Thursday, November 14, 2013

"I Just Want My Son to Be Happy" A Conversation with a Mother and Son

Written by Carole, Judi, and Justin

By the time Judi’s son, Justin, told her he was gay, he was 27-years-old. He’d been very religious in the LDS church his entire life, served a mission, worked as an officiator in the temple and taught seminary for two years. It was when he was told he would have to marry to keep his teaching job “and not to a guy,” Judi quipped, that he knew that couldn’t happen. Her son came home for dinner one night and told her the secret he’d been carrying. “So, you’re still my son,” she’d said.

Challenges aren’t new to Judi. She unexpectedly lost her husband, the father of her children over a decade ago and before Justin “came out.” Every day she battles numerous painful health issues that make each day difficult to perform even basic tasks. And yet, when I sat down to visit with Judi, the kitchen table was covered in the latest quilt project for her humanitarian work for the church. On the sofa, I slid the carefully stacked quilt squares aside, so I could sit down for our visit.

Looking back, Judi knows the signs were there, but she was in denial. Once she knew, it didn’t change any of the love she felt for her son, but she mourned the loss of expectations that she’d envisioned for him. “He would be such a good, good father. He’s so cute with kids.” Now everything would be different. Right after she found out, her sister came to visit and Judi wasn’t ready to talk about her son yet. So she took long showers and cried, then put on her happy face. “I cried for two-weeks straight.”

 Justin: “I think I knew as early as 21. I had known for some time that I was different. I knew that I did not look at girls the same way that others did, but I did not realize that I was gay until I was on my mission and we came in contact with a couple of gay individuals.  I just never really had a point of reference growing up in such a small town. So I was surprised when I realized WHY I was different. But I was so under the thumb of the church in that I believed that I could be "saved" or "cured" if I gave myself completely to the Lord and to the church. So I did.  Looking back, I knew back as early as 11 or 12."

Judi would tell mothers who are just finding out that their child is gay; “It’s a process. It took me a long time to wrap my head around it. It gets better, but it’s okay to mourn the change of expectations. One of the things that has been hard for me is that once I am gone, unless he finds someone in his life who is going to be permanent, he’s going to be alone. He has a brother, but he has a family of his own. It’s not going to be like the relationship we have. He calls me every day and we talk for 15-20 minutes. I look forward to that. Hopefully one day, he can legally have a love the same as any other person.”

Justin’s advice to parents of LGBT kids: “Love them for who they are and always stand by them and support them. Listen and embrace the things that make them unique. Encourage them to follow their dreams. In other words, treat them the same as they would if they were straight. They are no different and should not be treated any differently. They are still your children.”

Bumps in the road--Judi. “Hardly anyone cares. Unless you are personally impacted, you just don’t care. It’s not your problem; it’s someone else’s. I get really frustrated when people who know nothing about it, say that being gay is a choice. Nobody would choose to be gay. It is not an easy life, not easy at all. That’s the argument I had with some of the things that have been said by church leaders and some other people I know. They are born that way. Church leaders and others make judgments about things they know nothing about.”

I object to the word “choice.” That’s what I objected to in conference. That’s what I objected to the day the counselor in our bishopric spoke. That’s what I objected to when my friend, said (yelled on the phone) that God would not do that, quoting what President Packer said. And when I said, it was not a choice. She insisted again, that God would not do that. I said, don’t tell me what God would do. If you are trying to say that people born with multiple sclerosis or any nasty diseases, why would you think that God would do that? So the reasoning is faulty when you insist that God wouldn’t do something to someone. It’s been such a joke that those who are gay are a sub-human culture, something to be looked down upon, harassed, discriminated against, any number of things. No one would choose that.”

Judi wishes she had stood up and told the counselor in the bishopric that he was wrong, but she didn’t. Other times friends have made disparaging remarks or told stories that aren’t respectful of the LGBT community. At first Judi didn’t speak up, but now she does.
 “Suppose there was a child who was in the congregation that heard him [church leader] say that, at which point he or she feels totally ostracized, that they are wrong, that they are evil. They lose all sense of self-worth. Why are they even here and why do they need to stay here? That is so hurtful.”

