This resource was written by Kelsey Pacha, CLGS’ former Youth Resources Coordinator,  and made possible by a grant from the Atkinson Foundation. Through their generosity, CLGS has worked with congregations, parents, and religious educators in San Mateo County and beyond to create this resource.

Introduction to the Guide

In recent years, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) people have become much more visible in pop culture and media. LGBTQ young people and their coming out journeys are represented in youth-focused programming such as TV series Glee, Awkward, and The Fosters. Even YouTube celebrity Connor Franta has come out as a young gay man, disappointing his considerable female following. Despite the seemingly widespread acceptance of many out LGBTQ1 people, from Ellen Degeneres to Michael Sam, the public conversation about LGBTQ youth in religious spaces remains tumultuous at best. Many of these discussions have focused on issues like the ethics of religiously-based conversion therapy for young people, and of course, endless discussions about sacred texts.

A recent Human Rights Campaign survey of over 10,000 youth, the largest of its kind, revealed that only 28% of LGBTQ youth regularly attend church or religious services, compared to 58% of their non-LGBTQ peers. This survey also showed LGBTQ youth are half as likely as their non-LGBTQ peers to participate in a church or religious youth group. Six percent of LGBTQ youth reported “religion leading to lack of acceptance” as the most difficult problem facing them in their life. The youth in this study reported feeling more socially isolated, less likely to have an adult they can talk to, and are more than twice as likely to experiment with alcohol and drugs than their non-LGBTQ peers due to isolation and discrimination.

With children coming out as young as the age of two, medical professionals are recognizing the importance of honoring children’s sexual orientation and gender identity to support their overall health and mitigate the health disparities caused by lack of LGBTQ competency. The American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement in 2013 outlining best practices for physicians in supporting LGBTQ youth, based on the mounting evidence that this support is absolutely necessary to allow LGBTQ young people to live full and healthy lives.

Faith communities play a pivotal role for families and other care providers of youth, which can either support young people’s growth during vulnerable years, or negatively affect their journey towards fullness. Religiously-based anti-LGBTQ messages proliferate in the media, and young LGBTQ people are often led to believe that they must choose between their deeply-held gender identity, sexual orientation, and their spirituality. As children and adolescents come out at younger and younger ages, both they and their families are looking for faith environments that make their embrace of LGBTQ youth absolutely clear.

Culturally-ingrained and spiritually-based expectations about sexuality and gender affect everyone, not just LGBTQ people. Often, the most powerful messages we receive—positive or negative—about our identities come to us from adult role models in our most formative childhood years. LGBTQ youth face particular challenges as young people who often lack the emotional and economic resources to address the oppression they face from not strictly following cultural expectations. Mounting research evidence suggests that family acceptance and community support for LGBTQ people greatly reduces their risk for suicide, homelessness, and substance abuse.

The purpose of this guide is to help religious educators, youth ministers, and other faith-based mentors resource themselves to fully include LGBTQ youth in their programs. Inside you will find a road map of what you may experience if and when a young person comes out to you as LGBTQ, with recommendations for how to use your theology, sacred texts, community values, and existing program guidelines to support them in their journey.

To create this guide we interviewed parents, religious educators like Sunday and Hebrew School teachers, pastors, and young people who have come out in faith communities, representing Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Pagan, and interfaith perspectives. We have included a glossary of terms related to gender and sexuality on pages 13-14 of this guide. If you encounter a word you’re unfamiliar with, please check our definitions to learn more. While we cannot provide an exhaustive list of terms (or ensure that every person defines words exactly the same way), we have tried our best to be clear within the context of this guide. We are also using “the divine” in place of terms like “God” or “Creator” in order to be inclusive of multiple religious traditions, including those that include multiple deities or none at all.

You may perceive your faith community as very accepting, but it could feel very different to a young person. Expressing a welcome to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth is not a one-time event—we encourage continual reexamination of your understanding of LGBTQ youth issues and supportive interventions. Our hope is that this guide will serve as a starting point for further exploration, and have included an extensive resource list on pages 15-19. As a spiritual leader, you have the opportunity to open wide the gates of your community to a variety of expressions of the divine, and to create a generation of people who have known wholeness in their identity as LGBTQ people and as people of faith. Thank you for joining us on this journey.