Dear Friend Raising Your Child(ren) in the Christian Faith:
A friend sent me an article today written by James Clementi, the older brother of Tyler Clementi. Tyler is the Rutgers student who committed suicide in September 2010 after his roommate used a webcam to spy on him. It moved me that poor James had to say things to his little brother that he would never get to say to him in person. I thought of a time in junior high when I thought I might commit suicide. I’d just started to grow uncomfortable with the feelings I was having for boys, I was unpopular and lonely at school, and I faced rejection when I asked girls to “go out” with me (really, where would we go anyway, the mall? “MOM, can you take me to the mall?” Well, yes, I guess that’s what the cool kids did do. Seems silly now.)
I remember starting to pen suicide notes in Study Hall. I imagined leaving them unsigned and causing a stir, or I’d imagine actually killing myself at home, and I’d imagine how bad the kids who picked on me at school would feel, or how bad the girls would feel that they’d said “let’s just be friends” when I asked them out. I had an active imagination. But what if I’d had the courage to follow through? What if I hadn’t seen enough promise in choir, or wanted to get to high school so I could join the drama club? I had so much to look forward to, and so much I never dreamed I’d experience (I mean, I’m only 34 and I think I’ve had some pretty rich life experiences already!) There are kids out there closer to the brink than I was, and they’re writing their practice suicide notes, ripping them up and throwing them in the trash like I was. I started thinking about what it would have helped me to hear from my parents or the adults in my life when I was going through that tough time (I know you all went through your own tough times, but I only know a few people who went through it as a gay kid. And most of them aren’t the ones now raising children.) Statistically speaking, YOUR KID MAY BE GAY, no matter how Christian you raise them, or how often you go to church, or how much they believe every bit of the faith in which you raised them! And gay or not, your kid may face bullying at school, and you may never know! You’re going to be the last person they want to tell. So since an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure: I think these are the three things you should be teaching your kids early and often.
1. YOU ARE ENOUGH. The bullying I endured in middle school and high school was tame by comparison to what I know some kids have faced. Nobody hit me or threw me in the trash. But I was a sensitive kid, and my response to being called “girly-mon” or kids speaking to me with “gay” inflection or limp wrists (really, the kids at my junior high knew before I did) was to become an over-achiever. I played soccer (ok, not well,) acted in the school plays (pretty well, thank you,) played in the band, sang in the choir, became president of the student body, led Bible studies…you get the picture. I fought tooth and nail to earn the respect of my peers, but I was always lonely and isolated because I was carrying a secret I felt I couldn’t tell anyone. I learned to “act” like the proud kid, the confident guy, and to this day, people tell me that their first impression of me is that of someone who has it all together, who isn’t vulnerable. It wasn’t until the spring of 2010, in an acting class with Robert Cornelius at Victory Gardens that this finally resonated with me. Robert said to me, in front of the class, “David, you’re going to be a great actor when you finally realize that you are enough. You don’t need to show us the emotion, scrunch your nose, make a face, act out the character. David Baldwin is interesting enough.” It started to make so much sense in so many areas of my life. Your true friends don’t care if you had a perfect GPA, make tons of money, or have six pack abs. It’s enough just to be you. By all means, tell your kids how proud you are of them for getting an A in English, for doing a great job in the school play, for winning the 100-yard dash. But PLEASE, tell them every day that even if they never accomplish another thing, you love them just for being them. That they are enough.
2. NO MATTER WHAT, I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU. This is a message you think you may be sending to your kids without saying it, but as teen suicide after teen suicide hits the news, I see that kids are not getting the message. I didn’t get the message. When I first came out to my parents, it was something like: “I’m attracted to men. I’ve had some same-sex experiences. I believe this is wrong. I’m going to fight it. I’m not gay, I’m just struggling with sin, and I will conquer this.” I felt the need to qualify what I was telling them with “I’ll get better. I’ll try harder.” I viewed telling my parents I was gay as the ultimate affront to their parenting, and I viewed it as a failure of my own spirituality and walk with God, which was such a huge part of how they raised me. I knew they would take it hard, wondering what they could’ve done differently. Nobody wants to disappoint their parents. Honestly, nobody really wants to talk to their parents about sex, or about any perceived failure, but as Christians, I believe sometimes we talk so poorly about some of the others in our churches (“Can you believe so-and-so’s daughter got pregnant? So sad.” “The Joneses have stopped coming to church. I think they’re really backsliding.”) that the last thing we Christian kids want to do is go to our parents and admit our failures. Your kids WILL disappoint you. But please, don’t ever let them feel that by coming to you with news that will disappoint you, they can ever diminish the love you have for them one bit. The first time I really felt this kind of unconditional love was actually from my best friend Louis. I took him for a drive, and I started the conversation where I was going to come out to him as gay. He interrupted me (I think he saw what was coming) and told me “David, before you say anything, I want you to know that I love you. And nothing you can tell me right now, nothing, could change that. I want you to know that.” And I got the message.
3. IT’S OK TO TALK TO SOMEONE OTHER THAN GOD. I struggled with my self-esteem and depression from a very early age. I was so shy in elementary school. I have a sunken chest and bad winter skin problems that made me hate changing for gym class or playing games of shirts and skins (I’d wear my gym clothes under my clothes on gym days, race to be the first one in the locker room, rip off the school clothes, and be on the bleachers before the rest of the boys got there.) I was never naturally skinny or good at sports or popular. But I viewed my inability to love myself as a lack of faith. If I just trusted more in God’s plan, I told myself, I’d see that the fact that he loved me enough to send his son to die means that I have great worth and I am important and beautiful and I should just know that! I prayed so hard for best friends I could talk about every thing with, and I prayed for the strange feelings I had about other boys to go away, but in my personal experience, you can’t “Pray Away the Gay!” Since I didn’t want to go to my parents, I didn’t know where to turn. I think in high school, our youth pastor gave me a book about finding self-esteem in God, knowing that you’re made in his image. He was always complimenting my clothes (that I bought with my paper route money, thank you) and building me up, and I’m sure he must have sensed that my over-achiever veneer was covering some massive insecurities. But I didn’t even feel comfortable talking to him, admitting my problems. It wasn’t until I was in college, really, that I even considered seeing a professional counselor. Turns out it’s amazing to have an unbiased person, who you don’t have to impress, sit in a room and give you their undivided attention, listen to your problems, and talk through them with you without any judgment. I’ve had several counselors/psychologists/shrinks since then, and I’m completely open with everyone about that fact. I think everyone should talk through their issues with a professional! Even if you don’t take your kid to a shrink at age 6 (yes, that may be excessive,) send the message that there are other adults in their lives that they can talk to. Foster good relationships with trusted aunts and uncles, and give your kids time to interact and build trust with them. They may be the person your kid calls the night he’s thinking about jumping off a bridge. And that could save his life.
Gay is in parentheses in the title of this post because although, yes, some of your kids will turn out to be gay, you can insert any word in this place that is something that makes kids feel different. TALL, SHORT, LESBIAN, GENIUS, FAT, ACNE-CURSED… I could go on. In junior high and high school, we all just want to fit in, to be like everyone else, and feeling different is a major source of stress. So whether your kid will be gay or the star of the football team, or both, they need to hear these things from you.