Who can a parent turn to for community and spiritual support when their church declares their child is a broken human being, guilty of a sin for just being who they are?
I couldn’t believe what my friend was saying to me. I’d known her for years and she knows I’m gay. She had been one of my biggest supporters. Now, sobbing on the other end of the phone after finding out her own child was gay, she was saying things like, “What did I do wrong?” “Can I fix this?” and “What will people think of me when they find out?”
I was caught off guard and couldn’t help but wonder, Is this what she truly thinks of me? I’m broken? That I should be ashamed and embarrassed? It was the first time I realized how intrinsic homophobia is built into our culture. It’s no wonder some parents react the way they do.
We’ve all seen the videos on social media. The “good Christian parents” attack their children, call them names, and swear at them. “In the name of God” they tell their children they will no longer support their wicked “lifestyles.” These parents throw them out, disown them and truly believe it’s what God would have them do.
It’s a sad fact that of the estimated 1.6 million homeless youth, around 40% are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. One study found that, “the risk of attempting suicide was 20% higher among sexual-minority youths in less-supportive environments” (Duncan & Hatzenbueler, 2014, p 272).
And then there are the other parents; the ones who want to do the right thing at all costs. Yet, as enlightened as they may or may not feel prior to their child’s disclosure, they suddenly find themselves fearing for their child’s safety. They mourn the loss of a parents’ dream and are quickly forced to choose between their church families or their children. The pain is very real, intense, and often unexpected.
“I was always very vocal around the house about supporting gay rights and calling out nastiness when I heard it,” one mom told me. “So I was not that surprised when our daughter came out to us at 14. What did surprise me was how thrown for a loop I was.”
“I was so afraid for her,” she continued. “Afraid for her physically, realizing that not only did I have to be concerned about all the threats that just being a woman in our society poses, but double that for being gay. I was afraid for her emotionally; it can’t be easy being a gay teen in our community.”
She discovered that her fears didn’t stop there. Like many parents, she realized the refuge she once found in a church community became a place of hostility.
“We stopped going to church to avoid the chance that she might be hurt even by glances or whispers,” she told me. “And I still can’t bring myself to attend any church that would not lovingly accept my daughter as being as perfect as God made her. This has been the biggest loss, the loss of a church community. I refuse to be part of an organization where my child is not welcomed.”
Another mom from Long Island said, “Our two sons came out to us on a three-way phone conversation. I said to them I was concerned for their souls. My husband said they were breaking his heart. We spoke with my husband’s priest and my pastor. They basically said: ‘Tell your children God loves them and you love them, but they will be living in a sinful state if they are in a relationship.’ I could not eat and lost 10 pounds in a very short time.”
She said she found some “horrible, horrible things some evangelical pastors said that convinced me they could not possibly be speaking for God.” So she read books, found information on blogs and came to the conclusion, “I believe my children were born Gay. God is fine with that and so am I.”
Even while accepting other people and their gay children, the impact of having a gay child of one’s own is a different story, according to Nancy, who lives in Southern California. “When my child came out I will admit I was heartbroken,” she said. “The initial reason for my heartbreak was I knew my child would be treated badly. Attending a Christian High school and Christian College, they could not be who they really are for fear of being kicked out or fired from their jobs. Then thinking further down the line, no biological grandchildren or ‘traditional’ wedding were just a few of my thoughts. It was not the future I had envisioned for my child. Having said that, in the grand scheme of life, those things are not as important as my child feeling loved and valued.”
Nancy went on to say, “The very few people I lost were from conservative Evangelical backgrounds.” That, as it turns out, seems to be a common theme.
“The church we attended blamed me for [my son] being gay,” said Harriet Miller of Lookout Mountain, GA. “They even sent my husband and me away to two different Christian counseling centers. I lost many friends and I no longer attend that church. That was a huge heartbreak to me, to find out how ugly people could be.”
Dawn Bennett, of Nashville, TN, and the author of the soon-to-be released book Loving Pearl, said, “I’m a Christian. I have been my entire life. When [my daughter] Pearl came out at church, we were not contacted by the youth pastorate staff. Instead, she was told she could be taken through a ‘sin breaking’ class to be saved from that most awful sin in her life… Ultimately, we did leave that church and to this day my daughter does not attend.
The solace many of these parents found came with the resolve, as it did with my friend, to take a second look at their faith, instead of their children. In the process each of them stated they found deeper meaning in life, in love, and in family.
Bennett went on to state, “…my goal in this whole journey is to be able to answer the question I believe God will ask me at the end of my life, ‘How well did you love my people?’ To that I hope to be able to say, ‘As best I could while excluding no one.’”
For more information on supporting your LGBT child or loved one, go to PFLAG.org.
Photo: Flickr/Jimmy and Sasha Reade