In my time creating and leading The Naming Project, I’ve come to understand a principle that has become the bedrock of my ministry with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) youth:
Believe what youth tell you about themselves.
It seems like a pretty simple rule, but in reality, we adults often don’t do it.
Perhaps my awakening about this principle came because of the nature of The Naming Project. We are a Christian ministry designed for LGBTQ youth. Our main program is a summer camp, an intensive week with youth who are actively exploring and determining their sexual orientation, gender identity, and faith all at the same time. We see our camp as a way to disconnect from the rest of their lives to think about identity and relationship with intentionality. It’s a time of exploration, when youth are working through who they are, what they believe, and how they relate to God and the rest of the world.
I’ve discovered that one of the important things for me to remember is that it’s their journey, not mine. I can’t dictate who they are. I can only accompany them on a part of their journey. This means I can only try to model healthy adult behavior (in my case, as an adult Christian gay man), ask questions, and share honest and relevant information that may help in their development process.
I’ve discovered that one of the important things for me to remember is that it’s their journey, not mine. I can’t dictate who they are. I can only accompany them on a part of their journey.
Remembering that this is their journey also means listening carefully, and taking what is said seriously.
At The Naming Project, when a youth says that they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or something else entirely, we believe them, and we treat them according to what they have told us to be true about themselves. Sometimes, that may include how to keep themselves safe—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
If, in the future, they come to us with a different identity label or understanding of themself, we believe them and adjust our behavior to match the new information they have given us. In some cases, that might not mean having to do anything. Or it may mean adjusting names and pronouns. It may be even more complicated than that, but the important thing is that we really listen, and really believe, what we are being told by the young person.
Recently, Rolling Stone magazine described the experience of discovery with music and acting superstar Janelle Monáe, “She initially identified as bisexual, she clarifies, ‘but then later I read about pansexuality and was like, ‘Oh, these are things that I identify with too.’ I’m open to learning more about who I am.’”
Monáe’s experience isn’t that uncommon. In my work, I’ve heard many stories of adults who, in their youth, felt “different” or “other” only to find a term, a label, or a definition that resonates so strongly with them that it clarifies how they understand themself. They were relieved to find that they weren’t alone in their thoughts and feelings and that someone else not only had them, but provided words to address those feelings.
For a young person, this idea of “trying on” labels is less about the labels, and more about reaching a place of self-understanding. Once the young person is grounded in who they are and how God created them, then they can establish relationships built on honesty and understanding.
Once the young person is grounded in who they are and how God created them, then they can establish relationships built on honesty and understanding.
This goes beyond just believing young people when they tell us their sexual orientation or gender identity. We also need to believe people’s experiences. Through my work as a Naming Project camp counselor, I’ve heard my fair share of stories that involve violence, domestic abuse, and sexual assault. As a mandated reporter, I need to take those stories seriously and act appropriately. It also means that I need to provide proper, sensitive, and appropriate pastoral care that recognizes the trauma that youth have gone through…and how that trauma manifests itself once again in the retelling of their story.
It might be obvious by this point, but the need to believe people about their lives and their experiences is not only needed for LGBTQ youth, or just LGBTQ people, or even just youth. It is certainly needed both in churches, and also in wider society.
Believing people means believing them whenever they share their lives and their experiences. It means believing people of color when they point out they are profiled and harassed by police at a disproportionate rate. It means believing women when they say that sexism and sexual harassment makes a hostile workplace. It means believing in the accomplishments of those who have had to leap over increasingly high barriers in order to achieve those accomplishments.
At The Naming Project, we see our role as youth ministers as one of accompaniment—not telling youth how to identify themselves, but equipping them to figure out who they are and how they relate to God and the world around them. At times, this might even challenge the way we understand the world. That’s expected, since we also carry the blinders of our own lives and experiences. Part of our work as adults doing youth ministry is to set our own blinders aside and attempt to view the world from the youths’ perspective.
Too often, we don’t believe youth (or anyone we perceive as different than us). We want them to understand the world in the same the way we see it. But it doesn’t work that way. Youth need to be told that they, and their experience of life, are valid. Not just valid, but valued.
Believing someone is recognizing their humanity. It is acknowledging that God created them and is still at work in their lives. It also opens us up to the possibility of seeing and experiencing God in a way we never have before. We should be so lucky to be taught, as adults, to recognize that God is working in our lives in a way we never expected.
Ross Murray is the founder and director of The Naming Project, a faith-based camp for LGBTQ youth and their allies. Ross is also a consecrated Deacon in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, with a specific calling to advocate for LGBTQ people through his work as Senior Director of the GLAAD Media Institute. He has written and appeared on numerous media outlets, including CNN, MSNBC, Al Jazeera, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, and Religion News Service. In 2014, he was named one of Mashable’s “10 LGBT-Rights Activists to Follow on Twitter.”