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A parent's dilemma: When your child is gay

Parents of gays and lesbians were among the participants at the "Faith, Hope, Love" convocation sponsored by the Reconciling Ministries Network. The unofficial pro-gay caucus of United Methodists is working for full inclusion in the church. A UMNS photo by Spud Hilton, United Methodist Reporter.

A UMNS Report
By Robin Russell*

Aug. 23, 2007


Kathy and Dave England, parents of a gay son, work with the Parents Reconciling Network to help educate other parents of gay children. A UMNS photo by Robin Russell, United Methodist Reporter.

Kathy and Dave England recall how stunned they were when their son announced he was gay. They were sitting around and talking on the last night of Christmas break, during his freshman year of college. 

"So, what do you guys think about homosexuality?" Scott asked them. 

"Well, I've never given it much thought," Mrs. England replied. 

"Well, I am," Scott said. 

"Boy, he caught me off guard — totally," his mother recalled. 

Mrs. England didn't understand her son's "choice and his lifestyle." Her husband, then on active duty with the U.S. Air Force, responded by delivering his "speech" to Scott, who had a full ROTC scholarship. 

"My advice was that he should probably consider a different career," Mr. England said. "But he was my son. He was still my son. Nothing was going to change that." 

The Englands, of Bellevue, Neb., shared their story during an interview at the ninth convocation of the Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial, pro-gay caucus of United Methodists working for full inclusion in the church. The event was held Aug. 2-6 in Nashville, Tenn.

They are among the thousand-plus members of the Parents Reconciling Network, a parents' advocacy and education group working on behalf of gay children. The network was founded by the Revs. Virginia and Bruce Hilton, former civil rights workers who became gay-rights activists after learning one of their sons was gay. The Hiltons, of Sacramento, Calif., are also United Methodists.

It often takes awhile for parents to accept that a son or daughter is gay, even as they work through their own theological understanding of whether homosexuality is a sin.

The United Methodist Book of Discipline affirms the sacred worth of every person, while teaching that homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching. It affirms that "God's grace is available to all" as "we seek to live together in Christian community."  

"He was still my son. Nothing was going to change that."
-Dave England

The Book of Discipline also implores families and churches "not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends," adding that "we commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons."

Parents who accept their children's homosexual orientation say that advocating for gay rights is an often frustrating task in a denomination that excludes gays from ordination and its clergy from performing same-sex unions. 

In recent years, the denomination's top court has upheld a pastor's right to prevent an openly practicing gay man from becoming a church member. The Judicial Council also will review in October the case of a United Methodist transgender clergy.

Denial and shame

The Englands say they worked through denial about Scott's sexual orientation, even though his twin sister, Laurie, who is straight, already had "put two and two together." 

Finding a book at the library written by a member of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians And Gays helped Mrs. England realize "I'm not the only parent in Nebraska with a gay son." And it helped that a Methodist minister's wife led a support group meeting she attended. 

But as is typical of many parents, the Englands kept Scott's news to themselves, close friends and family. For awhile, they were closeted in their own United Methodist congregation. 

"It's not something you just walk up to someone and say," England said. 

They took another look at the "clobber verses" in Scripture used against homosexuality — including one in Romans in which Paul condemns "men (who) committed shameless acts with men" — to see if they were referring to what is today known as same-sex orientation. 

Eventually, through study and prayer, they came to believe that God made their son just as he was. The Englands even visited Scott when his college hosted a gay pride festival. His buddies couldn't believe his parents had come. 

Brokenness and sin

Not every United Methodist parent of a homosexual child agrees with the Englands' conclusions.

Larry and Betty Baker of Madison, Va., believe homosexuality is a sin resulting from broken relationships. Both have served on the board of Transforming Congregations, an organization that states Jesus Christ has the power "to change those who face such temptations" as homosexuality, pornography and sexual addiction. 

"We believe that scripturally, it's wrong. But we are at odds with(those) who try to single it out as a hot-button issue."
-Larry Baker

And they believe The United Methodist Church has taken the correct stance. "We have done a lot of reading of Scriptures," Mrs. Baker said. "Both of us feel we would be unfaithful to the Lord if we took a different stand." 

