About three years ago, I wrote an article about my positive experience as an LGBTQ+ person attending my mother’s church for a now-defunct youth website. I had only just begun the coming-out process, and I was naive in my acceptance of church teachings and unaware of how exposure to religion-based homophobia had shaped my self-image. Now, just before my eighteenth birthday, I can see the complexity of my perception of religion and the nuances that exist between belief in the divine, religious institutions, and societal attitudes.

I grew up with a Christian mother and a Jewish father, in an interfaith community where mutual respect for each other’s beliefs was the norm. I was sure that God loved me and my family. A brief stint at a Catholic church after my parents’ divorce completely shook this view: God loved my motherdespite her choice to separate from my father, let alone that she married a non-Christian in the first place, and God loved my brother and I even though we weren’t born into Catholicism. My family soon moved on to an Episcopal church, one of the most socially accepting branches of Christianity.  

When I started to realize I liked other girls, I was terrified. My dreams of a wedding ceremony performed by a priest and a rabbi (just like my parents) and attending religious services with a family of my own didn’t seem realistic anymore. I hoped God would love me despite what I thought was a sin. While my mother’s Episcopal church didn’t disavow homosexuality outright, there was no mention of LGBTQ+ matters among the weekly bulletins or prayer requests. LGBTQ+ members of the congregation were virtually invisible. I was incredibly fortunate to feel safe within the church, but I internalized the lack of recognition the LGBTQ+ community was given by a group that had contributed to their oppression, both historically and currently. 

Though my parents never had anything negative to say about LGBTQ+ people, other adults in my life whom I looked up to did, and I didn’t know how to reconcile what I was hearing with what I was discovering about myself. I heard people in the media disparage same-sex relationships on the basis of religious teachings and wondered if God’s love was really as conditional as it seemed. I spent too long trying to convince myself I could suppress an unchangeable part of myself if it meant keeping hold of one of the most significant and fulfilling parts of my life. 

Religious trauma and LGBTQ+ youth

The majority of LGBTQ+ youth do not experience conversion therapy but do experience this forlornness. According to a 2020study by the Trevor Project, about one in four LGBTQ+ people between the ages of 13-24 regard religion as “very important” or “important” to them. Youth who had heard their parents usereligionto speak negatively about being LGBTQ+ were about twice as likely to have attempted suicide and significantly less likely to have disclosed their gender identity or sexual orientation to their parents. 

Even when a more progressive institution does not explicitly speak against LGBTQ+ existence, the failure to acknowledge the damage that religious figures have done to the LGBT+ community and to make purposeful inclusion of LGBTQ+ people a priority allows discrimination to continue to fester. Participation in religious support groups likeQ Christian,Believe Out Loud,Muslims for Progressive Values, and the JewishKeshetorganization that explicitly affirm the validity of LGBTQ+ identities has been shown to vastly improve religious LGBTQ+ youth’s quality of life. Youth who have at least one accepting adult in their livesare40 percent less likely to attempt suicide. 

The plight of LGBTQ+ youth in extremely socially conservative religious communities is the heaviest by far. In Utah, where overtwo-thirds of the populationbelongs to the Mormon temple, suicide is theleading cause of deathamong 15 to 24-year-olds. Openly LGBTQ+ members of the church are excommunicated, those in same-sex marriages are designated asapostates, and children of same-sex couples who do not disavow LGBTQ+ relationships arebarredfrom church membership. Mormon youth who come out to their families are often sent to “reparative therapy,” where church leaders or therapists attempt to change the subject’s orientation or gender identity through electroshock therapy, induced vomiting, and talk therapy in which same-sex attraction is established as a mental illness. 

The promise of separation of Church and State

Because of its massive reach in the Western world – with aboutseventy percentof the population affiliated with it, Christianity is among the largest factors of discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals. In 2008, California’s Proposition 8 garnered immense monetary support and broadcasted endorsement from theRoman Catholic Church, theEastern Orthodox Church, andMormonleaders. It is because of this backing that Proposition 8 succeeded, barring same-sex couples from marrying in California. A criticallookat scripture and the context in which it was written and editedshowsthere’s nothing explicitly disavowing homosexuality. Human fault and bias is the only reason for the perception of LGBTQ+ people and relationships as less than holy. 

