It’s my one-year blogiversary, and as the predictably sentimental creature that I am, I’ve spent some time this week reflecting on the past dozen months — things I have shared in my posts, ways our story has unfolded in real life and where the path leads from here. One thing I committed to in the very beginning was vulnerability. Sharing my personal discomfort about LGBT+ issues was difficult and was a sure way to disappoint that community. But then, sharing my journey to not only accept but love and celebrate the LGBT+ community was a sure way to disappoint so many other people dear to me. Nearly every post has been published with a trembling hand and met with radio silence from some people I love and whom I know love us. I’ve been nursing a vulnerability hangover lately, probably experiencing some amount of clinical depression, but have absolutely experienced the most remarkable joy in connecting with other families like mine, and especially with beautiful LGBT+ people who pray every day and night for their parents to accept them (some aren’t even greedy enough to pray that they would be celebrated, and would be thankful for mere tolerance). If remaining in this space can help to build a bridge that leads to understanding and answered prayers for the most vulnerable, you can lock the door behind me now.
Going back through my early posts, the theme that jumps out to me is “FEAR.” When I saw some non-gender-conforming qualities in my daughter at a young age, I was afraid for her being different, and feared that she might someday identify as LGBT+. When she did come out as gay, at just 13 years old, I was afraid of what everyone would think — our family, our church, God, whether she could still spend time with female friends or attend sleepovers and whether I needed to disclose this new information to parents beforehand, whether she would ever feel safe with us while knowing that we were not affirming and what she would do about her faith.
I spent a lot of time caught in a terrible tension between long-held beliefs and a deep heart longing to respond to my child with unhindered love and support.
Today, those are not my fears. Thankfully, my head and my heart are aligned in favor of Love; and as I have heard echoed from so many others on this journey, I was compelled to affirmation because of my faith, not in spite of it. I am not on the fence about this one. I am convinced.
That said, the old fear and tension has been traded in for a different kind of fear and tension, one that I feel even less control over and therefore more vulnerable to, and this goes right to the heart of my God-given mama bear instincts: how can I keep my child safe in this world?
The bereaved family of Matthew Shepard laid his ashes to rest in the Washington National Cathedral this week, 20 years after this young gay man was tortured and killed by men who were disgusted by his sexual orientation, who saw his existence as a threat to theirs, who ultimately saw him as an “other.”
The Shepard family explained that they never felt comfortable leaving their deceased son’s remains near their home in Wyoming due to the threat of desecration or the possible nuisance that pilgrimages could cause for other other families sharing the same cemetery. For 20 years following his gruesome death, there was still no place safe for their son.
Where does the propensity for such brutality come from? What leads a person to deliberately cause harm to another person or group? I really think Pastor Brit Barron summed it up well at the Reformation Project 2018 Conference last week:
“The minute that you other someone, the last domino that falls is violence.
That’s the only place it can go.”
We see it in the news every day. Hate crimes against people of a particular race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity take place everywhere — and have all through history — and the thing they all have in common is a fundamental belief that we are different. That there’s normal (me) and different, or other (them).
There are people and communities who wouldn’t bat an eye at a teenager communicating their true love feelings and living authentically, and I’m really grateful for them (and have learned a lot from them). But this isn’t the space I was born into and have inhabited for 4 decades. Here, there’s normal/acceptable, and then there’s LGBT+. When my daughter came out, she became an other. And simply put, that placed her at risk.
I recently realized that I have two running lists in my head: people who are safe and people who are unsafe. I’m pretty sure this is normal human brain function that serves to protect us from pain (Fire, bad), so it makes sense. I think it started when I first shared what was going on in our family and received two very different types of responses from family, friends, church folk and colleagues:
- Oh no, that’s terrible! Warning Warning Warning
- That’s great! How brave for her to come out so young and get to live free. She’s so lucky to have supportive parents!
(Knowing that last remark wasn’t fully true in the early days, I felt obligated to explain that, though I loved my daughter very much, it was something I was working through.)
I was processing so much already and felt surprised by the devastating effect that some of the negative responses left on me, even when they came from the same theological view that I espoused at the time. Loved ones (self-proclaimed followers of Jesus) who expressed nothing but disdain for LGBT+ people even while smiling sweetly, those who said she was loved but–, she was welcome but–, who made hurtful remarks about my daughter when they thought we were out of earshot, those who sent unsolicited messages to me — and to my parents! — to discourage my and their acceptance of my child/their grandchild, categorically shifted my experience from a confused-and-lost kind of fear to a horror movie kind of fear. Suddenly, I was feeling fearful of people who were supposed to be safe, and comforted by people I wasn’t supposed to trust. It was the classic plot twist: the call is coming from inside the house.
By contrast, the neighbor who came to my door to tell me that this didn’t change a thing for her, that my daughter was exactly the same awesome kid she always was and would still be their go-to babysitter WAS AN OASIS. It was the thing I didn’t know I needed to hear during a time of turmoil and it was everything.
