Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Your son is gay? Here's what I'd suggest.

As a senior at Roy High School, I was listed in the yearbook as "Most Likely to Have Ten Kids". The yearbook staff eschewed traditional "most likely" topics and came up with some funny ones instead. I remember feeling inner turmoil even then when I found out about the vote. I was only 17, closeted, and I didn't know if I'd ever marry a woman or have kids. Back then, my mind wasn't really open to the possibility of becoming a father in a gay relationship. I felt like such a fraud posing for the yearbook photo.

Since then, I've thought about that vote. Why was I chosen for that category? I could flatter myself and say that it was because I truly made an effort to get to know everyone and make them feel included. Maybe it was because I was very much into the LDS church and made an effort to teach the gospel here and there. I couldn't get enough of seminary and I possessed a real thirst for knowledge, as taught by the church. Or maybe it was because I had a lot of friends who would come to me for guidance and advice. When I put my ego aside, I realize that the biggest reason for earning this "distinction" was that I was the youngest of 8 kids. During my sophomore year, there were FIVE Benincosa kids roaming the halls of RHS. The joke was that you were bound to run into at least one Benincosa between each class. 

In hindsight, it was just a silly yearbook thing. I've come to give myself enough credit to think that I have a valuable point of view. But who am I to give parenting advice? Well, I think I could've been an amazing father. I've mourned over the years I lost where this dream could've been realized. I feel like I've been a father in many ways to many people. In recent years, I am open to the idea of becoming a father and raising children with a wonderful companion.

That won't be enough for some to accept any advice I have to give. I'll readily agree that until I have kids of my own and raise them, I couldn't possibly understand all of the complexities and responsibilities associated with being a parent. With total respect and appreciation, I want to send a message of support to all of the parents out there who are earnestly trying to raise their children to the best of their ability.

With that in mind, I have a point of view that can be helpful. I'm not here to correct parents or tell them how to raise their kids. I'm just here to offer my experience and my advice. Since I started this blog less than a year ago, I've had several parents reach out to me for support. I'm not a trained psychologist and I don't pretend to be. I'm just a simple guy who gives a damn about the experience your gay children may be having in the church and in your households.

A longtime friend recently contacted me about her son:

"Nate, what advice do you have for raising a gay child from a faithful Latter-day Saint perspective? I feel like I may need to prepare for this. I want my child to feel loved and accepted by his Heavenly Father despite the harsh reality that his natural feelings may not be able to be expressed without a feeling of condemnation. It is a painful and overwhelming thought. I don't know how to balance teaching that his natural feelings may not be able to be expressed fully, with needing to let him know he is 100% supported and loved."

First of all, I must say that I loved the way this parent posed her question. Her question was not at all about changing her son. This mother's concern was about protecting him and loving him. She senses her child might be gay and she's preparing to parent in a way where this son feels God's love and her love and support. What a great start!

One thing to note is that this friend asked for advice "from a faithful LDS perspective". Well, that's tricky for me because, according to the official church handbook, I am an apostate. Like, literally, that word is used to describe me in the handbook. I live my life the best way that I can. With each entry on this blog, I've tried to express how much I have loved and supported the church even when I don't feel that in return at times. The purpose of this blog continues to be how I'm navigating my membership in this church while embracing my sexuality in an authentic way. 
My previous entries should serve as advice to parents. I hope many of you can glean from what I've shared and relate it to your own experiences. I can only offer advice from my point of view and I hope that it is of some worth to my friend (who gave me permission to share her question) and to many of my readers.

Put simply, here are the 3 main bits of advice I can give to an LDS parent raising a gay son:

1. Love the hell out of them. No conditions. No ultimatums. Your job is simply to love them completely.
2. Assure them of God's love. I get that some of my readers don't believe in God and I'm not forcing my beliefs on anyone. But that is something I very much share with active LDS folks: A belief that there is a God and that He loves us more than we'll ever understand, regardless of our sexual orientation.
3. Teach them to love themselves. No shame, no guilt, no fixing, no changing, no curing. Teach them to embrace EVERY aspect of who they are.

