For Parents: When Your Child Comes Out

Ben Moberg over at Registered Runaway recently wrote a really great post about how to respond when your child comes out. Ben’s writing is fabulous, as always, but it really got me thinking about what I would have appreciated from my parents when I came out. I thought I would offer a few thoughts here for conservative parents struggling to deal with their child’s disclosure. I’ve put it into a list of “do’s and don’ts” to make it easier (and less preachy).

I’d love to see thoughts on this from parents, as I’m still learning about how to deal with my own family situation and am not a parent myself.

 

Don’t make it about you.

You will probably have a lot of emotions when your child comes out. You may be angry or scared. You may feel hurt. You may worry that you were a bad parent or wonder what people will think. And in the heat of the moment, you may blame your child for all of these emotional conflicts. You may feel like his or her coming out is something that is being done to you.

  • Do think about what your child needs.

Coming out is hard and scary, even when you know that the people on the receiving end of your disclosure are allies. It is exponentially more difficult and terrifying when you know that your news won’t be received well.

It is easy to see your child’s coming out as him or her drawing a line on the sand, standing against you. It is easy to see it as an act of defiance or rebellion. However, consider it from your child’s perspective. He or she is confiding in you, sharing an important part of his or her life. For the person coming out, it is an invitation to deeper intimacy and more honest relationship.

Your child doesn’t need to hear that he or she is ruining your life, destroying your reputation, or behaving rebelliously. She probably does need to be reassured that she is still loved, still welcomed, and still supported. He needs to know that the risk he has taken by letting you in will be respected, not repudiated.

  • Do find someone to talk to about what you need.

The fact that your child doesn’t necessarily need to hear about all of your initial reactions doesn’t mean that they aren’t valid or that you don’t need to express them somewhere. Find a trusted friend, talk to your pastor, or see a counselor. Contact someone from the Marin Foundation’s list of parents or get in touch with your local PFLAG chapter. You aren’t alone in this, and it’s difficult for you, too. You deserve support and help.

Don’t preach.

If you have a conservative viewpoint on homosexuality, your kid probably already knows that. In fact, your child has probably been bracing herself for your impromptu sermon on Romans 1. But stop and think before you get out your Strong’s Concordance or your Giant Study Bible of Doom. Going immediately for the theological reasons that you cannot accept this news tells your child two things. First, it implies that your religious beliefs are more important than your relationship with your son or daughter. And maybe, in an abstract sense, that’s true, but it might be nice to give yourself some space to find a middle ground that both values your relationship with your child and remains faithful to your religious ideals. Maybe. I’m just saying that might be a thing you would be interested in.

Second, jumping straight into a sermon entrenches you in a particular position and shuts down the opportunity for dialogue. Your child likely did not come to this unprepared. Most people don’t come out on a whim. Most people don’t realize they’re gay and impulsively start telling people. This is likely something that your child has put a lot of thought into. He or she has probably considered the issue from all angles and has some well-researched, well thought-out ideas about what this means for his or her life and spirituality.

  • Do listen to what your child is saying.

Your child has put a lot of thought and effort into this. Give him a chance to tell his story, and respect him as an honest and reliable narrator. Understand that her experiences and emotions are valid, and try to understand her point of view. Receiving this kind of disclosure may not be comfortable. Be willing to sit in that discomfort rather than reacting to or running from it.

  • Do ask them for resources.

It’s likely that your child has at least done a Google search about being gay. It’s distinctly possible that she has joined discussion boards, read blogs and books, and generally done her homework about what it means to be gay and, if she is a person of faith, what it means to be gay and Christian. She may still be working through all of the information and deciding what she thinks, or she may have developed a firm, nuanced understanding of how her faith and sexuality interact. Regardless, asking what your child has been reading, listening to, and thinking about is another way of showing that you value his point of view and respect his ideas and opinions.

  • Do look for resources yourself.

Your child probably won’t have all the answers, especially to the questions that are particularly concerning to you. Fortunately, the internet is full of resources for those struggling to understand this issue. I’m sure that some of your favorite authors, pastors, and preachers have done some writing about the topic, and that’s a place to start. However, I would encourage you to move outside of your comfort zone and read other ideas, even ones you disagree with. You never know where you will find something interesting or helpful. The Marin Foundation and the Gay Christian Network are both great places to start. Also, Slacktivist has a whole list of LGBTQ+ Christian bloggers, which can give you some valuable insight into how your child may be feeling. If you’re looking for blogs by parents, check out Linda Robertson or Susan Cottrell.

