Most parents love, nurture and protect their children. When they are unable to do so, something is very wrong.
As the founder and former executive director of the Ali Forney Center, the New York-based homeless shelter serving LGBTQ youth, I have spent 30 years working with homeless teens—young people whose parents failed to care for them and left them homeless in the streets. The reasons for their homelessness can be complicated, often exacerbated by extreme poverty and economic injustice.
But when parents neglect and abuse their children, there is usually some pathology involved—often addiction, mental illness or a combination of the two. Anyone who has worked with homeless LGBTQ youths knows another reason that parents all too frequently forsake their children: because of their religious beliefs.
In my decades of work serving homeless LGBTQ youths, I’ve been told many stories that haunt me. These are stories that, as a Catholic, make me deeply ashamed.
Like the young transgender woman who showed up at our drop-in center battered and bruised, her back covered in welts from being pummeled with a crucifix and three of her fingers broken from being smashed with a Bible. Her father, a deacon at a Roman Catholic parish in Queens, had put her through an “exorcism,” violently attempting to drive the “homosexual demons” from her.
Or the young gay man who confided how his parents told him “God is so disgusted with homosexuals that he vomits them out.” He’d lay awake at night terrified his religious parents would find out he was gay, wrestling nightly with suicidal thoughts.
Or the male-identified transgender teen repeatedly forced to stay awake through the night by his Catholic mother, who made him spend long hours copying out biblical verses condemning homosexuality.
Or the young man left orphaned by his mother’s death. His Catholic aunt and uncle took in his brother, but not him, because he was gay. They refused to “welcome sin” into their home.
Since our opening in 2002, more than 10,000 young people have sought refuge from the Ali Forney Center. Most have suffered family rejection due to their sexual orientations or gender identities. When we ask them why their families couldn’t accept them, a staggering amount, about 90 percent, tell us they were rejected due to their parents’ religious beliefs.
Certainly, not all religious parents reject their LGBTQ children. Most parents would never do such a terrible thing. (Pope Francis has told parents explicitly not to condemn children with “different sexual orientations.”) But there is no denying that enormous numbers do. I ask myself: How can belief in a God of love cause parents to torture, abuse and discard their children for being queer?
I think of Jesus, who unfailingly welcomed those who were outcast or considered morally unacceptable. Jesus taught his disciples about God who was like a loving parent, one who would never turn their back on their children. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus portrayed God as one who saw his broken child from a long way off, “felt deep feelings of love, and ran to his son and fell on his neck and covered him with kisses” (Lk. 15:20).
The heart of the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, is that God is tender, merciful and loving, and that we are called to receive and embody that love. So why are so many queer teens abused and disowned in Christ’s name?
The scope of the damage is horrific. LGBTQ youth homelessness is an epidemic. A 2021 report from The Trevor Project found that 28 percent of surveyed LGBTQ youth reported experiencing “homelessness or housing instability” during their lives. A 2017 report from the University of Chicago found that 40 percent of the homeless youth population in the United States identified as LGBTQ, and that LGBTQ youth were 120 percent more likely to experience homelessness.
Too many LGBTQ youth are driven to despair by their abject sufferings in the streets and the psychological ordeal of being rejected and unloved by their parents.
What is it that provokes the hostility of so many religious parents? While the church teaches that LGBTQ people “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity,” it also teaches that “homosexual acts” are “acts of grave depravity,” “intrinsically disordered” and can be approved “under no circumstances.”
If we hope to protect LGBTQ youths, we must recognize the damage done by such words. They tear at the bonds between religious parents and their queer children. They can make parents see their children as shameful, as ungodly.
As one who’s spent his life working to protect homeless LGBTQ youths, I am very grateful that Pope Francis has urged parents never to reject their LGBTQ children. Recently, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, S.J., the archbishop of Luxembourg, and Cardinal Robert W. McElroy, the bishop of San Diego, have both called for the catechism’s teachings on homosexuality to be reconsidered.
As a Christian, I believe that there is one thing that cannot change: God’s steadfast, unfailing love. Our life in faith is dynamic, not static. We are called to deepen our love and be transformed by the Spirit. This call is addressed to us as individuals and collectively to the People of God.
I hope and pray that we will awake to the terrible harm being done to homeless LGBTQ youths in God’s name, recognize it as shameful and repent of what causes that harm.
Given the extent to which the crisis of LGBTQ youth homelessness is caused by religious condemnation, I wish to ask the readers of Outreach during this time of Lenten renewal to consider a concrete act of repentance. There are many small organizations across the United States and around the world responding to the desperate plight of abandoned LGBTQ youth. I work with many of these groups, like the Ali Forney Center, helping them develop urgently needed programs to provide housing.
Please consider connecting to such a group and offering your help. They are all greatly in need of financial support and volunteers. This is a tangible way to show our abandoned LGBTQ youths some much-needed love.
Correction: The Catechism insists homosexual people are intrinsically disordered (with or without sexual acts). Homosexual acts are depraved, according to the Church.
Transgender people are supposedly defiantly acting out–based on some type of nebulous gender theory or ideology, which is news to them.
The church can continue to teach that each of us in made in God’s image, worthy of dignity, respect, and love; or it can continue to call homosexually people disordered, and transgender people defiant; but it can’t do both.
Our kid came out as transgender at age 25. As I began to look at science along with Church teaching to try to understand, I continued to run across ignorant, cruel, and hateful statements from those in the hierarchy, and eventually felt I had to choose between my kid or the Church. I chose my kid.
The Episcopal Church is fully welcoming to LBGTQIA+ people and families such as ours.
Pope Paul VI referred to the Anglican (Episcopal in US) tradition as the “beloved sister church.” He was right.