by Alyse Knorr
Wow—this sounds like a really tough situation. The word “terrified” tells me that you must be struggling with this a great deal, and I’m so sorry you’re feeling this way. As you decide what to do, it might help to begin by asking yourself why you’re feeling so strongly about this and why it’s important to you that your son attend church. Is it because you enjoy attending together as a family? Is it because it’s a way for you to feel close to your son? Is it because you think he must practice the same religion as you, in the same way as you, in order to go to heaven or lead a fulfilling life? Reflecting on these questions first will help inform your conversations with your son, and will remind you that the issue here is really how you feel about this, and not that your son is necessarily doing anything wrong.
So let’s talk about why your son might be resisting going to church right now. It’s possible that your son’s recent coming out has everything to do with his current attitudes about church. You didn’t mention how inclusive and welcoming your church is toward LGBTQ people, but this could have a huge impact on your son’s feelings. Maybe he no longer feels safe or welcome in the congregation, or maybe he is afraid that he won’t be viewed the same now that he’s out. Maybe he doesn’t agree with your preacher’s viewpoints on homosexuality. LGBTQ people can have complicated relationships with religion, especially doctrines that state that we’re committing a sin or headed for hell just for being ourselves.
On the other hand, it’s possible that your son’s coming out has nothing to do with his feelings about church. Maybe he’s simply growing into adulthood, which, for many people, can mean some “growing pains” or shifts in their perspectives on religion. Maybe he still feels just as deeply invested in his faith, but he just doesn’t like to get up early on Sunday mornings! (In my experience, teenagers usually dislike getting up early for anything). Maybe attending church just isn’t the way your son feels close to God—maybe he feels closer to God when he goes running, plays the guitar, or marches in a Pride parade.
My point is that the teenage years are a huge time of change for anyone—not just LGBTQ youth. However, you’re right to recognize that coming out is in itself an enormous life transition, and one that can be complicated when it comes to religion. Regardless of the reason, it sounds like your son is at a place in his life where he needs time to reflect on faith, religion, and his relationship with your church. He might need some time and space to explore other faith practices or traditions, or just to consider what role (if any) he wants religion to play in his life. You won’t know how much of this reflection has to do with his coming out unless you talk with him. Like I said, teenagers of all genders and sexualities, not just LGTBQ teens, tend to be going through big life changes, and this is a perfectly normal time for any teenager, gay or straight, to question some of the values and traditions that they have grown up with. Your son is becoming an adult—one who makes his own decisions that reflect what he needs and what works for him.
I would not recommend forcing your son to attend church with you. You probably know this already, since you have a teenage son, but it’s impossible to force teenagers to do anything. Once you try to force them to do something, they will often resist whatever that thing is even more strongly. You have to give them space to grow into an adult on their own. This is especially true when it comes to religion, which is meaningless when practiced because one is being forced to practice it. If you want your son to have a deep and powerful connection with his life and with the spiritual universe, you have to let him find the methods (including the religious practices, or lack thereof) that work best for him.
So instead of forcing your son to attend church with you, I would recommend that you try to have an open dialogue with him about how he feels about going to church. Be willing to LISTEN to everything he says, without thrusting your own views upon him. You’ll learn more from him if he knows you’re a safe, open person with whom he can talk. You’ll probably come away from your conversation feeling much better, because you’ll know how he’s feeling and what’s been motivating his behaviors and attitudes. And yes, you can tell your son how you feel about church and why you want him to attend—but tell him this as an equal, not in an attempt to guilt-trip him or force him to feel the way you do.
Conversations about faith can be challenging because they’re so personal. The first step is being willing to listen, learn, and be open-minded about this. Recognize that the way you think and feel, and the way you interpret your faith, is only your way. There is never just one way to feel connected to a higher power—as evidenced by the thousands of different religious traditions, denominations, and practices throughout history and today.
I don’t know how you or your family reacted to your son’s coming out, but this could have an impact on his attitudes about church. Be a supportive ally for him in this time of transition in his life, which can be so difficult. Tell him you love him not despite who he is but because of who he is. Use your own faith as a model for how to love and respect your son during this time that is probably quite tumultuous and scary for him—but don’t always bring conversations with him about his sexuality back to religion. Be proud of him for being brave enough to live openly as his true self. And consider working with your church to make it as welcoming a space as possible for LGBTQ congregants. I know this may seem overwhelming, but all it takes is one voice to get a conversation started in your congregation.
So what will come of all this? No one can tell. Ultimately, your son might decide to move away from his current faith, or to change faiths, and you should be prepared for that. If your son leaves your religion, it won’t necessarily be because he is gay—this could happen with any of your children, gay or straight. Be prepared to respect that your son knows himself well enough to make the decision that he needs to make.
On the other hand, having the time and space to explore and reflect might bring your son back to his faith and allow him to feel even closer to it—that’s what happened to me! Before I came out, I felt isolated in the Christian religion, and very uncomfortable going to church. As soon as I left home for college, I stopped attending. It was only after the relief and joy of coming out that I went back to church and began reading scripture again. Being my true self let me feel closer to God. My point is that people’s relationships with faith change throughout their life, depending on what they need and who they are. I’m sure your own relationship with your faith has changed throughout your lifetime. The same is happening for your son, and that is completely normal.
In the end, though, it’s important that you remember that this is your son’s decision and his alone. You must respect this. He’s an adult. Everyone has different conceptions and interpretations of faith—and ways that they practice that faith, or lack thereof—and it’s a very personal thing that cannot be forced on him. If your son doesn’t want to go to church, you can still ask him to meet you for brunch after the service and have quality family time. If he wants to try out a Buddhist temple, you could go with him one week and see what it’s like—in my experience, learning about other religions has revealed my own faith to me in exciting and transformative ways, growing it rather than weakening it. If your son leaves your faith—and remember, that’s only an if—it doesn’t necessarily have to mean he’s leaving you, or that you need to feel less close with him. Be a loving parent, an open-minded listener, and a supportive ally to your son first, and the rest will feel easier. I promise.
The fact that you’re sending this question to My Kid Is Gay shows that you’re already seeking out resources, which is a great thing. Keep doing this! A lot has been written about issues of religion and sexuality—know that this information is out there and available to help you, your son, and your family. This Is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids has a whole chapter on religion with lots of useful perspectives. Online, Gaychristian.net and Gaychurch.org are two of the best resources about Christianity and sexuality. Metropolitan Community Church, United Church of Christ, and the More Light Presbyterians coalition are just three of the many Christian denominations that are extremely welcoming of LGBTQ congregants. Other denominations are growing more inclusive all the time—with a little searching, you can find out your own denomination and individual church’s stances on issues of gender and sexuality.
I wish you and your family well as you proceed on these next steps of your journey!
Alyse Knorr is the author of Annotated Glass (Furniture Press Books, 2013), as well as the chapbook Alternates (dancing girl press, 2014). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Denver Quarterly,Caketrain, ZYZZYVA, Drunken Boat, and The Southern Poetry Anthology, among others. She received her MFA in creative writing from George Mason University. She is a co-founder and co-editor of Gazing Grain Press, an inclusive feminist press, and teaches English at the University of Alaska Anchorage.