By Jason Wester
As an instructor at a two-year college, one of my most important duties is to serve as an adviser to students. Most of the time, that involves giving students advice about what courses to take, making sure they are making progress toward graduation, and helping them decide which college or university is the best fit when it comes time to transfer, but every so often a student will stop by my office for advice that has little to do with academics.
College freshmen live life in almost continual upheaval as they adjust to college life and the independence it brings. They struggle with homesickness, with fitting in, with relationships, with money problems, with juggling their numerous responsibilities, and sometimes a student will stop by just looking for someone to listen and tell them things will be OK. I’m a writing teacher, not a psychologist, so in some of those situations the best I can do is listen and then, if the problem warrants it, refer students to the college’s counselors.
I can’t forget a former student of mine, I’ll call him James (name changed to protect his identity), who stopped by one morning, obviously quite nervous, and asked me if I could give him some advice. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, Dr. Wester, you seem like a fair-minded professor, so I want to go out on a limb and talk to you about a problem I’m having. He said, Dr. Wester, I am gay, and my parents hate me.
He went on to explain that he had known he was gay since his early teens, a fact that he hid. In college, he met someone much like himself, and they started a relationship. In small-town Mississippi, it didn’t take long for the word to make its way to his parents, who confronted him about it. It was only when pressed that he admitted to them that he was gay.
But rather than comfort James and assure him that they loved him, they immediately hauled him to church and turned him over to the pastor there. The pastor, playing the role of psychologist, tried to “pray away the gay.” In many sessions with this preacher, the goal was, as James recounted, to turn him into a heterosexual. It wasn’t working, though, and James felt worse than ever.
Experts are unanimous that such is not only highly unethical, but injurious. Like any teenager, ever yearning to fit in, gay teenagers have it particularly difficult in a culture that seeks, at seemingly every turn, to dehumanize them with nasty epithets that cannot be written here. They are bullied relentlessly. Gay teenagers are told, implicitly and explicitly, that something is wrong with them, that they are not normal.
Little wonder, then, that homosexual teens and young adults have a particularly high rate of suicide. Unable to fit in, to be “normal,” many gay teens opt to end their lives rather than face the social shunning that can come from their peers, their parents, and their preachers.
Psychologists are unified on this point: Gay people are, in fact, normal. According to the American Psychological Association, the problem with being gay is the tremendous discrimination gay people face from the heterosexual majority. Knowing that, I told James that there was nothing wrong with him. Further, I told him that his pastor was in no way qualified to counsel him about it, and I referred him to one of the college’s licensed counselors. Aside from that, there was little else I could do for James.
I don’t know if he kept that appointment, and I don’t know what happened to him. Not long after our talk, I saw that James has withdrawn from school, and I was saddened. He was among the brightest students I had that semester.
I was raised Christian, and the Christ I grew up with was love personified. Jesus loves and loves and loves. He welcomes all, everyone, into his arms. He takes all of us exactly as we are. Sinners are welcome. The downtrodden, the beatendown, the bullied: Jesus’ arms are wide open.
Unfortunately, many Christians seem to have forgotten that. Too many Christians seem far more concerned with winning the Culture War than loving their fellow men and women. Far, far too many Christians are ready and willing to cast the first stone. And that is a shame.
Gay people are people, and they deserve respect and love from the very people whose core tenets command them to offer just that. In a culture in which hatred and violence seem to permeate every corner, in which shootings, murder and violence are everyday fare, more love and respect and compassion is exactly what we need.
Most of us, at one time or another, have felt different. Many of us have experienced bullying. Many of us have struggled to fit in. It is time for some empathy. It is time to walk a mile in James’ shoes and experience the hurt and sadness that he felt when he was rejected by his family, by his church and his peers for nothing other than being exactly who he is.
Jason M. Wester, Ph.D., is a Tupelo resident who teaches at Northwest Mississippi Community College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.