The Bullies Aren’t Just Kids. And sometimes, they speak in God’s name.

by Kate Henley Averett

For weeks now, I’ve been thinking nearly constantly about the climate for LGBTQ people in our country. It’s hard not to: the recent media attention given to suicides of LGBTQ youth, most of whom had been bullied in their middle and high schools, has gotten a lot of people talking about it. The responses have been varied – from everyday folks reaching out to bullied youth via You Tube to tell them that it gets better, to discussion on television shows from public figures like Ellen DeGeneres, Anderson Cooper, and a whole host of celebrities appearing on Larry King Live, about what causes bullying and what we should be doing about it.

But the few responses that have struck me the most have been from those who have called out the American public – namely public religious and political figures – for modeling the very bullying behavior we, as a nation, are acting so surprised and perplexed over. Comedian Sarah Silverman had a particularly pointed video message for America in which she said:

Dear America: When you tell gay Americans that they can’t serve their country openly or marry the person that they love, you’re telling that to kids, too. So don’t be f***ing shocked and wonder where all these bullies are coming from that are torturing young kids and driving them to kill themselves because they’re different. They learned it from watching you.

Similarly, in a video commentary/PSA for the Trevor Project, queer ally, activist, and comedian Kathy Griffin quipped:

So let’s talk about these bullies. I just don’t think they came up with this anti-gay bias on their own. They weren’t born with it. The politicians, so-called religious leaders, and pundits who have made careers out of saying that being gay is wrong, or immoral, or that gays are somehow less than, they all have blood on their hands. Yes, all you anti-gay public figures, and you know who you are, you have the blood of these dead teens on your hands. Remember trickle-down economics back in the ‘80s? Well this is just trickle down homophobia.

What Silverman and Griffin both point to here is an idea that Catholics should find it easy to get behind – that when something is wrong with part of a society, it tends to have ramifications throughout. Put differently, when one part of the body is hurting, does the rest of the body not feel its pain? When one part of the body is infected by hateful, biased rhetoric, would we not expect this infection to spread to other parts of the body?

It was with all this on my mind that I opened an email this past week from Cody Maynus, a student at St. John’s University in Collegeville, MN, telling about an incident at the University in which a group of GLBTQ and allied students, who wore rainbow pins and ribbons to Mass to stand in solidarity with GLBTQ Catholics, were denied communion by the Archbishop of Minneapolis/St. Paul.

The back story to this incident is that Archibishop Nienstedt recently worked with the other bishops in Minnesota to produce and distribute 400,000 DVDs aimed at Catholic households across the state detailing the Church’s stance on same-sex marriage. According to this Associated Press article, the DVD included a call by Archbishop Neinstedt for a public vote to amend the Minnesota Constitution to define marriage on strictly heterosexual terms. There have been several moves by Catholics to express their displeasure over this campaign, including an organized movement to return the DVDs to the archdiocese.

The 25 or so members of the St. John’s University/College of St. Benedict community (including students, sisters and one monk) who decided to wear rainbow ribbons and pins to the mass that the Archbishop, didn’t seem to think of their act as political per se. One student, Elizabeth Gleich, told reporters that they were simply hoping to make a statement, both to the Archbishop, that they disagreed with the DVD campaign, and to LGBTQ Catholics, that they were in solidarity with them. The Archbishop, however, saw things differently, and decided to deny them communion. Archdiocesan spokesman Dennis McGrath told reporters, “[The rainbow is] a symbol of the GLBT movement en masse, and it was intended as a protest. It was pretty obvious.”

