Last Wednesday, ESPN awarded the 2015 Arthur Ashe Courage Award to Caitlyn Jenner, the former Bruce Jenner. Social media immediately buzzed with congratulations, well-wishes, celebrations, sadness, calls for boycotts, and outright disgust. Though Jenner was absent from my sermon, I imagine the reaction spilled over to quite a few churches this Sunday (and likely not in the happiest of lights). I’ve noticed that, no matter the side, the debate seems to have centered directly on the morality of transsexuality itself.
Jenner, however, brought up another topic, overshadowed by the larger debate despite a critical and immediate importance. Those who listened to or read Jenner’s acceptance speech in its entirety found a remark towards the end, equal parts fascinating and troubling: “If someone wanted to bully me, well, you know what? I was the MVP of the football team. That wasn’t going to be a problem. And the same thing goes tonight. If you want to call me names, make jokes, doubt my intentions, go ahead, because the reality is I can take it. But for the thousands of kids out there who are coming to terms with being true to who they are, they shouldn’t have to take it.”
Who are these “thousands of kids”? For starters, ask any teacher to relate what sexuality comments can be overheard at schools across this country (personal experience from my time as an educator informs this greatly). Our culture, from childhood to grave, is awash in sexual slurs. If anecdotes aren’t your ticket, let’s look at something more concrete. Admittedly, assessing attitudes can be a bit like nailing jello to a wall, but we can zoom in to find evidence of the problems Jenner referenced. The sad reality of youth homelessness finds something terrifying brewing in our streets in plain sight. Despite only 5-10% of youth estimated to be part of a sexual minority, approximately 40% of youth served by youth shelter programs identify within the LQBTQ umbrella. Of that population, 46% report having fled due to rejection of their sexuality, and 43% were specifically forced out due to their sexuality. Also, homeless LGBTQ youth are more likely to be the victim of a crime (including sexual victimization specifically), experience depression, and engage in survival sex (sex in exchange for food/shelter) than other homeless youth. If the stats are this bad, imagine and shudder at how widespread other forms of bullying and hatefulness is among both youth and adults. Alienation, depression, and suicide haunt their steps, consuming lives like ravenous animals.
Folks, this treatment is absolutely disgusting. I don’t care where you stand on LGBTQ identity; this should be unacceptable to all of us. How we the church in particular can sit by and allow, or even tragically endorse, this sinful mistreatment of others is absolutely beyond me. How does this look anything like the Jesus who reserved his firepower for the oppressors? The same Jesus who protected a woman from execution as a result of sexual sin before she said a thing. Who had a reputation for associating with the rejected. And even prayed for forgiveness on behalf of those killing him.
For those more progressive, congratulating a celebrity via social media isn’t enough. For those more conservative, simply not engaging in hateful behavior isn’t enough. And if you actually engage in such behavior, why in God’s name (and I do mean that) do you think it’s okay to ride someone’s life into the ground after Christ has set you free? The horrid treatment of so many made in God’s image requires strong, direct, public opposition. “Showing love” is much more than just not doing something evil. We the church should lead the way in involvement in youth homelessness alleviation, including those tossed in the streets by those claiming to live as Christ. We should be known for directly rebuking defaming, derogatory, and damaging behavior aimed at LGBTQ individuals. Is the threat of being seen as supporting LGBTQ identity so scary that we allow willfully destructive evil to flourish?
Jenner included an important view into the power dynamics of hate. Sports, especially the culture dominance of football and prominence as MVP, gave a young Jenner a place to belong, a protective support network, and the shield of a respected position. Why can’t people instead say, “If someone wanted to bully me, well, you know what? The church wouldn’t let them”? If we are badmouthed and lose our reputation in the process, so be it. Christ has already done the same thing for us.