“There are so many parents who are frightened and who don’t embrace their children as they struggle.” — Sally Field
Most of us are familiar with the Biblical arguments against homosexuality. While religious rhetoric bears little relevance for some gay people, for many others it signposts the beginning of a battle that may never be won. It’s a scrimmage that can tear families apart and often even have fatal consequences.
In a recent conversation with Lidia Theron, author of the book I Back My Child Unconditionally, we talk about her tough journey to accepting her lesbian daughter.
Like my parents, Lidia grew up in South Africa during the 50s. It was a time when Apartheid was still the law of the land and the Bible, along with the Dutch Reformed Church, laid down the rules in almost every household.
Similar religious fervour formed the blueprint of my upbringing in the 1970s and 80s: God was our go-to-guy and the ardent belief in the forgiveness of our sins through prayer ensured a passage to heaven for the ‘righteous’ and ‘pure’ (or so we were told). The ‘lost souls’ who strayed from the word of God were ostracised from the Church and society, and doomed from inheriting the Kingdom of Heaven.
Lidia’s daughter Liesl came out to her at the age of 20. The news came as a tremendous shock for both Lidia and her husband. Lidia recalls that day:
“…on the early morning of 28 July 1992, I stood at my kitchen window. My insides were frozen with shock. I felt nauseous. I could not breathe… I felt as if I had been deceived, as if she had been lying to me for years… Shocking thoughts stood before me like monsters; my beautiful daughter was homosexual, caught in the claws of the devil! How vile.”
Back then, Lidia was still very active in the church, school and community. In 1992, having a gay child was deemed shameful and Lidia found herself in a state of turmoil and deep conflict: she couldn’t reconcile her love for her daughter with society and religion’s expectation and predilection of being ashamed of her own flesh and blood.
That was 20 years ago. Since then Lidia embarked on a brave road of rediscovery. She redefined her relationship with a God that was iron cast in a culture of deep-rooted intolerance. She describes her journey to me:
“I would like to sort my emotions in the following order: fear; shame; sadness, anger (for being led by my nose), then joy… In fact, I will put the feeling of shame first, which was invested by the indoctrination of the church. But finally, I had joy. A joy to be free, because as I started to accept my gay child, I started to ask questions about my beliefs. So, my journey was also a road to freedom from the church and religion.”
From my own coming out experience, I can testify how my religious beliefs and the cultural pressures of society prevented me from coming out to my parents for a long time. When I eventually did, I only had enough courage to send them a fax (it was in the 90s). Facing the dilemma of being a so-called ‘abomination in the eyes of God’ was my biggest predicament, apart from the fear of being judged (and possibly rejected) by my parents and our community. After receiving my fax, my mother phoned me and said: “I still love you and I will pray for you. God will heal you.“
Lidia’s first reaction to her daughters homosexuality was the same:
“I think for me it was a matter of converting her from her ‘sinful’ ways. I was completely convinced that God could change her. I just had to pray! However, once I understood that I can believe in God without following the constraints of religion, I started to accept my daughter’s sexuality.”
It’s rather ironic that Lidia’s journey of acceptance was very similar to my own journey of self-acceptance. For a long time I was torn between staying committed to religion and being true to myself. In hindsight, I think holding onto religion and God was an attempt to retain the love of my parents and family. In fact, two of the contributors in Love Me As I Am — gay men reflect on their lives, went through the same motions. It was only until I realised that God is so much more than the Bible and the bricks and mortar of the Church, that I felt free to follow my heart.
One of the things many parents of a gay child have to face is their community. Once her shock subsided, Lidia became angry. She wrote:
“I wish that she had rather died than this. That would at least have received sympathy within the community. Now we, in shame, had to hide our child from the horror and revulsion of the people around us, I thought. Nobody could know about this dark secret; what would the people say?”
Reflecting on those feelings of anger, Lidia says she was most afraid that their community would reject her daughter for committing an ‘unforgiveable sin’. She also talks about the dreams parents have for their children. Dreams that are shattered at first when they learn that they have a gay child: Dreams of seeing their child happily married and having children and giving their parents grandchildren.
I can’t help but to think of the dreams I felt I sacrificed as a gay man. Now, years later, I recognise that many of those dreams were nothing more than imposed expectations of the culture I grew up in.
I remember crying myself to sleep at the age of 13 almost every night. I knew I was never going to marry or conceive children naturally. In my mind, I was doomed to a life of either being an abomination or living in chastity. I feared my parents’ disappointment, not only because I was betraying them, but also because I would shame them in our community and the Church… For a 13-year-old, those are tough emotions to cope with, especially without any help and guidance.
Many gay people witness how our families fall apart as a direct result of us coming out. My homosexuality has certainly driven a wedge between my parents and me. After 14 years, they still believe it’s a choice I’ve made. It is one of the most painful things to cope with because in effect we’re losing our parents while they are still alive. All because of something we cannot change.
In these terms, Lidia shows a remarkable and refreshing insight:
“… I had not realized yet how totally unimportant it was what people said. I did not realize how uninformed and stupid I was, how I let myself to be led by the church without thinking for myself at all. Even less did I realize how much agony my child had already endured in the months, even years before.”
I Back My Child Unconditionally attempts to help heal those wounds of both parent and child. I believe it may even play a big role in preventing families from being torn apart. In fact, her book has had such an overwhelming positive reaction since its first publication in 2005, that Lidia views getting her message across — one of acceptance and understanding — as a calling.
Ostracising her own daughter was never an option. This is an attitude Lidia employs in her work and her track record is proof of her passion and determination. Of all the parents she personally worked with, Lidia is aware of only one mother who could not accept her child’s sexuality. She adds: “There were others who battled in the same way I have, but in the end the love for their children won. They might not be as open about it as I am, but they did come to terms with it in the end.”
Lidia’s book was intended to provide support to parents with gay children. Not surprisingly, it has also become a resource for many gay children in helping them to come out to their families and loved ones. One reader comments: “…Your book helped me to tell my Mom that I am gay. I found it difficult to tell her, so I wrote her a letter and put it in your book and gave it to her. She told me that she would always love me and always support me and always be proud of me. So, thank you again.”
Finally, Lidia tells me about the film Prayers for Bobby. It’s a deeply moving true account of a mother, Mary Griffith, who turns to the fundamentalist teachings of her church to rescue her son, Bobby, from what she feels is an irredeemable sin — being gay. As Mary realises that Bobby cannot be “healed” or “cured” she rejects him, denying him a mother’s unconditional love. This drives her son to suicide.
Anguished over Bobby’s death, Mary finds little solace in her son’s poignant diaries — revelations of a troubled boy fighting for the love of his mother and God. Finding it difficult to reconcile her feelings of guilt, her conflicted emotions over religious teachings, and her struggles with understanding her son’s orientation, Mary finally, and unexpectedly, reaches out to the gay community as a source of inspiration and consolation. It’s the beginning of a long and emotional journey that extended far beyond acceptance as Mary becomes a vocal advocate for the gay and lesbian youth. In 1996, twelve years after Bobby’s death, she was invited to address the US Congress, establishing her as a major force in the fight for human rights.
As much as gay children are left out in the cold on their journey of accepting their sexuality, so are their parents. It’s a topic that requires a lot more knowledge and support to all parties involved, whether the constraints of culture, society and religion come into play or not. I Back My Child Unconditionally, is definitely a much-needed addition to the documentation that supports families and individuals struggling to accept a child’s homosexuality.
I Back My Child Unconditionally Is Available From:
I Back My Child Unconditionally is also available in Afrikaans under the tilte ‘Jy Bly My Kind‘ on Kalahari.net