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Why insensitive evangelical rhetoric on LGBT youth is toxic

Two evangelicals get the story all wrong on Christian parenting.

Andrew Walker, Policy Director at ERLC

A Response to Glenn Stanton and Andrew Walker
Co-written: Brandan Robertson and Eliel Cruz

Almost every week we see national news stories about LGBT individuals who have been deeply harmed — both physically and psychologically — by evangelical Christian teachings. We see stories of teenagers being violently kicked out of their homes by “Christian” parents and students being forced to leave their religious schools because of their sexual orientation.

At the heart of all of these heartbreaking stories lies a common evangelical teaching about the inherent sinfulness of queer sexual orientation and gender identity.

A few weeks ago, Andrew Walker, policy director at The Ethics & Religious Liberties Commission, and Glenn Stanton, Director of Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family; published a piece on Public Discourse where they raised the question, is evangelical teaching on sexuality psychologically harmful? Throughout the course of the piece, Stanton and Walker attempt to make the case that evangelical teaching on sexuality actually creates a more loving and healthy environment for LGBT individuals, not a harmful one. But throughout the same piece, Walker and Stanton’s insensitive rhetoric and toxic advice point directly to the opposite conclusion.

It becomes immediately clear that Stanton and Walker are unqualified to lead a conversation on sexual orientation and gender identity as they continually conflate the two. It is this deafness to the facts surrounding the complex lives and experiences of LGBT individuals that makes the article truly harmful advice for parents of LGBT youth.

In their defense of evangelical teaching, Stanton and Walker prop up the work of Cornell’s Ritch Savin-Williams, author of Mom, Dad, I’m Gay: How Families Negotiate Coming Out and The New Gay Teenager, in which they quote him saying, “teens who come out to their Christian parents are generally treated just as well, if not better, than kids who come out to other types of parents.”

This claim, which was offered without a citation making it hard to verify, is patently and unfortunately false.

Here are verifiable facts about LGBT youth suicide rates: In a 2011 report, the CDC stated that LGB youth are four times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers. In a 2007 report on transgender youth, The American Association of Suicidology stated that nearly half of transgender people reported to having suicidal thoughts and a large portion of them have attempted suicide.

What’s perhaps the most alarming statistic, according to a report published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, LGBT youth who come from families who reject them are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide than LGBT youth who experience coming from low levels of family rejection. These statistics are only confirmed by the heartbreaking stories showcased such as a story in Rolling Stone expose on the rising number of LGBT youth who have been cast out by religious families.

Stanton and Walker acknowledge these stories exist but in the same breath discount their significance: “People of faith cannot ignore or deny that we have heard of young people who commit suicide or seriously harm themselves because their rigidly religious parents have condemned them or kicked them out of the house,” Stanton and Walker say in their piece. “But is it then reasonable to conclude that Christian beliefs must put LGBT kids at danger? Absolutely not. Quite the opposite is true. It is a fundamental command of Christianity to love others unconditionally. We are called to love even those who insult and hate us. If God gives us the grace to do this, surely we can love our children, even if they challenge our values.”

We couldn’t agree more with Stanton and Walker’s sentiments here. Christianity in itself is not harmful to LGBT youth. To paint all Christian parents as vehemently anti-LGBT due their religious beliefs would be a disservice to all the Christian parents of LGBT children who come forward and show what true Christian parenting is like.

There is Jane Clementi who has started the Tyler Clementi foundation after her gay son took his life after being harassed online for his sexuality. There is Linda and Rob Robertson who blog at Just Because He Breathes on how parents should respond to their LGBT children with unconditional love and affirmation – just because they breathe. There is Pastor John Pavlovitz whose blog post went viral on how he would respond to having LGBT children. And there is Lisa Bohn talks about why she allows her son to wear princess dresses.

Stanton and Walker do not have the authority to define what is or isn’t Christian parenting. There are Christian parents who raise their LGBT children in environments that allow them to flourish. But Stanton and Walker haven’t the faintest idea of how to create this environment. It is evident in their writing. They misgender Leelah the teenager who took her life earlier this year due to underprepared Christian parenting (ultimately denying her humanity even after her death). They sexualize LGBT youth defining them only by assumed sexual behavior. And they ignore the very real experiences of LGBT individuals.

They scoff at the idea of a welcoming and affirming family environment for LGBT youth. They even cite to mock Eliel Cruz’s piece calling for Christian parents to affirm their LGBT children. Yet those are the family environments that keep LGBT children alive. Stanton and Walker prioritize their sincerely held beliefs over the lives of LGBT youth.

It’s exactly this type of misguided advice that allows Christian parents to believe they are in the right to disown their LGBT children.

It’s exactly this type of spiritual malpractice given by Stanton and Walker that lead to the death of LGBT youth.

This is why evangelical teaching on sexuality, like that articulated by Walker and Stanton, is most definitely harmful.