"I am greatly grieved to discover that you have chosen to practice of fornication—homosexual immorality—as a regular lifestyle. For all of my saved life I have believed that GOD let you not be aborted for a special reason. (You would be better off at this very moment if you had been—You would be in heaven and not living in Blatant Rebellion against GOD).
. . .
You also know that God says that True Christians cannot condone nor hang out with So-Called believers if they live in bold sinful lifestyles (I Cor.5:11). This means that we cannot eat or visit with you because you claim to be a Christian and live an open immoral anti-God lifestyle.
So since you have chosen to serve yourself and Satan we will not be seeing you again until you Repent or renounce Christ and confess yourself an enemy of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is our LORD and we will obey HIM!!!!!!!!!!
. . .
You are walking on the edge of an oily 1000 Ft. straight down cliff of Hell.
You must turn to Jesus Christ!!! And teach others to do the same!!!
Lastly—If you are planning to see (name redacted) on Thanksgiving and Christmas you will have to do it alone. If you come while we are there we will leave. We have told the children about your evil choice and explained it to them.
. . .
The homosexual life is very stupid and nasty. . . . If you choose to renounce Christ we will understand and will resume relations with you on a limited basis. But as long as you choose the immoral lifestyle of homosexuality we will probably not have any contact. I will not intentionally hang out with any homosexual! I despise homosexuality!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
These are excerpts from a 1,226-word letter that a close friend of mine received from his uncle after he found out that he was gay.
His uncle is married with children and is actively involved in a well-respected evangelical church. My friend mentioned it to me casually one day. I thought maybe he was being dramatic, so I asked if I could see the actual message. He pulled out his phone, opened up Facebook Messenger, and scrolled down until he found it. He passed me his phone and I read the message in horror. It was worse than he'd described.
“He would rather you have been aborted?” I asked in cringing disbelief.
My friend just shrugged.
The saddest part of this story was the nonchalant way my friend brought it up. One thing I've learned about gay kids in the South is that they talk to each other about their trauma like most people talk about the weather. Stories of mistreatment are like battle scars. And after you have enough of these conversations, you realize the worst ones come from one place: Family.
Coming out of the closet to your family (specifically your parents) is perhaps the hardest part of a gay person's journey.
No other conversation carries as much emotion and potential consequence . . . not even close.
And the wrath of dismayed parents can be fierce . . .
I've had friends whose parents have told them they are an abomination.
I have a friend whose dad kicked him out of the house at 16. Homeless, he moved to Atlanta and slept with random men who would take him in. He did that for about three years.
I have a friend who came out to his parents in college, and they instantly stopped paying his phone and car bills.
I have a buddy in Nashville who was telling me about one of his friends who was about to come out to his conservative parents. My friend told me, "Oh, he's been preparing. All they have on him is car insurance. If it goes south, that's all they can take, and he's prepared to take over payments.”
Then there was this awful incident that happened in Georgia a few years ago where a gay teen recorded the moment his parents disown him and then, subsequently, assault him. I’ll warn you that it’s pretty disturbing and includes both strong language and violence . . .
Based on the gay folks I’ve talked to over the years, conservative parents freaking out is pretty common.
Of course, violence is rare, but hateful words, financial withdrawal, withdrawn love, or long silence are very common.
I’m not a parent, and I have no idea what it’s like. I’m sure it’s infinitely tougher than I think. I’ve also never been a parent with a gay child, so I don’t know what it would be like to be on that end of the conversation. But I can imagine it’s very, very hard.
This is painful to say, but I suspect no parent wants their child to be gay.
I mean, if you’re a Yankees fan, you probably want your child to be one too.
If you love classic rock, you’d probably wish for your child to like classic rock too.
If you’re a doctor, you might even wish for your child to go into medicine.
And if you’re straight (which most parents are), I presume that’d be what you’d want for your child.
Maybe you have dreams for that child. Maybe you dream of that little boy growing up into a handsome young man and meeting a pretty blonde girl. Maybe you dream of family beach vacations together with his new bride. Maybe you dream of precious little grandchildren. Again, I don’t know what parents dream of for their kids, but I can imagine it looks something like this. I can imagine there are certain expectations.
And this is precisely why this conversation is so damn hard when you’re gay.
Kids have a sense of what their parents dream for them. We hear their conversations growing up. We see how they talk about our older siblings and their spouses and their kids. And kids also have an innate sense of wanting to please their parents, of wanting to make them happy. We start doing it from a young age, and I bet even when we are old and gray, we’ll still want to please them.
This is the dilemma for the gay child.
We know there is dark moment sometime in the future where we will utterly crush our parents, where we will walk in the room and force-feed them the biggest serving of disappointment they could ever imagine. And it will be our doing, not because we want to, but because we have to. We have to reveal that we aren’t like them. We have to reveal that there has been an invisible minority in their midst.
