Breaking Through for the Sake of Love
by Joanna Brooks
What would you do if you were the conservative LDS parent of a 13-year-old son who told you he is gay?
That’s the difficult question at the heart of a tender and essential new movie, “Families are Forever,” produced by the Family Acceptance Project and recently premiering at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah.
The Family Acceptance Project (FAP) is led by Dr. Caitlin Ryan of San Francisco State University, whose work developing materials to improve health and reduce suicide and drug use among LGBT young people by supporting their families has been recognized as a “best practice” by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. FAP has developed materials in collaboration with and specifically for LDS families; you can find them here.
“Families are Forever” is a twenty-minute film that takes us inside the very Mormon household of Tom and Wendy, committed and conservative LDS parents, and their adolescent son. It screened recently at a special event at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. I spoke with Wendy about her experience as a faithful LDS person who has chosen to be supportive of her gay teenage son.
Religion Dispatches: It’s a big deal to come out as the parent of a gay child in LDS communities.
Some of our friends and family have been immediately loving and supportive, and some have needed time to think it through. Our family like many others struggles with the question of how raising an LGBT child fits with our religion: how do I reconcile this with my beliefs?
I grew up in a very conservative and religious community in Simi Valley, California. My circle of friends and family members were mainly other Mormons. It was really, really sheltered. And I remember hearing things like “gay people are disgusting and immoral” and “AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuality.” When I learned my young son was gay, I remember thinking, “But he’s nothing like those homosexuals! Either he’s not gay, or everything I know about being gay is wrong.” I had to unlearn everything I had learned for 36 years.
My first thought was that “surely, the Church has the answers.” I spoke with my bishop; we saw eight different LDS counselors; I read everything I could find about Mormonism and homosexuality. I was absorbed to the point of not eating and not sleeping, trying to figure out how to help my son. But the more I read from LDS Church materials, the more disheartened and sad I got. None of them acknowledged that there was such a thing as a gay teenager – they only talk in terms of homosexual acts and behaviors. My son is only 14; he hasn’t even held another boy’s hand, but he knows he is gay. And he’s doing nothing wrong. There were no helps in those materials for me.
The Family Acceptance Project materials were like sunshine in the darkest abyss I had ever experienced. Without threatening my core religious beliefs, they gave me a path forward. It seemed like there were only two paths: that my son chooses a lonely, celibate life, or that he chooses love and we lose him. Both are terrible. The crux of the message in Family Acceptance Project materials is that parents – whether Mormon or any other faith – can love and support a child while holding onto deeply held beliefs.
RD: The Mormon parent-gay child story most familiar to us is that parents make a terrible choice between holding to the faith or holding onto their child.
And I refused to make that choice. If I were ever backed into a corner, I would choose my child, because I know I can still have a relationship with my Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, even without the Church.
RD: That’s a huge bridge to cross for a faithful LDS person.
I hated the fact that I even had to go there in my mind. But we are talking about my child. Mormons teach so strongly the value of eternal families, but the way we have treated gay children is such a contradiction. We have taken a huge amount of flack as a family that we are too supportive and too accepting of our gay son. What does that look like as a parent to be too accepting of your child? I would never kick him out. That’s not even on my radar. I’ve loved him for 13 years, and that’s not going to change.
RD: It sounds like you found in traditional Mormon beliefs about the value of family a resource for supporting your son.
All that I’ve known my whole life is family, family, family. Heavenly Father gave me five of the most perfect kids, and I would never abuse that trust. There is not one thing in Mormon doctrines, policies, or teachings that tells us to kick our kid out of our home. I am his mother forever, in this life and the next.
RD: You didn’t know you were such a fighter. I think there’s something about living a demanding faith like Mormonism that can prepare you for big battles.
Yes. And I feel like I am closer to God through these battles than I have ever been. I am loving better, with less judgment, the way Christ showed us to love. As hard as the past year and a half has been, I am so grateful for what I have learned. Everyone says, “I am so sorry.” I say, “Don’t be – I am so grateful for what I have learned.”
RD: What is your dream for your son’s future?
My husband tells me don’t look too far into his future because I’ll go crazy. I was grieving the life I wanted my son to have: serving a mission, getting married in the [Mormon] temple, and having children. I saw all of this evaporate when he came out, so it’s really hard. I want him to be sitting next to me at church if that’s where he wants to be. I want him to feel comfortable there. I want him to be with his partner in church, feeling comfortable holding his partner’s hand, if he wants. I don’t want him to choose between a God he loves and a man he loves. None of us have to make that choice we expect of gay LDS people. If I had to, I’d choose a family and love.