“Ex-Gay” Speaker, Attempted Suicide, and HCSMs

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).

Health Care Sharing Ministries are predominately organized by Christian evangelicals in America seeking to build an alternative to traditional health insurance. [For more background information on HCSMs, see my post here.] HCSMs refuse to offer cost-sharing for medical costs stemming from behaviors and instances deemed “non-biblical.” The largest HCSMs do not see suicide and attempted suicide as biblical. In 2008, members of Medi-Share, for example, voted to not include costs related to suicide or assisted suicide as sharable. This exclusion is exacerbated by the fact that these HCSMs also refuse to cover most mental health services that might significantly reduce the risk of suicide. Samaritan Ministries, the biggest HCSM to date, excludes expenses related “self-inflicted harm” of members age 12 and above from being shared. These restrictions combined to pose serious problems for LGBT youths in evangelical families that have left traditional insurance and opted for a sharing plan offered by HCSMs, which are not regulated as insurance and are not governed by the minimum health standards under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

When approaching the suicide of minors, it is important to be aware that the agency of children tends to be conflated with those of parents and guardians, who presumably have the right to bring up a child in accordance to their own beliefs and values. Even the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) recognizes the right of parents to “ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions” (ICCPR, Art. 18 (4)). These legal provisions tend to overlook the agency of children to not conform to the convictions of their parents, as well as to not behave in accordance to these beliefs. In the case of HCSMs, the ministries may expect parents to raise their children in a certain way that may not result in behavioral violations. Yet, to punish them the same way as adults may impose undue pressure on parents and children alike and undermine the right of children to have their health needs met regardless of the cause of those expenses. Therefore, evangelical leadership in HCSMs may need to consider to expand the sharing of medical expenses of children, especially vulnerable LGBT minors, without requiring them to meet the moral-religious standards expected of adult members.


During his fellowship year, Aobo Dong was an MTS candidate studying the intersections of religion, ethics, and politics at Harvard Divinity School. He received his BA from the College of Social Studies at Wesleyan University, where his honors thesis examined the alliance between American evangelicals and the GOP. At Harvard, his research interests shifted toward reconciling potential conflicts between religion and the modern human rights discourse, particularly in terms of sexuality, health, and other socio-economic rights. He was also a junior fellow at Harvard's Science, Religion & Culture (SRC) program. For his fellowship project at the Petrie-Flom Center, Aobo investigated the legal and ethical challenges surrounding the fast-expanding health care sharing ministries (HCSMs) that provide members with an alternative model to traditional health insurance.

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