Supporters of same-sex marriage hold signs while demonstrating outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, March 26, 2013. The Supreme Court takes up what is probably its biggest civil-rights dispute in decades this week when it hears arguments that could lead to the legalization of same-sex marriage nationwide. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg (Andrew Harrer/BLOOMBERG)

It was an honest question—one she heard quite a bit in her work advocating for families of school-aged children in urban communities.  Alexis J. Smith, founder of the Baltimore-based education firm, Entitled to Educate, described a common perception of sexuality: A parent, teacher or coach asks if a child is “trying on” being gay as if it were the latest brand of sneakers. “Maybe I take them to church,” Smith explained on a recent radio show that devoted an hour to the issues surrounding gay students in the classroom . “Maybe there is something I can do to change their mind. There are some that will need some more love, guidance and attention and maybe even correction. This comes from love.”

There is no legitimate scientific research that shows being gay is a choice—only “junk science,” Aisha Moodie-Mills, an advisor on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) issues for the Center for American Progress shot back during the radio show. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” she said.  “Being gay, is just simply who you are. I don’t think that we create healthy young people by being paternalistic around their feelings.”

There has never been greater awareness of the LGBT community; according to a recent Gallup poll, D.C. has by far the highest concentration of self-identified gay residents in the country. Policy barriers are tumbling in the military, same-sex marriage and adoption. Popular opinion is changing as well: A majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage. Crooner Frank Ocean broke down barriers in hip-hop by singing about loving a man, and even the NFL is working to increase tolerance.

Still, schools have a steep learning curve when it comes to serving LGBT students and families. If communities want to be an ally to questioning children, it’s best to avoid using language such as “choice” and “preference,” says Julie Ost, a sexual health education specialist with D.C.’s Office of the State Superintendant, who trains school staff, works on sexual education curriculum, and conducts an annual survey of DC public and charter schools. “That’s one of the triggering words,” she said. “That’s a big ‘ouch.’”

But while gay identity is not a choice, Ost said, for this generation of kids, gender and sexual identity is very fluid. In a 2010 Youth Risk Behavior survey of DC high school girls, 12 percent of high school girls reported having sex with either females or both males and females, 2.8 percent reported not being sure of their sexual identity, and 16.9 identified as gay or bisexual. For high school boys in the survey, 5.5 percent reported having sex with males or males and females but only 2.8 percent identifying as gay, and 2.6 percent identified as bisexual, while 2.8 percent were not sure.

“There is identity, and then there is behavior,” Ost explained. “Those two things are not necessarily aligned all the time. That looks very different than for adults. It is not a choice. But it is also something that you are not always in tune with when you are born.”

The survey results showed difficult road for many of D.C.’s LGBT youth: In the 2010 survey, 21 percent of high school and 41 percent of middle school gay, lesbian and bisexual students reported attempting suicide. They are more likely than their heterosexual peers to use drugs and have sex.  There is much to do to reach out to the youth to become allies. But the start is a respectful dialogue. In these two letters, Moodie-Mills and Smith expand on their comments on the radio show.  

And you can join them Saturday, April 13 at 3 p.m. at THEARC, where they will continue the conversation, along with Ost, at a community forum sponsored by The Root DC, Allison Brown Consulting, and the Interactivity Foundation.   

Alexis J. Smith

Dear Aisha: I feel like we could have talked all day about the differences in perspectives, attitudes, realities, and - most importantly - strategies on addressing issues of LGBT students, especially from the perspective of the "concerned educator" in school, at home, or in the community.  This conversation/advocacy is long overdue and I applaud your commitment.

 I will add, with continuing respect, that my goal in working with parents and community members is to empower their voice. That means creating an atmosphere that welcomes questions and respectfully stated opinions without fear of condemnation.  Questions about whether a child's LGBT orientation/lifestyle came naturally or as a choice are ones that we may need to embrace with a little more empathy and tolerance. 

 Whether we like it or not, there are educators and parents who question the “causes” of LGBT identity despite the data and research you cite. Whether it is driven by love or fear or ignorance, the answers they come up with frame the development of the children we are aiming to serve. They affect how the students perceive themselves, and how they interact with others, and of course, this all rolls over into academic outcomes as well.

 Children are shaped by many experiences, popular culture, sexual abuse, or exposure to healthy same-sex relationships. All of these may well steer a teen or young adult to "choose" to experiment with an alternative lifestyle. I have countless friends, family, and congregation members who have openly shared that a life circumstance impacted their decision to live (or try) a homosexual lifestyle. I never judge. I simply offer prayer when there is obvious pain, and express sincere joyful admiration of any loving loving relationship.

 But how do we effectively support children who are experiencing their own "questions" as they grow in their own identity and/or witness adults who have the same challenges?  Can you point me to more of your work?  I'd be honored to become a "student" of your approach to empowerment within the LGBT community.

 I'd love to see energy and resources made available to our community.  Something like a: "Nature or Nurture, It's My Business...Now Teach Me, Please!"  --- wherein we don't ignore that in some circumstances a LGBT lifestyle choice may be made by parents or students. Ultimately, we should move beyond the nature versus nurture debate into generating solutions and strategies for how to help LGBT students be successful.

 As we do, let's be sure to not belittle, offend or stifle the engagement of any group by race, class, "data fluency," or any other factor as we advocate for another.  This halts conversation and therefore progress.

Aisha C. Moodie-Mills

Dear Alexis: I completely agree that it is critical that we meet people where they are and provide a space for their continued evolution and learning, so thank you for the work that you do!

 It is important however to provide accurate information, or else we risk validating or fueling ignorance. Take for example your point about experimentation, which conflates being gay with sexual trauma.  Surely abuse and trauma play out in a variety of ways in people’s lives, both gay and straight, but the idea that being gay is the consequence of a tragic life event is a very dangerous assumption that just simply is not true. Typecasting an entire community based on the experience of a few is very problematic (not to mention offensive). At it’s core, the scenario you lay out implies that being gay is wrong and is something that needs to be “fixed”, and it is this judgment that is the most harmful to young people.

 I do love your “Nature or Nuture… let’s move past that” narrative, because it hits at the key issue here.  It does not matter “why” someone is gay, the fact of the matter is that they are.  LGBT people have families, we worship in churches, and yes there are LGBT youth in our schools. So we must come to a place where we treat all young people with dignity and respect, foster positive self-esteem, and arm them with the tools to think critically for themselves, despite our own biases. 

 Being gay is not a “choice” as you suggest. To be clear no major national mental health organization, including the American Psychological Association, supports the claim that being gay is something that can be chosen or changed. (One can choose not to act on their desires but that doesn’t mean they don’t have them).  On the contrary forty years of research documents the emotional and psychological trauma this idea causes.

 It is not easy to own who you are, especially if it is in direct conflict with the expectations of those you love and respect. And it is often their judgment that inflicts the most pain on LGBT youth, despite their “good intentions”.  I recommend you review Dr. Caitlyn Ryan’s work on the impact of acceptance/rejection on LGBT youth which gets to the core of this.

 Her findings are clear. The best way to support LGBT youth is to do just that, support them.  No you cannot pray the gay away—and the “take them to church” shaming strategy harms not heals. Instead we must empower them to love themselves unconditionally, and give them the freedom and flexibility to evolve into who they are destined to be.  It’s that simple.