It was a story I’d heard before, but hearing it in the Christian school I’d graduated from brought a level of emotion that surprised even me. In ten years of engaging with those outside the heterosexual mainstream, I have sat with countless individuals who shared stories of unsafe environments within the Christian community. But hearing my colleague tell of being beaten up by a group of boys at his Christian school during our seminar for teachers was a poignant moment. We had spent all day going through questions of identity, causation, disclosure, student support, and the reality of homophobic language and behavior that continue to persist in our school environments. My colleague’s story, told from the perspective of someone who had journeyed for as long as he could remember with the reality of same-sex attraction, packed an emotional punch that no amount of theoretical diversity training could offer.
“I’m so confused right now, and could really use some help. When I was twelve, I got caught messing around with a girl. I got in a lot of trouble. After that, I started watching gay porn. I’ve never had many guy friends, although I’ve wanted them. It’s mostly been girls. At this point, I’m almost exclusively turned on by guys, and I’m worried if I turned myself gay somehow, by watching gay porn and not being around many guys. Deep down inside, though, I feel straight, or at least bisexual. I really like girls and want a relationship with one. What should I do?”
—Male student, age fifteen
Questions of sexual and gender identity are a reality in our schools that can no longer be ignored. The tensions are complex and challenging. Teachers and administrators may feel the tug and pull of diverse needs and expectations. There are faith-based beliefs and values to uphold. There are parental concerns regarding what is discussed and taught on a topic like homosexuality. There are the needs of students who may be questioning, struggling, experimenting, or trying to navigate their own coming-out process. There are opportunities to guide students who are wrestling to know how to engage their culture, interact with gay people, and integrate their Christian faith in these areas. There are educators who deal personally with same gender attraction and who may carry the weight of hiding such an intrinsic part of themselves from their communities. There can be assumptions, misunderstandings, and fear.
There is also the increasing reality of diversity in our school communities. Gone are the days of predicting a uniform response to sexual ethics for same-sex attracted people. Sincere people who are committed to Christ and care deeply about the formational authority of scripture in our lives come to different conclusions about the appropriateness of covenanted same-sex partnerships for those who experience a persistent gay orientation. Such diversity can be further intensified in multicultural settings where families from different backgrounds may have radically different responses to sexual minorities.
“I started coming to terms with my sexuality around age twelve and was very ‘in the closet’ about it. I later came out to my mom, which was a big mistake. I then confided in someone I trusted at school, and she spread it around the entire school. I was embarrassed at first, but I am comfortable with it and I feel more free now that I am out at school. However, I am not out at church. The people at church are not accepting of people being gay. They accept the people as friends, but not that part of them and they try to break that. They always claim that homosexuality is a choice. I’m sorry, but true homosexuality is NOT a choice. I would not choose to be ridiculed on a daily basis by various people, confined to the house by my mom, and not allowed to go places with girls. I am scared to share with my friends from church and come out to them, as they will judge me and try to ‘fix’ me or something.”
—Female student, age fourteen
In addition to navigating such internal complexity, is the reality that our response, in as public an arena as a school environment, carries significant implications for our witness in the broader community. The Christian response to the personal and relational reality of sexual minorities is one of the most significant litmus tests for unchurched people. We will be judged one way or the other: welcoming or exclusionary, promoting injustice or equity, extending respect or alienating.
Confronted with such challenges, administrators, teachers, parents, and students have the opportunity to join together in nurturing a safe and hospitable community for those outside the heterosexual mainstream. Such a community follows in the steps of Jesus, who waded fearlessly into the hot-button tensions and points of exclusion of his day.
At the heart of Jesus’s ministry, we see him crossing borders, touching the marginalized, and engaging the very kind of people that the religious leaders warned against. Jesus models for us the ultimate unconditional invitation when he breaks down barriers of religious bitterness with Samaritans, boundaries of uncleanness with lepers, and blockades of moral impurity with prostitutes. His behavior was so scandalous, so subversive, so shocking that the most committed adherents of the faith failed to recognize the kingdom in his ministry. They not only failed to recognize his fulfillment of God’s promise, but his movement to the margins so infuriated, frustrated, and threatened their sense of appropriate religious conduct that they conspired to murder him. Following Jesus and modeling our communities after his commitment to draw in those on the edges demands fearless love.
