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Erik Koepnick, 3rd Year M.Div.

Other Essays in the Series:
It Gets Better
Teen Suicides
Forgive Them

When There is No Peace

God had called us, and we came,
But the blessed road I trod
Was a bitter road to me,
And at heart I questioned God.
~ St. Vincent Millay , from The Blue-Flag in the Bog, 1921

A long-standing truth has recently made national news headlines: LGBTQ harassment in American Schools has reached epidemic proportions. This awareness comes through the horrible news of the recent series of suicides by five young men brought about by virulently anti-gay bullying. A survey by GLSEN states that nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT students experienced harassment at school in the past year and nearly two-thirds felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation.[1] Indeed, a bitter road to trod—especially when there is no end in sight, when there is no reprieve from the despair of incessant hatred, when the isolation of marginalization is almost impossible to overcome.

However, there is hope. As we have heard from gays and lesbians and allies from across the nation—courtesy of the internet, praise God—“It gets better!”[2] This project is invaluable to LGBTQ youth suffering in silence and isolation. We know from scripture, tradition, and experience, the power of sharing stories. To hear the stories of others who have suffered similar circumstances, and have survived (flourished, even), can give us the hopeful boost we need to know that survival is possible. It also serves as catharsis, or release from repressed emotions, for the storyteller who, in the process of telling their untold story of oppression and abuse, speaks the truth of their power of resilience in the face of adversity. The importance of this project cannot be overstated.

However, the “It Gets Better!” project is not the sum total of what can, and must be done, not just to preserve the lives of LGBTQ youth, but to foster the flourishing of LGBTQ lives. Such stories promote hope for change, but do not make change happen and thus, are equivalent to crying “Peace, peace” when there is no peace, thus treating the wound of homophobic bullying carelessly (Jer. 6:14). We must realize that for things to get better, we must make them better.

First, we must make ourselves aware.

We must acknowledge that bullies exist and have real power to terrify, silence, and bring death. Knowing this, we then realize our power to change these circumstances by identifying where our energies are best spent. Asking ourselves the difficult questions: How am I culpable in the bully’s actions? How have my actions, or inaction, reinforced the bully’s power? What are my responsibilities to those who endure suffering? What are my gifts? Where are my gifts/energies best applied? Taken seriously, this process can help us each develop a plan for action to empower LGBTQ youth experiencing bullying, and/or thwart the bully’s system, rendering it ineffective. This can only be achieved if we enact the really-real love of God instead of using the excuse of God’s love to hate one another (a la “hate the sin, love the sinner”).

Moreover, we must make God’s Love available.

Each day bullies target LGBTQ with harassment that establishes and reinforces feelings of shame, self-hatred, isolation, and social death. If you have not experienced bullying think of what it must be like to live in such despair. Now imagine how much more loving energy we must expend to overcome such despairing. One cannot do it alone or all at once. LGBTQ youth need more than a two-minute video, or series of videos, to make such bitterness survivable. We need to come together and respond, not just with with messages of faith or hope (valuable side-effects of love) but, with love in abundance. And not theoretical love, but real Love that touches and caresses the body and soul—bringing the lifeless to life again. We need to cultivate a culture of this Love that breeds dignity, compassion, creativity, empowerment, and more Love. Love, thus, heals the wounds of hatred and enmity that create both the bully and the “other.” In such a culture the question of God’s Love becomes unquestionable.

This world is coming on its way. We see evidence for that in the hopeful messages of the It Gets Better project. However, as people of the God that is Love, we know that the world that sustains harassment of LGBTQ youth with such power and prevalence is not the world for which we hope. Indeed there is much more work to do, and we must not wait a moment longer to begin that difficult work. Real lives are at stake.

“Speak!” I said, “Oh, tell me something!
Make a sign that I can see!
For a keepsake! To keep always!
Quick!—before God misses me!”

[1] The 2009 School Climate Survey can be found under the “Research” section at the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s website: www.glsen.org.

[2] The It Gets Better Project can be found at: http://www.youtube.com/user/itgetsbetterproject

Erik J. Koepnick is a third-year M. Div. student at Chicago Theological Seminary. A gay man who has experienced homophobic bullying first-hand, Erik dedicates much of his ministry to providing pastoral care and mentoring to LGBTQ youth. He has served with an outreach ministry that serves LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness in Chicago. Erik is also an advocate for suicide awareness and is trained in suicide intervention and first-aid.

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