Religion can provide many with strength in a world characterised by both catastrophe and struggle. But through technology, materialism and social reform, the UK has become increasingly secular. In 2001, only 14.8 percent of Britons said they had no religion. By 2013, this had almost doubled to 25 percent. This wane comes from our youth – in 2013, only 12 percent of young people said they were governed by a religious leader.
We hear so much of disenfranchised young people clinging to the old towers of religions that claim to speak for them, factions that empower them to transpose their anger to hateful misdeeds. But they're not the only disenfranchised youths quaking within their flimsy notions of identity, looking for some support.
Young LGBT people have more publicity than ever. Same-sex marriage is now available to them from age 18. With this added attention, though, comes antagonism. As with most social reforms, two steps forward comes with one step back and, for every conversation surrounding the acknowledgement of homosexuality, there's another reminding us that so many still believe it's inherently wrong.
It's in everything from Maurice Mills, an honoured politician who believed a gay pride march caused Hurricane Katrina, to the suicide of Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old trans woman whose parents were so adamant that her gender identity was a mistake that they had sent her for "gay cure" therapy.
Stability and purpose – two imperative blocks of all major religions – are exactly what young LGBT people need. But with our dogmatic assumptions of religion, that logic doesn't fit. How can a young person be religious and LGBT? How can you reconcile two parts of your identity like that?
It all seems to depend on who wants you to be religious, and why.
Becca Scott is 23 and identifies as queer. Though raised Christian, she rejected the idea "at a young age" and her mum wasn't too bothered. "It's kind of hard to have a good relationship with a person who doesn't think you deserve to be afforded the same rights as your straight equivalents," she says. "Let alone a god. I do think Christianity is becoming more 'tolerant' of the LGBT community," she adds. "But I've never seen 'tolerance' as a great thing."
Louis*, who is 21, gay and Catholic depends a bit more heavily on tolerance. "I'm basically out to the whole world except my family. The main reason I'm not coming out is fear of rejection – not religion." Still, he is waiting. Not necessarily for Catholicism to become more accepting, even though he believes it will. He's waiting because he wants to be able to get out should things go wrong. "I will [come out] when I'm financially independent," he says. "So, if I get kicked out, at least I'll be able to support myself."
Finding LGBT youths reconciling themselves with a religion isn't easy. As I discovered, most interviewees won't be named. One potential interviewee (someone I didn't meet in the end) was a gay Muslim 20-something who is only "out" to his gay sports team. He said would only meet me after dark, on the proviso that I couldn't bring any recording equipment in case he could later be identified by his voice. It struck me that there could be thousands of LGBT people from religious families who are struggling to self-identify, but no outreach organisations I contacted would grant access to individuals for interviews, either – reasoning that they are too "vulnerable".
For some people, the idea of coming out to a religious family might come with many layers of fear. If you are from a poor family, there is more at stake than just not being accepted – without money, being thrown out of home could leave you utterly destitute. As one Slate writer put it: "For LGBT youths, escape usually hinges on two all-important factors: good grades and money."
Socio-economic factors of religious groups might be much more important to acceptance of sexuality than religion.
"The combination of continuous money worries adds an element of tension that I imagine a middle-class family wouldn't have to worry about while coming to terms with the sexual or gender identity of a family member," James*, a gay 22-year-old Pentecostal Christian told me. Sometimes, denouncing your religion first is easier. For Emma*, 28, this was very much the case – she left the Jehovah's Witnesses before she even came out to herself. "Growing up, I knew what the consequences of coming out as gay would do to my family and congregation, so I guess I chose the coward's way out and packed my bags and didn't look back."
"It was only then that I allowed myself to think about the possibility of acting on my impure thoughts. But on renouncing my faith, I lost all the friends I had grown up with. I haven't had a conversation with my sister for over six years and only speak with my dad at family funerals," she says. "He does now allow my mum to write me the occasional letter and make the odd phone call, though, which is an improvement."
It's tricky to tell if Emma left her religion because she knew she was gay and wouldn't be tolerated, or because she was sick of her religion's intolerance. But just as assumptions on people based on their sexuality is stupid, so is assuming a religious group is bigoted.
In 2009, a Gallup poll of Muslim and non-Muslim people in Europe said that British Muslims had a 100 percent intolerance of homosexuality. This excited Tommy English, the leader of the EDL's LGBT division, who I interviewed in 2013: "For a long time, the EDL leadership held their meetings in gay bars, because they knew they would not be spied on by Muslims," he said then.
