16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
The Kids the UUs Can Help
Presenter:Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date:Sun, 12/05/2010
The seeds for what has turned out to be this service were planted many months ago when I received a pamphlet from the Rainbow Youth Alliance, a youth group for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (or LGBT) youth of our area, held in the UU church in Rockville. They were looking to revamp, and needed funds. The pamphlet reminded me how important these sorts of groups can be, a real lifeline to the youth of our neighborhoods here in Montgomery County – youth who might not otherwise have a safe place to be themselves. I was happy to find out that one of our congregations was already doing this work in our area.
So I started up a conversation with Patty to get more information, with the idea that we could have the RYA as our charity of the month one of these months. Several months ago we were able to schedule that for today, and around the same time I needed to decide what the content of my December services were going to be. Ah well, I decided…why not have the whole service on December 5th be about LGBT youth and how we UUs might be able to help them? I wrote up a title and a blurb for the website in the usual way, contacted Patty to warn her we were going “full service” and double check that she would be coming, and then I figured I was pretty much done for the time being.
That was one week before Tyler Clementi killed himself at Rutgers University.
You remember about Tyler from the news, I’m sure. An 18 year old freshman, Tyler was a quiet man who was, by all accounts, exceptionally good at playing the music that he came to Rutgers to study. This fall at Rutgers, Tyler did what freshmen at colleges throughout time and throughout the country have always done – he brought a romantic partner back to his dorm room while his roommate was out. In Tyler’s case, however, the person he brought back to his room was a guy, and in Tyler’s case, his roommate both found that somehow funny and also had the computer equipment necessary to film Tyler and his friend and broadcast what he filmed on the internet. After a couple of rounds of this, including an invitation to a “live stream” performance, Tyler discovered what had happened, and the next thing anyone knew he had posted a good bye note on his Facebook page and jumped off the George Washington Bridge. It took several days to find his body in the Hudson River.
Tyler wasn’t the only suicide that month. This fall saw a streak of teenage suicides from children and youth who were bullied into thinking that their life had nothing more to offer them, and so they ended it. Kids who hung themselves and shot themselves. Kids whose parents didn’t know they were being bullied at all, and kids whose parents didn’t know it was quite that bad. Kids who obviously thought they didn’t have anywhere to turn. Kids who were gay, or who were thought to be gay, or who were just called gay. Almost as if gayness, homosexuality, were some sort of crime punishable again and again, in all sorts of ways big and small, and then again punishable with death, except that the executioner and the executed are one and the same.
These stories overwhelm me. I often do research for my sermons, but I have never had all the research I did cause me to burst into tears again and again and again. Even when I was weeks away from writing a word, I found myself emotionally overcome each day from hearing these stories and feeling such a strong sense of loss and ridiculous, engulfing waste.
There were three levels at which these suicides affected me.
I think the first way in which I was affected was as a mother, and how I feel as a mother about youth bullying and suicide, no matter what the reason for the targeting may be. Because the idea of any child being harassed and abused, day after day, living in fear and shame that they can’t escape, makes me sick to my stomach. I hate the idea that my child, that any child, might be living this sort of a life right in front of the rest of us, and no one makes it stop. That’s the mom part.
Secondly, as an adult who went to high school myself, I hate the idea that a youth’s life can be so limited and telescoped that they could possibly think this is the way it’s going to be for the rest of their lives, and there is no way out but death by their own hand. It’s horrible, it’s utterly horrible and the most horrible part of it all is that IT IS SUCH A WASTE.
It is such a waste especially because those of us on the other side of high school know what a ridiculously short and insignificant period of time high school turns out to be in the grand scheme of one’s life. At the time one is in the midst of middle school or high school, nothing is bigger or more all-encompassing, but believe me, those years pass on by and life afterwards looks nothing like it. Anything is possible after high school. It kills me to know that there are so many of our kids who don’t know that, when it is something that every single adult knows for sure.
There is a light and a life for you at the other end guaranteed, and ending it all because of anything that happens at school is a horrible choice. Horrible for you, horrible for everyone around you who loves you and raised you, horrible for the world who has lost you. It is literally like killing yourself in March because it’s snowy out. Spring is RIGHT THERE, if only you would wait.
So that’s the mom in me talking, and the adult in me talking. But it is not yet the Unitarian Universalist in me talking. The UU angle is what comes next, and is why this is a sermon topic and not just a conversation for coffee hour or Coming of Age class, or out in the parking lot.
The truth is that Tyler and those other lost kids weren’t being bullied just because, for no reason at all. Tyler and those other kids thought their life wasn’t worth living because they were gay, or thought to be gay, or were told by others that they were gay.
This is the third level of this whole situation that makes me want to tear out my hair with teary frustration, because, again, I feel like I, that we, are living in the light that these kids so desperately need to know about, to see.
Here we all are, we UUs, living lives that integrate straight and gay and questioning, and we do it today. Here we are right now, giving each other the time and the space to figure all those things out. And we, those of us lucky UUs, gay or straight or figuring it out, have jobs and friends and families and people who love us and lives that can largely be free of fear and, most of all, a place, THIS place, to come where we are told we are okay just the way we are, even when we don’t always see that for ourselves.
That’s part of what is so heart wrenching, so frustratingly tragic, about these suicides, about this bullying. Because who knows how much of a difference Unitarian Universalism could have made in these lives, the lives of the kids who killed themselves, the life of Tyler Clementi? Who knows what this sort of Unitarian Universalist community could have provided those suffering kids in terms of support, in terms of encouragement, in terms of showing a better way, an easier future?
