When I heard about the death of 15-year-old Billy Lucas early in September, I was terribly saddened. It is a tragedy when a young person completes suicide in the aftermath of daily torment and harassment. After this, I sat in stunned silence in front of my computer screen as news stories continued to appear about the suicides of 13-year-old Asher Brown, 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, 13-year-old Seth Walsh, and 19-year-old Raymond Chase. Today, it is very clear to me that profound sadness and stunned silence is no longer a suitable, appropriate, or adequate response.
From Lamentation to Indignation
My sadness began to change into something different with each successive news story about another gay teen hanging himself, shooting himself, or jumping off a bridge. As I saw the faces of these young victims and imagined the family and friends left to cope with the chaos created by their suicides, my lamentation began to morph into an indignant fury.
My indignation grew as I shifted my gaze from the individual acts of suicide to the contexts in which these suicides are set. Suicide happens for numerous reasons. Some seek relief from enduring physical and psychological pain that seems infinitely unrelenting and others after severe bouts of depression. These teens, however, were not seeking relief from some persistent, internal state of depression or physical illness. The pain they faced had an external source: the cruel, unremitting, merciless pounding of daily humiliation, taunting, harassment, and violence.
And all of this pain visited upon these young lives because of one thing they had in common: they were not heterosexual.
These suicides are not acts of “escape,” or a “cop-out” from facing life. When LGBT people resort to suicide, they are responding to far more than the pain of a few individual insults or humiliating occurrences. When LGBT people commit suicide it is an extreme act of resistance to an oppressive and unjust reality in which every LGBT person is always and everywhere at risk of becoming the target of violence solely because of sexual orientation or gender identity. They are acts of resistance to a perceived reality in which a lifetime of violence and abuse seems utterly unavoidable.
The landscape upon which LGBT teen suicide is set calls for far more than our sympathy and sadness. There are times in which it is important to be guided to action by our anger. This is one of those times.
From Interpersonal Violence to Group Subjugation
Our response to bullying is a response to violence. Beyond the inflicting of individual pain, violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people has effects far beyond the individual target. This is what Iris Marion Young terms “systematic violence” in her famous “Five Faces of Oppression.” It is a violence of instrumentality—violence with the effect of keeping an entire group subjugated and in a state of oppression.
Young argues, “Members of some groups live with the knowledge that they must fear random, unprovoked attacks on their persons or property, which have no motive but to damage, humiliate, or destroy the person”.* The only thing one must do to become victimized is to be a member of a particular group (e.g. to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender). We must widen our perspective from individual acts of bullying and violence to the instrumental purpose these serve in subjugating LGBT people to particular religious and cultural ideologies in which reality is defined from a strictly heterosexual perspective—and gay and lesbian people become non-persons.
As more churches and denominations ordain gay and lesbian clergy, more gay and lesbian people are featured in media, and more medical, psychological and psychotherapeutic organizations reject notions of the pathological in sexual minorities, dominant religious and cultural ideology is in a state of crisis. It is no longer an unquestioned assumption that heterosexual experience represents the definition of reality for all people. The power to define reality for the masses is at stake and this power comes with all manner of political and ideological implications. Thus, there is a vested interest on the part of the religious and political right in keeping LGBT persons silent and subjugated.
Whereas political rallying on issues like same-sex marriage and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell serve to maintain some ground on the preservation of anti-gay cultural ideology, the intermittent reinforcement of violent attack is an even better tool to ensure the silence (and suicide) of LGBT people and their subjugation to the closet.
While a majority of LGBT people may avoid ever becoming the victim of a violence, none will be able to avoid the psychic terror that is visited upon LGBT people with each reminder that this world is one in which people are maimed and killed because of their sexual and gender identities. It is this psychic terror that makes life so difficult for many LGBT people. It is this psychic terror that does the heavy lifting of instrumental, systematic violence. It intends to silence and to destroy from within.
While most of us will never be physically attacked by another human being, all of us know we are targets.
A Theology of Anti-Gay Bullying
Anti-gay bullying is a theological issue because it has a theological base. I find it difficult to believe that even those among us with a vibrant imagination can muster the creative energy to picture a reality in which anti-gay violence and bullying exist without the anti-gay religious messages that support them.
These messages come in many forms, degrees of virulence, and volumes of expression. The most insidious forms, however, are not those from groups like Westboro Baptist Church. Most people quickly dismiss this fanaticism as the red-faced ranting of a fringe religious leader and his small band of followers.