Put simply, my friend's potentially gay son will be just fine if he knows God loves him, his parents love him, and he is taught to love himself. Now, it's not always that simple, but that's the visual triangle I'd start with.

See, to me, being gay isn't something that needs to be fixed. It's not something to cry over or have fear about. Do you really think God would send you one of his gay children, have you raise him as best you can in your limited state only to condemn him to a bad situation eternally? Just do your best to love him and God will see to the rest.

This might upset some parents, but hear me out. I see many parents bring children into this world who become shocked or angry when their kids don't agree 100% with every position or belief they have. The audacity of parents who want to mold and shape mini-me versions of themselves astounds me. I have no patience for parents who kick children out of the home upon hearing that they're gay. I shudder to think how these kinds of parents will account one day for such an unloving act.

Now, don't get me wrong. I totally am on board with having kids and wanting to raise them with tools and resources they'll need to be good, upstanding citizens and contributors to society. I also get that many parents feel that one of the best ways to do that is to enforce certain religious rules that will ensure their salvation. I'm sympathetic enough to know that the main emotion many parents have is fear: the fear that they won't be with their children in the hereafter. What a sad and scary thought! So I get it. Parents raise their kids similar to the way they were raised and they want their children to walk in the right way so that they can be together forever.

I'm not opposed to that. However, I don't believe in an unkind God who entrusts us, imperfect and sinful as we are, to raise His children only to damn them when we don't raise them perfectly. I truly believe that a loving Heavenly Father, a Master Parent, accepts our strengths, weaknesses, successes and failures as parents. Many LDS parents feel a need to cure their children of their homosexuality. I will continue to maintain that God sends millions of His gay and lesbian sons and daughters to earth for a purpose we don't fully understand. I feel that one of my personal responsibilities as a gay member of the LDS church is to teach compassion, acceptance, tolerance, understanding, awareness, and how to avoid judging others.

LDS parents, if your child comes to you and announces he or she is gay, I plead with you. Throw your arms around them, love them and assure them that they aren't broken. See the blessing that this is in your lives and their lives. Try to understand what a beautiful instrument they can be in teaching others how to embrace diversity and accept differences.

In my case, my dad wasn't around much during my childhood and teenage years. I didn't truly get to know him until I was 19. My mother did an amazing job raising 8 children (on her own for many of those years). I feel blessed for being born into the family I was. But with that in mind, there are a few things I could recommend if you are LDS and your son is gay:

1. If your son plays with a doll or tries on a dress as a young boy, don't panic. It doesn't mean he can't also enjoy sports and play with cars. Trying to correct a child to stick to gender-specific stereotypes at such a young age can have a long-lasting and negative effect. It sends a message at a very impressionable age that he "needs to change". Is it the end of the world if your son plays with a Barbie or your daughter plays with toy dump trucks?

2. If your son is in kindergarten and has mostly girl friends, it's ok. Teach him to make friendships, period. It will serve him well in the future. Don't put rules on the boy/girl ratio. Let him be drawn to whomever he is drawn to.

3. If your son is told by a Primary teacher in church that two men getting married is sinful and your son has a classmate with two dads, take the time to educate your son about God's love for each one of us. Sure, if you feel so inclined, teach the law of chastity as taught within the church, but then ask your son what he actually thinks about it.

4. If your son wants to be baptized but you know he's gay, let him get baptized. He just wants to be like Jesus. He's not making temple covenants. Educate your son that his classmate with two dads doesn't have the same privilege and that his classmate can only get baptized when he's 18 and disavows the marriage that his two dads have. Tell your son that he's lucky to be gay and born to straight parents instead of to gay parents so he doesn't have to wait till he's 18. I mean, imagine your sweet boy turning 18 and saying, "I want to be baptized, therefore, I disavow your relationship even though we've been a family unit for the past 18 years." You may sense some bitterness on this one, but yeah, it's a sore spot.