At the end of the day, whether the statement the students were making was political or not is, to me, not the point. The point is that Archbishop Neinstedt, through his DVD campaign and through the act of denying GLBTQ and allied students communion, is contributing to the anti-gay rhetoric that is plaguing our country and having drastic, even deadly effects. Imagine being a 13-year-old kid and being gay, or questioning your sexuality, and coming home after being bullied at school to find your parents watching a DVD in which some of the most revered men in your faith tradition are railing against gay marriage. Bullying and anti-gay talk isn’t just following you home from school via facebook at this point, but it’s coming at you from people who you have been taught to respect, to trust, and to view as carriers of God’s truth. Can you imagine how such a message would make you feel? And at the same time, many of the kids who are bullying you at school are coming home to see this same message, and from it, they take away a sense of divine justification for their actions. To then read in the news that the Archbishop has denied the Eucharist – the source and summit of our faith – to those who stand in solidarity with LGBTQ Catholics, only further reinforces this idea that the bullies are right, that gay people are somehow less than, less important, less deserving of God’s love and the love of God’s people, than straight people.

Public figures with anti-gay messages are bullies, too. They bully with their words, and with their actions designed to publicly reprimand and exclude those who don’t conform to their ideas of what’s right. And as hard as it might be to hear it, our religious authorities are part of this group. If we care about the well-being of LGBTQ youth, and we want the bullying in schools to stop, we have to tell the grown-up bullies to stop, too.

Whether you’re feeling dissatisfied, angry, concerned, sad, or outraged, there are things you can do to take action. Please consider writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper expressing your concern, as a Catholic, over the stance of Catholic officials on LGBTQ issues. Make a You Tube video, write a blog post, or do something to make a public statement to LGBTQ youth – and adults – that the views of the hierarchy do not represent the views of all Catholics, and that there many Catholics out there who love these youth as the beautiful children of God that they are. Wear a rainbow ribbon to show your support and solidarity. While these actions may be seen as inappropriately political by the Catholic hierarchy, I challenge you to remember that in a climate like this, silence – interpreted as assenting to the Church’s words and actions – is just as political and just as powerful a statement.

Kate Henley Averett holds an MDiv from Harvard University and is currently pursuing a PhD in Sociology at the University of Texas – Austin. She is outraged by the way society treats LGBTQ people, especially youth, and she hopes that you are, too.


5 Responses

  1. As the mother of a gay son, it deeply saddens my heart that one man has chosen to deny Christ, in the form of the Eucharist, to souls worthy of His love. It appears these people have been judged and punished in public. I believe this to be a very political statement made by Archibishop Nienstedt.

  2. Thank you for this one, Kate… I’ve had these same things on my mind, and it’s really good to see what you have to say about them.

  3. I’m not religious,though not atheist.I’m sorry you don’t classify “being LGBTQ” as “something that is wrong with a part of society”.The attitude that one can ever justify same-sex sexual activity,or “transition” to life as the sex other than that determined by one’s 23rd chromosome pair,is arrogant and self-righteous enough to embarass plenty of bible-thumpers of whatever denomination.And what young people suffering from homo- or trans-sexual tendencies need (as opposed to want) is assistance in rising above these ailments and refusing to let them define one’s person,rather than being abandoned to indulgence of their worst instincts.We don’t tell alcoholics it’s OK to keep drinking,if we care for them…no matter how much they may want or how intemperately they may demand such validation.The day we stop telling them their unhealthy desires need to be suppressed is the day we stop loving them,not the day we start.

  4. Louis,

    While it is evident that you and I disagree on many fundamental points, and likely that nothing I say to you would change your mind about those points, there’s one that I feel I especially need to take issue with – the idea that what LGBTQ people need is to try to “fix” them. Study after study has shown that so-called “repairative” therapies do not work. The APA as a group denounces such therapies. And what I think the string of recent suicides points to, is the fact that telling LGBTQ people that what they feel and who they are is unnatural and not right leads to some pretty serious psychological consequences. How is causing this kind of harm loving?? I’m not sure how you justify your claim that being LGBTQ is unnatural or unhealthy, when there is ample evidence to suggest that multiple sexual orientations, gender identities, and even sexes (given that a certain percentage of the population is differently sexed from birth, whether that be measured by their genitalia or variations on their chromosomal makeup) do in fact, occur, quite naturally. But regardless of your opinion on that matter, I would hope that you could see that any approach to dealing with a group of people that results in a vastly disproportionate occurrence of suicides and suicide attempts could hardly be classified as a loving response.

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