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When Our Son Told Us He Was Gay

By Helena Thomas

As both Church and society struggle with questions about homosexuality, a family discovers that the issue is hitting very close to home.

Q U I C K S C A N

Coming to Grips With the News
Kindness Doesn't Always Extend to Homosexuals
Searching for Answers
Putting a Face on Homosexuality
Getting to Know One Another Again
Our Family's Unchanging Core
God as a Divine Archer
To Know the Church's Teaching

When Our Son Told Us He Was Gay

Photo by
Brad Smith

One evening my husband gets a phone call from his 19-year-old son, Larry. It's a call that will change our lives.

    "A new job? An apartment together? That lifestyle can be dangerous." Listening from the kitchen, I can hear Alan talking in the next room.

I'm baffled. Larry's committed to the Marines for two more years. Why would he be talking about a new job or apartment?

It's been a year since my stepson joined the U.S. Marines—fulfilling the dream he'd had since early high school. In basic training he was at the top of his class—an award-winning marksman. We display a 16-inch portrait of him on the mantel, stern and handsome in his blue dress uniform and billed white cap. Now he's stationed several hundred miles from home.

When Alan comes into the kitchen, he brings unexpected news: "Larry's been booted out of the Marines for being gay. He's in love with another recruit. Someone reported them—and now they've both been kicked out." My usually unshakable husband looks crumpled.

"How could he leave the Marines? He loves the Marines!"

"He says it wasn't his choice. Now the two of them are looking for jobs and a place to live. He sounds excited and happy—he says he's in love! He's calling everyone in the family."

Alan slumps against the kitchen wall. "This is a total shock to me. It comes completely out of left field."

Coming to Grips With the News

The weeks that follow are full of questions and tears. Alan and I talk long into the night, night after night.

Can this be true? How could we have missed the signs? What does this mean for Larry's future? Will he become effeminate, promiscuous? Is this a choice or something inborn? Will we lose him? Should we try to change his mind? Will our friends and neighbors shun us when they find out? Why didn't he break it to us more gently?

I cry every day at the thought of Larry being so far away, launching into a way of life that seems treacherous. I've had co-workers who were openly gay, but they've been adults. I take a "live and let live" approach with them.

It's a whole different story when it's your own child who's "coming out of the closet"—the child you've pledged to guide and protect. Though Larry's not my biological son, he's been my stepson for many years and I love him. I'm haunted by all the words used for homosexuals: faggot, queer, fairy, pervert, dyke and worse. I have nightmares about hate crimes.

Alan's biggest worry is AIDS. "Does he have any idea how deadly AIDS is? He's putting himself at risk for a terminal disease!" And Alan questions his fathering. "Maybe I didn't spend enough time with him growing up. Maybe I should have talked with him more about sex." I point out that he spent more time with his son than any other father I know.

Kindness Doesn't Always Extend to Homosexuals

It's summer and I go to the pool every day and swim laps, letting my tears meld into the pool water. Vigorous exercise helps me grieve—to let go of my image of Larry as a heterosexual young man, a Marine with a clear sense of direction.

We thought we knew him well but clearly we didn't. As I swim, I find comfort in the Serenity Prayer: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

I find myself looking at old snapshots of Larry: Larry at nine with big white "Chiclet teeth," Larry in droopy teenage clothes, Larry roughhousing with his dad, Larry holding his baby brother in his arms. He was a religious teen—active in his Church youth group, reading the Bible every day. I remember how even in grade school he was his own person—he wore funny hats and had passionate hobbies, like an interest in Civil War history. I always admired the way he never worried much about other kids' opinions.

As the weeks pass, I pray for understanding. The subject of homosexuality comes up in a conversation with Jackie, a close friend who tells me about a gay man who lives next door in her subdivision. "We see him on the deck with his flitty gay friends—I think it's disgusting. I'm so upset that I want to move."

"But where will you move? Is there a part of town that outlaws gay men?"

"I wish there were! I don't want my kids exposed to people like that! They are dangerous!"

I mention that homosexuality isn't contagious. I explain that, according to Church teaching, simply being homosexual isn't a sin, but she shakes her head. "It's disgusting!"

