The Need for Better Conversations about Traditional Sexual Ethics, LGBT Suicide, and Parental Acceptance

Any LGBT person can tell you how hard it is to talk about all the hurtful ways the LGBT community has experienced traditional sexual ethics. Because of how often people from conservative Christian traditions have used their beliefs as weapons, straight Christians often feel torn between expressing theological convictions about sex and marriage and showing love to the real LGBT people they know.

In discussions about the risks of alienating LGBT loved ones, activists and allies frequently cite the work of the Family Acceptance Project. We’ve heard many friends and acquaintances call attention to a 2009 finding that “LGB young adults who reported higher levels of family rejection during adolescence were 8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide, 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression, 3.4 times more likely to use illegal drugs, and 3.4 times more likely to report having engaged in unprotected sexual intercourse, compared with peers from families that reported no or low levels of family rejection.” We’ve also heard much about the 2010 findings from the same group: “LGBT young adults who reported high levels of family acceptance during adolescence had significantly higher levels of self-esteem, social support and general health, compared to peers with low levels of family acceptance,” and, “High religious involvement in families was strongly associated with low acceptance of LGBT children.”

In no way do we want to minimize the importance of effective suicide prevention work. We thank God for every person who dedicates his or her life to preventing the tragedy of suicide, and we are especially grateful for organizations like the Trevor Project that operate suicide prevention services especially geared towards young people in the LGBT community. Every time we hear from a person in crisis, we direct him or her to call 866-488-7386. The Trevor Project operates 24/7 with trained counselors, and we’ve never known them to turn anyone away for being older than 24.

Statistics about LGBT suicide rates have been circulating since 1989. The shocking numbers have lead to widespread calls to do something — anything — to prevent people from choosing suicide. Even in 2014, we see many stories about youth who attempt suicide as a result of being bullied over real or perceived sexual orientation and/or gender identity. These stories cut us to the heart, and we grieve. As a couple, we do everything possible to promote safe environments for LGBT people while readily extending hospitality to any of our friends who may be in distress. We do not want to see anyone become another suicide statistic. Yet, we are also saddened by the way statistics get used to make an argument that essentially comes down to, “Having a traditional sexual ethic means you are driving your LGBT child to suicide.”

Here at A Queer Calling, we’re not interested in apologetics. We’re not out to convert anyone. We are writing on this topic because we have many readers who are parents with a firm belief that sex is a gift reserved for heterosexual marriage and an absolute commitment to loving their children no matter what. They have sought counsel from many different places, and they manage to find our blog at some point along the way. By the time they write to us, they tell us that they’ve heard the only way to love their LGBT children and protect those children from suicide, depression, and other mental health problems is to adopt a progressive sexual ethic that affirms gay marriage and supports medical transition for transgender people. Because we’re not in the business of telling people what to believe, we struggle to know what to say to these folks. Our hearts ache for them and their families. We want to do everything we can to help them show love to their children. It makes no difference whether their sexual ethics mirror ours. We hear and try to empathize with their earnest questions of “How can I continue actively parenting my child now that he or she has come out to me? Must I sit back and simply affirm all of my child’s choices if I want to keep him/her in my life?”

We are not parents, but this confusion makes sense to us. When we hear people shouting from the rooftops, “LGBT kids are committing suicide because of what conservative Christians believe!” we have to wonder if that shout goes up as a kind of trump card. If statistics about LGBT suicides get shared every time a traditional sexual ethic is mentioned, we wonder if these statistics are being offered as attempts to prevent LGBT suicides or as attempts to silence anyone who holds conservative beliefs but genuinely wants to show love to their LGBT friends and family members. When it comes to parents supporting their kids, why do people seem ready to conflate believing that marriage should be between one man and one woman with rendering one’s child homeless, depressed, and dejected? We don’t want to minimize the pain anyone experiences as a result of conflict with his or her family. We’ve been there, and it’s incredibly hard to manage. But we are skeptical of the claim that embracing a progressive sexual ethic is the only way to love and accept one’s LGBT child.

Part of the problem that arises when discussing this very sensitive issue is that many conservative Christians who believe they are “speaking the truth in love” are actually enacting violence upon their LGBT children. When one’s typical response to any discussion about sexuality with an LGBT child or family member is, “Being gay is a sin,” or “God’s plan is for you to become heterosexual,” or “We love you and want you to be ‘normal’ and have a family someday,” the person on the receiving end is going to experience those comments as rejection. If you’re never willing to listen as your loved one shares his/her experience of life, and if you cannot see your loved one in any way other than “sexual sinner” or “potential sexual sinner,” you’re creating a recipe for disaster.

But these are not the ways that all people with conservative beliefs on marriage and sexuality interact with their LGBT children. We know some conservative parents who have strong relationships with children who have come out to them, whether those sons and daughters have grown up to become celibate or non-celibate. These folks are determined to love their family members unconditionally while acknowledging that they may not agree on sexual ethics. Parents we know personally have taken different approaches. Should their sons or daughters decide to enter same-sex marriages, some have opted to attend the weddings even amid theological differences. We also know people who have decided not to attend their children’s wedding services but still welcome partners to all family gatherings as members of their families. Additionally, we know of families who make a special point to ensure that their single and married LGBT children can attend all extended family gatherings and major life moments for their nieces and nephews. We aren’t advocating any of these as best practices. Again, we are not parents, and our only knowledge of this topic comes from interactions with our own parents and the parents of LGBT friends.

While we acknowledge that many LGBT people might struggle to see some of these actions and attitudes as “affirming,” it’s very difficult for us to conceive of any of them as outright rejection and hatred. Disagreeing with one’s son’s or daughter’s approach to sexual ethics does not have to mean belittling his or her life experiences. Disagreement does not automatically render a person hateful. It also does not necessarily mean a person is trying to show love while doing things that are oppressive. We know from our two very different sets of experiences with our own parents that what one person sees as an insufficient show of love, another may see as a warm embrace. We believe that generally, it’s best to let parents and children determine for themselves the best ways to handle differences of opinion regarding what is “affirming” and what is not.

The claim, “Holding a traditional sexual ethic means you are driving LGBT people to suicide,” shuts down meaningful dialogue about how traditional sexual ethics help people to understand marriage, celibacy, sexuality, and gender in positive ways. This claim doesn’t leave space for an LGBT person to hold a traditional sexual ethic, or for an LGBT person with a liberal sexual ethic to have a healthy relationship with his or her more conservative family. It hides the myriad ways LGBT people and our families reconcile disagreements over faith and sexuality. There is considerable diversity within the LGBT community about reconciling these issues; parents should be empowered to undertake a similar journey. As much as we need to have real conversations about bullying and LGBT suicides, we also need to offer people with traditional sexual ethics space to explore how the faith they hold dear could help them to love their LGBT family members better.

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