I remember sitting in church and hearing the sermons about what it meant to be a Christian—the commandment to love your neighbor as you love yourself—and thinking that this just didn’t apply to me; I was unworthy.
As I came of age I realized that my sexual orientation wasn’t a choice I had made, but the idea that there was something inferior about being gay had already been firmly planted in my mind. I struggled to reconcile the fact that I was something that was wrong, but unlike other sins I could never change this one.
It was traumatic to have that inner struggle and see no clear solution.
As an adolescent and young adult, the concept of coming out was just about the scariest thing I could imagine. It terrified me so much that my younger self really believed it would never be possible, and that there was no way that I would be able to tell people and expect any sort of compassion or love in return. Where did this thinking come from?
In school I learned that “gay” was something bad long before I knew I was gay, or before I knew what “gay” was. But throughout middle school and into my early high school years when I spent my Sundays in church, Sunday school and youth group I was hearing an even more painful message.
There was no ambiguity about what was sinful, and “homosexuality”—a term that was misunderstood and misused to be a behavior and a choice, was clearly on the list alongside lying, stealing and cheating.
This sort of demonizing does a lot of harm for an LGBT person.
When a crisis situation occurs, “You’re a sinner, you’re disgusting, you are bad,” are the sort of thoughts that run through an LGBT person’s mind. If one does not have a supportive and affirming community, these harmful thoughts can win out.
The teachings of the church had always been so important to me. Being a Christian was a fundamental part of my sense of self throughout my early life. And by the time I realized I was gay, somewhere around my eleventh grade year of high school, I no longer saw a place for me in the Christian community.
It was hard for me to know where my family stood on LGBT issues, because we did not talk about homosexuality at home. I knew that it was preached against in the church and at youth group but my parents were silent. As a young person I was afraid to ask what they thought, because I didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that I was concerned about it.
I was left with no real option other than to assume my family agreed with the church’s teachings since they continued to bring me to that church.
It took me a long time to understand that my sexual orientation was a valid part of my identity. Not a choice that I had made or a sin I had chosen—it is part of who I am and how I relate to the world around me. Having my worldview shaped so strongly by a church that did not welcome LGBT people into their congregation had a tremendous effect on my sense of self-worth. In many ways, it also did an incredible amount of damage to my ability to pray, to worship or to feel close to God.
Growing up, I really had no idea that LGBT affirming and embracing church communities existed. I thought that an LGBT identity and a Christian identity were at odds with each other, that it wasn’t possible to be both of these things at once.
My story is complicated by the fact that I was not the only gay child in my family. My youngest brother is Tyler Clementi, who nearly three years ago ended his own life following an anti-gay bias crime that occurred against him on his college campus. Straight kids get the same homophobic messages that LGBT kids get in church and school every day. This creates another layer of danger for LGBT youth, as their straight peers have been taught that this is a group with no worth; they deserve whatever abuse one feels like unleashing on them.
Straight youth also learn that they are able to get away with their cruelty, because homophobia is completely acceptable in our culture.
While I believe the events that occurred during Tyler’s brief time at college were the precipitating factors in Tyler’s suicide, I also recognize that he was already a young person in a vulnerable place before he ever stepped foot on campus. Days before arriving at Rutgers University, Tyler had come out to my parents. When he left for school that relationship was strained and he may have felt that he didn’t have family support.
Like me, Tyler was also very involved in the church. He performed the violin every Sunday morning with the worship team, in addition to attending services and youth group. Tyler was gay, and was also receiving the same anti-gay messages that I was. During a recent conversation, my mom informed me that she had been going through Tyler’s things in his room and she found his Bible.
She opened it to read through it, and a sheet of paper fell out. The paper contained information that condemned homosexuals as sinners that needed God’s will to turn away from their immoral lifestyle. There were notes that Tyler had written in his own hand. It was from a lesson that occurred in his youth group.
The image of that paper tucked away in Tyler’s Bible continues to haunt me.
Was it just there as a bookmark? But why was this paper the one he held on to? When he sought out answers to his struggles and he turned to his Bible, was that what he looked at? How much did he internalize this bigotry? I have no way of knowing how much this message had an impact on Tyler. He is not here for me to ask. But I know that he was young and his mind was being shaped every day by the environment around him.
I have to think that the messages Tyler was hearing in his house of worship had a profound impact on his sense of his own value. I can remember sitting in those pews and feeling isolated, alone, condemned. I don’t see the purpose in a church that closes its doors to certain groups of people, that creates and encourages divisiveness among families. I struggle with how a pastor can stand before a congregation of people gathered together to worship and denounce children and adults that are sitting silently before them, powerless to do anything about it.
In the years since my brother passed away I have discovered a wealth of church communities in an expansive variety of denominations that accept and embrace the LGBT community. My mom has even become a regular attender at an LGBT-reconciling church. I still do not attend.
I am in many ways uncertain about my own beliefs and the ways in which I want to experience my spirituality. Nonetheless, the more time I spend engaged with these churches, be it through the work of our foundation or through the conversations I have with my mom around faith and religion, the more my heart becomes softened and my eyes become opened.
LGBT-reconciling churches are transforming the dialogue around this issue, as well as having a healing impact in the lives of countless individuals and families.
It is my hope that the future Tyler Clementi’s of the world will hear love and affirmation from the pulpit in all churches.
While that day may still be a long way off, parents can make a world of difference in their child’s lives, self-esteem and treatment of their peers and themselves by choosing a church family that will embrace all of God’s children with respect. This is important not only for parents of LGBT youth, but for all parents. If you have children who are not LGBT, your children will still have LGBT classmates, one day coworkers, and perhaps even friends. Do not put them in an environment that will train them to judge, fear or hate their LGBT peers, instead allow them to grow in a spiritual tradition of love and justice.
Since losing Tyler, my mom and dad have founded the Tyler Clementi Foundation. The organization created in Tyler’s name works to create safe and inclusive environments for vulnerable youth and LGBT young people, and seeks to be a resource for parents and families who may not always know the best ways to support their children.
The Tyler Clementi Foundation strives towards building a culture that is respectful of differences and built on the golden rule—treating other people the way you would want them to treat you. This concept extends beyond the classroom, a college campus, or the family dinner table. Churches are accountable for their words and teachings in the same way that any other institution is. LGBT-reconciling churches have raised the bar of what is acceptable to say about LGBT people in the church setting.
My mom’s choice to leave her church and seek out other churches that welcome LGBT people is a brave one.
Her actions send a powerful message to church leaders of where the line is drawn and what messages are acceptable. Like all movements for social change it can only be enhanced and more effective by having others join the cause.
While it is not a decision to be taken lightly, if you and your family attend a church that teaches that being gay is a sin, I urge you to consider leaving. Look around you for churches that have a message of love and acceptance for LGBT people. The choice to do this can have a direct and positive impact on a person in your life.
On our website we have an Upstander Pledge. This pledge is a commitment to treating other people with respect and kindness, refraining from using derogatory language and getting involved and speaking out when we see people harming others.
Go to the site and take the pledge today. Sign up and print it out. Post it on the wall of your Church. Put it on your refrigerator. Share its message with the people in your life. Being a bystander when you witness an action or a message that is harming others only causes more pain.
Choosing to be an Upstander creates a sense of belonging and inclusiveness for all people in your community.
Promoting yourself as an Upstander may even save someone’s life.
Photo via James Clementi, The Tyler Clementi Foundation