Ten things that I have learned to do better - Reflections of a Pastor and a Parent
10. To look into the subject for myself.
It was God’s mercy alone that prepared me to fully accept John when he came out to me with trembling and fear about how I would react to his news. Had I not had six months to prepare, I honestly don’t know how I would have reacted to his news. I don’t know that I would have thrown my arms round him and told him that I loved him as I was able to do. You can’t change your whole way of thinking in a moment.
You may be a parent and fully believe that your children will grow up happily heterosexual. But will they? What are the chances that they could be LGBT+? In the 2011 UK population Census, 6% of the respondents failed to describe themselves as exclusively male or female. There may be reasons other than them identifying as LGBT+ to explain this, so take as a working figure that 4% of the population are LGBT+. Consequently, as a parent, if you have two children, there could well be a one in 12.5 chance that one of your children is gay. With five children such as we have the chances rise to one in five … which is exactly what we have.
Don’t think, as I did, that it can’t happen to good Christians like you. It can. If you haven’t thought it through beforehand, it will be much more difficult for you and them. You may then be tempted to go to the church eldership for counsel and get any negative beliefs that you may already have, reinforced. My wife and I went to a respected church leader in our city for some advice in the early days after John came out. He said to us, “Don’t say the word ‘gay’ because that will give it power.” This was, of course, nonsense and fortunately I saw it for what it was. But it could have been a real stumbling block for me if I had taken it on board.
Don’t just assume that your church has taught you the truth about sexuality and gender identity. Look into it for yourself. Read up the arguments for and against acceptance and inclusion and trust that God will guide you.
9. To tell them you love them.
Actually, by God’s grace I was able to do this one right, but I don’t think I would have done so without God’s intervention. I have included it, though, because it’s so important.
Young people have told me that coming out to their parents is the most terrifying ordeal that they have ever faced. It takes great courage to do this and even if they are almost certain that you will be understanding, there is that small fear in their minds that you won’t accept them.
You may already have some inkling but it may, on the other hand, be a total shock to you. In such a situation emotions can dominate and there’s the chance that things are said that will later be regretted. All I can say is that they are your beautiful child, the same one they were the day before and they need your love and acceptance more than ever now.
Let them know that you love them and will always love them and give them the biggest hug of their lives. This moment isn’t the time for doctrinal discussions or debates.
8. To be honest about my own emotions.
On the other hand, it’s important to be real. If it’s a total shock to you, tell them. They have had perhaps years to come to terms with who they really are – you have had just minutes. Whilst affirming your love for them, explain that you need some time to process the information for yourself. Often youngsters plan to come out just before going away for a while, perhaps to University or on a holiday away from the family. This can actually be a helpful and wise move, giving you time to come to terms with what they have told you. In the following hours and days your head may well be swimming with all kinds of questions, thoughts and fears that keep popping up as you digest what this means for your child and the family. At this stage it may seem like a massive, intractable problem that has just been dumped on your lap, but this will pass and you will be able to see things in a better perspective in the coming days.
One lesbian friend of ours sat her parents down and told them that she was suffering from an incurable condition. In their minds in the following seconds they immediately imagined her to be dying of cancer. So, when she then told them that she was a lesbian, they were hugely relieved. (I don’t actually recommend coming out to parents that way, but it worked for her.) There’s no perfect way for everyone but there are certain times to avoid if possible, like over the family meal at Christmas or the older sister’s wedding day.
7. To keep talking.
There can be a tendency after the emotions of the ‘coming out’ conversation to want to avoid the subject if possible and almost act as if life is carrying on as normal. Don’t do this. Keep talking to your child. You may not be able to immediately get into a conversation with them without bursting into tears. That’s okay. But say to them what’s going on in your head and heart. Tell them that it was a huge shock for you and you are taking time to process it all but that you would be very grateful if you could sit down with them at some time in the near future to be able to ask them some of the questions that are going round your head and to be able to discuss with them how you can best support them in the future.
