I Think I’m Gay

Having Healthy Dialogue with Kids Who Struggle with Sexual Orientation

Photo by Greg Raines

Several years ago, while serving as a high school youth pastor, a student called me at 1 a.m. saying she needed to speak to me about something “kind of serious.”

I was certainly familiar with these types of late-night calls and thought little about it as I scheduled to meet her for coffee the next day. I prepped for the potential issues that could be on her mind, as she was a good student but had some issues with her parents and also with feelings of not quite “fitting in.”

When I picked her up, she was quiet and pensive (which wasn’t abnormal), but she was also nervous, which was definitely unusual. On our way to the coffee shop, we chatted about trivial things for about two minutes when she suddenly confessed, “I think I’m gay.”

The next three seconds were perhaps the longest of my life.

Of course I’d been aware that one day I may have this discussion with one or more of my students. I also was never a youth pastor afraid to talk about sex, since I knew few kids were getting guidance from home. But I did wonder if the feelings of fear and panic I was experiencing during those three seconds were similar to what happens to parents when their children ask their first questions about sex.

As I gathered myself and began to talk with her about her thoughts and struggles, I can only hope that I handled the situation well…hope. I did have the wisdom to take her to a park instead of the coffee shop so we could talk more freely. But beyond that, I was at a loss for what to do.

The Lonely and Marginalized: Jesus’ Way

When Jesus was eating a meal at Levi’s house, the Pharisees questioned why he ate with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus replied, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). When criticized for eating with “sinners,” Jesus declared that people in need were at the center of his mission. He came for those who needed to hear of his saving grace and experience his love and compassion. These were the ones consistently marginalized in society; the rejected, the lonely, and the isolated.

Today there are few groups with whom Jesus would be so harshly criticized for eating than those in the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) community. But as the societal pendulum swings very swiftly toward greater openness to homosexuality, we as the church need to accept that it’s a growing struggle among more and more of the kids in our youth groups—and implement some tools to help us respond.

The Marin Foundation Research: Building Bridges to the LGBT Community

In his presentations across the country—and in his newly released book Love Is an Orientation [[Andrew Marin, Love Is an Orientation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, May 2009).] —Andrew Marin shares his journey and dedication to help the church build bridges to the LGBT community. The Marin Foundation’s research is the largest national study of the LGBT community regarding spirituality and religion. [The Marin Foundation research has surveyed nearly 2,000 national participants ranging across all 50 States.]  It explores spiritual and religious acculturation within the LGBT community, and has found that nearly 86 percent of gays and lesbians state that they were raised in a denominationally based Christian church from ages zero to 18. [Andrew Marin, Elevating the Conversation, Presentation, November 15, 2008.]  That number is likely surprising to many of us.

The research also shows that 73 percent of LGBT people leave church once they “come out”.  When asked why they left the church, here’s what the research revealed:

  • 17% - The church’s stance on homosexuality
  • 16% - Religion is distrustful, deceitful, and hypocritical
  • 15% - Not interested in attending church
  • 12% - Disagree with general religious doctrine apart from homosexuality
  • 10% - Do not believe in God or a higher power

When asked what would influence them to return to the church, respondents indicated the following:

  • 62% - Nothing
  • 18% - Patience and time
  • 7% - Religious community showing a “non-judgmental environment”
  • 2% - Support of family/friends
  • 2% - Feeling “God’s love”
  • 1% - If they were able to understand the teachings

Three findings seem especially significant and encouraging:

  1. 86 percent of gays and lesbians have grown up in Christian churches, which means that there’s the potential that they have some basic knowledge of God and perhaps a context for a relationship with God.
  2. Although 62 percent said that nothing could influence their return to church, that still leaves 38 percent who’re already open to considering a return to faith.
  3. By a 10 percent gap over other options, the greatest influence that could bring someone back to faith is believers showing patience and giving them time. Along with that, not one person surveyed reported that an influential factor for their return to faith would be the church teaching that “it’s okay for me to be gay.” Instead they hope for the church to be a “non-judgmental environment.”

Implications for Your Ministry

Additional research has shown that the average age for experiences initial feelings of same-sex attraction is around 13. [R.C. Savin-Williams & K.M. Cohen, “Homoerotic development during childhood and adolescence,” in M. Diamond & A. Yates (Eds.), Sex and Gender: Child and adolescent psychiatric clinics of North America (Philadelphia: Saunders, 2004), 529-550.]  What can we do with the knowledge that some of our students are discovering these feelings while they’re in our middle and high school ministries?

1. Be okay with tension. Marin states that one of the essential elements that helped him put his bridge-building framework in perspective was a reflection from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as he was in jail in Birmingham, Alabama. King wrote, “I must confess that I am not afraid of the word tension. I have earnestly opposed violent tension my whole life, but there is a type of constructive, non-violent tension which is necessary for growth.”  [Letters from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963, www.mlkonline.net/jail.html.]

Such tension could be something that we’re not used to dealing with in our ministries, especially when it comes to the subject of someone struggling with being gay. But we have Jesus to look toward as our greatest example of one who dealt with tension with both love and conviction. Jesus always reached out with compassion to the sinning person without validating (and sometimes not even mentioning) the sinful action. We see evidence of this in accounts such as the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11), the woman who was married to five men (John 4:7-30), and the tax collector who wished to get a closer look at Jesus (Luke 19:1-10). Jesus showed these people unconditional, non-condemning love in a way that made them desire know him more.

2. Authentically listen. Many of Marin’s talks are themed “Elevating the Conversation.” This is one of the first things we need to let our students know we’re willing to do. But how do we elevate our conversation without the notion that we’re pressuring our kids to live perfect lives, free from struggles, questions, or mistakes? The Marin Foundation research shows that 70 percent of gays and lesbians agree or strongly agree that “religious groups are too forceful.” [Elevating the Conversation.]  But how do we teach the ways of Christ without appearing overly dogmatic and judgmental?

