A Review of “Mom, I’m Gay” by Susan Cottrell

This month, we’re double-dipping on book reviews because another author has generously provided us with a copy of her book. For the first time, we will be reviewing a resource aimed at parents of LGBTQ children. Susan Cottrell‘s “Mom, I’m Gay”: Loving your LGBTQ Child without Sacrificing Your Faith is a quick, straightforward read with lots of little gems throughout. We are deeply grateful to her for sharing her book with us.

We write all of our reviews with two central questions in mind: What does this book have to say to LGBT Christians who are living celibacy or exploring the possibility of celibate vocations? How does this book contribute to conversation about celibacy as a way of life that LGBT Christians might choose? We would like to maintain that focus as much as possible, but given the nature of this resource we will also be discussing what this book has to offer for parents, particularly moms and dads of celibates but also parents of LGBTQ children in general.

Cottrell blogs regularly at FreedHearts, which we’ve linked in the first paragraph. She is a Christian and mother of five, and her family includes children who are part of the LGBT community. FreedHearts is her full-time ministry, and she is passionate about helping LGBTQ individuals and their parents. To be honest, we were hesitant when we began reading “Mom, I’m Gay” because neither of us is a parent and we feel somewhat under qualified to review it. But as we progressed through its pages we found ourselves reflecting on our relationships with our own parents and found many points of connection with our stories, particularly Sarah’s.

The first thing we noticed about Cottrell’s work is that the book is very simply put together with short chapters. There is nothing lofty or complicated about “Mom, I’m Gay” and that is one of its greatest advantages. It’s a collection of short reflections on Cottrell’s own process of coming to embrace her daughter. Every parent who struggles earnestly with questions of how to respond to an LGBTQ son or daughter has likely experienced the emotions and thoughts: fear, uncertainty, exasperation, love. While reading, a recurring image for us was that of troubled parent picking up this book during a coffee break at work, perhaps even taking it to the bathroom to read a chapter and shed a few tears. Not a single chapter is too long to be read within 10 minutes, which makes the book a good resource for readers with limited emotional bandwidth. Parents who are grasping at straws for a way even to begin thinking about LGBTQ issues will find gentleness and compassion in each brief chapter.

LGBTQ people who read this book may find it challenging or soothing…or both. It’s not easy for us to put ourselves in our parents’ shoes and make an honest effort to see things from their points of view. “Mom, I’m Gay” challenged us to think back on our own coming out experiences and the interactions we’ve had with our parents since then. Our four parents’ beliefs on sexual ethics range from very conservative to very liberal, and it was helpful for us to consider their different struggles and how each might respond to Cottrell’s message. Some passages, like this one, had us exclaiming, “Yes! Every parent of an LGBTQ child should know this!”:

Life is ephemeral, beyond our control, easy to snuff out. Put first things first. You have a beautiful child. Do not let this issue overshadow that truth. Ask God whatever you need to, and let him guide you through this maze. But do not let anything diminish the blessed gift your child is and their place in your family. Now is the perfect time to embrace, kiss, encourage, affirm, and love your child.

Whatever conclusions parents and their LGBTQ children reach about the morality of same-sex sexual activity, bits like these will have strong resonance. Life is short. We are called to love one another. Sometimes, it’s not immediately clear how we should do that, but this should not stop us from recognizing the image and likeness of God in every human being. This nugget of wisdom is just as true for LGBTQ children who are frustrated with their parents as it is for parents sorting through tough emotions after a child’s coming out.

We found chapters 11 and 12 especially meaningful. Chapter 11 focuses on people-pleasing, an issue that both of us have struggled with mightily. We imagine that one or more of our parents probably has too. There’s a great deal of social pressure in Christianity  for parents to reject LGBTQ children. Likewise, there’s a significant push for LGBTQ people to leave the Church, “change” sexual orientations, and view ourselves as “people who struggle with same-sex attraction.” While Cottrell writes from a perspective that is firmly in support of committed, sexually active same-sex relationships, the message of this chapter has meaning for all people who are involved in this discussion, trying their best to follow Christ and live out their callings. People-pleasing harms us. If we’re more concerned about listening to what others think than we are about hearing God’s voice in all of this, our priorities need reexamination. As celibate LGBTQ Christians, the two of us sometimes experience difficulty in separating the judgmental messages we hear from straight Christians (and, to be honest, non-celibate LGBTQ Christians). This chapter encouraged us to continue examining our own behaviors and ask, “Is this coming from God or from respectability politics?”

Chapter 12 is titled, “Bear Their Burdens,” and it speaks to the need for parents to support their children even in the most difficult of circumstances. Cottrell challenges readers to see the person first and the perceived problem second. On page 59 she says, “Don’t shift all that to your child but instead help lift that burden. Let the weight of the discomfort rest on you. Your child is carrying enough as it is.” What struck us here was that as Christians, all of us are called to bear one another’s burdens. The “It’s not my problem” attitude doesn’t come from Christianity — it comes from our own discomfort. We wonder what it will mean for us to bear the burdens of others. Will it inconvenience us? Will it get us in over our heads. Back to chapter 11 again, will it cause people to think negatively of us if we’re seen as giving even the slightest support to a gay person, a pregnant teenager, an addict? Cottrell makes it clear: your child should not have to journey alone through the difficult questions of life. Likewise, no person should have to travel a difficult road without support. As Christians, we should always be ready and willing to extend a loving hand. This is one area where the Church has failed LGBTQ Christians the most. Celibate LGBTQ Christians, like all LGBTQ people, have experienced painful rejection, and much of this is because it’s hard for the Body of Christ to be the Body of Christ. It’s easier to dismiss people as risks for scandal than to reflect seriously on how we can support vocational discernment and progress toward maturity. Cottrell’s book nudged us to think about how we can do better at bearing the burdens of others.

We would love to engage in more conversation with the author about how her ideas can be applied to parents of celibate LGBTQ children. There is no generic pathway that all Christian families follow as children come to accept their sexual orientations. Some parents hope that their children will choose celibacy, but this doesn’t happen. The parents might respond with condemnation or with an “agree to disagree” attitude. Other parents demand that their children choose celibacy and will not accept the possibility of any different outcome. Still, other parents are completely accepting of sexually active LGBTQ relationships, but their children choose celibacy anyway either because they have discerned a calling to celibacy or because their sexual ethics are more conservative than those of their parents. Some celibate LGBTQ Christians, like Sarah, have one parent with a very liberal sexual ethic and another who believes that sexual orientation is a choice. We’re curious to know if there is anything else Cottrell might have to say about family situations like these.

Also, we would push back on the idea presented in some places like chapter 19 that finding a gay-affirming church is a necessary part of embracing one’s LGBTQ child. We would like to ask the author if she, as a person who supports sexually active same-sex relationships, sees any possible pathway for being a loving and accepting parent who believes in the teachings of a conservative Christian tradition.

In general, we would recommend “Mom, I’m Gay” to others interested in LGBTQ Christian issues. So much of this book is basic Christianity: love other people and never forget that they are made in God’s image.

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