Rev. Emily C. Heath

It Gets Better

Filed By Rev. Emily C. Heath | October 01, 2010 8:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: bullying, it gets better, LGBT youth, schools

I spent a lot of time contemplating the topic for my first Bilerico post. billy-lucas.jpgI wanted to write something uplifting and light in order to introduce myself to you. But the rash of suicides of gay youth this week have weighed heavily on my heart, just as they have on many of yours. I find myself thinking about the young people who have died as I'm eating dinner, writing sermons, or doing laundry.

Tonight I was thinking about them as I prepared for a conference call with two friends whose marriage I am performing next week. I've been moved by the "It Gets Better" campaign launched by Dan Savage because of its combination of utter simplicity and undeniable hope. As I prepared to plan a joyous event with a happy and wonderful couple, I couldn't help thinking about the fact that at least four young men would never be able to experience a celebration like this.

Whether all four young men were gay or not is something we don't know. But we do know that all four were targeted because they were at least suspected to be gay. Bullies harassed them to the point where they believed life was no longer worth living. And, after enduring hell on earth, they made a choice to not be with us anymore.

Many of my LGBTQ friends faced bullying in their teens. It's something I've talked about as a pastor for a long time. But it's not something I have talked about in regards to my own experience until fairly recently. Bullying breaks down your spirit so much that you start to think you deserve it. You begin to feel guilty, like you're the one responsible for what is being done to you. You start to think that you should be ashamed that you were bullied.

I felt that way for years. I never spoke about it, even with those I trusted most. But a few months ago I was sitting with several friends and one was talking about how her daughter, a young woman who is the same age now as I was back then, was being bullied at school because people thought she was gay. For one of the first times in my life I talked about being bullied. It's amazing that now, almost twenty years after the fact, it irrationally still caused me incredible shame, embarrassment and pain to think about it.

In the ninth grade at Winter Park High School, I met my bullies. I was 14. I was undeniably butch. I was the sort of kid you look at and know that they are struggling to come out. It was a town with a strongly religious feeling in the South. Our fundamentalist school principal allowed anti-gay literature to be passed out in the hallways. It was no wonder that I was afraid of who I was deep inside.

When the two bullies started in one me, I didn't know what to do. I was so ashamed of being called "gay" or being asked, "Are you a dyke?" that I didn't want to tell anyone what was happening. One teacher heard the comments and did nothing. She was my only hope, and she stood by and let it continue. I was too scared to tell my parents or anyone else at the school what was happening.

I thought that my life was not worth living. Thank God I didn't do anything to end it, but I understand those who feel as though they have no choice. I look back now and understand how easily things could have gone the other way for me. I think about all that I would have missed had I decided to let the bullies claim a final victory.

Like Dan Savage says, it gets better. By the time I graduated from high school, the bullies were long gone. I was gradually coming to terms with being gay. I was surrounded by friends who, I came to find out, loved me no matter what.

When I got to college I came out. Despite the fact it was 1994 in the deep South, I found acceptance. My classmates elected me repeatedly to student government. I marched for LGBTQ rights and found a community of people just like me. I found nothing but support from my parents, love from my friends, and hope from people who believed in me. It was the exact opposite of all the fears I had had as a freshman in high school.

Today I'm a minister in the United Church of Christ, a denomination which fully welcomes LGBTQ people. I have friends who are truly my chosen family. I have opportunities that I could not have imagined as a 14 year old kid. And I have hope.

But when I hear about yet another gay, or suspected-to-be-gay, kid taking his or her own life, I remember what it was to be 14 and afraid. I remember what it was to think that my future would hold nothing but misery. I remember wondering whether life was worth living.

If you are a young LGBTQ person reading this and thinking about ending your life, please know it gets better. I promise. You will do things that you can't even imagine yet. You will meet amazing people. You will have incredible experiences. You will live in a world that is better than you can believe. You just have to choose to stick around, even though it might suck now.