Despite the promise of separation of church and state, the sheer amount of people participating in religious activities leads to an inevitable direct influence on public policy, including when it comes to LGBTQ+ freedoms. In a concurring opinion ofDobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Clinic, the recent case that effectively overturnedRoe v. Wade, Catholic Justice Clarence Thomassuggestedthe Court “reconsider” the precedent set byObergefell v. Hodges,the case that secured federal protection of same-sex marriage. Thomas and other conservativeCatholicJustices – Roberts, Scalia, and Alito –dissentedfrom the 2015 decision, citing religious freedom and implying the entire country should abide by their views of morality. 

Of course, there are Jews, Muslims, and people of all other religions who believe their views should be universally adopted, but American Christians are accustomed to their beliefs being the most widely accepted, leading to outcry when the government takes measures that go against their beliefs on issues such as abortion and LGBTQ+ protections. 

The quiet rise of Christian Nationalism

Christian Nationalism, or “the belief the American nation is defined by Christianity and the government should take active steps to keep it that way,” as defined byChristianity Today, has been identified as a threat to religious freedom, racial and ethnic minorities (because Christian Nationalistsoftenshare white supremacist beliefs), and LGBTQ+ individuals. Although the majority of Christians oppose the idea Christians should hold enshrined political power over other Americans, the quiet rise of Christian Nationalism remains dangerous to the future of civil rights. 

The Catholic Church in particular has contributed directly to the death of LGBTQ+ people. In 1989, at the height of the AIDS crisis that uniquely targeted gay and bisexual men, the New York chapter of ACT UP (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power)stagedone of the largest-scale protests of its kind outside of  St. Patrick’s Cathedral in response to Cardinal John O'Connor and the Catholic Archdiocese’s stance against the usage of condoms to prevent transmission of HIV and their opposition to comprehensive sex education in public schools. By telling those devoted to them that safe sex was against God’s will, the Catholic Church condoned the deaths of many LGBTQ+ people. The sentiment that the death of people with HIV and AIDS was justified because of their perceived sin still lingers and contributes to religion-based discrimination and staggering youth suicide rates.

Feeling like a walking contradiction

I hadn't discovered it yet, but I was torn between my identity and the church community I had fallen in love with. Even though the church I was going to didn’t discriminate, I felt like a traitor to my friends who were experiencing bigotry in their places of worship and was still reeling from my experiences with adults in my life who used religion as an excuse to discriminate. I continued to accept Christian beliefs as my own and even partook in Episcopalian confirmation. I felt out of control and desperate to take ownership of my identity before I knew exactly what it was, which only made me more confused. 

At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, I had an abundance of time to think about different aspects of my identity, and I did. Aside from my disconnection with the idea of Jesus as the messiah, I found that I disagreed with the transactional way in which sin and the afterlife are viewed by the church and the proselytization used to convert people to Christianity. I was blessed to be given the chance to discern my religious beliefs for myself: last year, I chose to explore the Jewish side of my interfaith upbringing and immediately felt the connection I’d been aching for. I became increasingly empowered in my identity as a lesbian as I found accepting communities, confident in my belief that God is not a benevolent being who would persecute people for an immutable facet of their identity she selected for them in the first place. Instead of being at odds with one another, my queerness and Jewish identity are inextricably linked; my belief in God and connection to my ancestry inform my advocacy, writing, and fervent desire to make the world a better place. With the right congregation, being a religious or spiritual LGBTQ+ person without feeling like a walking contradiction is possible. 

It’s not the religion meant for me, but something I’ve always loved about Christianity is its concept of forgiveness and how highly valued it is among congregations of every denomination. It is my hope that LGBTQ+ youth who have been alienated and persecuted based on religion find the power to forgive the institutions and people whom they have been wronged by. In turn, progressive religious organizations must continue to make their positive attitudes towardsLGBTQ+ individualsknown in their marketing so that LGBTQ+ youth have safe places to turn to when they are spiritually hungry.