Back when I was terrified of public speaking, I’d approach the podium and, in my mind, drop a diaphanous curtain in front of the audience so I could look at them without seeing them, acknowledge their blur of faces without catching any doubt or disdain or incredulity that might lurk in their eyes.
I suppose I’m still a little terrified of public speaking, but I’ve since learned you can survive an awkward silence, a bungled transition, a not-so-funny joke without the people rising up and calling you a fraud. So I’ve sharpened my focus. I’ve started to see. And amidst the mostly-kind, sometimes-bored expressions, my eyes always lock on people whose faces betray a story welling up inside them. Those words I toss around so casually in my lectures—faith, doubt, fundamentalism, gender, sexuality, church— are potent seeds that have nestled, split, and grown inside of them, over many years, producing testimonies as unique and as urgent as the ones they print in Christianity Today, but without the tidy endings.
When it’s time to sign books, I’m given a pen, a chair, and a table, but I don’t need the chair or table. “There will be hugs,” I explain. It’s the most beautiful, exhausting, and inspiring part of the job: meeting the flesh-and-blood people who have connected to the flesh-and-blood me through the gossamer thread of words. Always I leave with a few tear stains on my collar. Always I leave more baffled and angry and awed by the Church than when I came. And sometimes I leave with homemade chocolate chip cookies.
I meet the bravest people in my travels. The young woman who was discouraged by her professors from pursuing ordination because of her gender, but who did it anyway. The 19-year-old who started a homeless ministry with his roommates. The lesbian couple that visited and were rejected by eleven churches before finding one that welcomed and valued them. The family that endured the excruciating process of extracting themselves from an abusive and controlling faith community. The pastor who told his congregation the truth about his doubts. The son of a Southern Baptist preacher who, at last, came out.
But often the stories that linger with me the longest are the stories of the parents.
In Louisville, a well-dressed, fifty-something mom who smelled of pressed powder and wore a stylish haircut and scarf, grasped both of my hands in hers and said, “We were forced to choose between our gay daughter and our church. We chose our daughter, and we haven’t looked back.” Behind her stood a quiet man wearing glasses and sweater vest—her husband. He smiled warmly at me, but wiped tears from his eyes.
In Columbus, a mother told me, “The church that baptized my son, that promised to love him no matter what, abandoned him when he came out. They tried to force him to change. But he can’t change. It doesn’t work like that. We’re proud of him and we love his new boyfriend. When all the other moms share exciting stories about their kids, I want so share exciting stories about mine, but I can’t. That church is our whole community, our support-system, but we feel like ghosts there, like outsiders looking in.”
In Phoenix, an older man approached the signing table, and with great difficulty choked out the story of a beloved son, a fundamentalist church, a suicide.
“I didn’t even learn the word ‘transgender’ until recently,” he said.
Sometimes, all I hear are the first few words of a story and the next thing I know I’m hugging someone and crying and raging inside because it shouldn’t be so damn easy to guess that a story that begins with, “we’re evangelical and our kid is gay” will end in heartbreak or tragedy.
Recent news has brought renewed attention to the often-fraught relationships between LGBT youth, their parents, and their faith communities. While I think it’s irresponsible to blame family and friends for a loved one’s suicide, I believe it’s just as irresponsible to ignore the reality that gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide as straight peers, that nearly half of young transgender people have considered taking their lives, and that LGBT youth who come from families who reject their gender identities or sexual orientations are more than eight times more likely to attempt suicide than those who come from supportive families.
It’s irresponsible, too, to ignore the fact that LGBT people who seek religious counseling are more likely to commit suicide than those who seek secular counseling or none at all, that former advocates of “reparative therapy” are speaking out about its dangers, and that telling people their sexuality is inherently and uniquely disordered and disgusting produces more despair than hope. Something has to change in how people of faith respond to those among us who do not fit into rigid gender binaries or else these heartbreaking numbers won’t change.
And yet we cannot place the blame for yet another suicide squarely on the shoulders of parents when, too often, the religious communities these families turn to for guidance and support when a son or daughter comes out utterly fails them right when they need that support the most. We cannot hold parents accountable for ignorance regarding transgender identity without also holding accountable Southern Baptist leaders like Denny Burk who can’t be bothered to learn the most basic facts about what it means to be transgender before giving lectures, writing articles, and making resolutions condemning it a sin. We cannot point fingers at parents when anyone who has spent more than an hour in fundamentalist Christian culture knows that the shame, guilt, and fear that keeps so many people in the closet is the same shame, guilt, and fear that blames and misinforms their friends and family. We cannot condemn parents for not supporting their LGBT children without first asking them why they feel like they can’t, without first hearing the story of the father who told me, “I felt like Abraham. I believed I was being tested to see if I was willing to sacrifice my son in obedience to God.”
Just in these last few months, I have spoken with many parents who, even though they believed the voice telling them to sever their relationships with their children was the very voice of God, chose to put the knife down instead. It may seem to outsiders like an obvious choice, an imperative one, but for these parents, that choice involved walking away from the second-most important thing in their lives—their religion—at least for a time, at least until someone told them they didn’t have to choose after all.
I will never draw a stadium full of people to listen to my lectures. I’m lucky to fill a medium-sized church or a college lecture hall. Once, an event planer rather bluntly told me, “if you were Mark Driscoll, we’d have to open the overflow room.”
But that’s okay. When the diaphanous curtain lifts and when I embrace the flesh-and-blood people of this flesh-and-blood community of skeptics and misfits, doubters and dreamers, outcasts and rejects and kicked-to-the-curb believers, I am buoyed by your collective strength, charged by your limitless capacity to hope in spite of it all.
Many wounds are still open, but we will heal. And we will heal together.
For more from Christian parents of LGBT folks, check out Liz Dyer’s wonderful blog, PFLAG and Susan Cottrell’s book, Mom, I’m Gay. Do you have other recommendations for resources for parents? I'd love to include more.