When they know this they will want to share things with you. It will possibly feel very strange and even alien to you in these early days but what we heterosexuals don’t usually grasp is how alien most of society is and has been to them for years. Their natural orientation as a gay or lesbian teenager is to be attracted to someone of their own sex. It’s heterosexual attraction that is alien to their minds. But they are in a world of heteronormativity where it is assumed almost universally that they will, ‘find themselves a boyfriend or girlfriend of the opposite sex’. They have had to guard their every thought, word and response to social situations in case they give the wrong signals to a heterosexual person and get a negative reaction.
As you talk things through with them your understanding will grow exponentially and your appreciation of what they have been living through will deepen your love and appreciation of them.
6. To recognize that it’s their news, but to encourage them to be ‘out’ with family and significant friends as soon as they are able.
We didn’t do this and I regret it now. We left it to our son to tell his siblings and the rest of the family whenever he felt able, but he left it for quite a long time. This had the result of making it difficult for us, keeping something as important as this a secret from close family. But, more importantly, when he did tell them, the most upsetting thing to one of them was that we had kept this secret from her for so long.
Don’t assume that perhaps Grandad will be homophobic either. We told one elderly relative, expecting her to be very old fashioned in her thinking and having difficulty accepting him. But she said that she quite understood and had recently watched an informative episode of East Enders on the TV anyway.
With Facebook, Twitter and other social media today, it’s hard to keep the genie inside the bottle. People prefer to be told directly than to hear it via third parties. It’s not everyone’s business, of course. After all, I don’t introduce my other sons to people as, “here’s my heterosexual son,”. But, if possible, it’s better for those who you will want to know, to know sooner rather than later.
5. To get to know their friends.
For heterosexual parents, the LGBT world can seem strange and hostile initially. We can harbor all kinds of fears for our children’s future. Not just about prejudice and possible violence from homophobic people but also about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, drugs and possible loneliness etc. We might hear about the “gay scene” and fear for what sub culture our children are being sucked into.
But as soon as we are able to meet some of their friends and get to know them our fears begin to subside. We find that they are exactly the same as us, with the same hopes and dreams and strengths and weaknesses, except that they have different sexualities and/or gender identities. We have been to lots of Gay Prides around the country and have found them to be enormously happy social events, free from drunkenness, violence or nastiness of any kind. It’s not everywhere that you can walk down the road with “God loves Gays” on your t shirt and have strangers come up and give you hugs, but that’s what we have experienced.
4. To speak up!
There’s a lot of controversy about LGBT issues today, especially in religious circles. These people have been maligned, rejected, accused of heresy and threatened with damnation by possibly well-meaning but deluded Christians. They need heterosexual allies who will speak up on their behalf. In the early days of discovering you have an LGBT child this may not be possible. But as you learn the truth and see more and more of what is going on, not just here but around the world, it’s not wrong to feel righteous indignation.
So, don’t be afraid to challenge homophobic words and actions. Your intervention may change the whole situation for good. You may get some backlash, but so what? That’s nothing compared to what they have had to suffer for years.
One good practice is to take the initiative and say something overtly LGBT inclusive before anyone else has a chance to say something negative. This will often nip hurtful conversations and jokes in the bud and stop them developing. You may not be able to do this initially. But don’t worry, as time went on I found I couldn’t help myself from saying what was on my heart and you may well find the same.
You can make a difference.
3. To share with other parents who are on the same journey.
You may need time alone at first to process what you have learned but as soon as you feel able to share your feelings, your thoughts, hopes and fears, it is invariably extremely encouraging and healing to be able to talk with other parents who have walked where you are walking.
Groups like DCP and the charity FFLAG in the UK, of which I am a Trustee are the ideal places where you can be assured of complete confidentiality and support. It is so encouraging to know that you are not alone and that all the emotions and thoughts you are experiencing aren’t wrong or selfish but are quite natural and healthy reactions to learning that your child is LGBT. You may also find other groups associated with your particular denomination that will provide mutual support and friendship.
