Having a son or daughter ‘come out’ as homosexual is not something many parents expect or are prepared for – especially within the church. How would you respond if this happened to you? One family shares the story of their journey since that day 20 years ago.
What do you say when your child tells you, ‘I’m gay’?
I still remember that day and the words I spoke; how I wish I could take them back, but their angry barbs found their mark. I remember that face marked by fear, those hurting eyes, and the fragile heart placed in my hands by someone I love. This is the one I wept for joy for when born; the one I taught to ride a bike, whose scraped knee I kissed, and whose trembling hand I held while getting stitches. How quickly the years pass. Now we stand face-to-face and my child’s sense of peace, identity and acceptance needs a response in real-time; in a moment my opportunity is gone.
What do you say? That’s a question my family faced 20 years ago. We are not alone. That’s a question many congregational families have faced and will continue to face in future. That’s a question the LCA faces beyond public statements made by bishops and theologians.
This is my story. I tell it not because it is unique or particularly special, but because it gives voice to the unspoken; makes visible what we choose to keep invisible. My story is typical of Christian parents who respond to the news that the child they love and admire is gay. Maybe it will help other stories to be told, and memories to be healed, as we as church look for ways to stand together in face of a reality that will not go away.
I told my son I didn’t believe him; I didn’t want to believe him. Much of what I knew about homosexuality I had read in books, or seen in movies. Then there was what I had learned in church: that God created people male and female for the purpose of reproducing the human race and established marriage as the proper setting; same-sex relations are to be seen as a distortion of nature and prohibited by God.
This was not my son. He didn’t fit that image of a homosexual. He was bright, talented, funny, caring, honest, ethical, a person of faith. If he thought he was gay, there must be a reason for his confused state. ‘When the right girl comes along’, I thought, ‘he will resolve it; he will be alright.’
As my denials continued, so did my efforts to explain it. Was it some recent trauma and depression that were the reason for his confused state? Or had he deliberately chosen to rebel against nature and God’s will? Or, as parents, had my wife and I unknowingly contributed to some perverted development of his sexuality? But we couldn’t realistically see where that had been the case. So we continued to search for explanations.
We learned that there is more than one theory about the causes of homosexuality: genetic, hormonal, environmental, social. Each of these factors may contribute in varying degrees to the sexual orientation of a particular individual. Unfortunately, none of the theories agree sufficiently with each other to form anything that looks like a consensus on the subject – except, perhaps, that sexuality is a ‘given’ rather than a choice.
So where do you go when you cannot deny it or explain it away? The next steps in our journey involved prayer and psychotherapy. As my son grew in awareness and acceptance of his sexual identity, as a Christian he also was acutely aware that in the church homosexuality was seen as something unacceptable to God.
He believed he was acceptable to God through baptism on account of Christ, but felt marginalised in the life of the church and denied at the altar. He believed that God loves people unconditionally and offers change and renewal to those who come to him with humble and penitent hearts. But God did not change him. Neither did God’s people welcome him. So what did this experience do to his mind, heart, and spirit?
In the face of social shame and personal pain, impulses for acting out and the dark urges of suicide, we encouraged our son to seek counselling and psychological support. Yet, as we were soon to discover, counselling services and psychotherapy have long since been convinced that homosexuality is not an illness and there is no known treatment to change it. Certainly, behaviour can be changed or constrained towards celibacy, but the basic affective orientation and makeup of homosexuals is not changed. There is no fix. So therapy helped my son come to accept the reality of his being, thankfully, before the social shame and his growing inner alienation climaxed in any threatened premature death.
As parents, we faced two choices at this point, both involving some form of loss – if not death. One choice was to reject and separate from our child: treat him as an outcast, as if he were dead to us. That’s the sad choice many parents have taken and many congregations approve in relation to gay and lesbian members.
However, this is not the choice we have taken. Ours was another choice: to die to our ignorance, prejudice, and misunderstandings. It’s a choice that has cost us in grief and loss. Gone is our nice tidy worldview, with black and white answers to complex human realities. Lost is a level of openness, support, and comfort within our church community. Lost is our security in a handful of Bible verses to justify our actions. Lost are some hopes and dreams we held for our son’s ‘ordinary’ happiness in church and society. A final form of grief and loss has been the realisation that our pain and suffering were secondary to our son’s experiences. Now we choose to be supporters of the life God blessed us to bring into the world.