5. If your son wants to know about the birds and the bees, teach him how babies are made. But include ALL of the ways God allows His children to be born. Teach him that God loves all types of families. I remember feeling less than because I was raised by a single mother. My family was incomplete, not good enough. Erase the message that only families with a father and a mother are acceptable.

6. If your son doesn't enjoy cub scouts, don't force it. Same thing with boy scouts. Earning merit badges and learning how to tie knots and how to start a fire will not change his sexual orientation. On the other hand, he might love scouts. Don't assume that because he's gay that he wouldn't enjoy camping and other outdoor activities.

7. If your son feels uneasy about passing the sacrament as a deacon, don't force it. Ask the right questions. I remember being told by priesthood leaders that who I was needed correction. It made me feel unworthy to serve even though I hadn't done anything wrong. I spent 12-18 being taught that gay people were sinful and that their sins were next to murder. Can you imagine the inner struggle I had with my identity? I felt so guilty blessing the sacrament over that microphone because I was taught that I was in total opposition to God. I wasn't even dating or kissing or masturbating and yet I carried so much guilt around, all the time.

8. If your son wants to dance or play music or act in high school, support him. Don't expect him to live out your lost high school dreams in areas that you are passionate about. The friends he will make and the experiences he will have in being part of something bigger than himself will set him up for success in the future. I remember a boy in high school who wanted to dance with the color guard. I made fun of him to my friends. But what courage he had. I often think what his parent's must've thought. Sit on the sideline and cheer him on as loudly as you can. Also, don't assume that your son won't want to play sports. Expose your son to all of the possibilities when it comes to hobbies and getting involved in school. Don't assume. Just introduce and let your son go where he feels a connection.

9. If your son wants to go to a high school dance with another boy, it's not the end of the world. I'd be more concerned about the bullying he might get from his school, but even that is an opportunity to teach him how to be true to himself in the face of adversity. If it truly causes you pain to see your son go on a date with another boy (or eventually have a boyfriend), take it to the Lord and ask for peace and understanding. Assess why you are sad or scared. But don't shame your son into denying his feelings. During my teenage years, I felt a lot of things for a lot of guys. I suppressed every impulse to flirt or hold hands or kiss guys because of what I was taught growing up in the church. Meanwhile, all of my friends dated and had experiences that I totally missed out on. That added to my turmoil as a teenager.

10. If your son decides not to serve a mission, assure him that your love isn't conditional on that decision. Teach him that he can still be a missionary in other ways. He can still teach others how to love and be like the Savior. But take some time to find out if he truly has a belief in God. Does he believe in Jesus Christ? How does he understand the atonement? What are his beliefs about the afterlife? Don't just assume he's where you are at when it comes to the gospel. Also, just because he doesn't serve a missions doesn't mean he's slamming your beliefs.

11. If your son does want to serve a mission, educate him about making temple covenants first. Receiving the endowment is required to serve a mission. I was prepared to serve a mission and I enjoyed the experience very much. But in hindsight, I was not prepared to make the covenants I made. "No sexual relations outside of marriage", right? But that doesn't include gay marriage. So, as a young man, I was covenanting in the temple to be celibate and lonely for the rest of my life. None of my straight peers were expected to make that same covenant, but I was. I feel guilt about making those covenants when I wasn't prepared to do so. But hey, it was a prerequisite to going on a mission that I'd worked so hard to be eligible for. Your son is not just deciding to serve a mission at that time. He is also deciding to make serious covenants. Is he truly ready or interested? Are broken covenants the end of the world? Is the Lord mighty to save? Just something to consider.

12. If your son decides to leave the church, I get how that would be upsetting to active LDS parents. But leaving the church is not the same thing as throwing away one's exaltation. Heavenly Father is 100% clear on the experiences I endured in the church as a kid in primary, as a young man trying to honor his priesthood, as a missionary, as a single gay man trying to get fully involved in the singles program, as a grown man who served in a variety of church positions, and as a gay man who doesn't attend much these days. And guess what? He gets it. He understands me. He is loving and merciful. To me and to all of the men and women in the church who hurt me along my journey. God accomplishes His purposes through ALL of His children, LDS or not.