Don’t despair.

This is not the end of the world. This is not even the end of your relationship with your son or daughter. Coming out is difficult for everyone involved, but it can also be an opportunity for growth, both in your relationship with your child and in your walk with God.

  • Do take hope in the diverse ways that Christians are finding to reconcile faith and sexuality.

There has never been a better time to be queer and Christian. The internet is humming with dialogue about this issue, and people from all sorts of faith traditions are talking about ways to live more genuinely into their sexual orientation or gender identity without compromising their relationship with God.

  • Do realize you’re not alone.

You are not the first parent to hear their child say those words, and you won’t be the last. It can be tempting to hide from what is happening, but if you are willing to reach out, you will find yourself in the midst of a beautifully supportive community.

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Sometimes I Feel Like Job (and Cry a Lot)

Last week one of my best (and most conservative) friends from college came to visit.  She’s married now, and she and her husband moved to another state in the same region where I moved for grad school.  I visited her at spring break, and now she’s visiting me.

We had a lot of fun.  We talked about life and faith and memories.  We visited museums and browsed through stores and ate delicious food and played board games.  One night, we went for fro yo, and we talked about the whole me-being-gay thing.  I had sort-of-kind-of come out to her in March, but at that point I was still so shell-shocked and terrified about the whole thing that it was mostly just “I think I like girls, and I’ve discovered that might actually not mean I’m demon possessed.  Discuss.”  I had told two other friends and had poked my nose into the progressive church I now attend a couple of times (and feared The Wrath of God (TM) both times).  Now, things are different.  Now, I have been attending my church for months.  I help out at the twice-monthly soup kitchen.  I go to young adult outings and small group meetings, and the pastor even asked me to help out as a liturgist during a service last month.  I saw a therapist for two months this summer, and we talked through a lot of things.  I can say “I’m gay” or “I’m a lesbian” without having to take a fortifying breath first.

I could tell that my friend was not comfortable with the changes, but she listened anyway.  She asked good questions and apologized several times, concerned that she might have said or asked something offensive.  I was incredibly, painfully honest with her about things including how I had come to realize I was gay and how conflicted I’m feeling these days about whether or not being in a relationship with a woman would be okay with God.  She promised to pray for me and with me, and I walked away from our time together feeling like the conversation had gone well.

Then, yesterday happened.  Yesterday, when I was sleep-deprived from a work function that ran much later than it should have and had to be at an early meeting downtown, I checked my facebook only to discover . . . The Letter.

In summary, my friend has been praying for me and feels like she is obligated to explain some things.  God still loves me, and she doesn’t know why he made me gay, but scripture is clear that God does not bless relationships between members of the same gender.  Also, my church is a bad influence on me, and the peace I feel about attending there is a lie from Satan. She believes God has awesome things planned for me and that this is Satan’s way of keeping me from those things.

*facepalm*

The note was written as lovingly as possible, given its contents.  I have always had enormous amounts of respect for this friend and for her walk with God, and if I was going to trust all of this from anyone, it would be her.  I know that she cares for me and wants the best for me, but . . .

If she hadn’t brought my church into it, I probably wouldn’t feel quite so defensive, but it’s hard to hear someone tell you that the place you’ve finally found a home isn’t good for you.  Yes, there are some flaky people there who believe weird things, but I come from a Pentecostal background, so I’m not sure I would recognize a church without a few flaky members who believe weird things.  Yes, it’s very different from what I’m used to.  Sometimes I worry that it’s a little Jesus-lite.  Sometimes I worry that they’re too touchy-feely about sin and grace.  Sometimes I still wonder if I’m going to get struck by lightning when I walk through the doors or choke on the communion bread or something equally dramatic as a sign of God’s displeasure with my attendance there.

But it’s also the most honest church I’ve ever been too.  It’s also involved in the community in a way that I think would make Jesus smile.  Yesterday, after early morning midweek worship, the pastor and everyone else who could stay took colorful “Welcome Back” signs over to the local elementary school to cheer on parents and students doing drop-off for the first day of school and then to deliver the backpacks and school supplies they’ve been collecting for a month.  Someone hugs me every time I walk through the door, and the pastor constantly wants to know how I’m doing and what she can pray with me about.

