Below is a post from 2013 in which I introduced a dissertation by one of my students. The study was eventually published as a journal article. I am posting it again now because it is one of the studies I’ll be discussing this week at the American Association of Christian Counselor’s World Conference in Nashville.
I was reading over a dissertation completed by one of my former students–I know, I know, I need to find a decent hobby–but I was struck by her work. She had conducted in-depth interviews with 12 Christian parents whose son or daughter had come out. It was a study that that captured many of the challenges and nuances families face at and following disclosure.
What caught my attention when she proposed her research idea was the focus on Christian parents. Much of the research and discussion to date is on the experience of the gay child (the adolescent or young adult), which is obviously important. As a field, we have learned a lot about the experiences of those who disclose their same-sex sexuality, and yet we have so much more to learn. At the same time, I see fewer studies of parental reactions, and fewer studies still of Christian parents. Since I work with a lot of Christian parents, the idea of interviewing them and hearing their stories was compelling.
Although I am unable to go into all the details here (dissertations are LONG), I will note that she offered in the discussion section of her dissertation a tentative model of post-disclosure that emerged from the interviews she conducted with these parents: (1) Initial awareness and worldview response; (2) Navigation period–help-seeking; (3) Navigation period–maintaining relationship with child; and (4) Acceptance of reality.
Initial awareness and worldview response. The first issue deals with first becoming aware and responding to the disclosure of same-sex sexuality. Responses to disclosure or discovery of a gay identity were frequently tied to conventionally religious morals, values, and beliefs that were seen as incompatible with a gay identity. Parents here reported ambiguous loss, negative emotions (e.g., shock, anger, concern, fear, shame), and strained relationships with their child.
One parent shared her initial response. I won’t offer an extended quote here, but suffice it to say she spoke of her daughter making this choice (“that kind of choice”–“why would she want to be like that?”), which suggests the view that this pattern of attraction is volitional. This automatically sets the parent and child against one another, because the child knows he or she did not choose to experience same-sex attractions. The assumption that this is just a poor choice has them speaking past one another. I wish that were a rare report, but it isn’t in my experience.
Navigation period–help-seeking. The next response entails gaining information from multiple sources. In this study it was often from counselors, the church, pastors, ministries, and so on. In terms of meaning-making, parents reported turning to and trusting God, finding support from family/community, and spending time in prayer and in Scripture. Marital conflict was not uncommon, and many parents reported a kind of shame as they tried to relate to and share with people in their local faith community.
One parent shared how hard it was to find information, resources, and support. “We couldn’t find anyone” is a typical response, as is the decision not to take this disclosure to the local church. The common assumption and experience is that the local church is not “safe” in terms of gossip, making it all the more difficult, as parents often sort through painful and confusing emotions in isolation.
Navigation period–maintaining relationship with child. At the same time as parents are seeking help, they are also trying to maintain a relationship with their son or daughter. There were strained relationships, to be sure, but also a commitment to maintaining some contact, arranging ways to see their son or daughter, and so on. This commitment was typically a reflection of love.
One mother who eventually moved toward what she saw as a good, healthy relationship with her son, recounted her “gay breaking point” at an earlier stage: it was when her son wanted to get a pedicure with her. It sent her spinning. My initial response to that language was that it was kind of off-putting or even offensive, but as I thought about it, I got what she was saying, at least I think I got it. I actually see her gay breaking point as tied in important ways to acceptance of reality, to coming to terms with the reality of having a son or daughter who is gay. Sometimes parents move from a fantasy that this whole thing will work itself out or dissipate or resolve or whatever… perhaps the breaking point tells them there is something real here, something that they have to deal with seriously and in a meaningful way.
Acceptance of reality. This involves really coming to terms with a gay son or daughter in the sense of how the relationship with that child has changed. It could still involve negotiating boundaries, but it also often entails changing expectations. What is often reflected here is a greater respect for one another and one’s decisions.
I would have to say that this study reflects the experiences of a small number of Christian parents, it does reflect pretty closely much of what I have seen in my work with parents over the years. There is definitely a time of first awareness and associated feelings, such as confusion, anger, disappointment, and anticipatory grief. Also, since I frequently work with Christian parents, I have seen the clash of worldviews and the difficulty finding a way forward. Parents then do navigate getting help while simultaneously trying to make a way to stay in relationship with their son or daughter. Often attempts to stay in touch are in the hopes that this will go away or be easily resolved or be a phase their son or daughter is going through. That’s what makes the other stage meaningful–coming to terms with the reality of what has been shared and finding a way forward based on this new reality.
One thing about models is that they do not capture the complexities faced by each and every parent. If you are reading this and say, “That doesn’t quite fit my experience,” that’s understandable. There is no one experience everyone shares. At the same time, these observations provides a framework for understanding some of the experiences reported by some Christian parents. It also gives those in the church who wish to provide support an idea of what parents may be navigating in the months and years following disclosure.