Friday, June 13, 2008

Coming to Grips with an GLBT Child – Things NOT to Say [Part 2]

My nephew recently came out to his parents....[Part 1] ...With that in mind, I’d like to offer some suggestions on things NOT to say to your GLBT child during “the talk.” To wit:

1. Don’t tell them they have ruined their lives – In truth, they may have ruined the life you planned for them. But that is not the same as ruining their own lives over which ultimately they have the final say and for which they must take responsibility. And it’s hardly the first case where children have not lived into parent’s dreams for them. That they may be looking at a life of confronting homophobia and misunderstanding may well be true. But, given that reality, what they need from you is understanding, support and unconditional love, not judgment, hand-wringing and guilt-tripping.

2. Don’t tell them they’ll never be happy – For one thing, you cannot possibly predict the future any more than they can. Indeed, the chances that they’d necessarily be happy as married heterosexuals is belied by our nation’s 50% divorce rate. Moreover, study after study has shown that GLBT couples tend to be just as happy – and just as unstable – as heterosexual couples. Do not set into motion a self-fulfilling prophecy arising out of your own limited understanding of life based predominately in your own experience. Most importantly, don’t become part of the reason their lives might not be happy.

3. Don’t tell them that they can choose to be straight – To begin with, it’s arrogant to tell another human being what their experience is or ought to be, particularly when not invited to do so. There is no small amount of absurdity in people who cannot tell you when they themselves chose their sexual orientation - how, when and where the choice was offered, and why they chose as they did - insisting that a different sexual orientation was a matter of a choice. The notion of choosing one’s sexuality is not supported by any reputable research. Insisting on your child choosing to be straight exposes either one’s ignorance or one’s steadfast refusal to deal with the reality of diverse sexual orientations. Neither of these are what a human being just coming out needs.

4. Don’t tell them that G-d cannot love them if they are gay – I often respond to those who would suggest G-d’s cannot love me because of my sexual orientation that “I guess it’s a good thing for me that it’s the G-d who created the whole universe who will make that decision and not you.” Your limitations in dealing with people who are different does not somehow limit the G-d who created them from loving them as they are. If you feel the need to pray for someone, pray for yourself and your own abilities to learn and grow in the face of the situation life has presented you with a child coming out.

5. Don’t tell them they are going to hell. – To begin with you don’t know and neither does anyone else. Many of us want to believe in life after death – myself included - but none of us knows if such exists. It’s fine to say you believe this and, if you want to be taken seriously, offer the reasons you believe it. But always keep in mind that no matter how sincerely one might believe something, beliefs remain beliefs. And while all of us are entitled to our beliefs, no one else is. Using the threat of hell as a club to bash a child into submission to one’s own self-serving religious views is not intellectually honest, ethical or particularly loving. It’s simply manipulative. Remember, the Second Great Commandment of Judaism and Christianity is to love one’s neighbor as oneself. To test whether the theological bullying approach is sinful, simply ask yourself if you’d be willing to be in the position of the child you are emotionally abusing with threats of hell so they will hold your religious understandings.

6. Don’t tell them they cannot be a Christian and GLBT. – The opposite of Christian is non-Christian, not gay. The opposite of gay is straight, not Christian. People do not have to hold your prejudices to be Christian. There are millions of people who are gay and Christian. And there are millions who are straight and reject homophobia, many precisely because of their religious views. To suggest that holding homophobic views is somehow the litmus test for true religion is to essentially reduce your religion to a socially constructed prejudice. Even in religions which do conflate the two, not all of the faithful buy it. Roman Catholics, whose ostensibly celibate hierarchy regularly finds a whipping boy in homosexuality, are largely not convinced by their church’s homophobic stances any more than they find its teachings on birth control compelling. The same is true in many traditions. The bottom line is simply this: homophobia is not an article of faith of any world religion. It appears in no creeds. At most it is a socially constructed prejudice sometimes legitimized by some people with religious arguments.

7. Don’t tell them they cannot be themselves if they wish to be present in your home. – What that says is simply that you don’t want them. If they must become actors performing a forced drama as a condition of being present in your home, you have essentially asked the performer to become a liar. You might ask yourself why you’d want liars in your home. Indeed, what might that say about you? It’s particularly egregious to say to them that you want them to be with you but only if they are willing to play the role you have assigned them. What that really says is “We want us, not you.” In such cases, a truly healthy GLBT child will keep their contacts with you to a minimum to protect their own integrity.

8. Don’t say that you are afraid they will be a bad influence on siblings – Sexual orientations are not diseases. You don’t catch them. And the behaviors and attitudes of GLBT people are no less or more moral than those of their straight counterparts. Do not confuse honesty about one’s sexual orientation with immorality. To do so is to engage in unconscious homophobia at the very least. And try to become aware of the common myth that GLBT persons are a particular threat for pedophilia. The reality is that your child is statistically at much greater risk with their straight adult authority figures than with your GLBT child.

FINALLY, about this label homophobia. The definition of homophobia is an irrational fear or aversion to homosexuals, homosexuality and all things related to it. The key word in the definition is “irrational.”

In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. Prior to that time, no one had ever looked to biological or genetic origins of sexual orientations. The given understanding, largely rooted in the work of Sigmund Freud, was that homosexuality arose from troubled familial relationships, an understanding accepted without question. Thus arose the myth that with enough desire to change, even this psychopathology could be “cured.”

Since 1973, however, a wide range of studies have pointed toward biological, genetic and environmental factors all contributing to both the aetiology of the various sexual orientations as well as the way they play out in individuals. While many people may not be readers of medical pr biological science journals, the reality is that with the amount of publicity these studies have received, most people either know or ought to know that varying sexual orientations are a statistically predictable natural occurrence much like left handedness. Thus, an ongoing fear, loathing or aversion to GLBT persons in light of these findings can only be seen as irrational. That includes buying into notions like choosing one’s orientation and the corresponding ability to change, the danger to children from pedophilia confused with homosexuality, the necessarily promiscuous sex lives of GLBT persons, or the notion of any sexual orientation other than heterosexual as somehow being sinful.

There is no small irony in the fact that while sexual orientations (as opposed to the way one chooses to live in light of those orientations) are not themselves a matter of choice, attitudes about sexuality generally and sexual orientations specifically are *always* a choice. That’s particularly true when such attitudes continue to be held in the face of disaffirming evidence to the contrary. While simply being homosexual or bisexual cannot be sinful anymore than simply being heterosexual would be, the unwillingness to reconsider self-serving, judgmental attitudes about other human beings can only be seen as the violation of the second great commandment – Love your neighbor as yourself, period. No exceptions.

Ironically, unlike sexual orientations, homophobic attitudes can be repented of and changed.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.

Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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