So, crazy church aside, what about the rest of the message?

I acknowledge that the traditional interpretation of scripture does not allow for same sex relationships.  I’ve read the more progressive arguments, and I’m honestly not convinced.  (Yet???)  I feel like they offer reasonable doubt, but not a definite answer.  So, I’ve spent months waffling about the issue.  Waffling and reading and praying angrily while I wash dishes, because God won’t give me the green light.

I told my friend last week that I’m not ready to hear a “no,” and I’m really not.  Because “no” means I’ll never get married.  It means that in ten years when my friends are starting to celebrate significant anniversaries and worry about how their kids will handle the transition from elementary school to junior high, I’ll still be alone.  It means always coming home to an empty apartment.  It means never having someone else to make dinner or vacuum or return the Red Box movie.  It means doing things alone or being the third wheel, because already many of my friends are in long-term relationships.  It means never being a mother or facing single-parenthood.

Maybe if I were close to my parents, this would be easier, but my family is highly conservative and fairly dysfunctional.  I haven’t come out to my parents yet, but my father once refused to speak to me for two weeks because I changed my e-mail and facebook passwords and refused to give him the new ones.  (This was when I was 19, by the way, and lived most of the year at college, two and a half hours away from their home.)  There’s a real chance that we won’t speak for a long time after I tell them that I’m a) gay and b) attending a church with a partnered lesbian pastor.  So giving up on the idea of a relationship means giving up my long-held secret hope that someday I would have awesome in-laws who would be the kind of family my own parents were unable to provide.  It means being the tag-along friend at Christmas and Thanksgiving or eating Chinese take-out and watching movies by myself on those days.  It means never having a safety-net when I’m sick or something goes wrong with my car or I lose my job.

And I just can’t help but be angry about all of that.  I’ve cried so much in the last two days that it’s starting to feel ridiculous.  I read Sarah Bessey’s post today and got mad about it all over again.  Her “in which love looks like” posts always make me cry, but this one . . .

“I couldn’t have imagined all those years ago, at the Village Inn with a day-old bagel and terrible coffee at dawn, how he would have loved me so beautifully and fully, so crazily and completely, so ordinarily extraordinary. Look at us, living our lives together. Everything has changed, everything will continue to change, but we will still be here, in a car, kissing like teenagers over a lifetime of stories shared. Look at us, in the middle of our marriage.”

How could I read that today and not cry?  And I mean awkward, loud, sobbing, ugly crying.

I have loved God since my sixth birthday, when I prayed the sinner’s prayer for the last time, and I know that he is always with me.  But sometimes, God is not enough.  God can’t take out the trash.  He can’t cuddle with me during the sad parts of a movie.  He can’t hold my hand when we walk together.  He can’t laugh at me when I cheer at the tv screen when Eowyn kills the Nazgul.  He can’t cheer along with me.  God will never look at me the way my father looks at my mother.  He will never surprise me with flowers or empty the dishwasher or plan a birthday part for me.  He won’t come get me when my car breaks down or help me make a grocery list.

I don’t understand why this has to be so hard.  I don’t understand why I would be asked to give so much up.  This feels cruel in a way that I don’t want God to be.  I mean, if I was going to be permanently single, why couldn’t I have been an asexual, aromantic?  And honestly, it’s hard to accept “this is God’s will for you” when I know that my friend is going back to her lovely, two bedroom home and her wonderful husband and her kind, supportive parents.

My mom and I had an interesting talk last week about Job.  She insists that the book is basically about the futility of asking God “Why?”  I think that actually makes a lot of sense, probably more than anything else I’ve ever heard about Job.  But I think it’s important that God doesn’t come to Job in chapter 6 and shut down his questioning.  Instead, God allows Job to talk things through.  God allows Job to process his loss and grief and shout all of his angry questions at the sky.  Then, when Job is basically out of things to say, God starts talking.

So for the moment, I am thankful for God’s patience.  I am grateful that he gives us time to process.  I am grateful that he doesn’t give us answers until we are ready.  I am grateful that I have friends who are willing to let me wrestle with this and be angry and sad.  And I hope that we get to chapter 38 in my personal book of Job really, really soon.

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Glitter Boobs and Shower Epiphanies

Last week, a bunch of bloggers got into a fight over glittery boobs.