Jackie is a normally kind woman whom I've admired for years for her parish work and her generous spirit. But her kindness doesn't extend to homosexuals.

Searching for Answers

I search for reading material. In a nearby Christian bookstore, I scan the shelves for books about homosexuality—nothing. "We could special-order something," the clerk tells me, but I don't know any titles to request. On the way out, my seven-year-old son asks me about the T-shirts with big letters: "WWJD?"

"It stands for ‘What would Jesus do?'" I explain. "It helps people think about their actions. When you're thinking about doing something, first ask yourself, ‘What would Jesus do?' Especially if it's something you don't feel right about, it helps to step back and ask that." A pretty simplistic approach, I think to myself.

A few weeks later in another bookstore, I find a book that looks promising: Free Your Mind: The Book for Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Youth and Their Allies, by Ellen Bass and Kate Kaufman (Harper, 1996). I take it home and read it eagerly.

The book, though not always agreeing with Church teaching, helps me to imagine what it's been like for Larry the last several years—suspecting he was gay but afraid to tell anyone, not even his parents or his beloved Church friends. Especially helpful are chapters on family and spirituality.

I learn that homosexual teenagers are at high risk for suicide because they are so ostracized. In the book, one mother makes this startling comment: "Often a gay or lesbian child turns out to be very special. They are sometimes very close in a way the others aren't—if you accept them."

The bookstore manager gives me a contact number for a support group called "PFLAG: Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays."

A few days later I summon the courage to dial the number. Judy, the woman who answers, is a godsend. We talk for an hour, sharing stories about sons who have "come out." I cry through our whole conversation, relieved that I can be so much more open with a stranger than with anyone I know personally. Judy sends me a packet that includes information about local support groups and a list of helpful books.

Reading helps tremendously. I learn, for example, that homosexuality seems to cut across all cultures, even the animal kingdom. While no one fully understands what causes it, most experts agree that a homosexual orientation is most often discovered, not freely chosen.

Scientists who study human sexuality believe sexual orientation is set early in life, perhaps before birth, like being left-handed or having a certain temperament. There's no evidence that parents' behavior or personalities cause a child to be homosexual. Rather, homosexuals come from all different kinds of families, including "model families." Some are only children, while others are the oldest, middle or youngest in their families.

I learn that many homosexuals say they knew they were different very early on, but most don't "come out of the closet" to themselves or others till adolescence or later. Many repress their orientation and marry a person of the opposite sex—only to have their decision backfire 10 or 20 years later.

I think of a family I know where the father told his wife and teenage sons that he was gay and had been leading a double life for years. The whole family was devastated! At least Larry is talking about his homosexuality now, before he's made many life choices.

Putting a Face on Homosexuality

A few months later, I attend a symposium on religion and homosexuality sponsored by a local university. The large hall is packed. Several speakers make presentations from a raised podium at one end of the hall, then invite questions from the audience.

For me, time seems to stand still at one point in the discussion. A woman in the audience stands up and says she's come as a representative of Metropolitan Community Church, a national church that welcomes homosexuals.

"I came today so you could put a face on homosexuality. My name is Jenny and I am a lesbian. Through my Church, I minister to homosexuals. It's important for everyone here to see that we are not people far away, people you don't know. We are people like me—people you work with—members of your own family."

A speaker takes the microphone. "Homosexuality is a serious moral disorder. According to the Bible, homosexuality is an abomination."

Jenny responds by talking about how meaningful it was to grow up in the Catholic Church—her memories of First Communion, her love for Mary, her experiences of God's presence. "It's very difficult to be shut out of the Church as an adult. I've struggled to come to terms with who I am—a lesbian woman. It's taken me a long time to realize that God loves me as I am. I can't betray myself by saying I'm someone else. And yet, as a lesbian, there is no place for me in the Church I love."

A Catholic priest speaks up: "You do have a place in the Catholic Church! The Church preaches that God loves all people—God loves homosexuals as much as anyone. But we make the distinction between a homosexual orientation and homosexual acts. We uphold the ideal of chastity: fidelity within marriage, or abstinence outside of marriage."