Recognizing not just the terrible way that disparaging comments could cause hurt feelings, but learning from many LGBT+ people who grew up in the church how non-affirming theology had led them to self-loathing, despair, self-harm and for many others, suicide, I began to see the message itself as harmful, not just the posture with which it was delivered. No matter how welcoming, how lovely the packaging, I instinctively understood that as long as my daughter was an other, she would be at risk and she would not be defended in those spaces.
Parents of kids with food allergies get this. They are always on alert, and I started feeling like one of them. Any space my daughter attended where she could potentially be an other, I made sure to check the ingredients first. Sometimes safe/unsafe is easy to spot but too often, the ingredients are hidden deep on a website, in PDFs that you have to download and read through in order to find language confirming the hidden rules for who is and who is out. Who can serve or be on staff and who can not. Who can be married there and who can not. (FYI: Churchclarity.org exists to take the guesswork out for people looking for a safe place to worship.)
I had some calls to make as well. One was to a non-profit which my husband and I had financially supported for many years. It exists as a Christian organization, serving families whose children have been sent to them for full-time intervention and care due to behavioral problems. It occurred to me that families like mine could be sending their LGBT+ kids there to be “fixed” and I did not want to support any effort like that. I spoke with the director of the organization, who assured me this was not the function of their facility. In fact, he said, same-sex-attracted boys weren’t really part of their community because they didn’t want the other boys to “worry about someone trying to climb into bed with them.”
Ignorance and othering abounds.
Sometimes there are clear symbols.
This rainbow “SAFE SPACE” symbol is affixed to many classroom doors in my daughter’s high school. I noticed this last month at Open House and was grateful for all the teachers who understood why this message was important to clarify and posted it out of support and solidarity for vulnerable LGBT+ students, and perhaps also as a warning to those who might dare to cause them harm. Here, if push came to shove, we expect she would be defended. Here, she isn’t other.
Around this same time, I saw this bumper sticker in the parking lot of a church (ironically, on our way inside to a monthly support group for families of LGBT+ people).
It really bothered me.
“TAKING BACK THE RAINBOW. Gen. 9:13”
This is not a fringe, personal opinion-type sticker. This is souvenir merchandise from Ark Encounter, the mammoth Bible-based theme park in Kentucky.
Let’s review that verse listed on the sticker.
Genesis 9:13 reads, “I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”
The covenant between God and the earth. The covenant between God and humanity. In context of the flood story and the promise from God that He would never destroy the world like this again, what does this bumper sticker represent? The antagonistic message to the LGBT+ community is not subtle. Is this organization really being bold enough to reimagine God’s promise to the world as, “Humanity is safe now. … Except the gays. … God called and He wants his rainbow back.”
Does the aggression in this message come through as loudly and clearly to you as it does to me? It it true and is it loving and does it represent God? Do you think would my daughter feel safe in this theme park? Would my daughter feel safe walking into this church past a car that reminds her she is other here?
Remember: the last domino to fall is violence.
Of course, these symbols aren’t always accurate in determining safe zones, and nobody can guarantee what any person will say or do, good or bad.
Here’s an example from just this week. One of my daughter’s teachers asked the students what they wanted to be when they grew up, and one young man said, “a conversion therapist. I think it would be fun.” And the teacher responded, “….well, if that’s what you want to be.” My daughter and SEVEN other kids (THANK YOU, DEAR SEVEN, WHOEVER YOU ARE) went to the teacher after class to express their concern with his comment and the fact that it seemed acceptable in class. If you aren’t familiar with conversion therapy, it’s a practice that has caused suffering and death for many LGBT+ people who were falsely told that their orientation could change and endured severe mental, emotional and sometimes physical abuse as a result. It was marketed as a Bible-based practice which is now illegal in many states (not enough states, but let’s keep working on that), with many of its leaders now publicly repentant for the tragic harm these practices caused for so many.
So the kid who sits across from my daughter in class wants her to die? This is the message that was sent. For her, it was no different than hearing him say he wanted to be a member of the KKK when he grew up. Yes, it may have been a joke. Sure, he might not really want to kill her. But there are people who do, and these are real threats to LGBT+ people in America. It is not a laughing matter. And yet, I hope it was just a joke.
The next day, the teacher, seemingly having taken some time to process the event and consider the comments from those who approached her after class, spent the hour conducting exercises to help the students understand privilege and how words matter. She gave my daughter the floor, and my daughter proceeded to tell the class what it is like to be in her shoes. The misgendering and micro aggressions she experiences on a regular basis. Why she doesn’t always feel safe using a public women’s restroom. How she was verbally assaulted by a man quoting Bible verses at her while she was holding her girlfriend’s hand at the mall over the summer. The way she has been othered by many who used to feel safe to her.