(I’m going to use a strong metaphor here, but please know that I’m doing it for a reason.)
A child coming out to a parent often feels like a murder.
It’s the killing of all those dreams and expectations. It’s the killing of the parents’ perceptions of that child. It’s the killing of the simple hope that this child could make his or her way through this life free from prejudice or hate.
It’s an invisible death. And death always brings about grieving.
After talking to many LGBT friends about the aftermath of the conversation with their parents, I saw some recurring themes that seemed to align with the stages of grief.
The 5 Stages of Grief was first posed by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969.
Here are her five stages with my commentary on how a parent may work through a child’s coming out:
1. Denial — My child is not gay. She is just confused, besides she’s young and doesn’t really know herself. We raised her right . . . there’s no way she’s gay.
2. Anger — I think she’s choosing this, and she knows better! Children must be punished for their bad behavior. Therefore we will withhold love, finances, whatever it takes. We will not stand for this, and we will let her know that!
3. Bargaining — (v1) — Counseling! She just needs counseling. We’ll find the best counselor in America and pay for all of it. God (or science) can fix this. (v2) — If she wants our support/love/inheritance, she better not be gay. That will embarrass this family. We’ll make her an offer she can’t refuse. (v3) — She just hasn’t met the right man yet. We will help her find one.
4. Depression — She has broken our hearts. She will live a life of sadness and despair. We have failed as parents, and we are now the scorn of the neighborhood/church/country club/etc. What did we do wrong raising her? We have failed as parents. We are failures.
5. Acceptance — There is nothing we can do about this. It is what it is. We must find a way to love her anyway.
Let me remind you that I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist.
This is simply from me listening to my LGBT friends share their stories.
In 2011, I didn’t know any of this. All I knew was that I had to quit procrastinating. I had to tell my mom I was gay. It was time to do the unthinkable.
By that spring I had begun to work on a plan to pull this off. My mom lived in Louisville, Kentucky, a seven-hour drive from Atlanta. My brother, Brian, lived up there as well with his wife and two kids, and every year I’d go visit them a few times. The last few times, I'd thought about initiating the conversation, but I chickened out every time. It was just too hard, too scary. Everybody’s a creative when they’re manufacturing excuses. And my mind was like an excuse-making assembly line at a Ford factory.
I knew I had to force my hand. I had to create a situation I couldn’t wiggle out of.
Later that summer I had a conference to attend in Indianapolis. Like Louisville, Indy sits on the I-65 North/South corridor. I knew that if I drove to Indy, I’d have to come back through Louisville. This was my chance.
I didn’t want to stay multiple days (in case it was awkward), and I didn’t want to give my mom a big warning . . .
“Hey mom, I’m gonna swing by the house. I need to talk about something.”
A heavy pre-warning like that just felt like a surefire way to give my mom a heart attack from worry. Plus, I knew that if I told her I needed to talk, she’d press in and ask what it was about. I had to just show up unannounced. It had to be a surprise, otherwise I’d chicken out again.
My goal was to tell my mom, step-dad, brother, and sister-in-law in one conversation. So I emailed my brother a few days before the conference. I told him I needed him to figure out a way to get them all together on the night of August 21 and that I needed to talk to them about something. But I didn't tell him what it was about. I knew Brian would keep my coming a secret. He told me they were already planning on having dinner at my mom’s house that night. Perfect.
Now . . .
At this point I must highlight the fact that my family is wonderful. They aren’t bigots and never have been. I never heard racist, homophobic, or any other kind of bigoted language in our house growing up. Now, they are conservative, evangelical people with a traditional understanding of the Bible and sexuality, but they’re also incredibly kind and loving. I’ve never doubted their love for me, and even going into this conversation, I never thought they’d reject me or disown me. So my fear in telling them wasn’t because they were so conservative, it was simply that telling your parents you’re gay—any parents—is pretty scary.
August 21—my own personal day of reckoning—had arrived. My conference ended and I began the drive to Louisville. As I got closer, my anxiety grew.
My body freaks out in these situations, especially my stomach. And when that happens, I get diarrhea, so I took several bathroom breaks on the way down there. Driving into Louisville, fear—a King Kong-sized fear—seized me. It put its big, black foot on the top of that car as I drove, blocking out the sun.
The low moments of life are strangely beautiful in that way, grabbing you by the neck and forcing you to stare right at your own frail humanity, your own weakness. And they remind you that you are not a god. You are not capable of generating everything you need for every moment. You are dependent, reliant.
The Christian person’s instinct in these moments is singular: Pray. So that’s what I did.