I'm struck by the way this discussion—in a public forum—dramatizes a conflict that is being played out in churches and homes all across the nation, indeed in our whole society. Intellectually, I can readily understand the various positions. Yet my heart is with Jenny.

Suddenly, as I sit in the crowded room, the words come back to me: "What would Jesus do? If Jesus were in the room, where would he be standing—at the podium with the speakers, or in the crowd with Jenny?"

It hits me that love must be at the center of the conversation. I accept  Jenny as a person made in the image of God: a person with value and dignity, a person who needs to be loved and respected. As I sit there, I sense that God must be responding to my many prayers for understanding.

That moment during the symposium stays with me for a long time, a ray of light.

Afterward, people pass out pamphlets. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2357-9) confirms what the priest at the symposium said, but the section is very brief and leaves me with many questions.

A longer piece, Always Our Children: A Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children and Suggestions for Pastoral Ministers, helps more. Issued in 1997, Always Our Children was written by the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Marriage and Family. Always Our Children is based on recent Church teaching.

This message encourages parents and families to accept, love, talk openly and walk together with their gay son or lesbian daughter. It emphasizes that every person is created in God's image, that sexuality can be channeled toward good or evil, and that all persons have human rights and responsibilities. Always Our Children becomes an important source of comfort and guidance for my husband and me.

Getting to Know One Another Again

Six months later, Larry comes home for Christmas, and it's like a heavy blanket of grief lifts. He looks different—with a goatee and long sideburns, wearing a stylish coat—a big change from his starched Marine uniform. But underneath there's the same old Larry—who loves my cooking, teases his younger brother, reads the Bible.

And yet he's different, too. There's a new openness between us. For the first time, I hear him talk freely about love and relationships, art, books, the possibility of college and travel. "I like arty movies now."

He's seeing us with new eyes, too. For the first time in memory he takes an interest in me as a person—as if I might have a life beyond being a boring old stepmother.

"Did you really go to Europe when you were younger?" Larry asks one day, surprise in his voice. Another day, gazing at one of my amateur-artist attempts, he says, "Hey, your artwork is pretty good!" I wonder whether the burden of being "in the closet" all those years blinded him from seeing us. Or was it just the self-absorption of being a teenager?

I say to Alan, "It's like he's been hiding for years in a teenage macho mentality—all the action movies and bodybuilding and military trappings."

"He's going through an awakening," Alan replies. "He's waking up to the fact that there's a whole world out there. He's hatched out of his teenage shell."

And yet this newfound openness comes with a cost. We spend hours talking, and Larry tells me many things I'd rather not hear. He's been exposed to aspects of the gay subculture that are repugnant: promiscuity, an over-emphasis on youth and appearance, scorn toward the "straight" world, gay prostitutes.

And I say things he'd rather not hear: At 19, I think he's too young to be in a sexual relationship—with a man or a woman. I believe he's stunting his emotional growth by living with his friend—he's not mature enough to make such a decision and has no idea of the long-term consequences. Whether he's gay or straight, we expect him to live a life of integrity.

One day I ask, "Why on earth would you choose to be gay? It's such a hard way of life!"

"But it's much harder to pretend to be someone I'm not. Besides, I didn't choose."

By the time Larry leaves in January, my worry eases. He's a kind, sensible person. He still has a strong religious faith, even though he feels he can't be open with his Church friends. He knows we care about him, we love him—that he's always welcome at home.

Our Family's Unchanging Core

As I write, two years have passed since Larry "came out." I would be lying to say I've made complete peace with Larry's homosexuality. After 10 years of trying to build bonds, our blended family has been torn again by Larry's "coming out." His mother, in an evangelical Church, insists that Larry repent of  his homosexuality. His older brothers have distanced themselves from Larry and us.

It's helped to attend a few PFLAG meetings. There we met many kind and welcoming middle-aged parents who, like us, want to understand their homosexual children. We also met adult gay men and lesbian women who are living stable, productive lives. One said to me, "It's important to understand that being homosexual isn't a lifestyle, it's a life." Yet as much as I admire PFLAG's warmth and their commitment to the civil rights of homosexuals, it troubles me that they pay little attention to the moral and spiritual dimensions of homosexuality.