The EDL is, thankfully, not a religion, but it carries an ideology and shows the dangerous influence of this survey, which showed British Muslims to be morally conservative in so many spheres (only 3 percent said that sex outside marriage was acceptable, compared to 48 percent of French Muslims and 27 percent of German Muslims). However, results were perhaps skewed by the fact that, as one co-author put it, "The British Muslim community is disproportionately unemployed".
Again, it seems that socio-economic factors of religious groups might be much more important to acceptance of sexuality than religion.
Yasmin*, 25, identifies as both a "revert" Muslim – "just re-discovering and learning stuff for myself" – and bisexual. Apart from one sister she confides in, discussion of her sexuality with her family is non-existent. "You don't discuss your spouse, so you wouldn't discuss your sexuality." Ironically, she says it's other lesbians or "hetero" people she has to explain herself to, because they "automatically associate religion with rules and assume there's some kind of 'no homosexuality' rule," which, of course, there isn't.
James's experiences echo this. "A gay bar I went to recently had an act saying, 'Fuck you, God,' saying that he's homophobic. I understand it, but I perceive my God to be the one I'm closest to in life, and I felt as alienated in the gay bar as I do in the church."
In the bigger picture, the church often seems to have 'problems' with LGBT people and their lives and loves, but on the ground it is much more positive – Jeremy Pemberton
While Yasmin happens upon scriptures in support of her sexuality – "Islam is all about tolerance and peace. When it speaks of 'love' it's assumed to be between a man and a woman, but what it means in those hadiths is that being kind and tolerant fosters companionship and growth" – James likes to "cherry-pick" parts of the scriptures that accept his sexuality. Both these individuals' beliefs and orientations are different, but both are looking for something similar, a root system, in returning to study their parents' respective religions.
Professor Gregory M. Herek's 1987 paper, Religious Orientation And Prejudice: A Comparison of Racial and Sexual Values, showed that, provided a religion teaches tolerance, those who are "extrinsic" in their religion – i.e. the ones who "use" it –are more likely to be bigoted than the "intrinsics", who are more likely to "live" religion. In simple terms, if you say you're religious, you're more likely to be bigoted than if you do religion.
Church of England canon Jeremy Pemberton came out aged 50. But last year, aged 58, he had his job as a priest in Nottinghamshire revoked. His crime? Marrying his same-sex partner. Jeremy agrees with the say/do theory. "I really felt like I reconciled faith and life for the first time only when I came out," he says.
"Coming out to myself and God – as if God didn't already know! – was a massive spiritual, as well as emotional, experience." He is keen to suggest, again, that the belief held by a few aren't indicative of the church's stance as a whole. "In the bigger picture, the church often seems to have 'problems' with LGBT people and their lives and loves," he says. "But on the ground it is much more positive."
Tara Hewitt, a 29-year-old Catholic transwoman, agrees with this sentiment. She began her conversion after finding the church to be a "beacon of light" at a time when media attention and all its ensuing hassles were wearing her down. "When people say they hate the Catholic church, they're often hating what they think is the Catholic church, not actually what the teaching is. When I started going to church, they weren't trying to convert me to being Catholic – they were extremely loving and caring people. I just felt very welcome."
In the same way that Islam is, currently, getting a wrongfully bad reputation because of the behaviour of an extremist minority, perhaps many religious people's attitudes towards the LGBT community are misperceived because the tiny few (the sayers) are heard too loudly over the rest (the do-ers).
We'll never know how Elizabeth Lowe's Christian parents would have reacted if had she come out, because the 14-year-old, who thought she might be a lesbian, committed suicide before doing so. After her death, her father said, "It would have been no surprise at all. We would have been very supportive."
Religion is by no means the answer for anyone who doesn't want to be governed by its influence. But luckily, in this ever-changing world, hopes, promises of self-improvement, goodwill – all the things that help people get through days of insecurity – are no longer confined to the strict boundaries of religion. Kieran Moloney is a 23-year-old transman with no major religious affiliations. That said, he seems to have created his very own belief system built upon his transition.
As a bodybuilder, Moloney spends solitary time focusing on his goals and studiously typing out aphorisms of encouragement to send to his 7,000 Instagram followers, who call him an "inspiration". He's not a messiah – nor does he act like one, regularly showing followers his embarrassing "before" shots – but his bio reads: "INSPIRE and HELP that's all I wanna do."
"Changing the world won't make it a better place," he tells me. "Strengthening the minds of our youth will. After all, the mind is the most powerful thing you will ever own." Of course, he's not the only one out there. Behind #ItGetsBetter and beyond, millions of LGBT people are giving other, younger people faith through information silently divined around the world. People who would have previously existed within confused and parochial lives can be comforted by echoes of their existence. And if that's not spirituality in action, then lord knows what is.
* Names have been changed
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