There is an unspoken narrative surrounding the life and suicide of Tyler Clementi and other similar stories. It must no longer be excluded from the national dialogue on these tragic suicides. What role does a child’s religious upbringing play in their decision to kill themselves? It’s a difficult and delicate subject but it can be no more.
While of course I care about the feelings of well-meaning parents in their time of horrific sorrow, I’ve come to see it more important to care about the feelings of vulnerable teens who fall prey to emotional and spiritual bullying from the pulpit and consequently passed on to them by their parents either intentionally or unintentionally.
I myself once believed those misguided and outdated anti-gay religious teachings. Every day I think about the harm I caused and am motivated to speak out so no further harm is done.
There are many more Tyler Clementi tragedies waiting to unfold if we continue to close our minds to the harm caused by religious teaching’s bias and intimidation toward gay. lesbian bisexual and transgender individuals, especially youth and families.
The story of Tyler Clementi’s death has been one of the most publicized teen suicides in recent memory. Unfortunately, a review of media interviews and print news articles over the last 18 months produces only a few hints to the role religious teaching may have played in Clementi’s emotional and psychological distress.
During the previous four years, Faith in America has been sounding the alarm on the immense harm that is being caused to LGBT youth and their families when church teaching is used to place a religious and moral stamp of disapproval on their very being. We also have observed a reluctance to address the root cause of so much of the hostility, prejudice and discrimination.
While the Clementi case demonstrates how the role of church teaching is so often excluded from these discussions, there are signs that society is finally beginning to understand the weight of this social injustice. Hints of such understanding are coming from some unexpected places.
Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, stated before some 4,000 delegates at last year’s Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Phoenix Arizona that “as a reality, we as Christian churches have not done well on this issue” and that “we as evangelicals have a very sad history in dealing with this issue.” Christian denominations can look to other sad histories such as church teaching role in supporting slavery, opposition to equality for women, promoting segregation and bans on interracial marriage. Religion institutions have apologized for those moral failures.
Unfortunately for gay and lesbian youth, Mohler felt compelled to go on and say how he believes homosexuality is one of the worst sins imaginable – and in doing so laid claim to evangelicals continuing the very “sad history” he had just referenced. That’s because the message is one not of unconditional love but a love for gay people that is conditional upon them not being gay.
So many kids fear they will be separated from their parents’ love if they divulge a same-sex sexual orientation because they know what their parents have been taught in church. Worse, consider the emotional and spiritual trauma of being made to feel your sexual orientation also will separate you from God – knowing as a young person what your relationship with God means to your parents. I’ve seen with my on eyes how devastating this can be to a young teen.
Of course the social stigma and hostility that is promoted toward gay and lesbian individuals is not confined to Southern Baptist churches and other evangelical churches. While their numbers are decreasing, there sadly are Methodist, Presbyterian and Lutheran ministers who continue to teach that that homosexuality in and of itself places the gay or lesbian person beyond God’s love.
Grace Church of Ridgewood, New Jersey, is the church that Tyler Clementi attended with his family. It was not an affirming and welcoming place for a young person processing a same-sex sexual orientation, according to some pastors in that community. The church is a member of the Willow Creek Association, a group of churches headed by Bill Hybels, who as recently as last year said that God designed sexual intimacy to be between a man and a woman in marriage and anything outside of that is sexual impurity in God’s eyes. The gay youth hears in those words that they are dirty, unclean and something for which they should be ashamed.
Molly Wei, the co-defendant in the case who has been granted immunity, is described as a “sister in Christ” to Tyler and other Christians by Rev. Clarke Olson-Smith, a pastor at All Saints Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa, who previously served as pastor at St. Stephen Lutheran Church in South Plainfield, New Jersey. It is not hard to understand why Molly felt may have felt justified in shaming Tyler by sharing the video with others – particularly if she like many others has been taught that same-sex intimacy is worthy of such shame in the eyes of God.
In an October 2010 article posted on a church blog at St. Stephen Church, Olson-Smith wrote “In the congregation Tyler grew up in and his parents still belong to, there was no question. To be gay was to be cut off from God.”
The mission of Faith in America is to educate people about the harm caused to gay and lesbian individuals, especially youth and families – like Tyler and his family – when we allow certain religious teaching to close our minds to the possibility that church teaching is being misused to promote and justify causing innocent people harm.
In Christian circles around the country, a “hate the sin, love the sinner” perspective is often promulgated as a ‘Christian’ approach to homosexuality.
After five years of speaking with LGBT youth and their parents across this country, I believe that it was this perspective that likely caused Tyler’s mother to react in a way that her son perceived to be “totally rejecting” him – as he penned in a text message – when he came out to her before going off to college. There can be no doubt that Mrs. Clementi loved her son unconditionally. But Tyler didn’t hear the unconditional part and I suspect that is because he knew what his mother had been taught by the church.
A jury Friday decided that whether there was evidence to say without doubt that Ravi Dhuran’s actions were based bias and intimidation toward gay people.
The evidence against religious teaching’s bias and intimidation toward gay people and the role such religion-based bias and intimidation plays in the bullying, the stigma, the prejudice and the discrimination is overwhelming and conclusive.
Immunity can no longer be given to misguided church teaching’s bias and intimidation toward gay and lesbian youth and families. If we do, there will be more stories about a precious life being senselessly ended and more devastation brought upon their parents and families.
Faith in America is a N.C.-based nonprofit which works nationally to educate the public about the harm to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals, especially LGBT youth and their families, when a religious and moral stamp of disapproval is placed on their sexual orientation. Brent Childers, who himself once used religious teaching to justify bigotry toward the LGBT community, serves as executive director.