When religion is the bully

The Washington Post/November 7, 2010

The news of gay teen suicides this fall made me think of my college friend Jeff. When I heard he was depressed and struggling with being gay, I wanted to say it gets better. But I didn't know if it would. I was also gay and too afraid to tell him. Nothing I saw in 1992 gave me any hope. There was no "Glee," no "Ellen" on TV to counter the politicians and religious leaders who demonized me in prime time. Even the Brady Bunch dad had died of AIDS.

We both liked playing tennis, so that's what we did instead of talking about our pain. Then one night Jeff jumped off a parking garage. He was 19.

Gay kids are made to feel worthless from a variety of sources: religion, the culture, bullies at school. I don't know which of these Jeff internalized. For me, it was religious-based shame.

My mom is one of Jehovah's Witnesses and when I told her I was gay, she mourned as if I had died. Not being able to see her son in God's Kingdom was a devastating thought. Many religions share the same belief about homosexuality: a human imperfection that is sinful to act on. I remember at age four or five hearing a Bible scripture about "men who lie with men." I knew the elder was describing what I would be when I grew up. By the tone of his voice, I knew it was something very bad.

It isn't easy growing up gay in any religion that deems gays unworthy, but how can we make gay kids feel better about themselves when they hear anti-gay religious speech that is protected by the First Amendment? Restricting speech isn't the answer because banning the phrase "gay is sin" only makes it easier to ban "gay is OK." The solution is more speech telling gay kids they are good and beautiful people, to counter the negative messages they hear in church, school and in the media.

I recently made a video for the "It Gets Better" campaign, which asks gay adults living open and happy lives to tell gay kids to hang in there. I thought about how this kind of speech would have been impossible when gays were criminalized and shamed into silence. I also thought about how my mom's religion was once denied the ability to speak freely. But in fighting for their own right to live and worship as they choose, Jehovah's Witnesses won 50 U.S. Supreme Court cases that expanded individual liberties for all Americans. The irony only starts there.

When a federal judge ruled this summer that a ban on gay marriage in California was unconstitutional, his key legal precedent was a Jehovah's Witness case from 1943 that said the fundamental rights of a group - no matter how unpopular or marginalized -- can't be taken away by majority vote. A coalition of religions had supported the gay marriage ban, but Jehovah's Witnesses remained politically neutral. They demonstrated the Bill of Rights at its best: exercising religious freedom without the need to legislate beliefs that force everyone to live their way. Yet the irony ends here.

The fact that Jehovah's Witnesses don't block gay couples outside their religion from getting married is little consolation for a gay kid who is told he is a product of Adam's sin to his core. It is especially tough when the religion shuns.

A religion that says gays must remain single and celibate will have a hard time recruiting gay members. But what happens when the religion has gay kids? Among Jehovah's Witnesses there is no easy exit for the adolescent who skillfully parrots theology at age 10 or 12 and decides in his late teens or early twenties that the religion isn't for him. Anyone who officially joins through baptism is subject to shunning if they don't follow the agreed upon rules.

I was never baptized and it saved my relationship with my mom. Gay kids who got baptized before they could come to terms with their sexuality are not so fortunate. In the most extreme cases, parents cut all contact with their shunned adult children.

Freedom in America is complex: gays seek equality from a Constitution that gives religions the right to say gays are sinners. That's why the "It Gets Better" campaign is so important. It provides the hope a gay kid needs when he is being raised in an anti-gay religion. No kid should be so overwhelmed with who he is expected to be that killing himself is the only way to deal with who he is.

I wonder if parents with religious objections to homosexuality have fully considered the consequences of insisting their gay child follow a faith that works for them but not their child. Can the religious parents who lost a gay child to suicide or shunning ever find peace with the outcome? Or would they rather have a relationship with their child, alive, separate from their religion? I think that's why my mom cried so much when I told her I was gay. I know she won't come to my wedding if I'm ever allowed to get married, but I also know she is glad I'm still around.

Joel Engardio is a 2011 MPA candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. His essays have appeared in USA Today, Washington Post.com and on NPR. Engardio directed KNOCKING, an award-winning PBS documentary on Jehovah's Witnesses.

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