This post is a continuation of Kicked Out, A Review: Part One
I avoided reading Kicked Out for a long time. I didn’t quite know how it was going to sit with me, based on my own childhood. I was not kicked out. I was one of the lucky ones. Instead, my mother stopped coming home. She kept up with the rent and the utilities, so those weren’t particular worries of mine, but I could count on two hands the number of times I saw her at home in my last year of high school. There wasn’t consistently food in the house, so I used the money I made from my job at the library to buy food. I spent my junior year in conversations with grandparents, dad, and clergy about what to do: Could I leave? Could I leave my sister with my mother? Was I prepared to make a choice that meant I would no longer have a mother? In the end, I couldn’t do any of these things. But I couldn’t leave things how they were, either. My sister moved in with our dad, which left me at home alone with my mother, who promptly stopped coming home. I was technically safe, technically housed, technically cared for. My mother left me, but she did not kick me out.
In response to my home life, I became religious. Partially, this was organic; I like being part of religious community, and always find myself turning towards God and my own religious practice when things get rough. As a young person in a difficult place, though, I realized quickly that my church was a whole crew of adults who would watch out for me. In no small way, I manipulated the world around me so that I could access what I needed—adults who watched out for me and sometimes gave me things, like clothes and food. In terms of survival strategies, I really lucked out with my gut impulses. In my congregation, I was relatively safe, relatively cared for, and the adults I surrounded myself with helped me thrive and move forward. I manipulated my world so that I was around as many adults as possible, because the one who was supposed to be most primarily responsible for me refused. I let them care for me, support me, and push me on.
But there was a cost. The reality was, it didn’t even occur to me to come out in high school. I knew exactly how tenuous housing situations were, knew exactly how easy it was to find yourself suddenly homeless and trying to figure out what you were going to do next, and exactly how alone I would be if I lost the support of my congregation. I knew what the rules were, and played them expertly. But it didn’t stop my subconscious from leading me towards myself, even if I couldn’t see myself clearly, or say truly who I was. The United Methodist Church (which I was then a member of) still today does not ordain “self-avowed and practicing homosexuals.” However subconsciously, I knew I was queer in high school. And since I was queer baited for it by my peers, I know that others knew, too. And I knew that the price of the stability I had pieced together was my carefully-crafted closet, in which I could be a very out queer ally, a future candidate for ordination, a very active member of my congregation, and the recipient of the care, love, and guidance of adults in my congregation. But I could not come out: doing so would have destroyed my very delicately-balanced stability.
This fall, I begin to train for the rabbinate. As I reflect upon the kind of leader I want to be, and the kinds of community support I want to be part of, I feel urgently about the situation that faces young queer and trans* people. Our religious communities should be sources of relief and healing, not of trauma. A young person might want to turn to a religious community or leader for help in dealing with their family, or in dealing with the complex dynamics of coming out. But all too often, queer and trans* young people have negative and harmful experiences of religious communities, traditions, and/or leaders. We have been told that our “desires are depraved” from pulpits and teachings (Anne Gieginghagen, “Coming Out and Coming Home, or: You CAN Choose Your Family,” p. 161). We have been sent to reparative therapy. We have been kicked out or assaulted or targeted or even killed because of our desires and our identities, and have been told that we are facing this violence because of the religious beliefs of the people who are abusing us. Queer and trans* people who turn to religious community for support are doing so in the face of known danger, and are being incredibly brave and resilient in doing so.
In best case scenarios, our communities and leaders are able to offer the support that is needed. Maybe, like the Metropolitan Community Church, we can start shelters specifically for queer and trans*-identified homeless youth. Maybe we can offer spiritual counseling, direction, or teaching. Sometimes people are independent seekers, and are looking for an adult they can learn from and talk to about their individual religious or spiritual path. How can we, as religious leaders, help to shape and change our traditions so that they are able not only to welcome in queer and trans* young people, but also to help heal their pain and trauma, and to challenge families to embrace and honor their queer and trans* children. In the introduction, Lowrey writes:
“Kicked Out is my gift to a community who saved me. The dream of this book kept me company on long nights struggling for sleep on strange couches, but Kicked Out is more than that. It has truly become a movement of consciousness-raising and action. It is a promise to the community that we will no longer be silenced or quiet about our experiences. It is a demand that community leaders take this epidemic seriously. It is a challenge to all readers to question their perspective of what homelessness looks like and who homeless youth are” (p. 15).
To us—to clergy and to all leaders in religious communities—Lowrey’s collection is a demand to build towards justice for queer and trans* youth in our religious communities.
Within Jewish and Christian traditions, there is a concrete obligation to the widow, orphan, and stranger (e.g. Jeremiah 7:6). Homeless young people are, more or less, orphans and strangers both— made both orphans and strangers by being pushed out of their homes and home communities. For many queer and trans* young people who have been kicked out, religion has had some role in the experience of being kicked out, often a religious belief that being queer or trans* is somehow anathema to God. We do badly by our young people when we sit idly by in the face of the increasing numbers of young queer and trans* people who are homeless. In order to survive in an adult world, young people should never have to choose between being themselves and being safe; between being themselves and being loved; between being able to be childish while being young and being made to learn to be adult. But our young people are put in this position all the time. It is our obligation, as leaders in our traditions, to shape our traditions so that young people are not rejected by our communities, and to offer support and a context for healing if their families fail them. They need our love, support, respect, honor, protection, and resources, to thrive and grow, without conditions.