Raising a Gay Son

butterfly

My mother was hurt when I first came out of the closet. I was 32, and I was a father, and when I called to tell her, she reacted with shock and pain, as if her life was falling apart. She’d reacted much the same way when my younger sister, Sheri, had come out years before. She somehow, at the time, saw our exits from the closet as a personal failing, as if she had done something wrong, and being told her son was gay was a personal trauma for her.

This was a delicate time for me, one where I felt my own life was falling apart, and it took me a long time to be able to recognize her trauma. The night after my call, she called several others to confide in them, telling them I was gay and that she wasn’t sure what to do. And when word of this got back to me, I called her back, furious and screaming that she had no right to tell my secrets to others. It was perhaps the only time in my life when I had yelled at my mother. She understood, of course, but she was hurt too. Everything she had ever known about me was a lie, she said.

And then, our emotions spent, my mother’s voice softened, and she confided in me. “That’s not true. I knew. I always knew. I was just so afraid of it. But I knew.”

“How did you know?” I asked, confused and hurting.

“You were just different. More compassionate. Different from the other babies, the other kids. I’ve always suspected, always been afraid that you were gay.”

I’ve now been out for seven years, and I’ve seen that narrative play out in coming out stories over and over again. Mothers and fathers who knew their kids were gay, right from the beginning, but were afraid to say it, afraid to talk about it. And sometimes I can’t help but wonder why.

How different my upbringing would have been if my mom, if anyone really, had told me that being gay was a normal, healthy, happy thing. What if it had been a viable option? What were people so afraid of? I asked a few different parents of gay kids this, and I took notes on their responses.

“I was worried that if I told her she might be gay, that it would actually cause her to be gay. Like it would set up expectations for her future.”

“I thought that if I told him he was gay then he would get teased by other kids more, and I didn’t want to make his adolescence harder.”

“Even though I knew he was gay, I didn’t want it to be true. I thought that he could change it if he tried, so I was harder on him than my other sons.”

“I wanted grandchildren. If he was gay, I’d never have grandchildren.”

“If any of my children were gay, I didn’t know how to reconcile that with my religion. If gay people can’t be in heaven, what would that mean for our family bonds there? What would happen to them? It was easier to keep quiet.”

These are difficult questions to address, but what all of them leave out is this: by not making homosexuality an option for children, by not letting kids be who they really are, kids end up raised in the closet. If straight kids are taught that gay is inferior, they treat gay as inferior. If gay kids are taught that gay is inferior, they grow up hiding, feeling inferior, and seeing themselves as broken; they grow up silent, silenced, closed off, and divided. They feel different and can’t talk about it. Sometimes they are abused, forced into therapy, told they are not good enough or that they must change. And then these kids grow up into adults who have attachment, anxiety, depression, and self-esteem problems. Unhealthy relationships, suicide attempts, and therapy rates go up-up-up because there is more pain from childhood, more trauma, represented across the gay population. (And the statistics for transgender individuals, as always, are much higher).

My sons, J and A, are 9. They have a dad who is gay and a mom who is straight. They have gay friends, straight friends, and transgender friends. They know that there are differences in skin color, languages, religions, and social statuses. They know that both of their parents date men. They ask hard questions. There is no disturbance for them with this, because their parents are happy and balanced people. And while we have ideas about them and their futures, we don’t give them a script. We teach them to be kind, to have manners, to apologize when needed, to express their feelings, to listen, to be responsible. And we encourage them to be exactly who they are.

In discussions about the future, both of my sons have, more than once, said that they are gay, and that they are straight. “I have a crush on a boy. I’m gay” or “I like a girl, I’m straight” or “I don’t think I want to get married ever, but maybe I’ll adopt some kids.” And I hear these statements in exactly the same way that I hear their changing ideas that they might want to be a dancer, a hunter, a millionaire, a farmer, a rancher, a zookeeper, or a doctor. I tell them that they have plenty of time to decide who they are, and that I will love and support them no matter what. I tell them that they are beautiful to me, and that I love them “a million times.” (My 6-year old recently responded that he loved me “a million infinity thousand googleplex times back”, followed by a “ha-ha, Daddy, I win.”)

The key point is here that I will not project my own biases on to my children. I want them to be the best versions of themselves. I want them to be, well, them. Gay or straight or transgender, Mormon or atheist, just them, and happy, and good.

And for every parent out there, those who worry that their kids might turn out gay, well, don’t. Honestly, I think every parent deserves at least one gay kid. Research shows that many gay people have greater amounts of compassion, creativity, and talent per capita than straight people do, so who wouldn’t want that for their family?

And as for me and my mom? We talk every day. She grew up in a different era, so having gay kids is still unfamiliar to her, but she loves her children, and she supports us. She asks Sheri about her wife, she asks me about my boyfriend. We talk about the things that I write about (blogs like this one), and she offers opinions and understandings. Our relationship is much deeper than it was before I came out, and we are close friends. She has four straight daughters, one straight son, one gay son, and one gay daughter. And she loves us all just the same.

