make political statements. But the third and most significant reason hit me like a Mack truck the other night. I was with some close friends and someone brought up the topic of the teen suicides and the “It Gets Better” project kicked off by the heartfelt actions of Ellen DeGeneres and columnist Dan Savage. We were discussing the videos each of us had seen on YouTube when I, quite suddenly, burst into tears.

I realized last week that the reason I’ve not written about this or even discussed it much is because, emotionally, I just haven’t been able to handle it. These stories have hit me so close to home that I didn’t even realize the subconscious efforts I was making to protect myself from the whole topic. Suddenly I can’t avoid it anymore. This is real, and it could have been me.

As with most teenagers, the high school years were a mixed bag for me. The pressures of overachievement and meeting an unattainable standard of perfection in the eyes of God and the church were looming, yet in the midst of those pressures I was afforded opportunities that many young people never have. I excelled academically and socially at my private, Christian high school and even befriended many of my teachers as well as fellow students. I was elected homecoming king my senior year and involved in extracurricular activities from yearbook to high school musicals (insert snarky comment here…). 

Unfortunately, it is often the more damaging and negative experiences in life that shape who we become in the most obvious ways. For me, the shadow side of my high school experience came from my involvement in two traveling youth choirs affiliated with my church. During my sophomore year of high school I joined and quickly took my place in the inner circle of an emotionally charged, spiritually manipulative, shame-based youth ministry that eventually became the focal point of my social, emotional and spiritual life as a teenager. This group was led by a very charismatic leader and a small group of adults, all of whom I became very close to. What should have been a positive developmental experience instead created more confusion in my heart and mind about who I was, who God was and what it meant to be a Christian than any other experience I’ve had in my life. 
Each weekend these youth groups would get together in what I can only describe as a sexually-charged environment, where the ongoing joke was to make fun of “homosexuals” and where the boys in the group were encouraged by the leaders to mimic gay people by sexually groping each other, speaking with an over-pronounced lisp, making sexual innuendos and referring to each other as “homos” and “fags.” This was, of course, all done under the banner of fun and happened under the supervision and with the participation of many of the adult leaders. What happened backstage was a nightmare for some of us, but when the lights came on and the music began playing, all the people in the pews saw was a group of teenagers singing their hearts out to God.

As a gay, Christian teenager who was deep in the closet, the culture of this group terrified me to the core, yet I participated in the joking and abusive behavior just to stay in the inner circle. As I had in so many other areas of my life, I tried to make everyone believe I was perfect, and to pull off that charade in this group meant I had to be a card-carrying homophobe for Jesus. 

The flip side of the sexually inappropriate culture of the group was the way the leaders would then turn around and use the concepts of shame, sin and redemption to whip the group into a frenzy of confession, tears and emotional/spiritual hysteria before each concert. I can remember, on numerous occasions, standing in a circle with other kids holding hands and weeping over the shame I felt, begging for forgiveness from God while terrified at what I knew I was; I was the very subject of the abusive, mocking culture that defined the social structure of this group. And when the weekends were over and I returned home to face the normal pressures of school and family life as a teenager, my mom would sometimes find me in my room at night, with the door closed, shaking with anxiety and fear over what would happen if God didn’t answer my desperate prayers to take these feelings of same sex attraction away. Or, even worse, what would happen if people found out what my tearful prayers were actually about.

Were it not for other protective factors and healthy adult relationships I had during my high school years, my story could have had the same tragic ending as 19-year-old Tyler Clemente, or 13-year-olds Asher Brown and Seth Walsh… Need I go on?

I began this post by mentioning three news stories that have become the focal point of a heated debate in America. Talking heads on both sides of the “gay” issue have debated each other, cast blame on the alleged perpetrators of abuse, and even in some cases accused the gay community of using the deaths of these young people as propaganda for advancing a “gay agenda.” So my question to the American public, the American media and the American church is this: When will we stop devouring our young?

Let’s begin by shifting the conversation to the kids out there at this moment that could become the next teen suicide victims, and then move heaven and earth to preserve their lives! Let’s forget about egomaniacal, fat cat preachers who bilk the poor by spreading messages of bigotry and hate and instead rally around these four brave young men in Atlanta who risked ostracism by their families and communities to take a stand against spiritual abuse. And let’s challenge the policy makers in this nation who would sooner send a teenager (of which I see hundreds every week coming to and from the Atlanta airport) to the front lines of a war than afford them the dignity of being true to who they are.

I want to be able to tell young, gay Christians that it will get better. It did get better for me. But it only gets better when we adults make it better in our churches, our schools, our government institutions and our culture at large. So I ask again, when will we stop devouring our young?


  1. wow, this brings back some powerful memories. another great post...

  2. I don't remember any of that in the group we were a part of, but then again, I wasn't in the inner circle. It saddens me deeply to know that things like that were going on. I guess I am glad I was "out" and not "in."

  3. As always, written with heartbreaking eloquence. I wish I could have been more of a support to you during those high-school days; but then again, I'm not sure I would have had the maturity to handle this reality back then.

    Once again, you deliver a great reminder that it's the things we say and do in our ignorance, when we have no intent to harm and no thought that those around us may be taking direct hits from our "innocent" joking, that can do the most damage. Very sobering. Thanks so much for writing.