By Andrew Amanda Leigh-Bullard, Diocese of Western Massachusetts
If asked to describe a youth event many people would draw from a collection of treasured memories. What comes to mind for you? Is it songs of praise around the campfire, imaginative silliness at lock-ins, or in-depth conversations about faith that are still shaping who you’re becoming? Youth events are sacred moments that preserve the gospel during what is often considered the most chaotic time of a person’s life. Yet access to them is often limited due to structural discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.
In 2009 General Convention passed a resolution1 that encouraged the entire Episcopal Church to create forms that allowed people to use their preferred name, pronouns and gender identity. Yet despite being active in youth ministry since 2012 I have yet to encounter a form that fulfills this mandate. The forms I encounter act as though the gender binary, the arbitrary division of people into “male” and “female” is something that can be taken for granted.
But it cannot, for God does not work in binary categories, but blesses us with the fullness of creation. The God who split the day and the night is the same God who gives us the liminal periods of dawn and dusk with their glorious richness of color and light. The God who in Genesis made them “male and female” is also the Creator of people who are intersex, transgender, agender, bigender and many others.
My experiences of youth ministry have also been shaped by serving as a counselor at secular camps that specifically serve queer and transgender youth. In those settings I have worked with campers of all genders, and some with no gender. In the cabin and the mess hall I’ve heard their questions:
“Does God hate people like me?”
“Can I be transgender and a Christian?”
“What should I do when my pastor won’t respect my pronouns? My name? ”
It was in those secular camps that I heard the cries of a generation longing for a church that they can call home. It is their pleas that resound in my heart as I stare at yet another discriminatory form in front of me. “M/F”, three simple characters that raise terrifying questions for any youth (or adult) that would seek to participate in our common life:
Will they accept me?
Where will I be asked to sleep?
Will I be told my gender is invalid?
Will I be singled out?
Will I be harassed or assaulted because I won’t be like the people they’re expecting?
These are not idle thoughts, or indicative of an overactive imagination. In 2013 GLSEN’s completed a school climate survey of LGBT youth between the ages of 13 and 212. They found that 55.2% of students experienced harassment based on gender identity and 74.1% were harassed because of their perceived sexual identity. This bears repeating, MOST LGBT students experienced harassment based on their gender and NEARLY THREE QUARTERS based on their perceived orientation.
When we add this to a news cycle full of people linking faith to hate, the questions of safety that the letters “M/F” raise are perfectly reasonable to an LGBTQ youth seeking a spiritual community. They are simultaneously horrifying to we who strive for God’s justice because of the pervasive trauma they reflect. These questions of safety, of welcome, of belonging are but the surface of the harm we cause when our forms fail to honor the dignity of every person’s identity. Through simple inaction we widen the gap between our resources and the spiritual needs of those we are called to be in community with.
“The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” is a great slogan. We need to remember that welcome involves far more than resolutions and rainbow flags. We need to update our forms, but that is only the first step. The next is to allow the brilliant witness of queer youth to transform our hearts and our hands so that we can carry Christ’s message of love for all people.
1) 2009-D050 Encourage Inclusive Self-Identification on All Church Data Forms http://www.episcopalarchives.org/cgi-bin/acts/acts_generate_pdf.pl?resolution=2009-D090