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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17 thoughts on “The Need for Better Conversations about Traditional Sexual Ethics, LGBT Suicide, and Parental Acceptance

  1. I wish I could say that growing up in an open environment where parents are loving and accepting, and where a child is part of a loving community of LGBTQ folks ensures that the pain of depression and suicide is non- existent…

    My own child has been raised to know that love and respect for all people is how we reflect God, yet this beautiful child, who struggles with depression and sexual identity also contemplates suicide over these issues on a daily basis. We long for a day when gender identity and sexuality no longer compel us to seek out blogs and support groups to help us get through the day.

    I read your blog daily, reply to a few, but want you to know that you are always a mighty presence. Be blessed as we are blessed.

    • Hello! Thanks so much for sharing your story. It’s definitely true that being surrounded by lots and lots of loving, accepting people is not a sure-proof defense against depression and suicidal ideation. We know far too many parents who have their parenting rigorously examined because they have a child battling significant depression. Without a doubt, questioning one’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity can lead to increased existential angst, especially when one is asking many questions that have no clear answers.

      We’re always glad to see you in the comments. Thanks for your readership!

  2. Thank you for posting this. As I continue to struggle with my understanding of my faith and sexual ethic, and being a caring friend to those with different sexualities and gender identities, this is such an important topic to address. Sometimes it would feel easier to reject it all (as many millennials are doing, which statistics do show), but your dedication to the conversation shows there could be a turning point, so I hope.

    • Thanks for your kind words. We know that struggling with faith and sexuality is hard, especially when people are confronted with seeming tradeoffs between their personal sexual ethics and caring about friends.

  3. Agreed their should be more conversations instead of just halting any potential from the start.
    At the same I really don’t even know how to view traditional marriage and sex ethic. The only things I’ve read basically place an emphasis on h heterosexuality and highlight gender complimentary and body parts. I feel like if I was straight I would find traditional sexual ethic offensive and makes marriage seem like a contract to procreate…I’ve even seen people online say I’m only married to so and so because she’s going to have my kids and that’s what marriage is for
    I feel like I’m the only one who thinks marriage is and should be more than that

    • Thanks for raising these concerns. Some apologists for a traditional sexual ethic do tend to emphasize marriage as a contract to procreate, neglecting all other aspects of the marital vocation. We see that as a problem.

      • I’m glad that you didn’t find my comment too offensive or if you did your choosing to be nice.
        So thank you.
        I know some focus on procreation it’s just….I don’t see the necessity of making marriage a sacrament then. Or using it as a defining feature that is the sole focus…why do straight people even marry the person they do.. if that person is completely interchangeable with another for the purpose of reproductive organs. Biology> reason

        • We would really like to see discussions about marriage, celibacy, and vocation in general move beyond the space of focusing on procreating vs. not procreating. Just wanting to make sure we understood your comment correctly: are you saying that if marriage isn’t only for procreation, you don’t understand why it is considered a sacrament? Or did we get that wrong?

          • No I really did mean marriage shouldn’t have to equal procreation. I don’t necessarily understand why marriage would be a sacrament if procreation was the main goal.
            Also I’m really sorry for being rude and not being more thoughtful before commenting.

          • Not at all! You weren’t rude. We just weren’t clear on what you meant. Okay, that makes sense. Christian traditions that consider marriage a sacrament have different theologies to explain it. Some of those focus on procreation more than others. But to the best of our knowledge, they also have some level of focus on two people becoming one flesh, and also the role that the marital vocation plays in guiding the two people toward manifesting the Kingdom of God.

  4. I agree with your very basic premise: “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.”

    In my experience, what becomes damaging are the “musts” that accompany being raised by conservative parents. You have already mentioned “you must be straight” or, “you must marry,” and how those are damaging for lgbt kids. I think an equally destructive must is, “you must be celibate.” Depending on the child’s temperament, it will be received differently. For some, it will be less crushing. For others, it might truly mean death. They will perceive it as not just a death sentence to sex, but a death sentence to marriage and family as well. (because, for many people, sexuality is an inherent part of family and partnership. If they are to live without sex, then they are to live without partnership as well. That isn’t because they are spiritually weak, but just because of their unique natures. )

    I truly wonder if it is possible for parents to hold to a traditional ethic and soften the blow of these “musts”. It’s especially dangerous when the musts are perceived as a line in the sand that determines the child’s sense of worth, goodness, and capacity to be loved.