Not only that but you will find there may be multiple other advantages too. You may develop new friendships that you would never otherwise have had. You may discover, if you continue to meet with other parents that your testimony is actually the very thing that resonates with the experiences of a newcomer and exactly what they need to hear. This can be deeply rewarding both for you and them. You may also find that amongst these people you will find a role to speak out and actively support our LGBT fellow Christians and others too.
We are stronger when we stand together.
2. To understand and be compassionate towards Christians who are locked into a legalistic non-inclusive theology.
Christian organizations can be institutionally homophobic, biphobic and transphobic. By their very nature they can tend to be conservative and resist change. Much of the leadership’s energies are devoted towards preserving what they have and maintaining control. Amongst many Christians in the UK there is a dawning in their minds that God doesn’t reject people because of their sexuality or gender identity. But church organizations have kept such a lid on things that they are preventing their membership from freely discussing their healthier new understanding amongst themselves. They resist change, by their very nature.
But change will not be stopped.
Hopefully it will not be acrimonious. We all need to understand that people can hold diametrically opposing views to us and be totally sincere about it. Traditionalists are fiercely holding onto the “faith once delivered” to them and they see the modern trend towards inclusion as a watering down of God’s truth and a denial of Scripture. They can be just as loving in their own hearts in saying that homosexuality is a sin. I just believe they are wrong.
Other Christians aren’t our enemies. We need to speak the truth in love to one another and where we disagree, do so lovingly with humility recognizing that we can be wrong about many things and it is God who judges and who sees our hearts.
Nevertheless, I could not be a part of a church that was abusive to its LGBT members and would not legitimize any such authority structure. But we are all different and it’s very much an individual decision we make as to whether or not continuing membership in a church is helping us and our families to grow in Christ or not.
While I was for a while a member of a local Anglican church, the vicar asked me if I would lead a small home group. I asked him if he would ask me that if I were in a relationship with a man that I loved rather than my wife. He said “No”. So, I told him that I could not be a part of a leadership that operated this way. I need to be free to speak the truth as I know it without fear or favour.
1. To understand the role that God would have me play at this crucial time in our history
This is perhaps the most important thing to understand in our lives. No matter how long or short your life will be, what does God want you to devote yourself to? So many Christians don’t know how to answer this when I ask them. I see that lots of people without a faith have some wonderful altruistic goals for their lives, often distilled in a crucible of suffering which has given them compassion for others. While others have gone the other way and want to become rich or famous or powerful, not recognizing that, although not wrong in themselves, none of these can satisfy the deep inner longings of our hearts.
But surprisingly so many Christians have goals such as putting in a certain amount of prayer or Bible study a day, attending church meetings regularly and evangelizing personally as their ‘Christian’ life goals. And more often than not, they spend most of the time in self-condemnation because they can’t consistently meet their own set standards.
These are wrong goals.
First of all, it’s not our job to change anyone else. That’s God’s prerogative and thank goodness he’s better at it than we are. In fact, as I grow older, I realize that I can’t change myself even. (I get more and more like my Dad every year.) Oh sure, we can change our actions if we are really determined, at least for a time, but, ultimately, we can’t deny what we are. That’s why so many ministries dedicated to supposedly setting gay men free from ‘same sex attraction’ don’t work. All they do, most of the time is suppress their true feelings. But eventually what they are, deep down inside must come out.
Similarly, it’s not our job to change church leaders. Our job is to love them. And that’s often a tough job that we can only do by turning to Jesus and letting Jesus do the work in us. That brings me to what our purpose and goal in life should be. I believe it is to allow God to form Christ in us.
It takes dedication, it takes devotion, it takes humbling and it takes suffering as we allow God to turn the burning laser light of the Holy Spirit into our hearts so that the old man dies and Christ is formed in our hearts. It’s not fun coming to face up to the vanity, jealousy, lust and greed that we so easily succumb to. But that’s how God purifies our hearts.
But with this as our goal nothing in heaven or on Earth can stop us. Not even our own weaknesses can prevent it happening because they are the very vehicles for God to come in and work in our hearts.