This is a hard post to write. I consider myself at least somewhat of an expert on adolescents, but I am hardly an expert on religion. However, for religious families, there can be important issues that arise after their teen comes out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
There are gay, lesbian, & bisexual- friendly organizations and places of worship for almost all major U.S. religions, including Christianity (Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal , Evangelical, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and many others), Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Mormonism. If your faith is important to you, and your teen comes out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, hopefully you are already worshiping at a place that is welcoming- or at least tolerant- of your teen’s sexuality. Problems begin when your tradition, congregation, or religious leader is not. You might be faced with demands that your teen change, that you change your teen, or that someone else have the chance to change your teen. They may threaten your teen with eternal damnation, a miserable life, or alienation from their spiritual tradition and community.
No matter what anybody tells you, you do have options, and you and your teen can work together to decide together what path you will head down.
Hopefully it’s an option to consider a congregation that practices your religion, but is more accepting of people with diverse sexual orientations. There are wonderful religious communities out there that understand and celebrate the spiritual needs and experiences of sexual minorities.
If that isn’t an option, here are some very basic recommendations:
- If your church wants to perform any kind of intervention for your teen aimed at changing their sexual orientation, I would recommend you decline. It can be very damaging for a teen to know that an entire religious group is working to change something that is a very important part of who they are. It can also cause tremendous feelings of guilt and pressure if they feel they are letting these people down if they don’t change. If you and your teen feel this is truly necessary, make sure you will be there to ensure your child is not publicly shamed, roughly handled, or otherwise traumatized.
- Reparative therapy, a.k.a conversion therapy, claims to be able to change a person’s sexual orientation. It has not been shown to be effective (and since the American Psychiatric Association does not consider homosexuality or bisexuality to be a disease, they do not support it- you can read the long version of the report here.) If you feel you must try it, please opt for outpatient therapy. That way you have more control over the what happens during care; reparative/ conversion therapy can describe many different approaches.
- Please refrain from sending your teen away to a facility for reparative or conversion therapy. This term can encompass everything from counseling sessions to treatments employing physical pain. The use of physical pain, shame, or indoctrination can leave scars that last for decades. (This video is a terribly disturbing account, from a very resilient survivor, of abuse not only from outpatient “conversion therapists” but from family as well. ) You would never agree to someone traumatizing your child this way, but there have been reports of facilities being secretive or dishonest regarding the methods that are used.
- Some religions will state that it is okay for your teen to have a different sexual orientation, but they are not allowed to act on it- i.e. they may not express romantic or physical love. This is something easy to say, but it can be incredibly difficult to do, especially if someone is having it forced on them by feelings of guilt and alienation. Think about what your life would have been like if you could fall in love, but never express it. Encouraging your teen to forgo romantic relationships is a weighty request, and may be impossible for them to comply with.
I’d encourage you, no matter what you decide, to make a commitment to keeping lines of communication open with your teen throughout their life, expressing your love for them, and accepting that (like all teens) they may make choices you don’t agree with. You are such an important part of their life- treat them with the kindness, generosity, and patience you would like to be treated with.
And now I have a special announcement- I’m not an expert on religion, so we interviewed some! Next week we will post videos of various local religious leaders giving advice to parents on some of the topics this post touched on today, and more.