    The statistics about the relationship between the sexual ethic and the mental health of gay teens are, in my own personal experience and my own observation, true, and I think that might be because of the musts that flow from the traditional ethic. I can also speak from experience that the healthiest celibate gay people committed to a traditional ethic that I know came to their conclusion after a time of questioning and searching. In other words, I think the space for growth and questioning is absolutely necessary for healthy celibacy.

    But I don’t think that every traditional parent can give that Generous Spaciousness to their child, because their very religious convictions do not permit them to do so. This is, perhaps, where a catch 22 emerges. I think that the way we might avoid much of the damage is by telling our children, “this is what I believe, and here’s why I believe it, but I will give the space and resources to help you choose what you believe.” But given the nature of how many people hold the traditional ethic, such a posture will be impossible for them.

    It’s also worth pointing out here that love is not the issue. My parents love me deeply, and I know that. But that didn’t keep their attitudes from being deeply, deeply destructive to me. The scary fact is that love in itself is not enough to save lives. We also have to be right.

  5. while I am thinking about it, allow me to offer a few more thoughts. Speaking from my own experience, another way the parents holding the traditional ethic feels hurtful to me is that it inherently seems to devalue relationships that we work very hard to build. If I work very, very hard on cultivating or pursuing a gay relationship that brings me tremendous joy and stability, and then a parent dismisses it as immoral, second best, or refuses to see it’s fruit or goodness, there is clearly going to be some anguish. For someone who is fragile, it could mean some very serious damage. If children get upset over invalidation over career choice, college choice, athletic ability, etc. Imagine how much invalidation will be felt when parents see a monagomous, committed partner as less than. The parents may not be rejecting them, and the parents still certainly love them, but that isn’t the point. It still causes tremendous hurt, and for some it may cause hurt that results in or exaerbates mental health issues.

    Yet again, I sincerely question how this isn’t going to be a common part of gay children’s experience of traditional parents.

    I also have to slightly amend my statement in my last post: I agree that the claim, “holding to a traditional ethic kills gay people” shuts down conversation. But I also have to say I don’t think it should. We *should* be able to make such claims and then honestly discuss them, which is not what is happening in our current climate. People making strong statements like that and genuinely believing them is not the problem, it seems, but *how* people make the strong statements and *how* people respond. I don’t think anything will be fixed by telling people to stop believing that the traditional ethic is harmful. I think much can be gained by encouraging them to talk about it in different ways.

    • Hi Stephen, thanks for reading and leaving your comments here!

      We agree that parental “must dos” can be extremely oppressive and restrictive. Many parents have visions for their children’s futures and often work very hard to convince their children that “Father/Mother knows best.” On our blog, we have been very outspoken against celibacy mandates and about our belief that good spiritual directors can help guide people toward discovering their vocations. (You can find those posts at http://aqueercalling.com/2014/01/31/the-celibacy-mandate/ – The Celibacy Mandate and http://aqueercalling.com/2014/05/02/moving-beyond-the-celibacy-mandate/ – Moving Beyond the Celibacy Mandate.)

      We disagree that the “must do” approach characterizes every parent who holds a traditional sexual ethic. We have no doubt that a lot of parents take a “must do” approach, but it would be a stretch to say that all parents with a traditional sexual ethic use clear, unyielding legal prohibitions to guide their children. We know parents who confess and affirm a traditional sexual ethic that the only place for sex is within the covenant of marriage, yet discuss their own struggles with sex and sexuality in a more open and conversational manner when talking with their teenage children. Additionally, we know a substantial group of parents who constantly strategize for how they would respond if their sons or daughters had sexual encounters of various kinds before marriage. That being said, we grieve for every person who fears being completely rejected by his or her parents if he or she ever were to commit any kind of sexual indiscretion and/or ask difficult questions about sexuality.

