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GRAND RAPIDS – When Don Bergman’s 23-year-old son came out to him, his eyes were opened to a problem he didn’t even realize existed: anti-gay harassment in religious schools.
“I taught at Kalamazoo Christian High School for 30 years and didn’t understand what harassment of gay kids was. It was never brought up at any of our in-services,” said Bergman. “Not once in 30 years did anyone let me know what harassment of gay kids was.”
His son knew all too well, however. “My son went through that school and in junior high he was suicidal and we had no idea why,” said Bergman. After his son came out he told his father about being harassed daily at school for being gay.
“That was 1995 and the information about being gay and what it means to be gay was just beginning to be public,” said Bergman. “I put the info together and realized that it was the Christian school I brought my son to that nearly killed him.”
When Bergman brought up the issue of anti-gay harassment at the school he was fired. “After 30 years they declared me a heretic and showed me the door,” he said. “The good thing was they declared me a heretic in public.” Since being fired Bergman has been contacted by gay and lesbian youth from the school who have thanked him for trying to make a difference.
Seven years later Bergman is still working to make a difference through presentations at education conferences and diversity seminars. He is also a founding member of PFLAG in Holland, and has assisted in establishing gay-straight alliances in several public high schools.
His latest effort as an advocate for sexual minority youth is a day-long conference titled, “Addressing the Needs of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Straight Students In Religious Schools” being held Sept. 25 at the First United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids. The conference will address “the unique spiritual, emotional, physical, and social issues facing sexual-minority students in religious schools.”
The conference will include presenters Marc Adams and Jim Lucas.
Adams is the author of “The Preacher’s Son,” a story of growing up gay and fundamentalist Christian, and co-author of “Do’s and Don’ts of Dealing with the Religious Right.” He is co-founder and executive director of HeartStrong, Inc., a nonprofit organization providing outreach and support to LGBT students at religious educational institutions (see sidebar).
“I ran across him when my son came out years ago,” said Bergman. “Marc Adams went to Jerry Falwell university to get cured and instead he met his partner there. He’s been living out of the back of his car for the last five years going around to religious schools to try to help gay kids.”
Lucas has worked as a chaplain with gay and lesbian youth and adults since 1992, when he became the first openly gay Christian Reformed minister. He currently serves as Chaplain for Gays In Faith Together (www.gaysinfaithtogether.org).
“When my son came out to me [Lucas] had just come out to the church and we invited him to come down and he helped us work though the process for eight hours on a Sunday afternoon,” said Bergman. “So we’ve been working together on this issue since July 1995.”
Although Bergman is sending letters to several hundred religious schools about the conference, he worries the information will not get to teachers in the classrooms. He encourages any LGBT or allied students who attend or are alumni of religious schools to contact their teachers or counselors, let them know about the conference, and invite them to attend.
Although the conference is oriented toward educators in religious schools, it is open to anyone interested in LGBT student issues. Parents, public school teachers, and members of the community are invited to join the discussion, according to Bergman.
The goal of the conference is to make every classroom a safe place for every student, which necessitates the inclusion of heterosexual students. According to Bergman, “Many straight Christian youth develop a ‘holier than thou’ attitude, which justifies harassment. When I attempted to discipline a student for repeated harassment, he looked at me with fire in his eyes and said, ‘Who are you to tell me I cannot harass gays when God says I can kill them?’ That attitude, too, must be addressed in religious schools.”
“For a gay kid in a conservative religious school, it is an extremely unhealthy environment. It’s not just the emotional or verbal or physical assaults, it’s the spiritual assault, the being told you’re going to hell and you’re not worth anything,” said Bergman. “And that’s the part that pushes kids over the edge.”