If you're being bullied, talk to a teacher you trust. Talk to your parents if you can. (You might be surprised. In retrospect the one thing I wish I had done differently is to tell my parents what was happening. I know now that they would have done anything they could have to support me.) Find a gay-friendly clergy member who will support you. (The UCC, MCC or Episcopal Church are all good places to start.) Find a youth outreach program. Or call the Trevor Project at (866) 4-U-Trevor. Do anything except hurting yourself. The bullies do not get to erase your right to have a long, happy, exceptional life.

When I made that call to finalize the details of my friends' wedding tonight, they told me that they wanted to add one more piece. Like me, they were wrestling with celebrating in the midst of so much pain and loss in our community. They asked that at the beginning of the ceremony we add a moment of silence for all of those who have lost their lives because of homophobia and hate. Together we will remember all the people who should have been able to be there that day to see how great life can be if you can just make it through. I wish every LGBTQ youth in this country could get a chance to see a wedding like theirs, and to know that life can be that awesome.

Until that day, the ball is in our court. Those of us who have lived through bullying because of our sexual orientation or gender identity have a duty to speak up about what we endured. We have an obligation to work against bullying, and to support LGBTQ students who are being bullied. And, most of all, we have the privilege of being able to show youth that there is something better. Because it does get better.

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Nice to read your first post and welcome. I think it quite appropriate that you write about this because it is so important and obviously so timely. My heart also breaks for each of these kids and the many others in similar situations. Thank goodness I never had that type of situation growing up but I was made fun of for being very poor. It all hurts but I am glad that in these cases we are getting the word out that there are resources and that suicide is not the right answer!

"Today I'm a minister in the United Church of Christ, a denomination which fully welcomes LGBTQ people."

"Fully welcomes" isn't enough and only 7% of UCC is Open and Affirming. UCC needs to formally reject the teaching/belief that homosexuality is wrong. All Christians organizations need to do this.

Until we stop that Christian "teaching" we'll only have "it gets better" if you can survive. It shouldn't need to "get better." Religion grants permission to bigotry and bullying.

Get UCC to take a real courageous and valuable stand - formally declare that "homosexuality is NOT wrong" and stop the teaching. THAT will save lives. Open arms and rainbow flags may be nice for marketing, but they don't save lives - courage does.

Andrew, the UCC as a whole is "Open and Affirming" on the national level and does state that homosexuality is not wrong. The denomination as whole has also endorsed same-gender weddings. And, the denomination was the first mainline one to ordain and openly LGBTQ person, long before others, in the 1970's. Each local congregation votes on whether or not to take on the moniker of open and affirming. To read more, check out this page:

Only 742 UCC Churches are "Open and Affirming" churches - it is optional. That means about 4,200 are not.

UCC has not issued a definitive statement that "Homosexuality is not wrong." All the formal documents encourage "acceptance," and "tolerance."

As a Christian denomination they still believe the traditional Christian belief that homosexuality is wrong. In May of this year 7 UCC churches in Texas were asked if "homosexuality is wrong?" The answer was a very definitive "yes."

No Christian denomination has ever formally declared that "homosexuality is not wrong" and parted with that traditional teaching/belief. Rainbow Flags and "affirmation" are not enough. Even LGBT clergy isn't enough. If you want young people to stop being bullied into suicide by Christian-based bigotry, then ask UCC leadership to issue a formal statement, because as we speak the vast majority of UCC churches are teaching the lie that has defined and damaged LGBT people for too long.

It would take some real courage for a denomination to end that belief - ask yours.

Andrew, check out these statements on LGBTQ people, many of which explicitly affirm gays and lesbians and reject the condemnation of homosexuality. You may also wish to look at the curriculum the UCC has created for youth which affirms LGBTQ individuals, or our anti-bullying resources. Yes, not all UCC congregations are Open and Affirming. But, the national denomination has called on all congregations to engage in the Open and Affirming process. I believe we will see more ONA congregations in the coming years. As far as individual UCC members, we affirm that all members have the right to their own opinions. That's true even if they don't agree with the national UCC stance of affirmation of LGBTQ individuals.

