Quotes from a counselor’s office:
“Well, I’m gay, and my parents are super conservative Christians, so, you know…”
“My brother came out when he was 21, and my mom hasn’t talked to him since.”
“My family is really religious, and I didn’t want to disappoint them, so I married a woman when I was 20, even though I knew I was gay since the 7th grade.”
“Yeah, I come out to my parents about once a year. They’re still in denial that I am a lesbian. They’re getting better, though. At least they no longer tell me that I am an abomination and that I am going to hell. Now they just say that they love me no matter what, but if I choose to marry a woman, they will not attend the wedding. So, that’s where we’re at. That’s progress, right?”
“Both my grandfathers were Pentecostal preachers, so I grew up in THAT, where being gay wasn’t even allowed, or ever acknowledged as real.”
“When I was in high school, I told my parents I was gay. They took me to this Christian counselor who told me to pray and to read my scriptures. Like that was gonna “fix the gay problem.” That was not helpful at all. It just made me feel like a failure and a disappointment, because I was still gay. Still am.”
“During my first year of college, my best friend was transgender. When my fundamentalist Christian parents found this out, they made me withdraw from that school. They said they would only continue to finance my education if I attended Baylor University b/c it’s a Christian school. So, here I am. I am dependent on them to finance my education so I pretend to believe in things I don’t, and I pretend I don’t have LGBT friends.”
In my counseling office here in central Texas, these kinds of narratives are common. I have also worked in Michigan and in Colorado, and I don’t really remember hearing stories like these then. I suppose that the prevalence of this theme could be attributed to my current location. My counseling practice is located in Waco, TX, home to Baylor University, the biggest Baptist university in the world (according to their website). There are some seriously devout, religious people in this town, as well as in this state, and in this region of the country. In 100% of the stories of rejection, discrimination, and ostracization from family that I’ve heard from my LGBT clients, the reason is religion.
There is a consistent, frequent theme of irreconcilability between homosexuality and Christianity. This isn’t just something that occurs in a therapist’s office. I’m sure you’ve heard similar stories. For my clients who are struggling with this issue, I’m glad they end up in my office, where they can speak freely about their sexual orientation, their relationships, their confusion, and their pain. Many of these folks are struggling with their own religion or beliefs or faith, as it often systematically rejects an integral part of their identity. Most of them are dealing with hurt feelings when their families have (at best) misunderstood them, or (at worst) condemned, rejected, threatened, or abandoned them.
One client is still bewildered, angry, and hurt by the church and the people who rejected her when she came out as a lesbian. At the time, she had been an active member of her church for years, had been a consistent, loving, and dedicated Sunday school teacher. This woman was a career teacher as well – she loves children. However, upon learning that she was gay, the church suspended her from volunteerism that included any contact with the children, lest she somehow was compelled to harm them in some way. She was given an ultimatum by the leaders of the church: participate in “Deliverance Ministry” (which literally means “to drive out the demons”) with one of their trained ministers, or leave. Traumatized, humiliated, and rejected by the faith community that had been her friends and family for years, she left.
I Just Don’t Get It
I grew up without religion, so there is a lot about “faith,” as it is often referred to, that I simply do not understand. I don’t understand how people allow their faith to interfere with being kind, loving and supportive to other human beings. I don’t understand how a person’s loyalty to their faith trumps their loyalty to their children. I don’t understand how a doctrine, or a belief in a god, influences a person to discriminate against homosexuals. I cannot conceive of how one person’s sexual preferences affect anyone else’s, aside from those with whom they are in a relationship, of course. I never have, and I never will. It truly puzzles me.
I also have to process my own feelings around these issues presented by my clients. (Yep, therapists are humans, usually sensitive ones, and have emotional responses to their clients!) I feel sad for them that they’ve lost the support of their parents (in the majority of these stories, this is the greatest loss). I feel incredulous about the outrageous and hurtful things that my clients have heard from their parents – things that cannot be unsaid, and things that damage relationships, sometimes beyond repair. I feel frustrated that religious belief, tenets, philosophies, and constructs seem to lag behind the general morality of humanity, thus creating this dissonance for people who presumably want to love their God and their child. I feel angry when my clients (and countless others) are confused, damaged, and hurt by religion and by the people who subscribe to it. And finally, I feel stymied about how or why millions of people retain their faith when, to me, religion seems to systematically promote hostility, confusion, discrimination, and shame unto those who do not conform to its presuppositions.
But many people do, and will, retain their faith. I know this. Many people characterize their faith as vitally important, and, in fact, seek and find comfort and grace in their darkest times through their faith… or so I’m told. (Again, secular person here, so I don’t have a firsthand experience of this phenomenon.) But why must fear and suspicion of sexual differences be part of that faith? And, why are Christians willing to hold onto a belief system that doesn’t seem to reconcile with them wanting to love, support, and protect their own children?
Several weeks ago, I met for the first time with a young woman in her 20s, who was reluctant to admit her homosexuality to me, even in our confidential setting.
Her: Yeah, I’ve only had relationships with women, and I guess I’m OK with that, now. I tried to like guys, but I just don’t. I can’t tell my parents though. They’d disown me if they found out I was gay.
Me: How do you know that?
Her: Because that’s what they told me.
Me: They literally told you they’d disown you if you were gay?
Her: Yes. It already happened to my brother.
This same client recently experienced an abrupt and painful breakup that triggered a fairly severe depressive episode. In a discussion where we identified the people in her support network, she could not include her parents. They were oblivious to her pain, her struggle, and the dangerously low point she was experiencing in her life because they had made it clear that it was not safe for her to be honest with them.
So. While I KNOW that all Christians aren’t acting like this and the majority of them (or so I’d like to believe) are kind, loving, open, and accepting, I’d like to end this post with a note to the Christians who ARE behaving negatively:
PLEASE STOP THIS.
You are hurting people. Stop rejecting your loved ones based on their sexual orientation. Stop setting conditions for your love and approval. Stop equating homosexuality (or anything else on the spectrum of sexual preference, presentation, or expression that you do not understand) with deviance, pedophilia, brokenness, or wickedness.
Be kind. Be nurturing. Be patient, sensitive, and loving. Be curious, yes, but satisfy your curiosity by asking questions – and not with snark, condescension, or disgust; remember the importance of kindness – just be genuine. Seek to learn that which you do not understand.
Furthermore, if you are not comfortable openly asking your family member about these sensitive or private matters, there’s this thing called the internet where you can find LOTS of information. I implore you to access it. Consider PFLAG, Advocates for Youth, or BeLonG To. Do not simply consult, commiserate, or gossip with your friends or current religious community. This will likely only reinforce your fears, paranoia, and ignorance. It will not help you to be a safe place for your loved one, and it will not help you to learn and grow. If you want to maintain deep and meaningful connections with your child as he or she journeys through life, be kind. In the name of love, stop doing the hurtful things.
“OK, well if that’s his/her choice…”
No, no, NO. Please don’t call it a choice. It’s no more a choice than eye color or left-handedness. If homosexuality were a choice, would there be any homosexuals in the Deep South? Doubtful. Simply being gay here can be very, very costly.
Just love them. Love and acceptance usually leads to much more favorable relationship outcomes than judgement and rejection.
[Image Source: Adobe Stock]