THE recent death of a Manchester teenager, Lizzie Lowe, who was
struggling to reconcile her faith with her emerging sexuality was a
tragedy. As someone who is a member of the LGBT community, has
struggled with depression, and is a parish priest, I want to help
the wider Church to recognise the negative messages that we often
communicate to young LGBT people, and how we might - with grace,
courage, and faith - become good news for them.
Depression can affect anyone, young or old, gay or straight. But
a 2008 study in the journal Psychiatry suggested that LGBT
people were two to three times more likely to be affected by
depression than straight people. Queer people have higher rates of
substance abuse, and, especially with trans people (i.e. those who
don't identify with their birth gender), shocking suicide rates.
This has nothing to do with being LGBT in itself. It reflects the
extent to which our society privileges heterosexuality. Our
cultural iconography - from advertising, through to literature,
through to relationship expectations - constantly says: "Being
straight is normal." For example, straight couples don't get abuse
for holding hands in public. Outside the big cities, gay couples
often do. These cultural pressures to be straight are multiplied in
All teenagers face questions about identity. These are magnified
for those coming to terms with their sexual and gender identities.
As a young trans person, I contemplated suicide on many occasions,
and, despite outward success, had drug and alcohol issues through
university. For years, I found it almost impossible to "come out"
to anyone about who I was. Most of all, I was convinced that God
condemned me. I wanted to be close to God, but I couldn't see how
God could love someone like me.
One of the things the Church needs to hear is how often young
LGBT Christians feel low, confused, and condemned. The horror
stories - in which young people have been told they're sinful just
for being gay, or have been offered prayer to "save" them from
homosexuality, and so on - are more common than many dare suppose.
In part, this is because many in the Church act as if there were no
LGBT young Christians. The Church usually models itself as white,
middle-class, and heterosexual. It is unsurprising that many LGBT
people just can't "see" themselves as part of the Church, and
either leave, or never enter a church in the first place.
I'm sad when LGBT people give up on church, but sometimes it's
the safest thing to do. The spiritual and emotional pressures on
LGBT young Christians to conform are enormous. In fact, I'm often
amazed that so many queer people stay. It's both salutary and
depressing that the C of E - one of the instruments of God's grace,
I hope - has fewer inclusive policies on LGBT people than
Part of our problem as a Church is how we present ourselves to
the world; and, yes, how the media presents us. We need to
understand that, for most young people in the UK today, being gay
is just not seen as a problem, or an issue to be debated. The
Church is a "damaged brand" precisely because we're seen to be
prejudiced against LGBT people. And the worst of it is when our
LGBT Christian youth - already negotiating a youth culture that is
hostile to faith - internalise the message that faith and being
queer are incompatible.
It is relatively easy to outline the causes of the Church's
malaise, and to hope that those who retain affection for the Church
of England will understand. The C of E faces a toxic mix of issues:
well-intentioned bumbling, hand-wringing about how LGBT inclusion
in England will play in places such as Nigeria, and - in some cases
- an ostrich-like unwillingness to accept that society has
Yet, if we wish to retain any evangelistic credibility, we need
to move on, and be inclusive. I think there is hope. That hope lies
in part in emergent, non-denominational support networks such as
Diverse Church, which offers safe space to young LGBT Christians in
which to discern who they are and want to be. I also sense that
many Christian youth workers are becoming more inclusive in their
teaching about sexuality.
Substantive change in institutions and traditions often comes
from the margins. That should not surprise us. Jesus Christ himself
is our icon. He emerged from the margins to reveal God in startling
ways. If parish-church communities and individuals feel paralysed
in the face of global debates on sexuality, we can still be genuine
agents of love in our local contexts. This is about loving actual
people, and letting LGBT people be visible, as cherished lay and
We are called to be agents of God's unconditional love in the
places where we're set. If we are bold, who knows what might
change. If we are timid, we risk betraying the many young people
who feel pushed to the very edge of what they can stand, and
beyond; and who long for a truly affirming love.
Rachel Mann is priest-in-charge at St Nicholas, Burnage and
Resident Poet and Minor Canon at Manchester Cathedral.