On Jan. 5, 2012, Giles Joslyn, an energetic, funny, brilliantly musical and utterly luminous young person, took his own life. He was 19 years old. He was also my student.
I received an email informing me of this tragedy the night before I attended a presentation exploring the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered young people at the annual meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics. This conference is a place where I typically look forward to exploring the implications Christian teachings and practices have for creating more just communities. But in the wake of this devastating news, most of our scholarly conversations seemed abstract and out of touch. The presentation on LGBT young people was decidedly not abstract, but I simply couldn't listen to story after story of the devastating harm my own tradition, Christianity, inflicts on these lives and found myself fleeing the room. For you see, I suspected that issues of sexuality played a role in Giles' suicide.
Giles was a student in my First Year Seminar (FYS) course, which ended two weeks before his death. FYS is designed to build a community of support among new students who are often challenged intellectually, emotionally, socially and spiritually more deeply than they ever have been before. Participants often become close, so Giles' death hit us especially hard.
The death of any young person challenges our sense of fairness and predictability. But death by suicide poses particular challenges to we who live in its aftermath. We're left with devastating silence to our endless questions. We're overwhelmed with memories of last encounters. We search in desperation for the moment we should have noticed something wrong and intervened to save our hurting friend, colleague, sibling, child. All of this is futile, of course.
Christianity's long history of condemning LGBT people bears no small responsibility for propelling those struggling with their sexuality to take the course Giles did. I already knew this. But then, on the long drive to Giles' funeral, an administrator told me that his goodbye letter "may have mentioned homosexuality."
Giles was memorialized in a service supposed to comfort us. And yet, the teachings and practices of this very church might, in fact, have had something to do with Giles' decision to end his life. This awareness made me seethe. During the funeral, I struggled for breath as a priest claimed that Jesus' communion table -- a table intended to commemorate life and create community -- was only for those who were "properly disposed." I couldn't and still can't fathom or forgive the pastoral decision to specifically disinvite a mass of stunned and devastated young people at the very moment they most needed to be enfolded by a ritual of love.
I couldn't write about this experience at the time. I didn't want to violate Giles by writing about him in a way that he may not have recognized. I didn't want to hurt his parents who have lovingly reflected on their loss with a courage and honesty that astounds me. But now, a year later, not writing about it seems far more dangerous.
There's a crisis of suicide among youth who struggle because of gender identity and sexual orientation. So, how is it that so many churches still teach our children that their orientation means a straight path to hell? That today more "gentle" churches offer our young the hopeless draught of a life without love or sexual intimacy (i.e., "OK, be gay, but be celibate")? That others actually think -- and teach their members -- that "love the sinner but hate the sin" is loving? And what of the slow suffocation these youth experience when most communities just ignore the "issue" altogether and refuse to speak about their lives at all?
Complexities emerged in the weeks following Giles' death. As it turns out, he didn't invoke homosexuality in his goodbye note. But he did say he felt utterly different and isolated from everyone else, even from those he knew loved him. He wrote of how he had longed for the afterlife -- a place where he could "start over" -- for a very long time.
It also came out that Giles had an intersex condition. His parents described it medically as a chromosomal abnormality. At age 1, he had surgery to remove a partial uterus. After his death, his parents discovered that he'd stopped giving himself the hormone injections he'd been taking since the onset of puberty.
I do not pretend to know precisely why Giles chose to take his life. But I cannot ignore the fact that he erased his physical existence in the context of a dominant Christian culture that has no place for bodies like his -- beautiful bodies that refuse to conform to our rigid, narrow ways of thinking about "normal" gender and sex and sexuality. It's likely that in such a world, confusing and lonely questions about the meaning of love and intimacy began to accompany Giles as he journeyed into adulthood.
I'm an out and proud lesbian teacher of religion and a Christian pastor. But I learned through experiencing our suicide stats first hand that my mere existence isn't an adequate intervention for struggling young people who know me that, to quote Dan Savage, "it gets better."
When young people who are intersex, LGBT or live other sex/gender differences are overtly or subtly rejected by their religious communities, it's not enough to give them a positive message here or there, or provide private support on the side (though this is critical). The sea change that is needed is far more dramatic than this, and it's going to take all of us.
For the most part, Christian communities today still commit the utter existential erasure of these youth. This crisis comes from it having been made impossible for you to see yourself reflected in the vision of life, beauty and wholeness that our religious communities attempt to create. And when you can't see yourself, or when your community tells you to bury an essential part of you or just pretends you don't exist at all it becomes impossible to envision a future in which you do.
Let me be clear. Many Christians are loving and kind to LGBT folks. A great number even disagree with their community's official stance on LGBT issues. I count many such persons of good will among my friends and family. But meanwhile, many still take part in such communities. They send their kids to these churches for confirmation. They have the church baptize their babies. I used to have some patience with the reasons one might have for personally supporting LGBT people while still participating in a community that officially does not. Since Giles' death my patience has vanished. I can't tolerate such passive acceptance of a religious culture that enables such deaths any more.
It's time for more of us to walk out of such churches. Or, maybe it's time for more us to stay -- but to make loud nuisances of ourselves as we do.
If we are to save the lives of our youth, we must constantly, publicly, relentlessly challenge "Christian" teachings and the rituals that exclude so many. Clergy, lay people, outsiders, evangelicals, liberals, Mormons, Catholics, Baptists, grandparents and teenagers must take up this urgent work. We must say "Enough!" Enough of the silence. Enough of the erasure. Enough of the calls that we can "agree to disagree."
We cannot "disagree" with youth like Giles. We need to joyfully embrace them as whole, beautiful, beings worthy of life and love. We must do so. Anything else is simply too much loss to accept.