I found out about it because I read Sarah Moon, and she posted her two cents on the post that started it all.  So I read the original post.  Then I read Sarah’s take on things.  Then I read Dianne Anderson’s take on things.  Then I stopped reading because I was uncomfortable with all of it and couldn’t quite put my finger on why.

A few days later, I came back to the issue through Amy’s “Notable News” post.  This time, I read all the posts and quite a chunk of the comments, and then I took a shower.  And as so often happens, in the shower I finally figured out what made me uncomfortable about the original post.

The day that I first found this online argument, I got distracted by my co-worker’s boobs.  She had on a low-cut-but-still-work-appropriate top, and I kind of zoned out staring.  That was inappropriate of me.  She caught me staring, and we had an awkward “I just realized that you are staring at my boobs, but I am not going to call you out on it because I know you’re a nice person and now that I’ve noticed, you’ll stop” moment, and then life moved on.

But what if she didn’t know me?  What if I was a random stranger that she caught staring at her boobs?  Then she would have no context for my behavior, and it would be a lot more difficult to attribute intentions behind my inappropriateness.

So let’s think about this scenario:  I ride the bus to and from work.  The bus is standing-room-only most days, but because I get on at the first stop and off at the last stop, I usually end up with a seat at some point.  So let’s say that I get on the bus and sit down.  Later, as the bus fills, someone is standing directly in front of me.  Let’s say it’s a man.  Let’s say he’s staring at my boobs.

Now, maybe he’s got an audio book on his iPod, and he’s just super engrossed in the plot.  Maybe he’s perfectly harmless and zoned out and would feel really awful if I publicly embarrassed him by calling him out about the fact that he’s staring.  But maybe he’s actually a creeper who’s enjoying my inadvertent free show.

I have no way of knowing.

What I do know is that this would make me uncomfortable, but I probably wouldn’t say anything.  I’m not a confrontational person.  I’m generally pretty insecure.  So I would feel uncomfortable about the staring, but I wouldn’t say anything because I would also feel uncomfortable about making a scene.

But what if he gets off at my bus stop?  What if he is walking in the same direction as me?  What if he starts talking to me?

Maybe he’s just a nice, not-so-observant guy who noticed that a pretty girl got off at the same bus stop.  Maybe he’s trying to work up the courage to ask me for my phone number.  Maybe he’s at a boring point in his hypothetical audio book, and he’d rather make conversation while he walks home.

Or maybe he’s planning on harassing me.  Maybe he’s hoping to pick me up.  Maybe he’s not going to take no for an answer.  Maybe he’s going to be aggressive.

At this point, I would be panicking.  My apartment complex is in an area that doesn’t get a lot of foot traffic.  In fact, at the time of day when I am usually walking home, there isn’t a lot of traffic period.  There are apartment complexes and business lining the street, but they are set back from the road and usually surrounded by trees.  It’s not unusual for me to walk home without ever seeing anyone.

At this point, I would be dearly wishing that I had made a scene on the bus.  Maybe if I had been more aggressive, he would know where my boundaries are.  Maybe I could have scared him off.  But I started out with the assumption that I shouldn’t say anything because he’s probably a nice guy that doesn’t mean any harm, and now I feel obligated to continue with that assumption.  Now that I’ve let him make me uncomfortable once, I feel obligated to let him make me uncomfortable again.

Maybe staring doesn’t seem like a big deal, but I should never feel obligated to let someone make me feel uncomfortable, because that is a slippery slope towards “She acted like she wanted it.”

Women live with the constant awareness that the men around them are probably predators.  Men are not encouraged to cultivate this awareness, so to them, women who make a big deal out of a little innocent, mindless staring are crazy and paranoid.  They are over-emotional.  They are dressing to get attention and then objecting when someone pays attention.  As women, when a guy points this out to us, we have a great opportunity to do some privilege-checking.  We have a great opportunity to say, “Okay, but think about it from her perspective.  Maybe the last guy who was staring was a creep.  Maybe he followed-up his staring by trying to cop a feel.  Maybe she thought the only way to avoid being victimized was to take the offensive.”  What we shouldn’t do is buy into the privileged perspective on the situation and make the argument that it’s okay for nice guys to make someone feel uncomfortable because . . . they’re nice guys.

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Rehteah Parsons and Rape Culture

I’ve been reading about Rehteah Parsons the last couple of days.  I saw a quote somewhere that called it “Halifax’s own Steubenville.”  And I just have to wonder . . . how many times is this going to happen?  How many times before we stop talking about it and do something?

