Highly religious parents are significantly more likely than their less-religious counterparts to reject their children for being gay – a finding that social-service workers believe goes a long way toward explaining why LGBT people make up roughly five percent of the youth population overall, but an estimated 40 percent of the homeless-youth population. The Center for American Progress has reported that there are between 320,000 and 400,000 homeless LGBT youths in the United States.
Meanwhile, as societal advancements have made being gay less stigmatized and gay people more visible – and as the Internet now allows kids to reach beyond their circumscribed social groups for acceptance and support – the average coming-out age has dropped from post-college age in the 1990s to around 16 today, which means that more and more kids are coming out while they’re still economically reliant on their families.
The resulting flood of kids who end up on the street, kicked out by parents whose religious beliefs often make them feel compelled to cast out their own offspring (one study estimates that up to 40 percent of LGBT homeless youth leave home due to family rejection), has been called a “hidden epidemic.” Tragically, every step forward for the gay-rights movement creates a false hope of acceptance for certain youth, and therefore a swelling of the homeless-youth population.
Ever since Mother Maria came into my life, I’ve been trying to apply her way of thinking about vocation to my own. She was intensely aware of circumstances, and meeting the needs of the communities she found herself in, whether Russian émigrés or Jews in occupied France (or both). She implored Christians to comprehend their circumstances religiously, to consider their surroundings as much a part of providence as anything. Her iteration of this “Benedict Option” kerfuffle was pretty straightforward:
At the beginning of the nineteenth century there existed a whole pleiad of social utopians who dreamed of creating a new life on uninhabited islands, built on new and just laws coming in from outside the old and unjust tradition. They did not succeed in finding any uninhabited islands. These uninhabited islands have been given to us without our will in the very centers of world history. We have to set up our monarchies or republics, or communities, our hermitages, in Paris or New York.
In short, do ask God what He wills for you. But don’t forget to look around for the answer.
So I took Mother Maria’s advice, and I’m looking around. And here’s what I’ve seen in London night buses, in New York alleys, in DC parks, in Buenos Aires’ emerging spring, in my friends’ midnight confessions, in café conversations, in Rolling Stone: homelessness among young people of gender and sexual minorities, often if not usually at the hands of Christians.
So I’m trying to take Mother Maria’s advice again and comprehend that religiously. And when I do, here’s what I understand: this is a need in our communities that we have not just ignored but facilitated; this is a sin to be repented from; this is a void to be filled; these are neighbors to be served in love, and as I recall that is what Christians sign up for.
I think a lot of Christians find themselves where I have, feeling uncomfortable with any response to LGBTQ+ issues and so not responding at all. By that I mean I didn’t want to fall in with overt homophobia and active hatred as detailed in this article, of course, but I also didn’t know how to support causes like marriage equality in a faith that does not consider marriage the business of the state but a sacrament. I didn’t know how to be personally affirming in a meaningful way without also signing on to political activism because that is the only language I knew how to use.
That is pernicious. It is a crap set of priorities that puts my reputation first and not the wellbeing of my neighbor. It is also a bullshit dichotomy that sets up legal and political solidarity as a cookie-producing checked box while violence and poverty pour from the hands of people in my church toward a group of people I pretend aren’t also in my church. And it’s incredibly easy.
So when I comprehend this religiously, I realize several things. First, that socioeconomic inequality has to become a priority, that Christ’s first beatitude blessed the poor and not just because it made nice poetry. Second, that what the culture wars think of me literally could not matter less especially when people are being kicked out of their homes under the umbrella of my silence. And third, this is an evident wound that we as a Church and I as a member of it have the means to rectify.
I know we have the means to rectify it because I have seen Christian social services at work. It is historically one of the things we are generally good at. (Must be something that Jesus guy said.) But we are not always specifically good at it.
Here’s what I mean: in the United States at least, Christians are really bad at youth poverty. I’m thinking of all the “young professional” ministries I’ve seen, of all the “young adult” groups that are functionally bourgeois singles’ get-togethers, of all the honest-to-God Christian “networking." And so naturally we’re also bad at LGBTQ+ youth poverty, because we don’t comprehend that phrase religiously. LGBTQ+ gets put in the sexual-ethics box, youth gets put in the bourgeois-recruitment box, poverty gets put in the weekly-outreach box. When in fact we are actually dealing with an intersectional phenomenon, and one with an often Christian genesis.
Of course when we let those adjectives talk to each other it gets uncomfortable. I actually don’t think it’s always instinctive homophobia that keeps Christians out of this fight against LGBTQ+ youth homelessness. I think it’s fear of making a sexual-ethics declaration by being overt about crimes committed by Christians against people of gender and sexual minorities. I think it’s laziness in seeing LGBTQ+ issues as a "special concern” to be adopted by the political left. And I think, crucially, it’s a misunderstanding of poverty as something that happens in a void rather than incorporating the adjectives in LGBTQ+ youth homelessness as relevant factors.
Luckily, our discomfort is so thoroughly irrelevant that I can’t spend another paragraph acknowledging it. Look, Mother Maria knew her stuff. We have a need to comprehend our circumstances religiously, and they are thus: Christians are making small headway in personal, spiritual, legal, and political ways, but there is a pathetic void in socioeconomic LGBTQ+ equality and it’s hurting young people the most. So hey, enormous in-between Christians, who aren’t kicking kids out of their homes but aren’t fighting for same-sex marriage either: people need roofs over their heads. Let’s get them there.
I am inevitably preaching to the choir, literally in several cases, but LGBTQ+ youth homelessness as a pressing Christian cause is deeply important to me. Not only because it is so evidently morally pressing – we signed up for a life in loving service of neighbor, and here are some neighbors who need serving, vamos – but because it is so fixable.
When I say fixable I am expressing mostly an exasperated familiarity with good Christian work elsewhere that seems to be inexplicably not happening here. I am saying I have faith in our ability to take this on. I am not saying I have any idea how to do it.
For a while now this has been on my mind and in my heart, and now I’m laying it all out. We need to do this. I don’t want to just blog about it when Rolling Stone reminds me. I want to move forward. And I need help and guidance and education. People who know things: where do we go from here?