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Suicides among gay and lesbian youth

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  • By a concerned mother: "My child is of sacred worth. Both my children - one lesbian, one straight -- are of sacred worth. I will faithfully work until my church truly reflects God's love for both." 1


We hesitate to explore this topic, because the main protagonists -- religious/social conservatives vs. homosexuals and their supporters -- tend to have very strong, fixed, and conflicting views on the rate and causes of suicide among gay and lesbian youth. It is certain to motivate many readers of all viewpoints to send us angry Emails.

There is much debate on suicide among homosexual and bisexual youth:

  • Whether completed suicide is higher than for the general population.
  • Whether attempted suicides are more common.
  • What is the cause?causes of elevated rates of suicide if it exists.

We will attempt to wade through the misinformation, disinformation, and conflicting data on this topic.

Numbers of gay and lesbian youth suicides:

The Universal Almanac 1 listed a total of 4,960 completed suicides among US youth aged 15 to 24 years of age in 1993. They quote a National Center for Health Statistics report. 2 The true numbers are probably a lot higher, because many deaths categorized as accidents are really suicides.

Statistics of gay and lesbian youth are hard to find.

  • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimated 3 that "as many as 30% of completed youth suicides each year" are performed by gays and lesbians. Unfortunately, many information sources have quoted the 30% as if it is an absolute figure. The Department indicates that it is 30% or fewer. If we assume that the 30% figure is valid and that it is constant across the age range of 15 to 24 years, then approximately 1,488 suicides per year are committed by homosexual youth. If we assume that gays comprise 5% of the total number of youth, then the 1,488 suicides represent an excess of 1240 suicides related to their sexual orientation.
  • The Guardian, an English newspaper reported on a study by Dr Ian Rivers, a senior lecturer in social psychology at York, St John College in England. He suggests that there could be as many as 46,000 young people being bullied for their real or perceived sexual orientation in British secondary schools. Any child who does not conform to the norms current in their school can find themselves described as gay or lesbian, regardless of whether they are or not. So the boy who is not keen on football can be targeted, as can the girl who is not interested in make-up. Rivers has looked at the effects of homophobic bullying on young gays and lesbians and found that more than half considered suicide because of aggression at school, and that 40% of that group had actually tried to kill themselves; three-quarters of these had tried to kill themselves more than once. 5

Cause of gay/lesbian suicides, according to religious conservatives:

Religious conservative generally agree that suicides among youth with a homosexual orientation are elevated. However, they attribute it to two main causes:

  • Despair by homosexual youth when they are told that they are trapped forever in the homosexual "lifestyle."
  • Depression and suicidal ideation brought about by homosexual behavior itself which most religious conservatives consider to be disordered, a mental illness, and/or an addiction.

Concerning feelings of being trapped:

  • Melissa Fryrear, a gender issues analyst for the Fundamentalist Christian activist group Focus on the Family identifies herself as a former lesbian. She said:
    "From my vantage point the people that I found were suicidal are those who thought they were trapped in homosexuality, who thought they had to live homosexually. And so they actually had been filled with hope when we shared with them that, 'No, you can come out of this'."
  • Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International, a conservative Christian ministry to gays and lesbians said:
    "That was my experience. I was told there was only one option for me: 'You have to accept who you are and there is no other way.' And for me, as a teenager when I was coming out of homosexuality 15 years ago, that made me want to die. (It wasn't) until I found that there was an alternative, that there was something for me, for someone who was pursuing what I was pursuing, that caused me to want to live."

The term "coming out of homosexuality" as used by religious and social conservatives, is often interpreted as changing one's sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. In practice, it exclusively or almost exclusively means to adopt a celibate lifestyle and live the remainder of their life without any possibility of an intimate partner.

There is much anecdotal evidence that as long as gays and lesbians believe that change is possible, many of them desperately seek reparative and other therapies in an attempt to change their sexual orientation.  many gays and lesbians experience an improvement in their mental health after realizing that their homosexual orientation was caused by situations beyond their control and is probably fixed without any possibility of change.

