In counseling parents, I attempt to rapidly cut through their focus on theological fears and causal factors. There often are more “urgent” concerns that we must consider if we are to adequately care for gay teens and young adults. The parents role is critical: these young people need their parents – right here, right now. Yet in a state of shock, it can be quite difficult for parents to move past early heart-piercing questions.
In this post, I want to share how church leaders and counselors can help accelerate (or shepherd) parents’ transition toward effective care. This process — that often takes months without support — can be shortened to days (or minutes) by exposing parents to a gut-level view of the agony their child has faced prior to coming out and the fears their child must face about the future.
But first, a request of my gay friends. For those of you who have gained self-acceptance and support from loved ones, I will never discredit or question your happy life. Likewise, I ask that you not discredit those who are hurting. While it may be trendy to deny the pain of growing up gay, we must not naively assume that all people who identify as same-gender attracted (SGA) have had it easy – much less that all of them can accept a pro-gay belief.
Let’s take a typical 21-year old Christian who is exclusively SGA. He has been raised in a conservative faith setting. She feels a deep inner battle between her desires and her faith. He worries about acceptance from family. She frets over what her closest friends will think. He despises himself.
He is not just depressed. She is not just hopeless. He is not just fearful. She is not just trapped in a tight box. He is not just suicidal. In so many cases, these emotions have been converging and building up for years. The accumulation of silent and unrelenting pain often takes quite a toll on young people. Thus, we fail to care if we start with where they are today. We must consider what they have already been through.
It’s the 5 year old boy who played ball but inwardly felt different from — or outside the world of — other boys. He lacked the language to convey this inner discomfort that ultimately tormented him for years. His silent pain was often labeled obedient, sensitive or shy.
It’s the 8 year old girl who seemingly had girlfriends but inwardly never connected or assimilated with her same-gender peers. People assume this experience is isolated to “tom boys” but the reality is that many SGA young women who exhibit feminine qualities and interests also report having had similar experiences. Many of these girls report being rejected by other girls – or being hurt by boys.
It’s the boy who by age 11 has repeatedly suffered teasing, bullying and exclusion. In many cases, the bullying was benign enough (or sufficiently hidden such) that it was missed by teachers and parents. Yet these messages wreaked their havoc — “you are different than us” or “we don’t see you as a real boy.” The many gay teen suicides teach us that bullying often is much more overt and yet still missed. One young teen was told “go hang yourself” after years of being bullied. He went home and did just that. This world can be cruel.
It’s the girl who at age 14 suddenly imagined the pleasure of being held or kissed by another girl. She quickly surmised: “The thing that no one should EVER choose — it is inside me. I cannot EVER be that kind of person.” At a young age, she chartered a lonely mission to hide, deny, out run and escape SGA.
We are now back in time at the moment of their greatest need as they cave into a coping mechanism called repression. His parents can NEVER know. Her church pastors can NEVER know. No one can ever know! Outsiders see his acts of repression as purity, politeness, humility or maturity. Unnoticed is all the self-effort involved in covering up her emotional, mental and spiritual shame. This is the slow process by which SGA teens begin shutting down their inner self that is supposed to be springing into life.
SGA teens often cover up this pain by seeking other kinds of affirmation. They study
the Bible a lot or they go on a mission trip or they perform highly in school. Unfortunately, it is our evangelical children who may have the deepest motivation to please us — and God — by turning off their internal system.
For a while — months or even years — life can seem to work. Social relationships, fun experiences, godly endeavors and high performance can cover up a lot of pain. Parents and church leaders alike think everything is fine. In my own case, alcohol covered up a lot of my pain as a teen. As I grew tired of waking up sick, I switched to academic performance and working out to unleash the torrent of emotional pain inside me. So there is the super-kid and the self-destructive kid — both attempting to outrun their inner pain.
These teens will eventually grow into the typical 21-year old Christian who experiences a grand realization: “People say I chose this but I did NOT choose it. And: it is NOT going away. I am exhausted. I cannot function. I have no life. No one knows me. If they did, they would not be happy with me. I might be rejected by my parents. I might be condemned by my church. I might be one of the forsaken ones predestined for destruction — I might be condemned already by God! Is death really that much more painful than this life?”
Do you feel the weight of being fundamentally different? This is humbling…
This “giving up” stage is a dangerous point where suicide is an extremely real risk. It is at this stage that the ONLY way to help save a young person’s life is emergency resuscitation. Rather than the medical kind, I am speaking of the conveyance of intense emotional, relational and spiritual affirmations that offer unconditional love and unquestioned acceptance. We love you and we are here for you no matter what…
I am not suggesting that parents become pro-gay (just to be clear). I am suggesting a “posture” shift — a radical repositioning of our actions, attitudes and words that move beyond the theological (moralizing) and the psychological (finding a cause) to address their needs. This posture involves parents bleeding — as on the way to a cross — and laying down their lives for the sake of their child. To absorb his pain; to openly discuss her desires; and to recognize that homosexuality is not just about sex but also a complex romantic and emotional human drive. Yes, sinful if acted upon according to the Bible, but nonetheless very real desires that will be quite difficult to live with — or without. How difficult will it be?
To answer this question, I think we need to look in the mirror. Fact: a material percentage (40-80%) of evangelical born-again adult men with a biblical route to sexual expression via heterosexual marriage are struggling to contain their sexuality within the covenant of marriage due to pornography. We so easily tell gay teens at the peak of their sexual and romantic longings to say NO even as the majority heterosexual adult world fails to say no — with the provision of biblical sexual expression! This should humble us.
Sadly, attempts to turn off these desires often result in young people also shutting down major operating systems critical for a hopeful and fulfilling life. We entirely miss how painful it would be to face this reality — not for a season, but possibly for an entire life time. This is where it gets really tough. Someone aged 45 might be able to imagine a life span of singleness. To do this at 18 or 21 — that’s extremely difficult. Yet even if they achieve celibacy, they may still experience overt and passive acts of judgment and feel misunderstood by their church leaders. The weight is not just about the past, but also about what the future holds…
My deepest compassion does not change my theology. It does, however, radically change my posture. We, the church of Jesus Christ, must change the way we care for LGBT+/SGA teens and young adults. It starts with considering the cumulative weight they carry. We must look into their history and imagine their future in order to gain the understanding and compassion to walk humbly and lovingly with them right where they are today. Let us be faithful to walk with them — no matter what. Amen.
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