      In your comment, you stated, “The statistics about the relationship between the sexual ethic and the mental health of gay teens are, in my own personal experience and my own observation, true, and I think that might be because of the musts that flow from the traditional ethic.” As we read the study that we linked, we saw that the statistics describe the relationship between parental acceptance and the mental health of LGBT teens. While some parents might cite their traditional sexual ethics as grounds for rejecting their LGBT children, other parents might cite their traditional sexual ethics as grounds for accepting their LGBT children. Parents who believe — as part of their sexual ethics — that love for their children should model God’s unconditional love would be extremely likely to continue in a positive relationship with their LGBT children.

      Parents constantly model both spirituality and sexuality for their children. The two of us would see it as highly problematic if parents refused to bring their children to church until their children were old and wise enough to choose faith for themselves. So we ask, why should parents have to wait until children are old enough to discern their own sexual ethics before modeling a particular approach? It can be difficult in any family when a child makes a choice to deviate from the parents’ spirituality. Maturing in faith is a natural process, and there’s bound to be some bumps in the road. Equally, it can be difficult for children who find themselves having a more conservative sexual ethic than their parents and vice versa. These conflicts often emerge between parents and straight children as well. But guiding one’s children does not require holding them with an iron fist, and there are conservative parents who know this.

      In our opinion, there’s a marked difference between suggesting that something is harmful or can be harmful under certain conditions and asserting that something is “killing gay people.” The former claim could mean a variety of different things depending on how one defines harm. If one defines harm broadly, it could include even the slightest amount of distress. We’re certain that the current discussion about sexual ethics *does* cause harm to LGBT people. We’ve experienced it ourselves. But the latter claim about killing shifts the conversation to extremes and, if it were true, would be very difficult to prove. Current conversations about this topic are already very polarized, and they tend to lump all people with a traditional sexual ethic into the same category. In the eyes of many (though certainly not all) with a progressive sexual ethic, parents who embrace LGBT children and their partners while disagreeing theologically belong in the same category as parents who immediately kick their LGBT minor children out of their homes. There’s wide variation in how conservative parents in different Christian traditions interact with their LGBT children, and this reality ought to be acknowledged.

      We’ve experienced this variation first-hand. Sarah’s mother resolutely believes that being gay is a choice. She is adamant that even having a homosexual orientation is a sin. To her, our celibacy doesn’t really matter that much. Nevertheless, over time she has come to acknowledge that Lindsey is a good person who cares deeply for Sarah and that our relationship bears good fruit. Sarah and Sarah’s mom have had many conflicts over the years, but the conflicts involving sexuality issues have lessened significantly despite the fact that Sarah’s mom’s theology remains firm and unchanged. Though Sarah can think of a lot of ways that the situation could improve further, we are not at all comfortable with the idea that Sarah’s mom is essentially the same as a conservative parent who is dismissive and cannot appreciate his/her child’s joy.

  6. Okay, brace yourselves, because I’m about to speak out of both sides of my mouth, here.

    First off, I’ve long gone even further than you guys did in this essay in my distaste for the use of suicide statistics. I see no legitimate place for those numbers outside of narrowly targeted discussions of suicide prevention. Otherwise, their use is basically just the LGBT community holding a gun to our collective heads and threatening to pull the trigger if we’re not given certain concessions. It’s disgraceful.

    That said, I find it difficult to muster up much sympathy for parents who think that it is more important to guide their post-pubescent children away from particular sins, or to preserve within them a particular religious mindset, than it is to love them and preserve a close relationship with them as adults. Adults stray from the teachings of parents, and they find their own paths. LGBT adults aren’t some sort of special exception to that rule, and as long as they’re treated that way, I’ll have no patience with traditional Christian parents’ whining.

    • You make a really good point about use of suicide statistics. We’re all for using them when talking about suicide prevention. Outside of that, we don’t see that they’re very useful. We also have trouble understanding why a parent would feel that it’s more important to focus on disapproval of an adult child’s personal life than to maintain a relationship with that child. Some conservative parents do that. Many do. But others are caricatured as doing so when they actually don’t. Sarah’s working on a piece for next week about Sarah’s mom, and it will touch on this topic.

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