Isn’t public opinion on LGBTQ people improving? The complicated answer holds some surprising lessons for contemporary Catholics. A 2019 GLAAD/Harris poll revealed the good news that non-LGBTQ (typically straight and cisgender) support for LGBTQ equal rights is at an all-time high of 80% in the U.S. In addition, levels of social discomfort with LGBTQ people have pulled back a bit from the sudden increases seen in 2018. The bad news is that straight, cisgender social discomfort with LGBTQ people is still generally higher than it was in 2017. For example, straight, cisgender people are a little more likely than they were two years ago to feel awkward when they see a same-sex couple holding hands or learn that their child has an LGBTQ teacher.
More concerning is the counter-intuitive revelation that social discomfort with LGBTQ people is rising especially quickly among young adults, who are usually assumed to be most accepting. The percentage of straight, cisgender 18-34-year-olds who said they’d be “very” or “somewhat” uncomfortable learning they had an LGBTQ family member rose from 24 percent in 2017 to 36 percent in 2019, and the percentage of straight, cisgender young men who were “very” or “somewhat” comfortable in social situations with LGBTQ people dropped from 62 percent to 35 percent. These changes inspire worries about their future support for LGBTQ equality, but also about current LGBTQ exclusion, ranging from social slights to bullying and physical violence.
What explains these precipitous changes among young adults? In social science research, causation is hard to prove, but one correlation is undeniable. In her executive summary, GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis blamed the social climate, arguing that “the sharp and quick rise in divisive rhetoric in politics and culture is having a negative influence on younger Americans.”
How is this relevant to Catholics? Overall Catholic support for LGBTQ equality remains strong in the U.S.; the Public Religion Research Institute still reports Catholic support for anti-discrimination laws (a higher standard than simply favoring equality) at 71 percent for whites, 72 percent for Hispanics, and 68 percent for other persons of color. Still, we should be especially concerned about the correlation between negative, divisive rhetoric and young adults’ decreasing social comfort with LGBTQ folk.
As Bondings 2.0 has reported frequently, Catholics get a double dose of divisive rhetoric on LGBTQ issues: from the culture at large and also from the Church at all levels from the diocese to the USCCB to the Vatican. We also see discriminatory behavior not just in the culture at large but in the Church’s firing of LGBTQ employees and even in the dismissal of volunteers who are LGBTQ allies. We can’t pretend that these ongoing practices are not affecting children and young adults—most likely by turning LGBTQ-accepting youth away, and by suggesting to those who remain that exclusion and discrimination are appropriate ways to express their faith, or both.
Ellis implied that LGBTQ allies need to do more. Of course they should model inclusive behavior and condemn exclusive, hateful rhetoric. But to turn the rising tide of straight, cisgender anxiety they must also create and promote accessible, attractive, positive LGBT narratives. She shared one of GLAAD’s strategies for responding to straight young men’s declining comfort with LGBTQ people: “working with the video game industry…to bring LGBTQ characters and stories to a world where male audiences were consuming content.”
Likewise, LGBTQ Catholics are grateful when our allies treat us with love and respect, living out our foundational belief that all are created in God’s image. For example, when we team up to promote alternatives to the Theology of the Body for parish confirmation and middle school curricula, we’re creating space that honors LGBTQ students. We’re even more grateful when our allies in the faith condemn hateful language and behavior in the name of Christian love, as administrators at College of the Holy Cross did this spring.
But we and our allies must also promote Catholic LGBTQ people of faith specifically. What about second collections for Catholic LGBTQ organizations or LGBTQ service organizations during Pride Month in June or before National Coming Out Day in October? What about rainbow signage in front of our parish churches or on our websites? Why not make sure that we talk with our children about the LGBTQ members in our parish photo directories—and about the amazing work those people do for our parishes? What about proposing Mychal as a confirmation name, after gay 9/11 hero Father Mychal Judge? Why not point out the incredible hope and fidelity of LGBTQ people who remain in the pews and on the committees and in the classroom despite the divisive language of some of our clergy and bishops?
If you truly want to stem the current tide of young adult discomfort with LGBTQ folk, ask yourself: who are your LGBTQ Catholic heroes? Tell their stories lovingly and often!
—Cristina Traina, Northwestern University, July 29, 2019