Today is National Coming Out Day. In the fourteen years since I came out a lot has changed. Marriage equality is the law of the land in thirteen states and Washington, DC, gays and lesbians can serve openly in the military, and LGBT people are coming out younger than ever.
However, with all these advances, there are still so many kids who experience the very same isolation I did, coming from a background in an extremely conservative church and school. For those kids, the struggle, especially among kids of faith, is just as visceral as it was in 1999. I was reminded of my own coming out when I read this excellent report in Rolling Stone, “The Hidden War On Gay Teens,” on the phenomenon of private Christian high schools who, because of legal loopholes and vouchers, are receiving federal money, and simultaneously kicking kids out of school for coming out:
Noah Maier tells people he graduated from high school on his back porch in Alpharetta, Georgia. That’s where he was on the late-summer night in 2008 when he learned that, because of his sexual orientation, he would not be welcome at his small private Christian school for his senior year. It had already been a difficult week. Three days before, a friend’s mother had outed him to his parents, who, he says, were “totally blindsided, never ever saw it coming.” Though they accepted it, they were still reeling from the news when they got called into a meeting with the school, which had learned through a different friend of Noah’s that he was gay. “They had decided there were two options for me,” Noah says. “Option number one was they would allow me to remain in the school, but they wouldn’t want me to associate with my classmates or do any of my extracurricular activities. I just had to go to class and leave.” His other option was to withdraw. Noah’s parents left the decision to him – but it was clear to everyone that it wasn’t really much of a decision. “They wanted to keep their place of education as pure as it possibly could be.”
To this day, Noah does not understand why his friend reported his sexuality to the administration. But what is clear is that despite how involved and popular he had been (“I had a great group of friends, played basketball, yearbook editor, all the honor societies”), he suddenly found himself a pariah. No one from the school contacted him – no teacher, no administrator, not even the students with whom he’d thought he was close. (The school and church declined to comment.) It was almost as though he had never attended. “I lost a lot of friends,” he says now. “I don’t speak to anybody from there.”
Equally upsetting was the fact that this happened two weeks before he was to begin his senior year, and although he already had enough credits to graduate, he says the school refused to give him a degree, or even return his family’s calls. He’d been accepted to Mercer University, but without proof that he’d completed high school, he wouldn’t be able to enroll. The turn of events was crushing: “I don’t remember almost anything from those couple months, except for just being devastatingly, unbearably sad.” Though he’d never been suicidal before, he suddenly found himself lured by harmful thoughts (a 2011 study in Pediatrics found that gay youth are five times more likely than their heterosexual peers to attempt suicide). “I’d be driving down the road and thinking about just swerving my car over and hitting other cars. I grabbed a bunch of pills and tried to figure out which ones were better to combine to try to kill myself. I never felt that way before I got kicked out of school, but that was the level I was at. It was down to a couple minutes.”
Ironically, Noah had recently started coming out to his friends because he’d finally been able to reconcile his sexuality with his faith. Like many children raised in conservative, religious environments, he’d originally believed his attractions to be sinful and, since he couldn’t help having them, had been plagued by a lot of internalized shame.
As he began to research homosexuality and its Christian context, he soon learned that not all Christians agree that gay people are destined for hell – a discovery that allowed him to consider that he might one day embrace his sexuality. “My faith was very, very important to me. I wanted to be sure that Christianity and my orientation could mesh, and if not, then what I was giving up would be homosexuality – it wouldn’t be Christianity,” he tells me matter-of-factly. “So I read a lot of books and websites to try and figure these things out. And when I felt like I could mesh them and defend them, well, I came out.” As an example of what he discovered, he mentions Romans 1:18-27, one of the most popular of the so-called clobber verses, biblical passages that are commonly used to condemn homosexual activity. “This verse that talks about abandoning our God-given nature and going after these perverted, lustful things?” Noah says. “Well, my God-given nature is my attraction for men. I would be acting counter to Romans if I went after women, because that goes against the very nature of what I am – not just sexually, but romantically and emotionally.”
Noah is not alone in his story. The article talks about several other kids, all in Georgia, who live in fear of their school administration finding out about their secret networks of gay kids, kids who are just trying to support each other in a cruel culture. (Read the whole story, by the way, as it delves deeply into the way these schools are using the government to raise money for them, all the while being given a special pass to discriminate against gay kids.)
What strikes me is that, for so much of the population, things have gotten so much better, but for kids unlucky enough to grow up in fundamentalist Christian homes, often it’s just as bad as it was, or worse. I have a close friend whose son came out at fourteen, into an extremely supportive environment where he was allowed to thrive. He ended up graduating near the top of his class and is honestly one of the coolest, most well rounded, most mature college students I know. But the area where he grew up is also the area where I grew up, and a lot of those people send their kids to schools like my alma mater. A lot of families are turning inward against the changing culture, digging their heels of discrimination and hatred in even deeper. For those LGBT kids who happen to live in one of those families, go to one of those churches, or one of those schools, the secret hell created by the Christian Right still exists. (One only need peruse the comments section of our local paper’s recent article about this weekend’s Pride celebration to see that.)
People who have seen LGBT kids who come out when they’re ready and have a completely normal adolescence know just how cruelly dishonest the Religious Right is when they claim that higher rates of depression and suicide among gay youths are somehow just inherently part of being gay. People who have seen these kids firsthand know that, when you come out surrounded by love, support and acceptance, you thrive. It doesn’t mean you don’t screw up or piss your parents off or anything like that. We are, after all, dealing with teenagers.
But the kid who lives next door to that happy, thriving gay kid, but whose family and church environment has taught her from day one that LGBT people are sick, twisted and hellbound? For that kid, marriage equality and the fall of DADT might as well not have happened.
Those families — that’s where the “statisics” come from.
Tell your stories today, and look around for ways you can help those kids suffering in silence. If you’re a Christian, make a NALT video. Get in touch with your local LGBT community center and find out what they’re doing to support the youth of their community and where you might be able to pitch in. And perhaps most importantly, speak up. You never know who might be listening.