What do we choose to hide? Learning from LGBT youth work | Matthew Willmott [ANVIL vol 34 issue 2]

Working with LGBT young people

Portrait photo of the author
Matthew Willmott is a youth worker and co-founder of Q Space. He is studying with CMS and part of Frontier Youth Trust. Matt lives part-time on a canal boat, the rest of the time in a former hotel undergoing renovation.

I have been involved in youth work and mission with young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) for over six years. I currently run Q Space, a group for LGBT young people in Northampton. While the church gets itself in a mess about anything LGBT, you might ask why dedicated youth groups are needed, or what difference they can make. You might even ask if such groups should even exist. Whatever your stance on people that are LGBT, the first fact is: we exist, we know we are different, and the world we live in favours straight people.

We call that heteronormative. In fact, being anything other than cisgender (gender matching that assigned at birth) and straight puts you in a place where people may not accept you for who you are. For a young person this means that at the time when you are starting to find your place in the world, the adult community often starts to reject you. The UK has laws that should protect the lives of LGBT people, especially the lives of young people. But misinformation, fear of getting things wrong, and disagreeing for religious reasons mean things that should be protected are often not.

As young LGBT people start to accept themselves and “come out” to others, they often face multiple problems. Some of the most common are schools that won’t accept a name change, churches that remove responsibilities and make attending uncomfortable (even impossible), and parents who struggle with the shame of having a child who does not live up to normal expectations.

LGBT youth clubs give young people a place to explore who they are in safety. Our club is a lot of fun. We go on trips, have themed nights and do most of the things you would expect most youth groups to do. But here young people can have a different name or different pronoun (he, she or they) from what they use everywhere else. They can talk about being attracted to people of the same gender, both genders or regardless of gender. These may sound like small things, but during a day how many times is your name used? Or your pronoun used to refer to you? How many conversations involve saying how good-looking a person is? These simple things can end up outing people as LGBT.

All my LGBT youth work has been in secular settings outside the church. But I am open about being a person of faith, who is also gay. This means that young people share about their church experiences and how bad experiences paint a bad picture of who God is. I try to share what I know of God, a God I know and experience daily, a God of love who made us all unique in their image. LGBT people are a gift to the church; we have much to offer and have walked a path that means we build skills that can be used to help the church.

Coming out

Coming out is a significant moment in the life of every LGBT person, and it’s an experience unique to the LGBT community. I think there is lots the church could learn from this culture. In her book Queer Virtue, Elizabeth Edman writes,

Decades ago people who identified as gay began to realize that the single factor that most affected how someone felt about “homosexuality” was whether that person knew someone who was openly gay. [1]

Are you someone who has had their opinion of sexuality changed by knowing someone who is “out”? Do you think Edman is right? My personal experience is that being out as a gay man changes others' opinions on what sexuality is. The changing of other people’s attitudes hasn’t always been immediate, and at times has taken months or years, but the impact of knowing someone LGBT, and making the topic a personal one, has a lasting effect.

What can pioneer youth ministry learn from this? Coming out as gay was a massive step in my life; it became the point when I needed to tell people that I felt fake and that I was hiding something important about who I was. How can I expect a meaningful interaction with anyone if I won’t share what is an important and integrated part of who I am? It’s got easier; sometimes I surprise myself how quickly I come out to people. In a heteronormative world it requires little or no bravery to speak of your husband/wife/partner. Many typical conversations involve sharing where you have been with a loved one: a trip to the shop, simply watching television. Coming out as straight is something most people do multiple times every day. As a person from the LGBT community, these conversations lead me to a moment of choice: to share who I am, use carefully chosen words to test the waters or stay hidden in the closet.

How often do we come out as Christian? Is this something we choose to share or hide? This is an important question because of the world we live in today and the way we view our faith. Pope Francis says,

People feel an overbearing need to guard their personal freedom, as though the task of evangelization was a dangerous poison rather than a joyful response to God’s love which summons us to mission and makes us fulfilled and productive. [2] 

Is sharing our faith something we consider a task, a separated state of mind we enter when we are doing God’s work? Or is it simply sharing that at the core of who we are is a person of faith? Is it a natural pouring out of what makes us whole?

