On February 16, Jackie Hill-Perry, an outspoken speaker against homosexuality, delivered a controversial, unapologetically homophobic speech at Harvard’s Emerson Hall. Harvard College Faith and Action, the religious student group that invited Hill-Perry, reserved all the center-front seats for attendees “engaged in protest,” who were “welcomed” to their space of worship. This seemingly beneficent seating arrangement, however, allowed many protestors wearing rainbow flags to experience 30 minutes of worship songs with references to sin and redemption, before having a close-encounter with Hill-Perry. The emphatic speaker then recounted her own journey from initially accepting her same-sex attraction to her eventual embrace of heteronormativity due to her rediscovered Christian faith. A few protestors stormed out of the lecture hall during the height of her speech, when she called same-sex attracted Christians to practice “self-denial,” the same way a Christian would deny lying, stealing, and other grave “sins.”
As undergraduate and graduate students at Harvard, we are fortunate to have access to resources that may help us deal with and recover from the detrimental effects from a hate-filled speech like this. Though far from perfect, we do have at least a limited access to mental health services and other support groups on campus. Intellectually, we have academic resources that could dispute the religious reasoning behind homophobia. In his opening question for Hill-Perry, Professor Jonathan Walton of the Memorial Church quickly challenged the flawed theology Hill-Perry relied on, revealing the parallels between biblically justified racism to biblically justified homophobia. Some students from the audience also pointed out several logical missteps in her reasoning, which led Hill-Perry exclaim how “smart” people at Harvard are. Perhaps, she wasn’t used to speaking to a highly academic audience during her tours. Nonetheless, many non-protesting members of the audience, presumably members of the Harvard Christian group, did nod and clap during her speech. If her remarks could resonate with these Harvard students, how much more persuasive would it be in Christian conferences and churches? Who could stand up for LGBT people, especially the youth, in evangelical communities?
It has long been demonstrated that LGBT youths have a much higher suicide and attempted suicide rate comparing to their heterosexual counterparts in the United States and abroad. They are also significantly more likely to suffer from mental health issues ranging from depression to self-harm. Moreover, those living in evangelical families or communities where homophobia is still prevalent are especially vulnerable. Listening to a speech like the one delivered by Hill-Perry may worsen their daily struggles and increase their risk of suicide. Given these health risks of LGBT youths, we might expect that evangelical leaders who “love the sinner but hate the sin” would at least care about the health and safety of these minors, or simply respect their dignity as human beings. However, the reality could be far gloomier, falling short of these minimum expectations. The rest of the essay will turn the discussion toward how LGBT youths might be treated under the practices of Christian health-sharing ministries (HCSMs).