But I didn’t need church-mouse prayers. I needed to scream. I needed to weep and cry. I needed to lower the windows at 70 mph and let out the fear. And I needed to let God—as much of God as my desperate, human heart could summon—inside that SUV.
So I scrolled through a playlist and found one song I thought would help me do that. It was Matt Redman’s “You Never Let Go.” Lyrics . . .
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
Your perfect love is casting out fear
And even when I'm caught in the middle of the storms of this life
I won't turn back
I know You are near
. . .
Oh no, You never let go
Through the calm and through the storm
Oh no, You never let go
In every high and every low
Oh no, You never let go
Lord, You never let go of me
This was my courage. This was my anthem for the day. I probably listened to it 25 times.
I got to Louisville a bit early, so I went to a Heine Brothers Coffee shop and got some coffee.
And I used the bathroom again. My stomach was a wreck so I found the nearest Walgreen’s and bought some Pepto Bismol. I got back in my car and turned the bottle up. Liquid courage can be pink, too.
I needed to kill a little more time, so I drove to the campus of Southern Seminary. I’d been there a few times because both my mom and brother had attended school there. I don’t know why I went there. The leadership and doctrine of that school was (and is) pretty anti-gay, but I didn’t care about that. I needed a place where I thought God would be hanging out. I needed to put myself right in the middle of wherever He was that hot August afternoon. So I parked in guest parking, walked across a perfectly groomed lawn, and found a little wooden park bench—weathered from the rain—under a tree right in the center of the campus. I sat on the bench, right side.
My shoes were perfectly clean, but there was a lot of mud on them that day. I’d been collecting it for years, and I knew it was time to show mom.
It was a Sunday, so the campus was mostly dead—just a few students here and there.
I sat and just stared. I noticed the beautiful brick buildings and perfectly-kept flowerbeds. I noticed the towering white steeple of the chapel. I noticed brick-paved sidewalks. It was all so perfect and pretty and peaceful—an opposite of the scene in my soul. I talked to God on that bench and found a some peace. He was there. I knew it.
It was time to go.
I texted Brian to let him know I was on my way, and I began the drive to my mom’s house which is outside of Louisville in a little town called Fisherville.
Fisherville is rural—mostly big suburban houses on huge lots, surrounded by tobacco fields. It’s very pretty country, though.
I pulled up to to her house and turned down the Redman song. The tears were still drying on my cheeks as I pulled into her driveway. I felt like I was 29 going on 9. This wasn’t a man pulling into that driveway. It was a little boy who’d just broken his mom’s fine china and could hear her footsteps coming down the hall. At least that’s how it felt.
I knocked on the door and waited a few nervous seconds. Mom opened the door, and when she saw me, it was a look of total confusion.
“Hey honey! What . . . what are you doing here?”
“I need to talk to you guys about something.”
This was part of my strategy. It was one of no return, no backing out, burn the dang ships as soon as you make landfall. I knew that if I could say something dramatic like that at the start, there’d be no turning back. Mission accomplished.
Mom looked more confused. She knew this must be serious, because this wasn’t normal for me. She pulled me in to the tiled floor of her foyer and gave me a big hug.
I walked into the kitchen and said hello to my step-dad. He was surprised as well.
I looked at my brother Brian who knew I was coming and said hello to my sister-in-law as well. I figured Brian had told her.
There was some awkward silence, so mom offered me some sweet tea. I accepted. I told them I needed to talk to all of them, and I needed the kids not to be there. My niece and nephew were there, so they asked them to go play in the basement. I dragged a chair into the middle of my mom’s living room, facing mom’s big tan sectional couch. They all sat on it, so they were sort of in a semi-circular formation directly in front of me. Mom had that very concerned-mom look on her face. Kids know that look.
Once you make it this far in a conversation, it gets a little easier because you’ve gotten past the point where you can bail. So I went for it:
“I came here today to tell you guys something: I . . . I deal with same-sex attraction.”
I’ll be honest, the conversation from this point on is a little blurry. In the fog of all the emotion, my brain didn’t capture it all very well.
But I do remember my mom looking very confused. I remember my brother telling me they had sort of suspected it and that he recognized how hard this journey must have been for me. I remember crying. I remember my step-dad Bob saying some very kind things as well.
I explained that this wasn’t a choice and that I never would have chosen this. I told them I’d never been with a guy before. I told them my plan was to stay single and celibate for life. I think this was a relief to them.
As the conversation went on, they all affirmed their love for me. They didn’t quote Scripture or prove any points. They asked questions, listened well, and offered a few more kind thoughts. The conversation was somber but subtly positive.
In retrospect, I’m very proud of their reactions.
I had prepared for the worst, but that was just a silly fear of my paranoid mind. Deep down, I knew they wouldn’t overreact. I knew they would still love me. I knew their convictions on the matter were firm, but I also knew they had enough theological nuance to appreciate my commitment to singleness. That was comforting.
