This issue may cause a certain amount of discomfort in our school communities or even within us personally as Christian educators. No matter how carefully the matters affecting LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning) students (or staff or parents) in our Christian school communities are raised, there is no avoiding the complex range of beliefs, opinions, and experiences that will become part of the resulting discussion. So, should the conversation be avoided (as it has been for a long time) or it is one that we can engage in a way that benefits our students and our communities?
Consider the context of the conversation. Our students live in a world where same-sex relationships are commonly referred to in the media, usually in an accepting tone. In Canada, same-sex marriages have been legal for a decade, and in the United States, the Supreme Court made marriage equality nationally accessible in June 2015. Such relationships are increasingly considered to be unremarkable. Perhaps somewhat less common are references to the transgender community, the profile of which was greatly raised by this year’s coming-out story of Caitlyn Jenner. Again, the tone of much of the coverage was supportive, and Jenner was praised for the way her openness improved the lives of other LGBTQ+ people.
Causation research regarding differences in either gender identity or sexual orientation is not conclusive. What is clear, however, is that the traditional definitions of male and female do not reflect the experiences and lives of many people. Moreover, increasing numbers accept the reality that differences in gender identity or sexual orientation are not things that people voluntarily choose. We now know that sexual minority people experience much higher rates of suicide, homelessness, and high-risk behaviors, including addiction. They are also more likely to leave their communities of faith in response to what they see as rejection and judgment. What should be the response of the Christian community to those challenges?
We can no longer avoid the statistical evidence that there are students experiencing gender and/or sexuality difference in each one of our schools. These are not questions that exist somewhere “out there.” At one time, we may have been able to “ignore” these realities. That time—given the world in which we live and the things that we have learned—is long past, and this matter, in spite of its complexity, awaits our response. And given the long and difficult history sexual minority people have experienced in our schools, our response needs to be shaped carefully.
In the final analysis, our key concern should be the safety and flourishing of all the students in our schools. Every student is a child of God, called to serve with the unique gifts God has given. All our students need and deserve the respect, care, and support of the Christian community as they grow. That means, as pointed out in the articles in this issue, that the isolation of LGBTQ+ students needs to end, and that these students, as all others, need to feel welcomed and affirmed. It means that we need to think about the language that we use and the tone that we set in our classrooms, so that no one feels bullied or belittled. It means that our classrooms and school hallways need to be places where students who have questions about their gender or sexual identity feel that they can ask such questions without fear and without reprisal.
All of this, as noted earlier, may cause discomfort in some schools and in their supporting communities. In cases of such discomfort, it is likely helpful for parents, teachers, and students to gather with LGBTQ+ people and those who support them, so that we can explain to each other how and why these intensely personal matters are important to us, why they make us uncomfortable, and how we can move forward as communities of faith to develop truly inclusive schools. These can be conversations where we may have differences of opinion, but where we also find our unity in our common commitment to the well-being and growth of all the students in our schools.
I trust that these conversations can be conducted in a way that is not divisive, but that unifies and strengthens our communities. This is not the first complex issue that we have dealt with as Christian educators, and it will not be the last. But if we trust in God to guide our way, this also is an issue which we can resolve for the benefit of all students.