A few weeks ago we shared a letter we received from a young man whose mother reacted to his coming out with searing vitriol. In response, a fiercely loving group of self-styled “mama bears” rallied around him, showering him with messages of love, encouragement, and support. Many of these women are themselves the mothers of LGBT children, and have themselves struggled with coming to terms with their children’s sexualities.
The love and support that these mothers show is comforting for anyone whose relationship with his or her own parents is strained. More than that, their love is courageous. Loving and accepting an LGBT child often comes at a cost for parents, especially if they are Christian and active in the church. For many, coming out in support of their son or daughter means losing not only their friends and loved ones, but their whole community and even their livelihood.
It’s easy for those of us who have come to see sexuality as non-issue to sit in judgement of parents who don’t immediately join PFLAG upon learning that their child is gay, lesbian, bi, or transgender. It’s easy, when we’re not in their shoes, to say we’d never hesitate to embrace our child as he or she is. But life is never black and white. While it is true that there are people who reject their children based on callous, narrow-minded beliefs, I’d be willing to bet that most parents fail to embrace their LGBT children out of fear.
“Mom, dad, I’m gay,” can be one of the hardest things a parent ever hears. I’m not a parent, but I can see how those words would fill your heart with concern. A friend asked David and me recently if we hope at least one of our future children is gay. Without even looking at each other we both answered with a resounding “No.” It’s not that we don’t love ourselves, and it’s not that we don’t fully embrace the sexual orientation with which God blessed us. We both believe that God has used our sexuality to fashion us and grow us into better people than we would have been otherwise. He has used it to challenge us and to temper the less flexible aspects of our personalities—thanks to our sexual orientation we are more attuned to the suffering of others, more humble in our approach to the world. But precisely because we know the challenges, we wouldn’t wish them on our children—even though they will undeniably grow up in a much more accepting world than we did.
For many parents, their first fear upon learning that their child is gay is for their welfare. Some seemingly harsh responses often stem from true, if misguided, love. Parents unfamiliar with what being gay really means see images of their child losing himself to drugs and promiscuity; some might fear that being gay is akin to a death sentence. Christian parents often assume their child has strayed from the faith, and they fear for their child’s salvation. Loving parents who have been taught that homosexuality is a great sin will fight against it in an effort to help their child.
These fears are often dispelled when parents see that their child is embraced by their community, when they see that their child hasn’t changed in nature, and that the values they taught him or her have stuck. Many parents come around when they see that by embracing his or her sexuality their child has thrived and found true happiness. They come around by studying scripture, praying, and truly seeking God’s heart on this matter.
But there are other fears that are harder to overcome, even for the most loving, most gracious, and most supportive parents. I’m talking about the fear of the consequences they will face in their own lives. If you’re a pastor and your son comes out, you are often faced with two choices: Love and embrace him, or lose everything you’ve ever worked for. There are numerous examples of pastors being expelled or disciplined by their denominations, no matter how much of their lives they have devoted to their church—this pastor, for example, lost his credentials after more than 60 years of service.
Can we really judge a father who loves his daughter but knows that by embracing her he’ll lose his job and thus the ability to even pay for her education? Can we judge a mother who tells her son she supports him in private, but keeps his orientation a secret because she knows she’ll lose the church community that has been her spiritual family and support network for decades? What if both parents work for a Christian organization that will fire anyone who doesn’t declare opposition to same-sex marriage? Can we blame a couple that has trouble supporting their child’s relationship when it might cost them their jobs at an age when finding new employment can be extremely difficult?
The church has made a mess of things by forcing parents to choose between their love for their child and their commitment to their ministry. Churches and Christian organizations that purport to embrace family values should never pit parent against child. We can’t pretend there’s good fruit in that. And yet it happens. I hear it from people whose parents have been ostracized, and from people whose parents beg them not to come out because they fear the consequences it might have on their lives.
If you are a parent who has felt vilified for your concerns and fears, who wants to love and support your gay child, but can’t, I’m sorry. I’m sorry your own pain has been diminished, and I’m sorry you've had to suffer in the first place. The challenges and consequences you face are seen and appreciated. Know that you don’t stand alone. Your LGBT child knows and understands these fears, and this might be one area in which they can support you. Lean on them, ask them for advice—we’ve been through the closet doors ourselves, and we know the freedom God has for you on the other side. And know there are other parents in your shoes with whom you can connect. Visit FreedHearts and Serendipitydodah to get in touch with other Christian moms and dads of LGBT children.
Photo by Emmanuel Huybrechts, used with permission through Flickr Creative Commons.
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