The most essential part of a two-way conversation is listening—which is a problem for us youth workers, as we often tend to talk too much. Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made as a youth pastor was assuming that my kids’ relationship with God was strong because they were able to recite excerpts from my sermons. Over time I’ve learned that transformation didn’t happen in those kids regurgitating the correct responses but rather in the ones to whom I truly listened about what was going on in their lives. When we listen, we help prevent our students from hiding their problems, doubts, struggles, and questions.

3. Ask the right questions. When we look at how Jesus communicated throughout the Gospels, we see that many times he was asked close-ended questions but gave open-ended responses. Closed questions only require simple “yes or no” answers. For example, if someone were to ask, “Is being gay a sin?” then most likely they’re putting feelers out to see where you stand. Once you answer with a simple “yes it is,” then the conversation is over, and they’ll label you a certain way or say “Ha! I knew that’s what you would say! I don’t want to talk with you anymore.” In contrast, an open-ended question in response continues the dialogue-e.g., “In what way is being gay a different sin from any other sin?” This would open the dialogue to discuss Romans 3:23, James 2:10, or Matthew 7:1-2. Your ultimate answer may be the same, but open-ended answers leave room for process.  In fact, he only responded to closed questions three times with straightforward answers to Pontius Pilate at the end of his ministry. [Elevating the Conversation.]  Rather, when asked for his opinion, he usually refrained from giving a direct here’s-what-my-teaching-is-and-what-you-should-be-thinking answer. He often changed the conversation by reframing the question and asking his conversation partner a question in return. In this way, Jesus walked people through the process so that there was ownership in their following because he elevated the conversation.

When it comes to talking with kids about being gay, we should have the same goal. Because the struggle of being gay could be very difficult and intangible for kids, they may initially ask closed questions with the desire to get concrete answers. But as youth workers, we’re looking for continual transformation in their lives, and that means walking with them through the process.

My student probably wanted a simple answer and solution when she initially came to me and said she was struggling with thinking she was gay. However, it was important for me to remember that my job wasn’t to simply give her the “right” answers but rather to first listen to her struggle and guide her through the process by asking open-ended questions. If I’d just given her simple answers, I might initially feel that I “fixed” everything because she’d walk away with solutions—but that doesn’t mean transformation happened in her life.  I needed to help her process everything by listening more and asking questions—by elevating the conversation. That actually gives me more opportunities to share Scripture and truth in ways that will likely be more fully accepted.

4. Embrace the process. As we continue to elevate the conversation while our kids journey through this difficult struggle, we can be reassured by God that salvation and sanctification are neither our job nor our responsibility.

We can remember the words of Rev. Billy Graham when he came under fire for counseling President Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. When asked why he was counseling Clinton, Graham said, “Because it is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, it is God’s job to judge, and it is my job to love.” [Sandra Chambers, “The Legacy of Billy Graham-A Faithful Witness,” Charisma Magazine, July 2005.]  We must remember those words. We’re called to display unconditional love to every person we encounter in our ministries. Jesus brings change through the process. Our kids who struggle with feeling gay will likely feel lost and lonely through this long struggle. We need to make sure they feel that Jesus is the one who will never abandon them no matter what.

Elevating the conversation means longevity, trust and faith. As you and I give kids time to process, we trust in God’s wisdom and have faith that the Holy Spirit will do God’s work.

Elevating Kids’ Conversations with Each Other

In the midst of the messages students are hearing about being gay, it’s imperative for us to help not just our students who struggle with being gay, but also our non-gay students, so they can develop a greater witness to their friends. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Pray together to become better witnesses for Christ to all people, and in particular those in the LGBT community.
  • Help students recognize that it’s safe to dialogue about each other’s differences with a month-long series of discussions on engaging differences in general, such as other nationalities, cultures, faiths, and socioeconomic statuses. This will help students have a safe space to ask questions, as well as share openly about their concerns, fears, and experiences. Students will begin to understand what it means to have open dialogues with those who may be different in some way from them.
  • Try role-playing a conversation with students, pretending you’re a friend who feels attraction to someone of the same sex. Give them opportunities to practice listening, asking open-ended questions, and help them develop responses that communicate openness to conversation and prayer about this struggle. (Be prepared for some of your students initially being very uncomfortable and possibly reacting with smirks and laughter. If they do, stop and debrief their reactions by honestly discussing any anxiety or discomfort they might be feeling.)
  • Lead a discussion in which you ask your students to imagine a youth ministry in which students felt comfortable discussing all of their struggles—sexual and otherwise. What words would you use to describe that youth ministry? What would we have to do to become that youth ministry? What changes would we need to make to become that youth ministry?
  • Involve parents in some of the practices of listening and open dialogue so that kids and parents can practice these conversations at home. Be sure to give clear instructions about the importance of process and that the purpose of the exercise is to learn how to improve communication, not necessarily to convince anyone of a correct answer.
  • Also have parents dialogue with each other so they also can have a safe place to ask questions and role-play conversations with their own children about struggling with being gay.
  • For kids who wrestle personally with being gay, above all else keep the channels open for conversation. I wish I could say that I have a “miracle” story to share about the kid who shared her struggle so openly with me. I can only say my miracle story is that she continues to talk with me through the process of questions, doubt, and growth. Through it all I carry the words of Jesus that he’s here for those who hurt, and I remember that my primary job is to love. With God’s grace, the miracle of my story is that God is willing to continually use me to be a part of her life process.

Here’s to more miracles in all of our ministries.

This article also appears in the May/June issue of The Journal of Student Ministries.