“Mom, dad, I’m gay,” can be one of the hardest things a parent ever hears. We aren’t parents ourselves yet, but we can imagine how those words could fill someone’s heart with concern—first for their child, but also for themselves. It is important and just to acknowledge that loving your child unconditionally is in itself courageous. Accepting and supporting an LGBTQ 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 more progressive Christians who have come to see sexuality as a non-issue to judge parents who don’t immediately join pride parades upon learning that their child is queer. 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, the truth is most parents fail to embrace their LGBTQ children out of nothing but fear.
We’ll be honest. A friend asked us recently if we hope our future children are 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 certainly not that we don’t fully embrace our sexual orientation. We believe being gay has been a blessing. 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 upon our children—notwithstanding the fact that they will grow up in a more accepting world than we did.
Parents who react out of fear when their child comes out are primarily concerned for their welfare. Some seemingly harsh responses often stem from true, if misguided, love. Parents unfamiliar with what being gay or trans really means see images of their child losing themselves to drugs and promiscuity; some might fear that being LGBTQ 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. We’re 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. We 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, we’re sorry. We’re sorry your own pain has been diminished, and we’re 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 LGBTQ 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—they’ve been through the closet doors themselves, and they know the freedom God has for you on the other side.
Image adapted from a photo by Emmanuel Huybrechts, used through Flickr Creative Commons.