Extending Christlike hospitality is not mindless affirmation of a secularized view of sexuality. But it does create an environment in which love wins out over fear, formation wins out over control, invitation wins out over coercion, and education wins out over indoctrination. Prayerful, Spirit-led biblical reflection on God’s story revealed through all of scripture must lead our conversations. Issues of justice must be considered through the lens of God’s promise of shalom and redemption. But theoretical certainties compiled from systematic proof-texting may need to be deconstructed to hear the whisper of the Spirit in each unique life and journey.
I have heard too many stories from those who felt they had no other option but to choose between going forward with God or being honest about their sexuality. This ought not to be. If environments of silence and denial persist in our schools, if topics of gender and sexual identity cannot be openly explored and discussed, we will perpetuate this false dichotomy. If even one student in your school walks away from God because they never found a safe place to wrestle honestly with how to integrate their faith and their experience of sexuality, “That,” says Jesus, the teller of a parable of leaving ninety-nine sheep to search for one, “is one too many.” Gay communities are filled with post-Christian individuals, the tragic fallout of a defensive and fearful church. Our Christian schools can begin to reverse that trend. Our schools can be vibrant communities where people can be real and honest in their journeys.
“I’m not sure if I’m a lesbian. I have always been a tomboy and I always hang out with boys. I have had three boyfriends but have never had sex. I have always felt more like a boy than a girl but I definitely do NOT want a sex change.”
—Female student, age twelve
The reality is that adolescent development is commonly marked by uncertainty in sexual identity. Research has shown us that a quarter of twelve-year-olds have questions about their sexuality. The majority of those will eventually find themselves in the heterosexual mainstream. But given our over-sexualized and gay-positive culture, our students need safe places to navigate their experiences and confusion. A hospitable community humbly recognizes there are no formulas or ten-step processes to guarantee a preferred outcome, but rather encourages students to engage their whole self in the robust journey of discipleship.
It has been said that the difference between tolerance and hospitality is that when tolerance is exercised, there is no room for robust discussion of difference; but when hospitality is extended, the opportunity to listen, engage, and explore the variety of perspectives brought to the table is welcomed. Hospitality, therefore, invites a deeper exploration of who we are, what we are called to be, and how we are called to live with one another in a manner that truly reflects the heart of Christ.
True hospitality creates spaciousness in which difficult questions can be explored, values owned, virtues encouraged, reductionistic labels resisted, and holistic identity in Christ formed. Such spaciousness invites honesty and authenticity for those whose experience of gender or sexual attraction falls outside of the mainstream. In the safety of such an environment, distinctions between attractions felt and choices about how to respond to those attractions can be considered without shame or judgment. Validation of each person’s worth and dignity as an image-bearer of God, regardless of sexual identity, can be communicated when a safe and hospitable ethos has been established.
Valuing hospitality and being hospitable don’t go hand in hand without a lot of intentional steps along the way. To nurture hospitable space for sexual minorities within our community, we need to:
- Recognize and confront the places where fear is preventing us from embodying the radically invitational ministry of Jesus. This needs to happen at the constituency level with parents and supporters, at the board and staff level, and at the student body level.
- Affirm the presence of sexual minorities in our communities and validate the reality of their experiences. Model the distinction between acceptance and approval. Accepting a person who experiences same-sex attraction is not conditional on approving every decision they make.
- Commit time and resources to equipping staff and students at the intersection of faith and sexuality. Bring in a speaker to share stories. Engage documentaries and DVD resources. Integrate this conversation in Bible, social studies, health, history, art, and other classes.
- Speak up when exclusionary language or humor is heard. Help the community to connect to the personal impact by sharing stories of same-sex attracted individuals who have experienced rejection, bullying, or violence.
- Review policies for equitable language. Equity is about people. Policy is about behavior. Determine that codes of conduct will maintain consistent standards.
- Cultivate a community where different perspectives can be held with the expectation of mutual respect and honoring of one another’s convictions. Be willing to acknowledge that mystery is part of the journey of faith. Intentionally prioritize loving and serving one another over being right.
Eighty percent of our students perceive Christians to be anti-gay. We face the challenge of shaping the response of this generation. It will require boldly going to the margins in the footsteps of Jesus. It will mean facing our fears. But the vision of equipped, engaged ambassadors of reconciliation extending hospitality in a vibrantly Christ-like manner in the academies, workplaces, and neighborhoods of our communities makes every intentional step and risk worth it, for this is the heart of the gospel.