Our Catholic Church emphasizes the moral dimension by making the distinction between a homosexual orientation and homosexual activity. Yet I struggle with the idea that if he follows Church teachings, Larry will have no life partner. Speaking from many years of marriage, I know that sexuality involves much more than procreation or genital activity—it's also about intimacy, commitment, stability and love.

It distresses me that, in the current Church scandal over sexual abuse, so many people think that homosexuality necessarily leads to pedophilia, an attraction to pre-pubescent children. In fact, the statistics are clear that a homosexual is no more likely to molest a child sexually than a heterosexual is.

Meanwhile, Larry's relationship has broken up and he's still in a distant city, trying to create a life. I sorely regret that he didn't come out in his younger teens, while he was still living at home and we could offer comfort or help. Now he's surrounded by other young adults who seem as confused as he is.

God as a Divine Archer

As I live with these changes in our lives, I find comfort in a passage sent to me by a friend. It's from the poet Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet: "Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself. They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you....You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth. The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far. Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness; for even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable."

This image speaks to me. Archery is one of my father's hobbies. When I was growing up, he was eager to teach me the sport. I sometimes accompanied him to archery meets and was impressed by how graceful and easy Dad made it look. Only when he began to teach me to shoot did I realize how much strength was required.

I recall Dad standing behind me, his arms around mine as he showed me how to hold the bow with my left hand, pulling back the bowstring with my right, all the while holding the arrow steady and aimed toward the target. I can remember the feel of his muscular arms encircling my back and shoulders, the scent of his skin.

Dad explained that the best bows were made from hickory or Osage orange—woods that are very strong yet flexible enough to bend. His bow looked so rigid, yet it yielded to a surprising degree.

Now, as I pray, I imagine God as a Divine Archer. We've released Larry into the world, a "living arrow" with his own unique destiny. Now our task, it seems to me, is to focus not on Larry's life but on our own—to remain the "stable bow," at once flexible and strong, able to pull back and hold steady.

Inside myself I feel a new capacity to love and accept Larry, even when I don't agree with all his actions. And I feel some new certainties: We must all keep talking and listening, we must learn more, we must be open with each other and with other family members, we can't force Larry to change. While once I felt embarrassed that Larry had "come out," I now appreciate his honesty about who he is.

Being the "stable bow" for me also means holding firm to some unchanging core values: compassion, justice, commitment to my own mate and family, a belief in human dignity and freedom, and, most of all, an abiding faith in a loving God, the Source of all life.

In the midst of "releasing" our son, we can trust that God is our Divine Archer, holding us steady as my father once held me. "For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable."


Helena Thomas is the pseudonym of an author, mother and teacher living in the Midwest. (All names in this article have been changed.) She is a convert to the Catholic Church, who enjoys race-walking and art.

 


To Know the Church's Teaching

• Always Our Children: A Pastoral Message to the Parents of Homosexual Children and Suggestions for Pastoral Ministers, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. This 16-page pamphlet includes a bibliography of Church teaching. Publication No. 5-131 in English, 5-130 in Spanish, $1.25. Call toll-free 800-235-8722 or order on the Web at www.usccb.org.

Beyond Gay, by David Morrison and Rene Voillaume. Our Sunday Visitor, $14.95.

• "What the Church Teaches About Homosexuality" by Richard Sparks, C.S.P., Catholic Update (C0799). Multiple copies are available from St. Anthony Messenger Press at 1-800-488-0488 or on the Web at www.AmericanCatholic.org. Individual copies can be ordered by sending $1 and a self-addressed envelope to: Update C0799, St. Anthony Messenger Press, 28 W. Liberty St., Cincinnati, OH  45202.

• With Listening Hearts: Understanding the Voices of Lesbian and Gay Catholics, by Peter J. Liuzzi. Paulist Press, $11.95.

http://couragerc.net is the Web site of Courage, endorsed by the Pontifical Council for the Family. That site leads to many related Web sites.

www.nacdlgm.org is the Web site of the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Ministries, begun in 1994. This organization is in cooperative communication with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.



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