6 Ways the Church Can Address the LGBTQ+ Suicide Epidemic
Atoning for anti-LGBTQ+ dogmatism can begin with these simple steps.
Posted July 3, 2020
A major aspect of my life’s work is combating the disproportionate, epidemic-level suicide rate among LGBTQ+ people, particularly those who are also ethnically or racially minoritized. Nearly a decade ago, National Youth Pride Services—a leadership development non-profit aimed at empowering LGBTQ+ Black youth—surveyed gay, Black boys about their mental health history. Four out of ten reported a suicide attempt, citing a lack of family support, mentors, school inclusion, and spiritual affirmation. Those findings compelled me to apply for a master's in counseling. Today, I am an openly queer, Black therapist, as well as a former crisis counselor for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and The Trevor Project, the national 24-hour crisis line for LGBTQ+ youth. I have also educated child welfare workers on protecting LGBTQ+ youth in abusive foster families, as a trainer for the Los Angeles LGBT Center, the world's largest LGBTQ+ facility and service provider.
Yet, directly undermining my mission to eradicate mental health disparities are churches that propagate anti-LGBTQ religious dogma.
For LGBTQ+ Christians, self-acceptance can complicate finding a "church home." Through sermons, some churches explicitly communicate their expectation that LGBTQ+ members go back in the closet, or remain closeted, while other churches do so covertly, through promotion of conversion therapy, or subtle alienation, hostility, and shame.
Raising this issue can elicit deflection and defensiveness from many non-LGBTQ+ Christians and church leaders, even despite impeccable tact. To quote activist and writer Terrance Thomas, “Accountability feels like an attack, when you’re not ready to acknowledge how your behavior is harmful." One’s tone is never palatable enough when exposing denial and willful ignorance. But my sense of urgency around LGBTQ+ suicide will not let obstinance deter me. So, in practical, concrete terms, here is how I envision the church—the universal body of believers—taking accountability for anti-LGBTQ+ religious rhetoric.
The accountability I want to see from the church looks like LGBTQ+ Christians being trusted to give constructive feedback regarding homophobia, with their genuine concern, good intentions, and sincere investment in the church acknowledged. But doing so first requires non-LGBTQ+ Christians to unlearn stereotypes mischaracterizing LGBTQ+ people as sinners, with deceitful ulterior motives.
The accountability I want to see from the church looks like church leaders reciprocating the benefit of the doubt, fairness, and non-judgmental listening which they often expect others to extend by default. When engaging LGBTQ+ survivors of spiritual abuse, this means listening to understand, not solely to respond, as well as not tone-policing how justifiable mistrust is expressed.
Empathetic listening means checking self-centered reactions, such as interjecting “but not all Christians...”; mentioning your church’s uniqueness to suggest LGBTQ+ Christians’ concerns are exaggerated generalizations; or invalidating plain, undeniable truths that lack a sugarcoated delivery, and burst your bubble, as a bishop, choir director, church mother, first lady, preacher’s kid, etc.
The accountability I want to see from the church looks like respecting LGBTQ+ people’s multidimensional humanity and multi-layered complexity–in other words, not reducing LGBTQ+ culture and identity down to a “gay agenda,” hypersexuality, or misconceptions about mental illness.
Can you acknowledge that LGBTQ+ people are arguably the most “pro-family” American demographic, being more likely than most others to adopt and foster the estimated 2 million abandoned and neglected children either on the streets, or in the child welfare system? Can you acknowledge that some of the most attentive parents and supportive educators are LGBTQ+ individuals who constantly strive to offer the unconditional love they never received? Can you acknowledge that reducing same-sex relationships to lustful “fleshly desires” hypersexualizes and stereotypes LGBTQ+ people?
The accountability I want to see from the church looks like openly affirming and including LGBTQ+ Christians. That entails acknowledging how “neutrality” and passivity betray and oppress, despite non-action seeming untraceable. When publicly asked about LGBTQ+ inclusion, “agreeing to disagree,” or side-stepping with vague non-answers, allows people to fill in the blanks with hate. As activist and author Arundhati Roy so eloquently stated, “The trouble is that once you see it, you can't unsee it. And once you've seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There's no innocence. Either way, you're accountable.” I highlight the repercussions of complicity in "Activism As Prayer: Three Calls Action for Christians to Embrace Biblical Justice."
The accountability I want to see from the church looks like church leaders admitting that they often fall prey to confirmation bias—favoritism for prejudiced misinformation that seemingly substantiates bias, over credible, valid sources that debunk and invalidate pre-existing stereotypes. Circumventing this pitfall necessitates a willingness to examine implicit biases, inherited beliefs, and socialization, to acknowledge blind spots and shortcomings, to admit fault, and most importantly, to actually listen to LGBTQ+ people. The Heterosexual Privilege Checklist offers a great introduction.
The task of [un/re]learning also involves studying the Bible in conjunction with texts from other disciplines, such as child psychology, family studies, gender studies, public health, and social work. The difference between wise and smart, is an interdisciplinary mindset that integrates and synthesizes knowledge. Moreover, if obsolete Biblical languages matter to divinity schools, it should also matter that Akkadian and Sumerian texts from 4,500 years ago document transgender priests.
Theological training should also include exposure to recent LGBTQ+ history. For example, Bayard Rustin—a gay, Black civil rights leader, and Rev. Martin Luther King’s right-hand-man—planned the March on Washington, for the “I Have A Dream” speech. An even more recent fact is that two of the three Black Lives Matter founders are lesbian Black women.
The accountability I want to see from the church looks like acknowledging that authority within the church is not license to “play G-d” by hierarchizing sins, or to declare that G-d seeks revenge through personal and societal tragedy, like grief, pandemics, or terrorism. Clergy should critically examine motives behind maniacal characterizations of G-d, and scriptural interpretations that read like a horror story.
I'm a vocal advocate in the LGBTQ+ community and the mental health field, and anti-LGBTQ+ dogmatism unfairly increases the demand for my time and work. Yet, my ask is so reasonable and so unintrusive: stop rationalizing the scapegoating of LGBTQ+ people.
Araya Baker is a counselor educator, suicidologist, and policy analyst. Baker holds a M.Phil.Ed. in professional counseling from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and an Ed.M. in human development and psychology from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Learn more at arayabaker.com.
This piece was edited with the support of Rev. Corwin Malcolm Davis.