I'd like to keep this a space to comment on what is happening with our youth, so if you have more questions about the UCC, I encourage you to email me.

NONE of those statements REJECT the traditional teaching/belief that homosexuality is wrong.

80% of UCC is NOT "Open and Affirming."

Affirming is acceptance. We don't need to be accepted, we need the teaching that we are wrong to end. That's starts by having UCC formally reject that - they have not done that. Even MCC hasn't done that but they are considering it.

Carlos Alberto | October 4, 2010 2:48 PM

Andrew, you are wrong. UCC not only declared that it is OK to be gay but defended Equal Marriage Rights for All. Take a look at the resolutions adopted by the UCC 25th Synod on July 4, 2005.

Please produce the formal Statement from UCC that rejects the traditional belief that homosexuality is wrong. Accepting or affirming is not rejecting that teaching/belief. In fact, more than 70% of UCC churches continue to teach that "homosexuality is wrong." That teaching leads to bigotry, bullying and the death of innocent LGBT youth.

UCC has NOT rejected the traditional teaching/belief that homosexuality is wrong.

Thank you, Emily, for this post. The marriage you are about to perform and the "It Gets Better" program both send messages of hope to young people. Acknowledging the sorrow in the midst of joy gives honor to the too-high price that is being paid yet today.

Andrew, check out the affirming-church directory link at It lists more than 6,000 gay-friendly churches and 45 denominations or sub-groups that welcome gay people. I believe all of them subscribe to a creed that can be summed up as "God created homosexuality -- it is not a sin nor a defect." Of course, we need more mainline churches to join in. To relate this to the thread topic, churches are a double-edged sword for young people. The bigoted ones are guilty of driving kids to suicide and need to atone. The affirming ones, however, can be powerful forces in helping kids find a refuge from homophobic schools and families.

You and the Reverend just don't get it. Of course there are some "welcoming" churches - it's good marketing in some areas. "Open and Affirming" is simply about acceptance or "tolerance." We don't need to be accepted or tolerated because there is nothing "wrong" with us.

All of the UCC statements are about acceptance and welcoming, they have never formally parted with the traditional Christian belief that homosexuality is "wrong," in fact more than 70% of UCC Churches continue to teach/believe that homosexuality is wrong.

This column is about "youth" Reverend, and until UCC and other Christian denominations reject that teaching/belief more innocent kids are going to die. "Welcoming" doesn't prevent those deaths - courage would. The majority of UCC churches continue to promote the beliefs that kill our your and sanction discrimination.

UCC and other Christians continue to sanction bigotry.

I am not sure if my comments are welcomed or even needed on this. Needless to say I doubt I can claim being neutral on this being a recently added member of the UCC myself. The only thing I can think to add in this thread is directed to Andrew W, that being, have you ever attended a United Church of Christ or talked to someone in the denomination personally? I know speaking for myself, and I live in a VERY Republican area of Michigan, I am accepted by most in the UCC Church I attend. I have NEVER heard anyone speak against any LGBT person or lifestyle. The minister at my particular church does not condemn anyone's lifestyle. ( I personally hate the term lifestyle as it seems to imply something you can take off or put on as you see fit - which I do not personally believe is the case ) About the closest thing I guess some might have issues with in connection with LGBT persons is the reservations about what I would term "Hedonistic" aspects of some but that is not just something unique to LGBT persons either. The church I attend by the way is not listed on the UCC website as Open and Accepting either but I have found it to be in my case.

Great first post!

The main reason it seems to "get better" that people are citing is that we get to choose who we associate with instead of being forced to interact with people we don't like. It's a mixed blessing - on some level we're not really solving the problem but letting it stagnate when we limit who we interact with.