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What to do after your child says "I'm gay"

"One family's story" by Paul W. Egertson, Ph.D.

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Two San Francisco congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) have been expelled from that denomination because they called and ordained a gay man and a lesbian couple who were not approved by the ELCA. The ordination took place on 1990-JAN-20.

The three were qualified graduates of Lutheran seminaries, and were not approved for call because they publicly disclosed that they are gay or lesbian, and would not commit to lifelong abstinence from homosexual relationships as required by current ELCA policy. The two congregations were charged with violating the ELCA's constitution, which requires its congregations to call only clergy approved by the ELCA.

The following is an excerpt from testimony before the ELCA's Committee on Discipline in San Francisco, 1990-JUL-7. The author was director of the Center for Theological Studies and a professor in the religion department at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. At the time this was written, he was also pastor of St. Matthew's Lutheran Church, North Hollywood, Calif. He has since been elected bishop of the Southern California (West) Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

"One family's story"

By Paul W. Egertson, Ph.D.

What do you say after someone you love says, "I'm gay"? That's the question our family faced a decade ago when the oldest of our six sons told his mother and me that he is homosexual. That's the question the ELCA family of faith recently faced because of three young men in a fiery furnace whose personal integrity would not allow them to deceive us about their sexual orientation during the process leading toward ordination. That's the question many congregational families will face in the future as more and more of their lesbian and gay members muster the courage to publicly share what they have privately known to be true for years.

I share our family story here, not because it is unique, but because it is a typical account of one way parents respond to the discovery that a child they both love and admire is gay. It is offered with the prayer that it can be helpful not only to other families, but also to our church family as we seek together a place to stand in relation to a reality that will not go away.

  • Step 1: Deny It
    Looking back, we can see six steps on the road we have traveled. Upon hearing the news our son brought us, our first step was to deny it. Admittedly, we knew very little about homosexuality at the time. After all, what was there to know? God created people male and female for the purpose of reproducing the human race and provided marriage as the proper setting for it. Sexual activity between people of the same sex was obviously a distortion of nature prohibited by both Scripture and common sense. What more does one need to know than that?

    While we knew very little about homosexuality, we knew a great deal about our son. He didn't fit the image we had of a homosexual at all. He had been a delightful child to raise: bright as a whip; multi-talented; self-directed and self-disciplined; honest and ethical to a fault; helpful and caring toward others. He graduated from high school with honors and from California Lutheran University with highest honors. Beyond that, he was a devoutly Christian young man, planning to enter the ordained ministry like his grandfather and father before him, not out of some pressure to maintain a family tradition, but out of a deep inner sense of call. In other words, he was about as perfect a child as any Christian parents could hope for in a world where nobody is perfect. If he thought he was gay, he must just be going through a phase of some kind and "when the right girl comes along" he will resolve it. In the meantime, let's all keep our heads and not panic.

  • Step 2: Explain It
    When we could no longer deny it, we sought to explain it. How had this fine young man become gay? What caused it? Our state of ignorance was such that only two options seemed possible. Either he had chosen a style of life in contradiction to nature and the will of God, or his mother and I in our parenting had unknowingly contributed to a perverted development of his sexuality. Either his mother had emasculated him by "smother love" or I had been a weak, ineffective and/or too much absent father. Since we could not convince ourselves that this highly ethical boy had suddenly chosen a deviant style of life, the fault must have been our inadequacy as parents. We explored that explanation for a while but, self-serving as the conclusion was, we could not realistically see where that had been so in this case. So we went in search of other explanations. At this point our education began.

    We learned that there are several theories on the causes of homosexuality; that they stand in conflict with each other; that none of them can be sufficiently established to produce a consensus; and the only certain truth at this point in time is that nobody really knows. The fact is that across time, nations, races, cultures and classes, a consistent percentage of persons in all populations just are homosexual and the fault cannot be laid at anyone's feet.

  • Step 3: Fix It
    When we could neither deny it nor explain it, we then sought to fix it. There were two options open: divine intervention and psychological therapy. As a devout Christian who knew from early childhood that something was very different about him and who suspected from adolescence that this difference was something unacceptable to God, our son had devoted himself to prayer and trust in the grace and power of God. Preachers said God loved all people unconditionally and could change persons who came to him with a broken and contrite heart. So for years, night after night in the privacy of his closet, he took his broken and contrite heart to the throne of grace. But God did not change him. Did that mean he was so defective that even a gracious God did not love him? What else is a teen-age mind to conclude? (Preachers, beware! Some people believe what you say.)

    Since divine intervention failed, perhaps psychological therapy could succeed. So we pursued that, only to discover that most psychiatrists and psychologists had long since come to the conclusion that homosexuality is not an illness and that no known system of treatment can change it. Homosexual behavior can be changed by conditioning toward celibacy, but the inner affectional orientation of constitutional homosexuals is not changed. And that was the issue for us, because sexual activity was not the problem. In short, there was no known way to fix it. The best that therapy can do is help gay and lesbian persons accept the reality of their being before the socially imposed shame of it and the personal pain of it drives them to despair, drink, drugs, or death by suicide, all of which it does daily to numerous persons in our world.

