Queer Youth of Color Beyond Faith
"The dearth of progressive Humanist approaches to teaching and training fuel their sense of disaffection
At LGBTQ youth conferences it is common to see sunny-faced volunteers from gay-friendly ministries and other faith organizations hovering by tables stocked with attractive promotional literature. Their message is simple: God is merciful, forgiving and accepting of difference. And it is important for queer youth to know that Jesus loves them too. Each ministry claims to offer sanctuary from the draconian storm of Christian fundamentalism. As a visible and vocal faction in the LGBTQ youth movement, these faith-based organizations fill a moral, cultural, and social void that Humanist organizations have yet to proactively address.
A recent summit on improving the visibility of LGBTQ issues in K-12 curricula, instruction, and faculty training within the Los Angeles Unified School District highlighted the gaping void in secular Humanist outreach. During the summit, the San Francisco-based Family Acceptance Project screened a film called "Always My Son" which chronicled a Latino family's journey to acceptance of their gay son. Finding a church that welcomed LGBTQ youth and families was critical to their transition. The boy's father spoke eloquently of how he struggled to come to terms with his own hyper-masculine identity as a tough ex-Marine. The relationships the family developed in their new gay-friendly church inspired them to open their home to other families with LGBTQ children looking for community support. In the summit's breakout sessions, representatives from the faith community touted ministries which were accepting of LGBTQ families and youth. They maintained that the model of an angry punitive god was inaccurate. Several condemned the Religious Right for perpetuating the view that being gay and Christian was incompatible. They stressed involvement opportunities for LGBTQ youth struggling to come out. They also spoke of providing a bridge for religious families seeking to reconcile their faith with the dominant culture's heterosexist notions of "morality."
In large predominantly black and Latino urban school districts like the LAUSD, Humanist voices are rarely included in these school-community dialogues for several reasons. First, for better or for worse, social acceptance of LGBTQ youth oftentimes begins with family, and a majority of the students in the LAUSD come from religious family backgrounds. Second, it is assumed that making organized religion kinder and gentler is the end goal for disenfranchised queer youth hungry for moral acceptance. Since faith is an important source of cultural identity in many families of color, it stands to reason that educators and resource providers working with gay youth develop culturally responsive approaches to engaging families around homophobia, LGBT identity, and religious belief. Third, and, perhaps, most importantly, Humanist organizations that do this kind of work are few and far between. One exception is the American Humanist Association (AHA), which has LGBT Councils. As part of its efforts around LGBTQ inclusion the AHA was a co-sponsor of a Mississippi-based LGBTQ "second chance" prom. Proms and other life transition rituals can be important social vehicles helping youth to come out. And Humanist organizations can bridge the gap for questioning and non-believing youth grappling with the authoritarianism of some religious traditions.
Yet, countering the homophobic dogma of organized religion is only one aspect of a Humanist approach to LGBTQ enfranchisement. Developing Humanist culturally responsive approaches that contextualize morality, self, and identity from the unique historical perspective of people of color is also critical. For example, black bodies have always been marked as immoral and other. Racist/sexist notions of black female hypersexuality and pure white womanhood inform the way black women are perceived in the dominant culture. Even as it has embodied homophobic, sexist traditions, the Black Church has served as a refuge from American racial segregation and cultural otherness.
Thus, the needs of LGBTQ youth of color (who represent a significant segment of homeless youth in urban areas like Los Angeles and New York) can't be adequately addressed by culturally homogeneous or colorblind approaches that don't acknowledge the intersection of heterosexism, white supremacy, and racism. During the summit there was much discussion about how the absence of out faculty, administrators, and staff of color on K-12 campuses makes dealing with homophobia tougher for LGBTQ youth of color. As an educator, teacher trainer, and mentor to LGBTQ youth I have seen firsthand how the dearth of progressive Humanist approaches to teaching and training fuel their sense of disaffection. This past school year, my Gay/Straight Alliance mentees courageously presented at an annual youth media education conference, braving the usual ignorant brickbats from peers about God condemning "fags" to eternal damnation. In our many discussions about homophobia in black and brown communities we deconstructed the insidiousness of religious influences as well as the prevalence of media stereotypes that render LGBTQ communities of color marginal and invisible. As working class black and brown youth they must deal with the homophobia of religionists and the all too mainstream white supremacist belief that they are all gangbangers, illegal "aliens", and criminals. Given these factors, it is no wonder that family rejection, harassment, social invisibility and the absence of adult mentors at school contribute to high rates of queer youth of color becoming homeless.
Progressive Humanist models of teaching and training that emphasize the cultural knowledge, lived experiences, and community contexts of youth of color could address these risk factors. Recently the California Legislature passed SB48, a bill requiring textbooks and high school history courses to include the contributions of gays and lesbians. The mandate might provide greater visibility for the connection between LGBTQ communities of color and social justice movements. Currently, in high school curricula examples of prominent gays and lesbians of African descent rarely go beyond Langston Hughes. In the mainstream K-12 imagination, Hughes has been sanitized, his body of work reduced to the universalist metaphors of the now canonical poem "Dreams." High school students are far less familiar with his political radicalism, critiques of organized religion, and conflicted quest to achieve visibility as a black gay artist in the thick of the masculinist identity politics of 20th century black liberation struggle—all of which made him a Humanist model for queer selfhood and alternative masculine identity.
Part of the appeal of gay-friendly faith organizations is the premise that being out, moral, and "good with God" are compatible. Another key part of their appeal is that they provide spaces that validate the rich lived experiences of queer youth whose families may or may not be supportive. In mainstream American culture the term LGBTQ—from high profile gay suicide victims to pop icon Ellen DeGeneres—still signifies whiteness. Paradoxically, queer youth of color often feel that they don't have anywhere else to turn for affirmation other than their faith. If Humanism is to have any widespread institutional traction there must be a movement to create cultural spaces that address the void left when queer youth of color reject organized religion. There must be a raw reckoning with the antidote that faith and inclusive religious traditions provide queer youth of color steeped in hostile to indifferent school-communities. The next Humanist "frontier" lies in building culturally relevant spaces that give worth and visibility to the lived experiences that faith, white supremacy, and heterosexism have rendered expendable.