When she got home and told me about this, I was SO PROUD OF HER. This child is soft and tender, and calm and collected, and I love that — despite any stones thrown in her direction — she was able to express herself with dignity and help her entire class grow in understanding and hopefully empathy, and also provide language for them to stand up for others or even themselves in the future. Whatever grades she gets on her report card do not measure up to the caliber of human that she is.
The next day was parent-teacher conferences and I was eager to hear the teacher’s thoughts on this whole ordeal. The teacher immediately told me that she was impressed by my daughter and I thanked her — I was, too. And then she told me how the boy who made this comment was really a great kid, and I nodded, he probably is, but then she spent the next several minutes continuing to gush about him. The initial smile on my face drooped and the neurons that assign people to the safe or unsafe lists in my brain flared up. Sooo — was it okay or not okay that he said this thing? What will he feel empowered to say or do next time? Are you impressed by my daughter for giving an impromptu Ted Talk to your class about inclusion, or by a young man “dripping with potential” who just doesn’t understand why he can’t always talk like he’s in the locker room? Are we here to defend the weak or the strong? The abused or the abuser? The vulnerable or the powerful?
Sometime a person can be safe individually, but sympathizes with people who are not safe, and this sends unsettling mixed messages.
SAFE OR UNSAFE? UNCLEAR (but leans unsafe).
My daughter told me she was glad to have the opportunity to share with her class, but that she is really just exhausted. It shouldn’t be so hard to exist.
And I think God does, too. A Biblical worldview says that there is no other. According to Paul:
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28
All ONE in Christ Jesus. All “us,” no “them.”
I sometimes wonder what Paul’s letter to the Americans would say… For the sake of ‘reimagining Scripture’ like the Ark people did with that bumper sticker, do you think we could view the division in the modern church over LGBT+ inclusion to be similar to the deep division within the New Testament-era church? Paul preached a radical message of inclusion that salvation was no longer found in obedience to the Torah, exclusive to faithful Jews, but was extended generously to the unchurched, non-law-abiding Gentiles. This seemed to defy everything the Jewish church had always been taught and I can imagine their cognitive dissonance was great as they decided whether Paul was really one who could be trusted. After all, this inclusion message went against their long-held beliefs. It sounded pretty liberal.
With circumcision holding great importance as a symbol of true obedience for Jewish men, it caused interfaith strife as Paul compelled them to accept the uncircumcised Gentiles as just as beloved and included. In fact, he went as far as to say that the circumcised-or-uncircumcised debate was the wrong one to be having because the good news for all of them was, it didn’t matter in the new creation!
How might we reimagine Galatians 6:11-18 in view of today’s church division on sexual orientation? Let’s see, for fun:
I don’t want to live in fear. I don’t like subconsciously categorizing the people around me as safe or unsafe. I don’t like worrying about the bogeyman showing up at a holiday gathering, but my priority is my child and protecting her from undue harm. I also don’t want to other someone else because of their long-held beliefs. This is hard. I’ll admit, though, it would really be fantastic if any friends or family members who want to be on the safe list but aren’t sure if they are reached out to let me know, like my sweet neighbor did, that my child is not an other and that they will love and defend her in any space in this world. I don’t want to be too greedy, but the holidays are coming up and that would make an awesome gift.
If you’re a person who is safe individually, would you consider making yourself known in the world, and especially in spaces that may otherwise be considered unsafe for LGBT+ people? Can you be a lighthouse in the scary places? Do you think closeted (or out) LGBT+ people in your church know that you are safe? Do you show your support publicly on social media or in regular conversation? Are you raising kids who would have been one of the seven to go to my daughter’s teacher about that offensive comment? Would you use your vote to defend their civil rights? Would you be a clear and present “SAFE SPACE” for kids like mine?
Will you teach the next generation that we are all one and there is no other? That the things which threaten to divide us don’t matter in the new creation?
Until then, the last domino to fall will always be violence.
#RIP, Matthew Shephard
#RIP, LGBT+ lives gone too soon due to the trauma inflicted by conversion therapy. Friends, please plan to go see Boy Erased in theaters this month to learn more about this dangerous practice.
#RIP, Tree of Life Synogogue mass shooting victims, killed just this weekend:
Joyce Fienberg (75), Richard Gottfried (65), Rose Mallinger (97), Jerry Rabinowitz (66), Cecil Rosenthal (59), David Rosenthal (54), Bernice Simon (84), Sylvan Simon (86), Daniel Stein (71), Melvin Wax (88), Irving Younger (69)
#RIP, Countless victims of violence against the Black community. What my family is dealing with — anything I have posted in this blog or experienced in real life — is mild compared to what you have experienced for generations. How maddening it must have been when we didn’t believe you or show up for you. As for me and my house, we will do better. We will listen and we will be safe people and we will follow your lead in healing this country.