Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Three More Statements about Gay Teen Suicide: Keli Goff, Sarah Silverman, Jim Martin

Three more good online statements about the recent spate of suicides of gay American youth catch my eye today.  The first is Keli Goff's "Why We Shouldn't Blame the Bullies for the Recent String of LGBT Suicides" at Huffington Post.

I find Keli Goff's response valuable for a number of reasons.  First, she is among those African-American commentators who have taken the gay community to task for what she sees as an unfair attempt to blame people of color for the removal of the right to same-sex marriage with prop 8 in California.  As a corollary of her analysis of the vexed relationship between the gay and African-American communities, Goff also encourages gay folks to take seriously the role of religion among people of color--and among many other Americans who continue to frame their response to gay issues in largely religious terms.

And all of this means that, when Goff encourages ordinary, everyday citizens to take responsibility for the suicides of gay or gender-questioning teens who have experienced bullying, she speaks with some authority to her own African-American community and to churched people in general.  And she speaks with authority out of the African-American experience of horrific oppression.  And here is precisely the gist of Goff's argument: that it's far too easy to blame the obvious targets, those who bully gay teens, for gay teen suicides, and let ourselves off the hook.

As Goff notes, it is almost impossible to imagine parents and school officials standing by idly--as they all too often do when young people are tormented for being gay or perceived as gay--if the bullying had to do with issues of race.  It is hard to imagine school officials and parents tolerating use of the N- word on the playground, as children are bullied.

And yet parents and school officials do nothing when the F- word is slung about, repeatedly.  And when young people thought to be gay are tormented mercilessly--sometimes choosing to end their lives rather than endure the abuse.  And many of those standing idly by as young people are driven to kill themselves are church members, followers of Christ, who claim to want to embody the salvific love of Christ for everyone in their actions and daily lives.

The second resource I want to mention here is also at Huffington Post: Sarah Silverman's brief video statement about the recent teen suicides.  Silverman picks up on the same theme that Goff stresses: we are all responsible for what is happening to our gay teens.

In particular, Silverman refuses to permit liberal Americans--including the current federal administration--off the hook.  As she notes, when we refuse to abolish discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military, when we tell gay and lesbian citizens that they are not good enough to serve in the military, we are giving a message to our gay youth.  

We are giving them a message about how much their lives are worth.  

And so all of us who are citizens and who continue standing by in silence, shrugging our shoulders, as the Democratic and Republican leaders of the nation keep playing callous, cynical games with the lives of gay and lesbian human beings are as much a part of the problem as the bullies are.  And as the rabid religious right is.

We, too, are implicated, and the Obama administration is implicated, in sending signals to our gay and lesbian children that their lives do not count.  That they are not worth as much as the lives of those who happen to be heterosexual.

And all of this will change only when society at large stops permitting anyone in our society to bolster his self-image or consolidate her power by demeaning those who happen to be gay or lesbian.

Finally, Fr. Jim Martin has placed a statement on the "In All Things" blog at America magazine, asking what might constitute a Catholic response to gay teen suicide.  I'm glad that Jim Martin has the courage to ask this question--and it does take courage to do so in the heated political climate of American Catholicism right now, in which (as his posting says) even Catholics who call for pastoral outreach to gays and lesbians are likely to be savagely targeted by some of their Catholic brothers and sisters.

Since a previous editor of America, Fr. Tom Reese, a Jesuit colleague of Jim Martin, was targeted by the Catholic right and forced by the Vatican to resign, Jim Martin knows whereof he speaks.  And the targeting continues, whenever he and other Jesuits working at America dare to raise questions such as the ones he's raising in this article.

E.g., questions about how a religious tradition with such a strong emphasis on reaching out to outcasts and bringing those who are "other" into the welcoming space of the body of Christ could end up being identified with gross discrimination against and hostility towards an oppressed minority.  And how Catholics can justify their "outreach" to the gay community, which beings with "thou shalt not," when no other group within the church is targeted in this way.

I've already contributed my two cents' worth to the dialogue about Fr. Martin's posting.  As I do so, I will admit I feel a certain sense of detachment from these intra-Catholic discussions.  Increasingly, I have the impression that what's being discussed at Catholic blogsites is a tiny and pallid version of much richer and broader social conversations taking place outside the confining walls of the church.

I'm not opposed to the parochial discussions.  I'm glad they're taking place.  But they don't energize me.  The world is a much bigger place than the world as it's reflected within the parochial boundaries of churches.  And the parochialism is definitely a part of the problem.

If the Catholic community (or any other Christian community) truly wants to engage those who are gay and lesbian at any effective level, this community and other communities are going to have to stop the insider-outsider game, and start acting as if gays and lesbians are already within the church.  As bona fide members of it.  

We are not the alien other that many church members want to make us out to be.  We are in the pews, standing in the pulpits, singing in the choirs, teaching in the church schools.  Until churches recognize us for who we are and what we contribute, and stop pretending we're not there--and stop discriminating against us--these parochial intra-ecclesial conversations aren't really going to go anywhere productive.

Because they are based on a lie--on the distorted perception that it's the church over against the gays, the church vs. the gay community--and on injustice--on the injustice of exclusion, which the churches continue to to get away with, as they deny that we work within church institutions, as they continue to fire us when it becomes convenient to do so, and as they trample on our rights within church institutions by demanding that we hide ourselves, by refusing partner benefits or official recognition of our relationships, and so forth.

We have a long way to go.  And the horrific suicides of gay youths are a warning bell to us about how far we are falling short in our society and communities of faith, when it comes to building safe and humane spaces for LGBT persons.

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