More difficult to address are the myriad ways in which everyday churches that do a lot of good in the world also perpetuate theologies that undergird and legitimate instrumental violence. The simplistic, black and white lines that are drawn between conceptions of good and evil make it all-too-easy to apply these dualisms to groups of people. When theologies leave no room for ambiguity, mystery and uncertainty, it becomes very easy to identify an “us” (good, heterosexual) versus a “them” (evil, gay).
Additionally, hierarchical conceptions of value and worth are implicit in many of our theological notions. Needless to say, value and worth are not distributed equally in these hierarchies. God is at the top, (white, heterosexual) men come soon after and all those less valued by the culture (women, children, LGBT people, the poor, racial minorities, etc.) fall somewhere down below. And it all makes perfect sense if you support it with a few appropriately (mis)quoted verses from the Bible.
With dualistic conceptions of good and evil and hierarchical notions of value and worth, it becomes easy to know who it is okay to hate or to bully or, seemingly more benignly, to ignore. And no institutions have done more to create and perpetuate the public disapproval of gay and lesbian people than churches.
If anti-gay bullying has, at any level, an embodied undercurrent of tacit theological legitimation, then we simply cannot circumvent our responsibility to provide a clear, decisive, theological response. Aside from its theological base, anti-gay bullying is a theological issue because it calls for acts of solidarity on behalf of the vulnerable and justice on behalf of the oppressed.
But this imperative to respond reminds us that the most dangerous form of theological message comes in the subtlest of forms: silence.
The Longer We Wait, the More Young People Die
There is already a strong religious presence in the debate around anti-bullying education in schools. Unfortunately, it is not a friendly voice for LGBT teens. There is also no lack of rhetoric on sexuality stemming from theological sources. But the loudest voices are not the voices of affirmation and embrace. In a recent article, I urged churches that rest comfortably in a tacitly welcoming or pseudo-affirming position to come out and publicly proclaim their places of worship as truly welcoming and affirming sanctuaries for people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities.
I cannot count the number of times I have heard well-meaning, good-hearted people respond to this appeal, saying, “Things are a lot better for gay people today than they were several years (or decades) ago. In time, our society (or churches) will come around on this issue.” To these friends and others, I must say, “It’s time.” For Lucas, Brown, Clementi, Walsh, and Chase the time is up. For these teens and the myriad other bisexual, transgender, lesbian and gay youth lost to suicide, the waiting game hasn’t worked so well.
As simply as I can state the matter: The longer we wait to respond, the more young people die.
If this were a hostage situation, we would have dispatched the SWAT team by now. And in many ways, it is. Our children and teenagers are being held hostage by a religious and political rhetoric that strives to maintain the status quo of anti-gay heterosexist normativity. The messages of Focus on the Family and other organizations actively strive to leave the most vulnerable among us exposed to continuous attack. The good news is that we don’t need a SWAT team. We just need quality education on sexuality and gender identity in our schools and more faithful and courageous preaching and teaching in our churches.
Catholic theologian M. Shawn Copeland offers profound words to any individuals and churches seeking to wash their hands of this issue. She states,
If my sister or brother is not at the table, we are not the flesh of Christ. If my sister’s mark of sexuality must be obscured, if my brother’s mark of race must be disguised, if my sister’s mark of culture must be repressed, then we are not the flesh of Christ. For, it is through and in Christ’s own flesh that the ‘other’ is my sister, is my brother; indeed, the ‘other’ is me…
If anti-gay bullying is a theological issue, perhaps what is called for is a creative theological response. A theological response that challenges the systematic violence that upholds an oppressive religious and cultural ideology will not be a response through which we can hedge our bets. It will be a full-bodied, wholehearted giving of ourselves to the repair of the flesh of Christ divided by injustice and systematic exclusion.
Ministers who remain in comfortable silence on sexuality must speak out. Churches that have silently embraced gay and lesbian members for years must publically hang the welcome banner. How long will we continue to limit and qualify our messages of acceptance, inclusion and embrace for the most vulnerable in order to maintain the comfort of those in our communities of faith who are well-served by the status quo?
In the current climate, equivocating messages of affirmation are overpowered by the religious rhetoric of hatred. Silence only serves to support the toleration of bullying, violence, and exclusion. In the face of what has already become the common occurrence of LGBT teen suicide, how long can we wait to respond?
*Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference. p. 61
**Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom. p. 82