And that’s how it should be.

 

 

Love the Gay Away

Jesus

The four “recovering Mormons” took the stand and, one by one, introduced themselves to the audience. All of them had found solace and belonging in a new faith community, an Evangelical church, and now wanted to share the good word with the public. A room with a few hundred people watched as they spoke on the topic of leaving Mormonism to find new religion.

The first woman spoke about her lifelong struggle with depression as she fought to be the perfect Mormon daughter, wife, housewife, and mother. She internalized her doubts and pains for years before learning about some of the more bizarre Mormon doctrines (like “the second anointing”), and she suddenly spiraled right out of the church. She replaced her depression, she said, with a profound love for Jesus.

The pastor of the church gave a fascinating account of setting up a Christian organization within the confines of Utah, which he profoundly described as different than any other place. The bulk of his congregation, which had grown by about 150 members per years over the past few decades, were made up of those who had left Mormonism, or at the very least who were constantly influenced by the Mormonism around them. He was handsome, cheerful, and charismatic, and it was easy to picture him leading a congregation in a sermon and inspiring them to belief and action with his words.

Everyone present talked about a great love for the Bible and for the teachings of Jesus, and they discussed everyone in the room being welcome. I remained skeptical, but happy to see this resource in this community. I remembered the months I had spent as a Mormon missionary in Philadelphia, two decades earlier, investigating other religions, and after a while all of them felt mostly the same with just a few differences.

And then the next member of the panel introduced herself. She was likely in her late 30s or early 40s and wore comfortable clothes, jeans and a jacket. She had short blonde hair. She reminded me immediately of my sister Sheri, who lives on the East Coast with her wife, and I wondered if this woman might also be gay. “If she is, then cool, they welcome gay people here,” I thought. And then the woman started sharing her story.

She talked about growing up with damaged parents and being raised by her grandparents, leaving Mormonism after coming out of the closet (“ha, I was right,” I thought), entering a series of bad relationships, and eventually finding Jesus in this faith community. She then began to refer to her lesbianism in the past tense. She now realized that she was part of a worship community that taught her actual truth, she reasoned, and if she truly loved Jesus, then she had to do as he commanded. Sex was to only be in the bounds of marriage, and marriage was only between a man and a woman.

I leaned over to my friend next to me and whispered, “oh, gross”, feeling the strain of all of the years before that I’d had in the closet. It exhausted me to see yet another person going through this damaging reasoning, away from Mormonism, years after being actively gay, only to return to the closet in the name of Christianity.

 

My friend whisper back, “Wait, is she saying she is ex-lesbian?”

The host of the event asked the woman that, followed by several other questions. He is an accomplished host, a straight male with a wife and family who was excommunicated from Mormonism for asking hard questions, and one who has done advanced research studies on LGBT change efforts in religious communities. He recounted basic research that showed that change efforts were universally successful, that mixed-orientation marriages almost always fail, and that the worst of all of the options for overall mental health was a life of celibacy (which is what the Mormon religion and other faith communities currently expect from their active LGBT members).

But the woman dug her heels in. “The more you try to persuade me, the more I extend my roots into Jesus.” She talked about finding more love in Jesus than she ever could in the arms of a woman, wanting to marry a man eventually (one who loved Jesus more than she does, she said), and about teaching others in a ‘homosexuality and Christianity group” in the church about her story. She said the church had a lot of gay friends, some of them even married, who attended or who came in for lectures in the group.

The charismatic paster then grabbed his mic, talking about how at the last sermon he gave, “four or five gay guys” came up to him after the service and shook his hand, saying how much they enjoyed it. He then reemphasized that everyone was welcome, and that we are all “sexual sinners” who have to become right before the Lord.

“Gross,” I muttered again. Because as a “sexual sinner”, he still got to have sex with his wife, and he was propagating the expectation that those who are gay never get to enjoy sex at all.

Listening there, I had the bizarre realization that this experience was the direct counter-point to Mormonism, yet still the exact same homophobia and discrimination. Growing up Mormon, I was told homosexuality was evil, abominable, and curable. Lately, the narrative had changed yet remained the same. Now homosexuality was seen as something that couldn’t be altered, but that must be just ignored and denied, for those who had sex even with a same-sex married partner would be shunned and kicked out. Yet here, the message was one of celebration and joy. Instead of “follow our rules or you are out,” it was “Everyone is welcome here! Jesus loves everyone! We don’t care about your sins cause we are all sinners! (And also, gay people are worse). Let Jesus love your gay away!”

I walked away from the broadcast feeling confused, angry, and sad. While each person has their own individual journey, including the right to be celibate or in a mixed-orientation marriage, I was so weary of people putting themselves on a platform to say “I did it, so you can too! Look at me as an example! If I can suffer, you can join me!”

I walked back into the cold night sky contemplating the ideas about Jesus, a bizarre concoction of unconditional love and required suffering, and realized that pretty much any moment I spent in any church was a moment I could be spending somewhere else. And if Jesus is real, I’m pretty sure he would be okay with that.