  • Step 4: Mourn It
    When you can't deny it, explain it, or change it, the only thing left is to mourn it. Parents have two choices at this point, and both of them involve some form of death. On the one hand, you can choose the death of rejection and separation from your child. You can say, "If that's the way you are, you're no son of mine." You can cut off relations as though the child never lived or as though the child has died. That's an option many parents have taken and an option many congregations have taken in response to their lesbian and gay members. But quite frankly, that was never an option for us because we could not believe this son we knew so well was in any sense a perverted person.

    The other option is to suffer the death of your own ignorance, prejudice, opinions, attitudes and misunderstandings. Then you mourn the loss of a nice and tidy worldview in which everything fits neatly into boxes of black or white, right or wrong, true or false. And you mourn the loss of security provided by a few biblical passages that can tell you which is which so you don't have to take the responsibility for making a judgment.

    Along with those losses goes the death of your hopes and dreams of ordinary happiness for your child, particularly as that comes through the joys of marriage, children and a life approved by family, friends, church and society. And in our son's case, there is also the probable death of any hope for ordination into the ministry to which he has always felt called by God, unless he is willing to sacrifice for it all experiences of human love expressed through physical intimacy.

    During the process of mourning, his mother and I came to realize how close we were to shifting the focus from our son's struggle to our own. That final form of death for parents is to recognize that their pain is secondary to their child's suffering and to take up their role as supporters of the life they brought into the world, the life their child has to live out in the world. When that happened for us, the question became, "How is he handling this in terms of his own life, health and happiness?" It is his problem, not ours. He doesn't need us to increase his struggle by making the problem our own and then looking to him for a solution.

  • Step 5: Accept It
    When he came to the place where he could accept the reality of his sexual orientation as given, we were able to take the next step and accept it. It was at this point that we remembered one version of the Serenity Prayer: "Lord, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change what can be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference."

    For us that has come to mean the acceptance of something in the being of our son that neither we nor he would have chosen, something neither he nor we can change. More than that, it has come to mean seeking change in those things which can be changed, namely the attitudes toward and understandings of homosexuality that remain dominant in both church and society. For we have come to realize that the biggest problem in being gay is not the gayness, but the reaction of heterosexuals to it. And we want to join with those who seek the ways of healing and wholeness at this point of pain in our world.

    As parents, we are grateful to the pastors and members of St. Francis Lutheran Church in San Francisco, where our son experienced that gospel of reconciliation in both word and action through which the Holy Spirit has kept him "united with Jesus Christ in the one true Faith." It is our prayer that every Lutheran parent or gay or lesbian children can some day have the assurance that their children will encounter that same gospel acceptance in any Lutheran congregation they may attend.

  • Step 6: Celebrate It
    At this juncture on our journey we are in the process of taking a sixth and final step: celebrate it!. We may not be fully on this step yet, but our weight has clearly shifted there. Where you end up on this journey depends on what you think homosexuality is. To what may it be rightly compared? Your answer to that will finally determine the place you will stand.

At least four options are open for consideration:

  • First, you might say that homosexuality is a conscious and defiant rebellion against the laws of God and nature. In that case, it is simply sin and our only proper response is the announcement of God's judgment, the offer of grace, and a call for repentance. But is that what homosexuality is?
  • A second option is to say that homosexuality is an illness like alcoholism, where behavioral activity brings the bondage of addiction that only total abstinence can break. If that's the case, then clearly celibacy is a sufficient solution to the problem. But is that what homosexuality is?
  • A third option is to say that homosexuality is a tragedy of nature, something never intended by God and contrary to his will, but something that happens regularly in our world nonetheless. It is one more demonstration of the effect of the Fall in the world. In that case, it is like mental retardation, a condition for which the victim is not responsible, which cannot be changed, but something we can never call good. If that's what it is, then shouldn't we treat homosexuals with the same compassion and understanding as we grant to others who innocently suffer as victims of a broken world? Then shouldn't we make special rules for them so that life can be as full as possible within the limits of their deformity? When people have no legs, we provide wheelchairs as substitutes and set aside special parking spaces which are illegal for others to use but permitted for them. Could we provide homosexuals with a substitute structure for marriage that would allow them the personal fulfillment that comes through sanctioned committed relationships. But is that what homosexuality is?
  • Finally, we might say that homosexuality is one of the varieties of nature, one of those delightful differences that regularly appear in counterpoint to the ordinary norm. In that case, it is like left-handedness, a minority condition in a world where most people are right-handed and a few are ambidextrous, but a natural variation that has its own contribution to make to the wholeness of the world. There was a time when people considered left-handedness so deviant that it had to be punished or changed. But in trying to force that change, we discovered the same thing we're finding with homosexuality now: attempts to change them don't change them but only cause more serious problems. Once that was clear in regard to left-handedness, we were freed to discover some positive benefits southpaws offer the world. Professional baseball teams, for example, value them highly. In fact, you can't win a championship without some lefties. Is that what homosexuality is? If so, we can celebrate it as a gift of God.

Unfortunately, there are no experts right now who can answer our questions or tell us which of the above options will turn out to be true. All we can do is digest the best information available from scientific research and search the Scriptures for what they do and don't say, praying that the Spirit will lead us into all truth. In the meantime, we all walk by faith and run with risk. Each of us will place our own bet and be responsible for it. As for me and my house, we're putting our money on the celebration line. We would rather err on the side of helping hurting people than on the side of hurting helpless people. May God have mercy on us.

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