A reflection by Sarah
Today, I’m writing something that I never thought I would write. It’s a defense of my mom and all Christian parents like her. I’ll admit upfront that this is a difficult post for me because my mom and I don’t have a very close relationship. We’re as different as daylight and dark and have always struggled to understand each other. Rarely do we find ourselves being of one mind on any serious issue. Yet for reasons mysterious, far beyond our comprehension, God saw fit to put us into relationship as mother and daughter. And perhaps this is why I would fight to the death to protect her from being maligned.
Two weeks ago, we published a post on the need for better conversations about issues of LGBT suicide and parental acceptance. In response to our claim that conservative Christian parents approach their relationships with LGBTQ children (minor and adult) in a variety of ways, more than one reader suggested that these parents are always caught in a choice between loving God and loving their children. A few readers found our confidence that it would be possible for parents with a traditional sexual ethic to maintain authentic relationships with their LGBTQ children overly optimistic and a bit foolhardy. Some offered that for many LGBTQ people, even being around a parent with a traditional sexual ethic is inescapably destructive and dangerous. I can’t speak to the life circumstances of another person and do not wish to invalidate the stories of others. Nonetheless, as I was interacting with our readers on this topic I couldn’t help but think of my relationship with my mom because, although we have remarkably different views on sexuality and scripture, I cannot imagine her ever treating me as a lesser human being because of my sexual orientation.
My mom is a longtime attendee of services in a conservative Christian denomination that many would consider fundamentalist. If not a total biblical literalist, she’s remarkably close (except at times when my dad teases her about male headship — she’s not too fond of Ephesians 5 and 1 Timothy 2 when interpreted literally). For my mom, questions about the morality of homosexuality usually come down to a simple quoting of “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is abomination” (Leviticus 18:22). Make your best emphatic statement of “Abomination!” with an Eastern Kentucky accent, and you’ve pretty much summed up my mom’s views on non-heterosexual orientations. Occasionally in the past, my mom has cited 1 Corinthians 6 to hint that I could magically become straight, but it’s always been in the general sense of “Well, Sarah Ann, God can change our hearts if we let him.” My mom has always believed that being gay is a choice, and she holds that belief alongside others that make sense within a biblical literalist framework. For example, my mom would argue that the world was created in six actual days, the Old Testament is a literal record of historical events, and the discussion of every moral question should begin with, “Well, you know, what the Bible says…”
However, I have no doubt that my mom loves Jesus and has always desired that I encounter Christ personally. She’s shared with me that before I was born and she was unsure of her ability to bear children, she prayed — as Hannah did before the birth of Samuel — that if God would give her a child, she would do everything possible to dedicate that child to God’s work. My earliest memories of faith formation involve reading children’s Bible stories with my mom, and my mom reading to my sister and me from her own Bible. Sometimes, she would even plan sick day Sunday school lessons for me at home when I had a cold that was just pesky enough to keep me from attending any church service. My mom is a faith first sort of person if ever there was one. I can’t imagine she’s ever made a decision that wasn’t informed by her relationship with Christ.
When I first came out to my mom, like most conservative parents she didn’t take it well. The news caught her off-guard and rendered her speechless. She had no idea what to say or do. She was a good Christian mom and had done her best to raise me as a person of faith. My mom began zooming in on various theories as to why I “thought” I was a lesbian. Some theories focused on my history of sexual abuse. Others involved speculation that my emotionally difficult breakup with my high school boyfriend might have turned me gay. Occasionally, my mom pulled in even stranger theories such as the idea that seeing two possibly-lesbian women refereeing my elementary school basketball games made the “gay lifestyle” appealing to me. My mom has spent years adjusting to the reality that I’m not going to become straight, my sexual orientation is not a phase, and I’m never going to bring home a prospective son-in-law for parental inspection. However, in the midst of all of this, she has always made clear that she loves me. She has constantly stressed that I am welcome in her household, and from the beginning has promised that she will never, ever reject me. We’ve certainly had our disagreements over the years since I came out. Some have led to weeks, even months of communication breaks. But I’ve never feared being cast aside from my family. If my mom’s love can survive my coming home with a tattoo within a month after starting college, there is absolutely no doubt that it will survive anything else that she considers a transgression.