I hope for the latter – but I fear the former. When we first meet young people from beyond the church, we tell them things that justify us as people, often in an unspoken hierarchy of importance. We tell them our job, location, partner, children, something unique, hobbies, projects. Talk of church or faith is often missing, unless it’s very tied up in to one of the other things. When we “come out” as Christian, sharing something core to us no matter the cost, we are saying we are people of faith. We want to express that our faith is an amazing journey of love, hope and purpose. Depending on the other person’s experience and worldview, they will make assumptions about us in the same way that LGBT people can be judged when they come out.

For many young people, this becomes a barrier to communication. One of the first assumptions people make, having only encountered Christians portrayed in the media, is that we are from the Christian right (conservative) or left (liberal). Others assume that coming out as Christian is a sign that we are preparing to negatively judge their lives and friends. Shane Claiborne, talking about homosexuality, says, “It should break our hearts that often we are known more for what we are against than what we are for, for who we have excluded than for who we have embraced.” [3]

How do we communicate that there is a God of love who cries at the injustice in the world and loves all their children? What does it mean to be Christian? Church has become a place of safety; we meet with our friends for tea and cake, to chat about the weather, from the comfort of our church halls. We are called to be part of and do God’s work. How did we miss this? How do we come out as Christian in our work with young people, but also come out as people who care about the world in the time that God has placed us in?

Authentic youth mission

LGBT people come out knowing that the world might not accept them and that they may be seen as unacceptable, unlovable, wrong and sick. But we make a choice to come out anyway, as this brings light to who we are. Edman reminds us that “coming out builds up the community, and the existence of that community provides support, encouragement, and balm to those who come out”. [4] If the West sees Christians as prejudicial and intolerant, Christians need to come out and live authentic lives of justice and peace, showing (over time) that Christianity is a faith of God’s love to the world.

In the Christian youth work world we come out as part of our evangelism: to proclaim the good news. The LGBT community shows us a different way. Edman, again, puts it beautifully: “You aren’t coming out to people in order to change them. Hopefully you are coming out because your life matters to you, and this other person matters to you.” [5]

To be honest about who we are is about love. As Christian youth workers, we can learn from the LGBT world that living open lives, publically stating that we are Christians, allowing time to change people’s minds about what being Christian means, reclaims credibility for being people of faith. There has to be a natural balance of including God in our conversations in the same way we talk about the friends and family that we love, care about and spend our time with. Talking about God should be within our normal conversations. As LGBT people normalise talking about their lives in a way that would out them, as Christians we need to talk about God in a way that outs us as Followers.

As a Gay Christian Youth Worker I find myself in places where coming out is often difficult but needed. From the time I spend within faith communities, I am aware that being LGBT means that my presence can be a challenge to people. Similarly, when I spend time in the LGBT community, it is my faith that causes people to feel threatened. To both communities I offer openness and honesty as a proclamation of the good news.

I have been involved in youth work in different forms for over 20 years. In every setting being authentic is something that has helped me build strong relationships with young people. For me this means choosing to be open about who I am. It would be easy to keep parts of myself closed off: to not let me be vulnerable to the young people I work with. My Boys’ Brigade group know that I am gay. This has led to some interesting conversations in contrast to their conservative backgrounds. My LGBT group know that I am a person of faith. The point isn’t what I tell a young person, but whether I allow them to see me. What can pioneer youth ministry learn from the LGBT experience of coming out? That choosing to reveal ourselves creates space for dialogue, openness and genuine mutuality.

Are there things you have chosen to hide from young people that limit your relationship?

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[1] Elizabeth M. Edman, Queer Virtue (Boston: Beacon Press, 2016), 123.
[2] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2013), paragraph 81.
[3] Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo, Red Letter Christianity: Living the Words of Jesus No Matter the Cost (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2012), 133.
[4] Edman, Queer Virtue, 124.
[5] Edman, Queer Virtue, 130.


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