Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Coming Out in Middle School

This fascinating New York Times article about gay middle school students addresses cultural shifts, sexual identity, parenting, school administration, harassment and Christianity. If you're an educator, a parent, or involved in student ministry, take the time to read it. From the article:

All of this fluidity, confusion and experimentation can be understandably disorienting for parents and educators. Is an eighth grader who says he’s gay just experimenting? Could he change his mind in a week, as 13-year-olds routinely do with other identities — skater, prep, goth, jock — they try on for a while and then shed for another? And if sexuality is so fluid, should he really box himself in with a gay identity? Many parents told me they especially struggled with that last question.

Nadia, the mother of Austin in Michigan, told me that she and her husband “blew up” at him when he came out to them. “I really lost it, and my husband took it even harder than I did,” she said. “We just couldn’t wrap our heads around the idea that Austin would know what he was at 13, and that he would want to tell other people.”

A year earlier they asked Austin if he was gay after they discovered his call to a gay chat line. He promised them that he was straight, and he promised himself that he would cover his tracks better. It’s not uncommon for gay youth to have their same-sex attraction discovered thanks to a rogue number on a phone bill or, more often these days, a poorly concealed Internet search history. “We see a lot of kids get outed by porn on the computer,” Tim Gillean told me in Tulsa. “I knew one kid who told his mom: ‘I don’t know how that got there. Maybe it was dad!’ ”

Austin eventually ended up telling his parents he was bisexual, which he knew was a lie (he wasn’t attracted to girls) but which he hoped would lessen the blow. But the plan backfired. “My mom said something like: ‘What does that mean, you’re bisexual? Do you just wake up in the morning and willy-nilly decide what you’re going to be that day? Straight yesterday, bi today, gay tomorrow?’ ” Austin recalled. “For the next two months my parents tried to convince me that I couldn’t know what I was. But I knew I was different in second grade — I just didn’t really put a name to it until I was 11. My parents said, ‘How do you know what your sexuality is if you haven’t had any sexual experiences?’ I was like, ‘Should I go and have one and then report back?’ ”
My question is, what is the most loving way for the church and youth ministries to respond to this cultural shift? One gay student described meeting their girlfriend at church. Another shared that a relative literally hit them in the head with a Bible when they came out as bisexual. There has traditionally been a great deal of tension between the gay community and the church.

So what's my opinion of the most Christlike way to address this shift? In a word: grace. If you're in the youth ministry world, are you seeing this shift and how are you responding?

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