Cause of suicides according to religious liberals, therapists, etc:

On the other hand, most gays, lesbians, therapists, religious liberals and mental health professionals believe that many of the individuals who commit suicide are motivated to end their life by their hatred of themselves as gays and lesbians. This, in turn, is derived from the hatred of homosexuals and homosexuality which permeates society and which they internalized during their childhood.

Considering that:

  • Homophobia is largely based on religious beliefs which among Christians are derived from about 6 quotations from the Bible.
  • Three out of four Americans identify themselves as Christians
  • Most Christian churches have actively taught hatred of homosexuality for decades.
  • Conservative Christian churches are currently leading the fight to:
    • Prevent gays and lesbians from enjoying rights and protections equal to the general population,
    • Prohibit marriages for loving, committed same-sex couples,
    • Oppose adoption by gay or lesbian adults, and
    • Keep accurate information on sexual orientation out of the public schools.

we estimate that Christian churches are responsible for at least 40% of the homophobia in the United States.

Another way of looking at this is to imagine what would happen to the acceptance of homosexuality in North American culture if all religious institutions were as active in promoting equal rights and acceptance of gays and lesbians as the Unitarian Universalist Association and United Church of Christ have been for many years. After a few decades, children would no longer grow up hating homosexuals. After puberty, when a minority of children became aware of their own homosexual or bisexual orientation, they would accept it as a normal expression of human sexuality. They would be far less liable to commit suicide to avoid a life of same-sex orientation.

Assuming that external and internal homophobia is a main cause of suicide, we believe that churches can be conservatively assigned indirect responsibility for about 496 youth gay/lesbian suicides per year. This rate is greater than the witch genocide rate in Western Europe during the witch burning times in the late Middle Ages and Rennaisance.

If we include:

  • suicides by homosexuals over the age of 24,
  • youth suicides which are reported as accidents,
  • the additional deaths from STDs due to lack of sex-education in the schools (which is often kept out by influence by religious groups and the federal government)

then the churches' responsibility is much greater.

Gay positive religious groups:

Not all denominations share an equal portion of this responsibility. Some mainline, liberal, and progressive Christian groups are accepting homosexuality as an alternative, normal and natural sexual expression for a minority of adults. But to our knowledge, the United Church of Christ in the U.S. and United Church of Canada in Canada are the only large Christian denominations that:

  • accept gays and lesbians (both celibate and involved in committed relationships) as church members
  • accept gays and lesbians for ordination
  • promote a homosexual-positive educational program in their churches
  • advocate in their behalf against discrimination and persecution, and
  • provide a religious ritual recognizing their unions or marriages.

These teachings are found also among:

  • Non-Christian groups, including congregations associated with the Unitarian Universalist Association in the U.S. and the Canadian Unitarian Council in Canada.
  • Congregations of the United Methodist Church who have joined the Reconciling Ministries Network, It is: "a national grassroots organization that exists to enable full participation of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in the life of the United Methodist Church, both in policy and practice." 2
  • Other mainline and liberal Christian denominations who identify themselves as welcoming congregations. More information
  • A course by Multifaith Works called "Challenging Myself, Deepening My Faith: A curriculum challenging faith-based homophobia." This is "... a collection of four lesson plans addressing attitudes toward homosexuality in different faith communities. The lesson plans are written from the Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist traditions, as well as a session appropriate for any faith tradition. The curriculum is accompanied by a four-segment video focusing on personal stories. Cost is $20 for the curriculum and video." 3

Until all denominations change their policies to match that of the United Churches, they will remain part of the problem and not part of the solution. And they will all share some responsibility in these suicides.

References used:

  1. Quotation extracted from The Reconciling Ministries Network's home page at http://rmnetwork.org
  2. Reconciling Ministries Network has a home page at http://rmnetwork.org
  3. The lesson plans can be ordered from Multifaith Works at: http://multifaith.org/

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Copyright © 1997 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2008-AUG-01
Author: B.A. Robinson

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