13. If your son decides to marry another man, have as much happiness for him as you'd have for your daughter who married in the temple. Don't show your son a lesser portion of your love and support. Don't tell him, "I'm happy you found love, but I can't support your marriage." Do you have any idea how it would feel for your son to have FINALLY found love after the difficult journey he's had only to hear that his own parents can't support him on his wedding day? Teach your son what kind of a family is possible through surrogacy, adoption, etc. If grandchildren come to you through a gay marriage in your family, cherish those kids as much (if not more) than your other grandchildren. Make them feel welcome and included at family gatherings.

Many of these things are basic and common sense. But I hope it helps to share my experience. It took me until I was 36 to decide that it would be okay to date men. Why? Because of how I was raised. Now, that's not to be disrespectful to my mother. Anyone who knows her agrees that she's one of the most remarkable women they know. She raised me in the church and I clutched on to what I was taught and what I believed so much for all of my 20's and most of my 30's. My mom never forced it though. I developed my own testimony. 
Now, I'm 39 and have never been in a serious relationship. It was really out of fear of punishment that I wouldn't consider dating sooner. It was also fear of losing the love and support of family and friends. Think about that. Do you want your son to live a lonely life and wait until he's 36 to pursue his own happiness? Take it from me, it messes with you to deny yourself of that level of interaction and experience with other people for that long of a period. I will always mourn the time I lost in my 20's and 30's where I could've been living more happily. I'll never get it back.

The good news is that my mom also taught me how to be compassionate and show love to others. She doesn't agree with everything I believe, but I don't question her love for me. She won't mind me saying that I wish we could come to an agreement on a few things. We've had countless conversations where we've examined where I'm at with the church vs. my desire to find companionship and embrace my sexuality. In response, we examine where she's at with the church and how she feels about my choices. On some things, we just lovingly have to agree to disagree.

I was 18 when I first told my mom I was gay. I think about how differently my 20's and 30's would've been had she responded and said, "Nathan, you are not broken. Love who you want to love and I will support it." She's worthy of the "Mother of the Year" award for at least 10 years in a row, but as a gay man growing up in the church, I wish I didn't feel so much pressure to please family and friends by putting aside my own happiness for theirs.

I believe that true faith in God is shown when you just do the best you can to love your kid, no matter what, and then leave the rest to Him. I don't believe in forced obedience. I don't believe in following a path simply because parents require that of their children. With all my heart, I believe that any child can make choices that will please his parents when parents fully embrace who their child is and helps that child embrace himself in the process.

I'm not saying it's wrong for LDS parents to raise their children with LDS teachings. I'm grateful to have been taught many things from an LDS upbringing. However, I am pleading with parents of gay children: Meet your child with who THEY are and where THEY are at instead of who YOU are and where YOU are at. Create a safe space for them to fully realize their potential without feeling like they're broken or need fixing. God created them and we get to trust Him and His creations to make the best choices they know how to make.

Other gay members or former members of the church may advise strongly NOT to raise your gay son or daughter in the LDS church because of the hostility that is shown. I totally get it because of my own experiences. But I also have sympathy for parents who believe what they believe so strongly that they can't fathom raising their children in any other way.

Believe what you believe. Teach your children what you want to teach them. But if your child disagrees, take the time to love them and understand them. What works for you may cause your child intense pain. You may think forcing your child to follow your path will ultimately ensure their eternal happiness. I don't believe in that kind of God. I believe in a Father in Heaven who let's His children be who they are to accomplish His purposes.

Last thought: His purpose is to bring immortality and eternal life of man. As a gay man who is not currently active in church but who loves the Lord, I believe I have a role to play in that grand purpose. My mama taught me that.