They also have worked hard to maintain a relationship with their gay son, now 36, whom they adopted from South Korea when he was an infant. They asked that his name not be used. 

When their son was 7, the Bakers moved to a rural, conservative area. They believe his homosexuality may be the result of feeling rejected and experiencing racial prejudice as the only Asian child in his school. 

By his junior year of college, their son was hanging out with only male friends. During a weekend visit home, Mr. Baker overheard his son tell a male friend "I love you" over the phone. A few months later, Mrs. Baker asked her son if he was gay. She told him it would make no difference in their relationship, that he was still their son. They also offered to help him find counseling if he wanted to change his orientation. So far, he hasn't taken them up on the offer.

"I believe that the Lord can change them, but I also know it's a long and painful struggle," Mrs. Baker said. 

The family's rockiest moment came when the Bakers forbid their son to sleep with his partner at their home. "We came very near to a clean break at that point," Mrs. Baker recalls. "He called and was in tears. He said, 'This is not right. You're making this very difficult for us'." 

She had a change of heart at a Christian conference, where she felt God telling her: "I didn't throw you out of my house when you were in sexual sin. Why are you throwing your son out?" 

Mrs. Baker apologized to her son, then invited them to come and stay at their home. It was "awkward" the first time, but they have been back many times since. 

Their son now lives in northern Virginia with his partner of 11 years. One of the Bakers' daughters is supportive and would like to see her own United Methodist congregation perform same-sex blessing ceremonies. The other has theological questions about homosexuality, but wants to make sure her brother feels loved and accepted. 

"We have the best relationship possible now," Mrs. Baker said. "He knows we pray for him every day. But we don't hit him over the head with that." 

Mr. Baker talks by phone each week with his son and shares a meal with the couple at least once a month. He disagrees with some parents he knows who have written off their homosexual son or daughter. "We believe that scripturally, it's wrong. But we are at odds with (those) who try to single it out as a hot-button issue," he said. 

Mrs. Baker added: "Jesus did not abandon sinners, and I don't feel that we can either. I think that every one of us are sinners. This is no different a sin than gluttony."

Love the sinner

Joy Watts, a member of Parents Reconciling Network from Uniontown, Ohio, said her attempts to "love the sinner and hate the sin" didn't help her connect with her daughter Andrea, who is a lesbian. 

"That doesn't feel very much like love," she said. 

In a convocation workshop, Mrs. Watts said her journey from being "homophobic" to becoming a gay-rights activist was a heel-dragging process. 

"We'd been in this church for 30 years, and my son could be married in the sanctuary, but my daughter can't? It made me furious."
-Joy Watts

She and her husband, Bill, were devastated at first when their middle child told them she was a lesbian. "I never felt so alone. I didn't think I could discuss it with anyone," Mrs. Watts said. 

Bill Watts told his daughter homosexuality was a sin. Mrs. Watts told Andrea she'd have to "fight those urges." Through reading about sexual orientation — Mrs. Watts now boasts a veritable "gay library" of material — and talking with other parents of gays, she came to believe her daughter's orientation is God-given. 

And she began speaking up at church. "If you are ready to approach this issue," she told her pastor, "I'm ready to talk." He gave her an hour in Sunday school to share her story. 

The Watts disagree with the United Methodist stance toward homosexuality and say it frustrates them from time to time. "We'd been in this church for 30 years, and my son could be married in the sanctuary, but my daughter can't? It made me furious," she said. 

But for now, they're staying put. 

"Even if we all leave, straight parents will still have gay children," she said. "I feel like I'm in it not just for my generation and my daughter's, but for the future."

*Russell is managing editor of United Methodist Reporter, an independent weekly newspaper for United Methodists and others, produced by UMR Communications in Dallas. This story originally appeared in longer form in that publication.

News media contact: Marta Aldrich or Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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The Book of Discipline on human sexuality

Reconciling Ministries Network

Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays

Transforming Congregations

United Methodist Reporter

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