When did rape become funny?  When did forcing someone who can’t or won’t consent to have sex become a prank?  When did it become acceptable to spread pictures of it around?  This isn’t saran-wrapping someone’s car or filling it with foam peanuts.  This is someone’s life.

The script in the media after the Steubenville trial read, “She may have suffered for one night, but this will end these boys’ entire lives.”  Rape is not something that lasts one night or a couple of days while you heal up or even a few weeks.  Rape affects its survivors for the rest of their lives.  On top of the initial, physical trauma, rape survivors suffer emotional trauma that leads to PTSD, sleep disturbances, and relationship problems for years.  Rape survivors often have huge medical bills to pay from ER visits, follow-ups, and ongoing testing to make sure that they didn’t catch anything from the rapist.  HIV testing continues for a year after a potential exposure, so the survivor is subjected to the emotionally draining process of getting tested multiple times over the course of a year, each time dreading and worrying about the results.  Young rape survivors may have to drop out of school because of the complications they experience after being raped.

We have to change our understanding of what rape is.  Rape is a serious crime that has long-lasting physical, emotional and financial effects on its survivors.  Rape is generally not perpetrated by strangers or by poor men of color.  Rape is not perpetrated by the monster in the closet or by Hannibal Lector.  Rape is most often perpetrated by someone the victim knows.  Rape is not something that anyone asks for.  There is no continuum of “legitimacy” for rape.

We know these things.  But the media still portrays rape as a crime committed by strangers, usually poor men of color.  We still talk about women who are “asking for it” by being out late, dressing a certain way, or drinking too much.  We still tell our daughters to be careful about a million tiny things.  We still slut-shame and laugh at jokes that demean or dehumanize.  We still refuse to talk to our kids about sex in meaningful, healthy ways.  We still talk about women as if they are property, often public property.  We still insist that a woman’s rightful place is under a man.  (And yes, I meant that in all of its potentially disturbing double-entendre.)  We still refuse to think about the culture that our words and actions create, a culture in which rape is apparently the equivalent of an April Fool’s joke.

We can do better than this.  We have to do better than this.

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Blessed are the Peacemakers

I’ve been reading a lot about dialogue lately.  I actually read all the way through Justin Lee’s blog chronologically yesterday.  It got me thinking about what happens when someone changes their mind about a controversial issue (as I’ve been doing recently) or about what happens when two people meet who disagree on a number of points.  It made me remember ways that I’ve responded to differences that I’m not proud to look back on.

I wrote this letter because it’s how I want to move forward in my own life and how I would like to see the Church move forward as a whole.  It started out as a letter from a parent to a child, but I realized that these relationships are not limited to blood connections.  Those who “come out” (as GLBT, as liberals, as feminists, as conservatives, as Christians, as Muslims, as Buddhists, as different) face reactions of anger and betrayal from many different directions, and they can all be quite devastating.

Dear Friend,

We seem to be disagreeing a lot lately, don’t we?  It seems to make you sad.  It makes me sad, too.  These are issues that I really care about, some of them because I believe that they carry a great deal of moral weight and others because they affect my own life.  I know that you see them the same way, as morally and practically important, even if we do take opposite positions.

You also seem angry, though, that I disagree with you.  You seem to take my opinions, my beliefs, as an affront to our friendship.  You seem angry that I could betray you by turning away from the things you believe in.  You seem angry that I would transgress the values you hold so dear.

Friend, we are two completely different people, and it’s only natural that our experiences and explorations would have led us to have some differences.  I have seen and done things that you will never do, not because I am better than you but because we are different people living different lives.  I was never going to see the world entirely through your eyes.

I am entitled to my opinions.  You don’t have to agree with them, but I wish you would respect my right to hold them.

Mostly, though, I wish that our entire relationship didn’t seem to revolve around these issues.  Do you really love our disagreements more than you love me?  Why can’t we talk about how that new guy at your job is doing and what color I’m going to paint the bathroom?  Why can’t we spend time together and just catch up instead of turning to political debate and sermonizing?  Is it really necessary to leave informational pamphlets in the bathroom every time I come over?  Is it really necessary to email me all those articles?

I don’t want our differences to define us.  I want love to be the center of our relationship.

I hope we can hang out again soon.

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