I stuck around that night, and we discussed it a little more, but not too much. I went to bed in mom’s guest bedroom with my head spinning.
Did I really just do that? Did that just happen? And they didn’t freak out . . . they didn’t freak out!
I knew that many kids weren’t so lucky. I felt very blessed.
I think a lot of really good parents act really terribly towards their gay kids because they're reacting out of their own pain.
The news has a victimizing effect on parents I think. And victims don’t empathize well with other victims. This is tragic because a child never feels more like a victim than they do in that very vulnerable moment. And victims need help. They need someone to listen and ask them what they need. They need long, enduring empathy and tears from someone who is trying—albeit imperfectly—to understand their pain.
I wish I could find every parent who will eventually have a child come out to them, look them in the eye, and tell them:
When you least expect it, a battered child who’s been lost at sea will show up on your doorstep. This is your child, but it’s a version of them you’ve never met.
They will be haggard—long tangled hair, skinny, ragged clothes, dirty feet. They look like this because they’re worn out—exhausted—from many years at sea, alone in a lifeboat with no water, no map, and no paddle. You had no idea, but that's not your fault.
Next, welcome them inside. Offer them a drink.
After a few moments, they’re going to swallow hard and tell you they’ve been on a journey. Know that by the time they get to your doorstep, they will have had to muster every last ounce of courage and energy. In fact, getting to your doorstep may have been the hardest part of their journey.
Your next job is to listen. And believe what they tell you.
When they tell you they were on this journey for all those years, alone and scared, believe them.
When they tell you they never asked to be on that boat believe them.
When they tell you they tried to get off that boat many times and swim to shore, for God's sake, believe them.
If they feel like talking, ask them what it was like out on those seas . . .
Ask them about the storms. Ask them about the wind and the rain and the swells. Ask them if they were scared. Ask them what they did to survive. (Remember, this child of yours is very strong, otherwise they wouldn’t have survived this journey.)
Ask them about sleeping in a raft alone under midnight skies.
Ask them if God was there—if they felt Him, if they talked to Him. (They might have, but you must remember that God feels very distant for people in lifeboats alone at sea. They might even be mad at God or think he doesn’t exist at all. That’s okay.
Remember that theology lessons aren’t helpful when their clothes are still wet with seawater.)
Regardless, remind them that God loves his little lost sailors very much, and that he never stopped loving them, even on those nights when it was just them and no moon and big shadows circling in black water. Remind them.
And dear parent, whatever you do, don’t lecture them.
Don’t shame them for being in that boat. Don’t tell them that God hates people in lifeboats. Tell them that God loves those few souls in rafts just like he loves the rest on land. And remember that you aren't the survivor here. They—THEY—are the ones who’ve been on a long, lonely journey. Remember this.
Ask them if they ever saw land in the distance.
Ask them if they ever saw land-dwellers on the horizon and if they ever screamed for help. Apologize for those people that didn’t hear them or the ones who held up giant signs saying, “GOD HATES PEOPLE IN LIFEBOATS.” Tell them you’re sorry they had to see that and that you would have ripped up those signs if you could.
Ask them if they ever put a message in a bottle and tossed it into the sea, hoping it might reach someone on land.
Tell them you wished you’d found that message. In fact, grab them by the shoulders, look them right in the eye, and tell them you would have done anything to find it if that meant getting to you sooner. Tell them you would have drowned yourself to get to them. Then tell them you wished we didn’t live in a world where scared kids had to put messages in bottles. Tell them that’s unjust.
And finally, tell them they’re no longer alone, no longer out on those high seas.
Tell them they’re on land now and land has homes. And homes are filled with love, and love is the thing that makes the boat stop rocking. Love is the thing that calms those storms. Love is the thing that scares off black shadows in black waters. And that as long as they are breathing, they will have a home, and they will never ever be alone. 👊
B.B.P.S. - Are you the Christian parent of an LGBT child? I just launched an online support program for Christian parents of LGBT kids. Check it out here!
All photos by Sterling Graves. Copyright Blue Babies Pink & Sterling Graves.
B.T. Harman is the creator of Blue Babies Pink, a Southern Coming Out Story in 44 Episodes.
B.T. is a consultant, writer, and speaker living in Atlanta's historic Cabbagetown neighborhood. He was previously a vice president for Booster, an Atlanta fundraising company, where he helped the organization raise $150 million for elementary schools.
B.T. is passionate about storytelling, leadership, good design, Seth Godin, SEC football, Chick-fil-A, Taylor Swift, archaeology, European Travel and CS Lewis.
To learn more about B.T., visit his personal site at btharman.com.