I think we could have been significant for Tyler and the other kids. I think we could have been a life saver, many times over.
An internet campaign has arisen in recent months. It’s called “It Gets Better,” – you can find it at itgetsbetter.org - and is sponsored by The Trevor Project, a 24 hour suicide prevention hotline for LGBT youth. The It Gets Better campaign started as a series of videos made by famous gay adults telling troubled gay youth that their lives won’t always be so hard, that their lives have value and worth, and that they have many, many things to look forward to – acceptance, employment, romance, families – if only they’ll stick it out and grow up.
The main message of the videos is that there is a community out there that cares, a whole world that is waiting for them to graduate from high school, to move out of their disapproving towns, to maybe get some needed distance from condemning families. The videos are meant to be Spring during the snowstorm, the light at the end of the tunnel, a voice in what may be a very very dark world telling youth exactly what I wanted to tell Tyler and those other kids who are lost to us – that if they stick it out and wait, they’ll learn that their pain will end up being temporary, that their lives will change. But only if they are brave enough to live.
The videos started out with selected famous gay adults, but quickly morphed into all sorts of famous people, gay and straight, from all walks of life, making videos to post online to tell gay kids that things were going to get better for them. The cast of Glee made videos. The guy who plays Harry Potter made a video. President Obama made a video. The highest ranking openly gay man in the federal government in history made a video. Pixar studios made a video. There are now thousands of these videos and more every day. And more and more of the videos include the testimony of highly successful gay adults who had been bullied as kids and who had considered suicide themselves, but who waited it out instead, and wanted to add their very personal testimony to the chorus of support for our gay youth. A councilman named Joel Burns in Fort Worth, Texas even spent 12 minutes of city council time offering testimony about his own experiences growing up as a bullied gay youth, and saying, again and again, It Gets Better. I promise you, I never knew it at the time, but it gets better. It was his story we heard in our reading this morning.
These videos made me cry more, and I swear, I just am not much of a crier. My God, I hope there are kids who are watching these out there. I hope it does some good. This is the community we need, the supportive secondary community who stands behind the target of violence to reassure them and tells the bully that what they are doing is not okay and not going to continue.
But it was the Unitarian Universalist videos that humbled me the most.
Our people made videos too – everyone from the youth group out at our Berkeley congregation to our UUA home office’s Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministries to our own local congregations. Lots of UU voices joining in the It Gets Better chorus for justice and support and peace, just like you’d hope and expect that they would. Except for one thing.
Many of these UUs weren’t going to stop with the slogan It Gets Better, as true as that is. The UU congregations, God bless them, remembered that it is in our congregations where things are better RIGHT NOW.
And why should our beleaguered and traumatized youth have to wait for a sunnier future, even one they might now be convinced is there, when there is Unitarian Universalism in the world for every gay youth who needs us? Why should any gay child or teen wonder if they’ll ever find a compassionate community, if they’ll ever be accepted just as they are, when we UUs are around every corner of this nation and certainly available from every computer?
We Unitarian Universalists are the answer that these youth need right now. Sure, we can all work on being better advocates and standing up when we see injustice in our schools and communities. We need to practice doing that all the time. On the other hand, however, we UUs are more than ready and able to support gay youth RIGHT NOW. Our congregations demonstrate every day that gay people can live successful, healthy and happy lives in communities that love and support them. We UUs demonstrate every day that gay folks have the same opportunities for a peaceful and fair life that straight folks do. In our congregations, we know that LGBT families walk in the light of God just the same as straight families do. We, Unitarian Universalists, are already a living embodiment of the hope that the It Gets Better series is trying to create for these kids’ futures. We are already here. It can already be better, right now, if we UUs can find these kids who need us so desperately and reach out to them.
In a minute we’ll hear about one way we can reach out to the LGBT youth in our own community when we take the offering for the Rainbow Youth Alliance at the UU Church in Rockville. Before we hear from Patty, however, I need to take a few moments to say a couple of really important things.
If you are a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender youth, or think there’s a chance you might be, you are welcome here in this church as long as you choose to be here. If you move away from the area, remember that UU churches are always around somewhere – there’s even an internet church – and if you need us please find us. Tell your friends about us, too.
To the UUs in the room, which I dare say is all of you: If you know someone who is being bullied or attacked or harassed for being gay – or for really any reason – then it is your job to do something. You can reach out to the target. You can protest to the bully. You can go to someone who can help. But UUs are not allowed to just stand by. That is not who we are.
To parents: Don’t let your kids be bullied at school. It’s not a normal part of growing up and shouldn’t be brushed aside. The consequences are too desperate. If your child comes to you and tells you he or she is bullied, then stop at nothing to help them.
To anyone who is LGBT and considering harming themselves or knows of someone who is considering suicide: Please Wait. Make a call first. You can call me, day or night. And, you can call the 24 hour suicide prevention hotline set up by the Trevor Project – 1-866-4-U-TREVOR. Our phone numbers are in the order of service today.
Before I invite Patty forward, I’d like it if you could join me in the responsive reading that the UU Church of Annapolis wrote as a part of their It Gets Better video.
To each of you who are bullied, harassed, or fear for your safety
I’d like to now invite Patty Walker up to tell us about her work with the Rainbow Youth Alliance at the UU Church of Rockville.