New research shows that LGBTQIA+ youth have been experiencing an incredible amount of distress during the pandemic.  According to the Trevor Project:

“42% of LGBTQ youth, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth, seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. Yet, nearly half could not access the mental health care they desired.  More than 80% of LGBTQ youth stated that COVID-19 made their living situation more stressful — and only 1 in 3 LGBTQ youth found their home to be LGBTQ-affirming.  Among LGBTQ respondents, 12% of white youth attempted suicide compared to 31% of Native/Indigenous youth, 21% of Black youth, 21% of multiracial youth, 18% of Latinx youth, and 12% of Asian/Pacific Islander youth.”

These findings should make every person of faith and member of the human family horrified and heartbroken.  Our young people – who were created in God’s image and are beautifully and wonderfully made – are continuously receiving the message that they are not loved for who they are nor safe to be themselves with many of their loved ones, communities, or even their Creator.  

We need to do everything we can to create safe and affirming spaces for all our young people to explore, express, and be who they truly are.    

And the thing is, even when communities and organizations (whether secular or faith-based) put up rainbow flags on their buildings, have welcome statements claiming that “all are welcome,” or even participate in training sessions to become “Reconciling” congregations or “Safe Zone” spaces, this does not necessarily mean the organization is a safe space for all people within the LGBTQIA+ community.  

It took a lot of courage for me to come out publicly about my bisexuality, even in spaces that claimed to be LGBTQIA+ affirming.  I feared what people would say, think, or how they would react.  I felt stressed about how I would share this part of myself in a way that others would accept and respect.  Would others still trust me to be their pastor and youth leader?  

When I did come out publicly, even though I received a tremendous amount of support from most people (which is not usually the case), I still received many questions from others about why I even needed to come at all.  “Why does it matter?  You’re married.” “I don’t get it. What does it mean to be bisexual and married to a man?” 

You can read more about why it matters and why I chose to come out here.     

While bi+ folks make up the largest population of the LGBTQIA+ community, the “B” is often left out and misunderstood, even within “affirming” communities, spaces, and congregations.  And bi erasure, bi invisibility, and other forms of biphobia are still very real. 

Erasure and invisibility of transgender and nonbinary persons and other forms of transphobia are also extremely prevalent – even within communities that claim to be “Reconciling” and affirming.

I will never forget an encounter I had several years ago with someone who claimed to be an LGBT ally.  When he misgendered a high schooler we both knew, I reminded him that this youth’s pronouns are they/them.  He dismissively responded: “Well, I just don’t understand that.”  Then he misgendered the youth again. 

Misgendering and deadnaming someone is disrespectful and incredibly harmful.  As the Trevor Project reported: “Transgender and nonbinary youth attempt suicide less when respect is given to their pronouns and they are allowed to officially change their legal documents.”

Respecting a person’s pronouns and affirmed names can literally save lives.  

And the thing is, when we dismissively “just don’t understand,” that lack of understanding is a big indicator that we have a lot more work to do.

In the church (and in every community we are a part of), we must do better for our young people and for all our LGBTQIA+ siblings.  

Rainbows and inclusive welcome statements are important ways to signal to LGBTQIA+ youth and people of all ages that the spaces they will be entering are safe and welcoming.  However, we must be doing everything we can to ensure that these spaces are – in fact – safe for everyone who enters those doors.  We need to be continuously educating ourselves and others.  We should be asking ourselves how our spaces uplift heteronormativity and cisnormativity and thus who is being harmed and excluded.  Then we must work toward change.

We should be making it a common practice to share our pronouns when we introduce ourselves in confirmation, Sunday school, youth group, small groups, and all other gatherings. We can also put our pronouns in email signatures and on nametags.  If we do not understand why we share our pronouns or don’t know how to use them, we should learn why and how.  If others in our community do not understand, we should help them learn, as well.  You can begin to do so here and here.

We should be hosting regular educational forums and trainings to learn how to accompany and include LGBTQIA+ siblings.  Your church denomination or local LGBTQIA+ organization might offer resources for these trainings.  Some places to start learning can be found here and here.  

We need to be thinking about the ways we divide people into groups and if those divisions exclude people.  Are these groups based on gender?  If so, what message does this send and how is this harmful and exclusive of those who do not fit into these groups and categories?  Are there bathrooms for everyone, including “all gender” bathrooms?  If not, what can you do to get one in your building?

Representation matters.  What movies are being shown during events and which books are being read during Bible studies and children’s story times?  Who is being quoted in sermons and who is serving as a worship leader or on church council or board?  Are LGBTQIA+ folks being represented?  

Our language matters. It can include or exclude, heal or harm.  We need to be using language that is inclusive to everyone when we speak to groups, preach, read scripture, and form our worship liturgy.  For instance, instead of using “boys and girls,” we can use “children” or “friends.”  Instead of using “brothers and sisters,” we can use “siblings” or “family.”  Instead of using “male and female voices,” we can use “high and low voices.”  When we are talking about someone who has not shared their pronouns with us, we should not make assumptions about their gender.  Instead of saying “that woman” or “that man,” we can say “that person near the playground.”  You can read more about this here.

It’s the beginning of Pride month, and this is an excellent opportunity to dedicate time to learning how to be an ally and create safe and brave spaces for all of our LGBTQIA+ youth, children, and adults.  If you want to take this month to learn more about how to create safe spaces specifically for youth in the church, you might start by reading: Made, Known, Loved: Developing LGBTQ Inclusive Youth Ministry by Ross Murray, Welcoming and Affirming: A Guide to Supporting and Working with LGBTQ+ Christian Youth edited by Leigh Finke, and Youth and Family Resources (from ELCA Reconciling Works). But we must not stop learning and growing when June ends.  We must remember that ally is a verb, and to be one requires continuous work.  We will never fully know and understand everything, and we should always be ready to learn something new, grow in our understanding, accept that we will make mistakes, and change our language and practices that exclude and cause harm.  We must always remember that no matter our intention, what is important is how our words, actions, or silence and inactions impact others.  

So let’s get to work.  Because God loves ALL of God’s beloved children and so – too – should we.  

Rev. Emily Heitzman (she/her/hers) is an ordained Presbyterian (USA) pastor serving as the shared Pastor with Youth and Households at three ELCA congregations in the neighborhood of Edgewater in Chicago: Unity Lutheran, Ebenezer Lutheran, and Immanuel Lutheran. Some of her sermons and reflections can be found at Musings from a Bricolage.

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One thought on “The Pastoral Is Political: Affirming Spaces for LGBTQIA+ Youth

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