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How the Dependency on Church in Rural America Hurts LGBTQ Youth

On May 18, the city of Springfield granted $1 million to Bransford Community Center. Twenty “Tennessean” articles have chronicled the precarious start-up trajectory of Bransford, which is projected to occupy the site of an historic but now demolished high school from which my grandmother graduated. Its stated mission is to “instill hope in all Robertson County residents, regardless of their race, socio-economic status or age.”

Sounds inclusive and welcoming, right?

Yet, from June to September of last year, Bransford founder and board president Robert Gardner took to Facebook Live — here’s a montage — to preach recurring Bible lessons and sermons replete with anti-LGBTQ conspiracies, disinformation and stereotypes. Notably, Gardner, a retired engineer who now leads City of Faith International, attributed inclusion to a “Jezebel spirit” of false prophecy, and likened LGBTQ families to the Antichrist. And just last week, Pastor Gardner’s Men’s Conference featured David Perry, a Selma pastor who once starved a dog for two days to teach a Bible lesson.

Why should we care about complicit leadership in a town of just 17,000 people and 13-square-miles?

Mayor Ann Schneider did not acknowledge my concerns about Robert Gardner, nor did Alderpersons Bobby Trotter or Emily C. Green. And Alderperson Lisa DiVirgilio Arnold blocked me from her public Facebook page. On two occasions, I illustrated for all of these officials — each of whom swore an oath to govern to the best of their knowledge — a snapshot of the structural trauma Tennessee’s LGBTQ children endure.

Yet, in rural and small-town America, the pervasive dependency on church to cope with limited outlets and social mobility can deter local government officials from confronting pastors who disguise Bible-bashing as sensational, yet convincing, propaganda. Elected officials often keep quiet for the sake of re-election. This governmental complicity, compounded by a widespread lack of diversity, can threaten constituents from marginalized groups, who often discover that their outward differences and hyper-visibility render them vulnerable to collective scapegoating.

Not to mention, evasive officials who skirt around inclusion only fuel the fire for LGBTQ folks in Tennessee, where the General Assembly recently passed the most anti-trans bills nationwide.

Let me paint a picture for you.

In Middle Tennessee, children who either come out as LGBTQ or get stereotyped as LGBTQ comprise 40% of homeless minors, and 78% of those experience further abuse in the child welfare system. Considering that 80% of Tennessee is Christian — and Pulaski is home to the cross-burning KKK — surmising that religious extremism plays a role is not far-fetched.

Unsurprisingly, The Trevor Project — the only around-the-clock crisis and suicide prevention helpline for LGBTQ youth — recently told NBC that Tennessee youth contacted The Trevor Lifeline 2,400 times during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, only 9% of Tennessee’s LGBTQ students described their school’s curricula as inclusive, according to a 2019 report by GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network) Tennessee. Forty-four percent, however, reported overhearing staff disparage self-defined gender expression, and 25% reported witnessing heterosexist bias toward LGBTQ romantic orientations.

Even worse, the non-discrimination clause of Robertson County Schools, which governs Springfield’s schools, omits both LGBTQ students and educators as a protected class.

The final blow is that appealing to state-level officials would probably be futile: Bransford’s board includes state senator Kerry Roberts and state representative Sabi Kumar. Recently, Kumar and Roberts, both Republicans, voted in favor of HB 0580, a bill opposing public school lessons on systemic racism. Roberts publicly opposed an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum in April and has also voiced that eliminating higher education — a “liberal breeding ground” — would “save America.”

I communicated to Springfield leaders that for some children, drop-in and educational spaces like Bransford serve as the only refuge and buffer from family and religious abuse, or community and school violence. I warned of pastors failing to neatly compartmentalize fundamentalist bigotry strictly to the parameters of religious leadership. And I reiterated that advocates and educators who refuse to foster welcoming spaces of respect and safety traumatize their community at large.

While Springfield officials did not acknowledge my concerns — as their taxpayer-compensated positions should have obliged them to do — they did epitomize how complicity and denial perpetuate institutional bias and systemic injustice. Their inaction and passivity can harm any minoritized population just as much as blatant prejudice and discrimination. Tennessee needs leaders who will take a stand and support young LGBTQ people, especially young queer people of color, a demographic antagonized by myriad socially-constructed barriers and pitfalls.

On the whole, elected officials in Springfield may be good people. I would hope so. Nevertheless, niceness and sympathy — while consoling on a personal level — do not translate into protection on an institutional, legislative or cultural level.

Getty image via arvitalya

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