A Choice for Christians When a Family Member Comes Out: Dogma or Love?
Posted on February 22, 2014
Mom had knee surgery this week. She is already home from the hospital and is healing well. Dad, who lives in Florida with his partner Franco, flew to Indiana the day before Mom’s surgery to be her main support system while she recovers. Over the past couple of days, I have watched him turn into “Nurse Dad,” a role I’ve never seen him play before. Nurse Dad has driven Mom to the hospital, updated the rest of the family on her condition via text, picked up meals, taken care of her dog and cats, covered her with blankets, learned about all of the pain medications she’s supposed to be taking, created a medication log, brought her home, fetched her everything she has needed, helped her get to and from the bathroom, fixed her meals, and done every little thing he can to keep her comfortable and help her heal.
My parents divorced several years ago, some time after Dad shared with the family that he is gay, and some time before he came out publicly via an interview with The Washington Blade in 2008. (Parts of my parents’ story have been told in The New York Times, the Indy Star, and a number of other places. You can also access Dad’s story via his music, and Mom’s via her blog.)
I’ve been thinking recently about the way that anti-gay religious dogma destroys so many families who face situations similar to ours. Many modern-day Christians have been raised with a very specific dogma about sexual orientation. Although there is nothing resembling consensus on LGBT issues within the Church, I think it’s safe to say that a majority of believers are faithful to a pretty narrow interpretation of scripture. That interpretation requires its adherents to view homosexuality as a sickness, a sin, or perhaps even worse. For people who live by this dogma, it can be extremely difficult when a parent, a child, or a spouse comes out of the closet.
I was raised in that kind of dogma. Every church and Christian institution I was exposed to as a child, adolescent, teenager, and even young adult taught that homosexuality was a sin. At 22, had only just come to an opposing conclusion (that homosexuality is, in fact, a natural, amoral orientation that was not intrinsically sinful) when Dad came out to the family, and that was due to the fact that I had done a lot of reading, a lot of studying, and a lot of praying about the issue. It was contrary to what everyone else around me believed.
When Dad came out to us, we had a choice: continue believing what we’d always been taught about sexual orientation by our churches and community and therefore reject him as a sinner and a failure, or re-evaluate what we’d been taught and support him, understanding that reality of our experience didn’t match what we’d been taught. At all.
We went the route of understanding, support, and change.
According to Christian scripture, people will know we are followers of Jesus because of the love we exhibit.
When I look at families who have rejected their loved ones because of their orientation, I don’t see much love. I see a lot of brokenness. I see parents and children separated, spouses hating each other. I see adult children divided over how to respond to their outed parent. I’ve seen a woman say to her lesbian sister, her children’s beloved aunt, “I don’t want you around my children.”
So often, Christians believe this unfortunate lie that the best way to respond to a gay family member is to greet them with “tough love.” Love them, but don’t “accept their lifestyle.” Welcome them into your home, but not if they insist on bringing a partner. Warn them that while you love them, they are bound for hell. Get them into reparative therapy. Send them to in-patient treatment centers run by organizations that want to “cure” their orientation.
When Dad came out, we all wondered what the future was going to look like. Would our parents stay married? Would we still have family holidays? We had always been a very closely-knit family, preferring our own company to that of anyone else. Would that change?
What we knew for sure: we weren’t going to reject our dad. We weren’t going to tell him he was going to hell. We weren’t going to force him to live by dogmatic rules that didn’t match reality.
Things have definitely changed. Dad lives in Florida with Franco. Mom lives on her own in the same house. I live next door to Mom. Sometimes, I sense in Mom a great sadness over the changes in her life–the fact that things have not turned out as expected. Dad comes up for birthdays and holidays, sometimes on his own and sometimes with Franco. He no longer plays big concerts at Christian megachurches, but rather small venues full of affirming gay Christians and some fans from a long time ago who are thrilled to learn that he is living honestly. All of us kids try to get down to Florida every couple of years for a visit with our own kids.
My family is full of love. Things can be hard for my parents as they try to navigate the new realities of their relationship, but none of us have conflict with each other over this “issue” of Dad’s orientation. If we had clung to the religious dogma we’d been raised in, I believe we would have lost what we have as a family. If Mom had refused to see Dad’s situation for what it was–not sinful, but rather human and complicated–would they have preserved the closeness they still have? If my siblings and I had insisted that Dad was selfishly destroying his family (the way that radio personalities and pastors and bloggers have insisted), then we actually would have destroyed our family.
Dad is taking care of Mom again today. He’ll be here for two weeks while she works through physical therapy and recuperates. This week, my whole family will get together for dinner at Mom’s house. My parents’ eight grandchildren will happily climb into the laps of their Grandma and Papaw, blissfully ignorant of the fact that our churches once taught us that in order to honor God, we had to reject their Papaw. What a terrible message. What a lie.
When faced with a situation like ours, a family can choose dogma or love. I don’t regret our choice at all.