Homophobia in religious communities is unquestionably endemic. Pope Francis recently described gay and lesbian families as “bastardized.” Southern Baptist leaders have suggested that gays are “abominations” controlled by Satan. Countless sermons, prayers, and Sunday school classes have been devoted to the demonization and condemnation of LGBTQ individuals. But for many gay youth, the most crushing aspect is seeing their friends and families unflinchingly accept these lessons in bigotry. If this environment sounds familiar to you, it’s time to leave your church.
Simply attending a homophobic church reinforces the hopelessness and despair many LGBTQ churchgoers experience on a daily basis. In supporting these churches, millions of parishioners across America tacitly endorse a vicious brand of homophobia that puts gay congregants at an increased risk for depressive disorders, substance abuse, and suicide attempts. More often than not, adolescents are most susceptible to these negative messages. In their zeal to condemn homosexuality as sinful, many churches have become toxic theological wastelands for young people.
It’s long been known that LGBTQ youth are far more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. A 2011 CDC study found that more than 25 percent of the gay and lesbian high-schoolers who responded to the survey had attempted suicide. Another recent study focused on suicidal individuals who sought help from others. Published in the Journal of Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior this past June, a survey of lesbians, gays, and bisexuals who had attempted suicide found that only 23 percent of respondents sought out mental health or medical treatment before their suicide attempts. The median age of a first suicide attempt was 17.4 years old. The age at which individuals first recognized their sexual minority identity was 17.9. In other words, suicide attempts tend to happen during periods of questioning and coming out.
Another 14 percent of respondents sought religious or spiritual counsel. Shockingly, these individuals were more likely to attempt suicide than those who sought no treatment or professional care. This disproportionately affects black lesbian, gay, and bisexual parishioners, who were far more likely than white or Latino congregants to seek religious advice about dealing with their sexuality. It is important to note that the study did not keep track of which denomination the respondents were affiliated with. The authors also note that the extent of an individual’s religiosity may be more significant than the quality of care received from a religious adviser, because of internalized homophobia. Nevertheless, this is often a direct result of the environment homophobic churches create.
As LGBTQ Americans continue to strive for equality, many churches have taken it upon themselves to counter that progress. Churches are the driving force behind some of the most vicious anti-gay propaganda. Mormons contributed at least $14 million to the effort to enact Proposition 8 in California after church leaders expressed their support for the initiative. Catholic adoption agencies across the country voluntarily stopped providing services to prevent gay couples from adopting. Churches in Houston have recently banded together to fight an essential, basic human-rights ordinance protecting the LGBTQ community.
Silence in the face of homophobia from the pulpit is as much an affirmation of bigotry as the sermon itself. Support for these churches—even through attendance—sends a clear message to LGBTQ youth: You are not welcome; you are an abomination. While many churches suggest that preaching “the truth” about homosexuality is showing “love,” it is nothing more than an agonizing torture ritual designed to demoralize, demean, and disempower LGBTQ youth. And it must no longer be supported.
It is relatively easy to switch to an LGBTQ-affirming congregation. If you can’t leave, speak up. Anti-gay churches are no longer the only option. The opportunity is there to send a new message of acceptance and affirmation to LGBTQ youth in the religious community. For the sake of your children, your neighbors, your loved ones, and your friends, it’s time to leave your anti-gay church.