For many religious parents, finding out their child is gay represents anything from a personal failing to a dream slipping out of their grasp.
A friend of my daughter’s came out to his parents last week. As is frequently the case, he was actually caught sneaking around behind their backs. He felt compelled to confess that he not only lied about where he was and what he was doing, but he was also gay. Perhaps he thought it would take the sting out of driving off to a different city to meet someone in person he’d only met online. Needless to say, his parents didn’t take the news well. His tactic didn’t work.
Religious parents sometimes react differently to the news that their child is gay than non-religious parents. Some cry, some get angry. Some feel deceived. All of them, however, suddenly watch their dreams for their child slip out of their grasp. It can be devastating for them. Though it’s easy judge these parents, I assure you, as a father, that the dreams we have for our children come as a package when the baby is born.
Devout parents, particularly those whose faith forbids the act of homosexuality, are suddenly faced with mental conflict. They have been taught that people of their faith cannot be gay and if they are, then it was a choice they made. These parents may act out in anger at their child, their children’s friends and anyone else they perceive to have “aided and abetted” their child’s “problem.”
What can you do as a friend? How do you help a religious family recover?
Give them time
Unless the child is being physically or mentally abused, parents need time to adjust to the news. After years of working through my own sexual orientation, decades in fact, I finally came out to my parents. They have come around to some degree over the last several years, but it’s taken them a long time to figure out what it means to their faith. Their love never waivered. Their adaptation to watching me “own my truth” took a little longer.
One friend of mine told me when he came out, his father declared that he would never accept him that way. “It took seven years,” my friend told me, “but my father finally hugged me one day and said that no matter what, he loved me and he would always love me. He even accepted my boyfriend as part of the family!”
Families that are religious feel they have more to lose than your average “non-religious” family. For them faith is as ingrained into their identities as part of their moral fiber. It is almost impossible to comprehend how a devout person of faith could possibly be gay. They wonder what it means in the ethereal realm as much, or more, than what it means in their every day lives.
Many feel ashamed or embarrassed. In many segments of the fundamentalist Christian faith, these families have been taught that the reason their child is gay is because they did something wrong. They are taught that their child can be fixed with the right amount of prayer, Bible reading, accountability and sheer “submission to Christ.” Many will, indeed, seek out pseudo-scientific answers to change their children from gay to straight. They are simply going to need time to process what they now know about their children.
Religious fundamentalism builds a false sense of vulnerability within the faith. That is the reason we hear so many stories of pastors, leaders and political idealists caught in various acts prohibited by their faith. Shame often drives much of the behavior underground. When a family learns that a child is gay, it can create a sense of shame, feeling as though they are not living up to the standards of the faith like other families they perceive are “doing it right” within their communities.
Vulnerability is crucial when speaking to religious parents of gay children. They need to see someone who is honest, open and sharing their own fears of life. Whenever we’re able to empathize with someone, even if we don’t share exactly the same struggle, people feel safe. We are drawn to others who share our weaknesses.
Educating someone who has been indoctrinated in a belief system is difficult. The science of gender and sexuality is perfectly clear, but as humans we tend to only understand things from our narrow perspectives. When we’re faced with information that is contrary to how we see the world, we have a tendency to buckle down and hold tighter to our beliefs. Our world is shaken and we look for anything to reinforce that our beliefs are true.
Education is a gradual process for most of us anyway. We only learn when we feel safe to do so. When we don’t feel threatened, we tend to explore the world around us more. Much of the education we receive, particularly about other humans, happens through relationships. We have to see that those we fear are often not what we thought they were.
I frequently talk of deconstructing my belief system when I started educating myself on my religion. My faith didn’t add up, but letting go was scary. I found myself removing foundational bricks until I didn’t know what to believe or whom I could trust. Over time, I put the pieces of a new belief system in place as I learned new information that made sense.
Once religious parents begin to accept their new circumstances, they are more open to figuring out what to do. Many of the books I suggest include, Walking the Bridgeless Canyon, by Kathy Baldock; God and the Gay Christian, by Matthew Vines; and Torn, by Justin Lee.
The truth is that many religious parents are forced to choose between their faith and their children. They believe that by simply associating with someone they deem “sinful,” God will punish them. Like ancient tribes, they proverbially send their own children to the mouth of the volcano, sacrificing their children’s mental, and sometimes physical health to “appease the gods.” While it’s difficult for most parents to comprehend such a harsh reality, it happens every day.
The main thing people can do to help religious parents who have to come to terms with a gay child, is to show love and compassion toward them and their family. Again, unless there is mental or physical abuse, or neglect of a child, they will most likely need time to adjust. Be patient and offer an ear to listen.
Photo – Flickr/Lee Morley