When it comes to issues of sexuality and gender, I do not envy teachers at Christian schools. These are touchy, hot-button subjects, and it’s no wonder teachers often feel pressure. In many schools, there are position statements and policies in place regarding homosexuality and gender expression. Such statements are often based on scriptural interpretation, but might not focus on how to actually support students who may be questioning or coming out. Parents in the community have expectations about what teachers should and should not say, but those expectations may vary or even be contradictory depending on the parent.
Most teachers I talk to are primarily concerned about the health and well-being of their students, especially the ones who seem most physically, emotionally, mentally, and/or spiritually vulnerable. But given the diversity in many school communities, teachers may be uncertain about the potential consequences of their response. If your administration and staff have not had an open and direct conversation about how to best support students dealing with these matters, I hope this article will serve as a catalyst for that discussion.
In my work as director of community with New Direction Ministries, I am privileged to hear the stories of LGBTQ+ Christians on a daily basis. For those who have attended Christian schools, their memories of school years are often difficult. Here are excerpts from reflections written by five different LGBTQ+ Christians:
“I found [Christian school] traumatic. I remember when I wasn’t even out [as gay] yet I had a couple bullies in my religion class single me out constantly . . . I didn’t have help from the teacher; instead, I had the opposite. I had him not knowing what to do in that situation. Therefore, I suffered.”
“I remember one year, grade 7, my teacher, whom I really liked, spoke with great disdain and disgust (literally, the expression on his face made it look like he had just eaten rotten liver) about homosexuality . . . It reinforced the internal pact I had made with myself at the time that I would never come out to anyone, anyhow, at any time, and that as far as ‘Do not tell a lie’ was concerned, ‘except about being gay’ would always be for me footnoted in small print at the bottom of the page. Living with that tension throughout school was really traumatic for me, because on the one hand, I was taught honesty as a virtue, but in order to survive, I felt I had no choice but to lie.”
“The school clearly wasn’t a safe space to be gay. Homophobic slurs were heard all the time. And I remember feeling pressured by peers to fit a strict mould of traditional femininity. I don’t have any memories of my teachers even mentioning LGBTQ people.”
“It almost felt like my teachers were afraid of anything to do with sexuality . . . It was made clear that any alternative to heterosexuality was something you definitely wanted to avoid, was shameful, and was something to whisper so as to hopefully not bring too much attention to it . . . it created a stigma that I carried with me unconsciously. It is something that I find myself still having to unpack.”
“The thing about being queer in a Christian school is that if it’s talked about at all, it’s mentioned in inconsiderate jokes or as a sinful choice. How was I possibly supposed to realize and accept that this was actually me when this view was all I knew of being LGBTQ?”
In an increasingly LGBTQ-positive culture, church, Christian school, and faith-based homes can be some of the most difficult places for students who are questioning or considering coming out. A study by the Williams Institute found that approximately 40 percent of homeless youth in America identify as LGBTQ+, and the most common reason they gave for being homeless was familial rejection (Durso and Gates). As I’ve talked to frontline support workers, they’ve told me that they are now focusing their energies on reducing the total time LGBTQ+ youth are homeless rather than trying to prevent homelessness altogether. The reason? They simply don’t feel theologically equipped to convince religious parents to change their posture toward their children. In situations where parents are having difficulty processing their child’s coming out, LGBTQ+ students benefit from having additional trusted Christian adults in whom they can confide, and with whom they can work out their thoughts and feelings.
I know many teachers in Christian schools would love to be advocates and sounding boards for such students, and want to work hard to prevent the kinds of negative Christian school experiences described by my LGBTQ+ Christian friends. Below are some practical ways that teachers can demonstrate their willingness to advocate for LGBTQ+ students, and promote a more positive atmosphere for these students at their schools.
Beth Carlson-Malena is the director of community at New Direction Ministries, which seeks to nurture safe and spacious places for sexual minority persons to explore and grow in faith in Jesus Christ. More information about New Direction can be found at <www.new