Teachers in Christian schools care deeply about students’ well-being and growth in discipleship to Jesus. When faced with tough questions about sexuality and gender, we want to do what’s right, what will help students flourish, but the path to that end isn’t always clear or easy. In this piece, I offer some thoughts on the terrain, sparked by the experiences of three LGBT+ students. Here’s the first:
It’s hard to put myself back in the shoes of my 18-year-old self: timid, self-conscious, and scared of myself. It’s more than weird to revisit this space: it’s unpleasant. High school had been rough. The worst part wasn’t the total lack of understanding, the lack of caring, the comparisons to pedophiles, the suggestions of total depravity, the insinuation that the death penalty might be appropriate. I think the worst part is that no one has ever said sorry for circling “true” on a question for our senior Bible class exam: Do homosexuals go to hell? I was 17 and the only one in my class to circle “false” (Post-Baptist Baptist).
These are the words of a young gay man reflecting on his Christian school career. Although many Christian schools are making good progress in caring for sexual minority students, this alum’s experience is, unfortunately, still echoed in the lives of many students. While the Bible teacher may have intended to teach a clear biblical sexual ethic in this quiz, what was actually taught—and reinforced by the social milieu—was shame, secrecy, and exclusion. The teacher was not alert to the presence and vulnerability of LGBT+ students or to the pastoral and pedagogical sensitivity required by the topic.
Such experiences bred self-hatred in this particular student as he internalized the homophobic attitudes around him. He relates how six years later, after graduating from a Christian college, “I figured out that I like who I am. That I wasn’t the problem. . . . Finding out that you actually like who you are after years of hating yourself is the greatest gift.” Imagine the difference if this teacher, instead of communicating that students were going to hell for attractions they didn’t choose and couldn’t change, had quietly chosen to display a poster discouraging homophobic slurs? (The one I have in my office is from http://alisonrowan.com/buy-a-dictionary)
One of the best practices for improving school climate for LGBT+ youth is to establish a group where sexual and gender minority students can support and encourage each other under the oversight of a trusted staff member. The school-wide awareness and visibility afforded by such a group can significantly decrease bullying and harassment. In a national study, the presence of a Gay Straight Alliance was related to greater feelings of safety for the general student body, with an even greater improvement in safety for LGBTQ students (Greytak et al.). Given that anti-LGBT hostility from peers is often expressed in religious terms, Christian high schools face a particular burden—and challenge—to create such groups. Far from being a sell-out to progressive sexual mores, such a move is a way to promote the safety, success, and mental health of LGBT+ students by fostering community and connection with supportive staff. At its most basic, it is a suicide-prevention measure. More positively stated, a student group can be a forum for exploring students’ questions and identity development within a Christian context. It also provides an avenue for the school to access the concerns and needs of this student population.
“The Colossian Way Experience.” http://colossianforum.org/the-colossian-way-experience.
Greytak, E. A., et al. From Teasing to Torment: School Climate Revisited. GLSEN, 2016, https://www.glsen.org/sites/default/files/TeasingtoTorment%202015%20FINAL%20PDF%5B1%5D_0.pdf.
James, S. E., et al. “The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey.” National Center for Transgender Equality, 2016, http://www.transequality.org/sites/default/files/docs/usts/USTS%20Full%20Report%20-%20FINAL%201.6.17.pdf.
Paris, Jenell. The Good News about Conflict: Transforming Religious Struggle over Sexuality. Wipf & Stock, 2016.
Post-Baptist Baptist, The. “Until Each One is Free.” Blog post. April 14, 2017. https://thepostbaptistbaptist.com/2017/04/14/update/.
Pyle, Nate. Man Enough: How Jesus Redefines Manhood. Zondervan, 2015.
“Through My Eyes: True Stories of Young Gay Christians.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QImNx1JA3BI.
VanderWal-Gritter, Wendy. “Navigating Transgender Journeys.” Christian Educators Journal 55, no. 3 (2016): 13–16.
Julia Smith serves as Sexuality Series director and works to support LGBT+ students at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.