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Three Silent Years

According to the recent Pew Research Center survey of LGBT Americans – Attitudes, Experiences, and Values in Changing Times – the average length of time between knowing for sure that one is gay, lesbian, or bisexual, and telling that truth to another person, is three years.  If you extend the time back to when a person first thought he or she might be gay, lesbian, or bisexual, the length of time increases to about eight years.  Questioning begins at around age ten for gay men, and age thirteen for lesbians and bisexuals.  Telling someone for the first time typically occurred for gay men at age eighteen.  For lesbians and bisexuals, the age of sharing is about twenty. 

Viewed from the perspective of midlife and beyond, three years may not seem like a lot.  But three years – or eight – are an eternity for a person in mid to late adolescence.  Imagine knowing something foundational about yourself, and not feeling free to tell even the closest family member or intimate friend.  No affirmation in the face of rejecting voices and personal insecurity.  No guide in a time of uncertainty.  No role model to openly embrace in a time of loneliness.  For many, the silent years don’t ever fully end.   Indeed, over one third of all gay, lesbian and bisexual persons surveyed, regardless of their age, said they have not yet told either their father or mother. 

The Supreme Court decisions announced yesterday add momentum to the trajectory of both opinion and legislative action that is gradually moving the country toward fuller equality and greater respect.  But prominent religious voices remain dismissive of this movement toward equality and will continue to resist concrete steps to embody these rights in the fabric of our laws and civil practices.  Cardinal Timothy Dolan, speaking on behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, referring to the Court decisions, “this a tragic day for marriage and our nation.”  Many continue to believe that Michele Bachmann speaks for the church when she announced: "Marriage was created by the hand of God. No man, not even a Supreme Court, can undo what a holy God has instituted." 

Partly as a result of this drumbeat of resistance and rejection, religious institutions seem to offer little hope to LGBT individuals and scant reason for encouragement to break the silence.  Very few of the people surveyed viewed any kind of religious institution as “friendly” – less than 1% view Islam as friendly, 2% view Mormons as friendly, 4% view Catholics as friendly, 3% believe Evangelical Protestants are friendly, and perhaps shocking to many of us, only 10% view either Jews or non-Evangelical Protestant churches as friendly.  And while 43% view the later as neutral toward them, fully 44% continue to believe that non-Evangelical Protestants are unfriendly toward LGBT persons.  It comes as no surprise, then, that 60% of LGBT persons under thirty have no religious affiliation.

Is it the case that few mainline Protestant Christians and churches are affirming of LGBT persons?  Probably not.  In fact, 60% of all Protestants, 71% of Catholics, 80% of Jews, 39% of Muslims, and even 26% of Mormons believe homosexuality should be “accepted” by society, according to the survey.  Why the disconnect?  Clearly “welcoming” churches and denominations have done a poor job of getting the word out or, perhaps more accurately, of demonstrating that they really mean what they say.  In the face of highly visible faith based bigotry, the hospitality of progressive religious communities goes either unheard or untrusted.  While politicians scramble to get on the right side of the marriage issue prior to the next election cycle, whether it be Republican Rob Portman in Ohio or Democrat Hillary Clinton, we have our own work to do.

And it’s work that matters.  Think again about the three silent years.  Think about the loneliness, the misplaced shame, the guilt, the isolation.  And think about the fact that very few of these adolescent young people see the church as a safe place to share their truth.  While all eyes were on the Supreme Court this week, perhaps we need to look closer to home where change still needs to take place.  And even if it’s not a change in what we think that’s needed, it clearly must be a change in how we act, what we say, and how we say it.

John H. Thomas
June 27, 2013            

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  • Guest (Barb Bolsen)

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    John, I really enjoy your blog postings, and this one was particularly thought-provoking. I wasn't familiar with that Pew research, but the numbers -- and your comments -- really bring home what a lonely time it can be for young people who are figuring out their sexual identities. Thanks.

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