At this point you might be saying, “Hey, that doesn’t count. You’re celibate. It would be different if you and Lindsey were sexually active.” Not all of my past relationships have been celibate. One of my previous non-celibate relationships was with a women who was emotionally abusive, manipulative, and selfish. If my parents had wanted to reject this partner on the grounds that she treated me terribly, they would have had good cause to do so. Nonetheless, when I introduced her to my parents, my mom did everything she could think to do in order to make her feel welcome. After that relationship ended, my mom said, “You know, Sarah, I’m glad you’re not with that woman anymore.” I became tense and expected to hear a mini-sermon about the evils of homosexuality, but my mom surprised me by instead citing instances when this past partner had mistreated me. My mom highlighted her observation that this person made many and frequent unreasonable requests of me and became angry when I did not meet expectations: regularly, she would demand that I alter my own daily schedule to run litanies of errands, none of which I ever seemed to perform well enough. My mom reminded me of a time when this partner had chosen a restaurant to take all of us for dinner: she hadn’t considered that this establishment wouldn’t have any food that met my dietary needs, and then became angry with me for ordering an off-the-menu cheese sandwich because I couldn’t eat anything else. My mom played back her memory reel of all the times my partner had made fun of me for being too nerdy, not thin enough, and too religious. At no point did my mom mention anything about “homosexuality.” Instead, shared that she had spent hours praying for me that I would not be stuck in an abusive relationship for the rest of my life.
When my mom met Lindsey, I had to do a double-take that I was actually watching her in action. Every bit of Southern hospitality was on display, and anyone present would have thought that Lindsey had been part of the family for decades. Granted, my mom still makes a point to tell me that she thinks homosexuality is wrong, but she shares this view with me personally and privately — never in front of Lindsey. In the next breath, she’ll ask me a litany of questions to learn about Lindsey’s favorite foods so that they can be on the menu when we visit. I’ve never seen my mom go to such lengths to apologize for her preparation of green beans than when she couldn’t find the freshest bunch to serve to Lindsey. Thanks to my mom (and also my pistol-packing grandmother), Lindsey was included immediately in the Christmas gift circle, on the birthday card list, and on the list of questions for the family to ask before the end of a call every time they phone me. Lindsey and I had been together as a couple for over a year before I shared with my mom that we are committed to living celibacy together. I didn’t think telling her that we were celibate would matter much because my mom tends to view homosexuality as a choice, full stop. Discussing celibacy with my mom has not changed how she interacts with Lindsey and me, and my decision to become celibate has had no effect on my mom’s theological position on homosexuality. Despite this (and maybe even despite herself), my mom really does appreciate and respect Lindsey because she likes seeing how well Lindsey treats me and how much I’ve grown spiritually since the beginning of our relationship.
When I reflect on how my mom has treated me over the years, I cannot help but become enraged when people suggest that because of her extremely conservative sexual ethic, she is exactly the same as parents who have thrown their kids out on the street, demanded that they participate in ex-gay ministries, or forced them into fear-based celibacy or heterosexual marriages. I’ll be frank: my mom would much rather I had the capacity to enter a heterosexual marriage. If my mom had her way, I’d be married to a man with a great job while living no more than a twenty-minute drive from her and my dad. By the time she was the age I am now, she had been married to my dad for 8 years and already had two children. In my mom’s dream world, I’d probably be raising children of my own by this point. To say that my relationship with my mom hasn’t been the best is a significant understatement. My close friends can attest to how conflicts about things other than sexual orientation have had nearly enough power to end my relationship with my mom. Nonetheless, I find it imperative to give credit where credit is due.
When it comes to my sexual orientation, my mom has never once indicated in any way that her love for me is conditional upon my “becoming straight” or choosing celibacy. Instead, she has managed to affirm my full humanity and treat me as a person of equal worth (even though we’re still working on, “Please, treat me like a grown woman.”). My mom has done nothing to make me feel like less of a person because I’m a lesbian. She has taught me so much about affirming the dignity of other people because she always goes the extra mile to do so in her own life. In a rural county that’s nearly 99% white and probably more than 99% fundamentalist Christian, my mom has always been the first person to defend members of religious minorities when the town gossips start clucking about what a pity it is that the few nice Hindu and Muslim families in the area “aren’t saved.” She’s constantly responding to those remarks with, “I believe Christ is the only way, but there are things about how He works that we don’t understand.” As I think about how my mom has approached all of her doubts and wrestling with the questions that emerged after I told her I was a lesbian, I am confident that she has spilled out all of her anguish at the foot of the cross so that she can continue to love me — and every LGBTQ person she has ever met — with no strings attached.
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