Justin:  “When I first realized and really knew that I was attracted to men, I felt I had to stay in the church because it is what was expected of me. I really wanted the wife, the kids and the picket fence. But the longer I tried to stay in the church and the longer I tried to be the perfect man, I became very angry. I hated myself. I hated the people who were getting married. I hate people who told me I would meet the right girl. I was angry at God for letting me feel this way. When I finally came out, I was able to be honest for the first time. I felt free.” (More about Justin)

Making a decision—Justin: “I was really not that torn once I got to the point of leaving the church. To be honest, I had a bishop who understood and was willing to talk to me openly and honestly. Then I changed wards. The new bishop was not as kind. He wanted me to know that I would have to be brought in front of a disciplinary council and then I would probably be excommunicated. He was less tactful than that, and I was not willing to go back into the closet. I was also not willing to let my mother to have to say her son was excommunicated. I did not feel that I could stay in a church that did not accept me and did not see value in me as a person. I could not support leaders who were quick to judge and blind to the person. When I was younger, I could not stand up to those realities, but I could by the time I was in my 20's.”

Judi’s lowest point: “It was a really hard thing for me when I  had my husband’s temple work done and we were sealed together as a family to not have both sons sealed. They each have to be there to take part. That was an extremely difficult thing to exclude one child. I also tried to do family history. At this point, he had taken his name off the records of the church because he felt like—(there was nobody more religious than that child)—he felt like if he was going to live this lifestyle, that he could not keep his name on the records of the church. So I’d go to do family history and I couldn’t put him in for his baptismal dates and so on, so I just stopped.

I don’t know how other families handle it. I have no idea. But that was a really hard thing for me. The longer he is away from the church, the further he draws away from the church. I can understand that. And it’s hard because the teachings of our church make it very difficult to try and balance what you’ve been taught your whole life and balance that with this child that you love. As you’ve accepted who they are and that you want what’s best for them.”

Justin’s Darkest Time: “I think the darkest time came right after my dad passed away. I was in therapy at the time to try and overcome my sexuality. The therapist suggested we work on my issues with my dad's passing. So we did. When we finally got back to the reason I had started seeing him, he told me that he would not help me change, but would help me accept myself and come out. He was LDS and he was honest about the fact I could not change who I was, I could not be something I was not. I was crushed. I cried all night. I was so destroyed. And then I slowly started to see that I could be happy with who I was and I could be authentic and honest with myself.”

On supporting each other--Judi: “The first time he asked if he could bring his partner home, we discussed it as a family before it happened. He (his partner) was welcome in my home. I’m still in contact even though they are no longer together. He used to call me mom. I totally enjoyed him. I think that was important that we had that relationship. That he knew I could be mother to this partner. As far as my son goes, he knows that I’m still involved with the church and he supports me in that. I still believe it’s true. I’m not as strong as I was though. I have been knocked down a few pegs. Having to go in and seal my family and leave one out. It’s wrong. He’s mine as much as the other one, and according to church teachings, if I understand correctly, I can’t have him. He calls me everyday.  We just try to bumble through the best we can. Do we always get it right? No. But we try. He has a good support group, but as far as a family anchor, I’m it. So when I kick the bucket, he’s going to be lost.”

Justin about his mom: “She has spent time learning about what it [being gay] really means. She has kept an open mind and offered her support. She has loved me the same as she did before. She embraced and accepted my partner. She opened her home and her heart to him. She has stood up against those who are insensitive or indifferent. She has educated and she has been an example. She has been my biggest champion and she has listened. She has continued to love me and really that is all that matters. She is my best friends.”

Importance for legislation--Judi: “One of the hardest things is the discrimination that exists on the laws of the nation. They are definitely discriminated against. I have a really hard time with that. As a church if you want to say marriage is between a man and a woman, that’s one thing. But civilly they should have every right and every benefit including tax laws, insurance, next of kin, inheritance, etc. that a marriage between a man and a woman has. A same-sex couple should have every right to be legally married and accepted as a couple. I have hard time understanding why people can’t separate that. Church and state are two different things. When my son’s partner was in the hospital and my son would go into see him, he was not always treated as next of kin.

Recently, I watched a you-tube video about a couple, Shane and Tom, who were together for six years. Together, they started a company and bought a house. But when Tom died, Shane had no rights. He was threatened by Tom’s family that he would be beaten if he came to the funeral. The hospital wouldn’t release any information to Shane. The youtube clip is the basis of a documentary called Bridegroom. I would encourage you to watch it. Shane’s mother said, “It’s not a gay thing. It’s not a straight thing. It’s a human thing.'”

Progress--Judi: “There are areas in Salt Lake that are a lot better. Though a few years ago, my son and his partner went to a restaurant and the server wouldn’t serve them. I don’t think that happens anymore. Not only are the restaurants being more accepting now, there’s a lot more places specifically for gays. It’s not like they have to fit into someone else’s mold. They can be who they are. But, I would say rural communities are harder for gay kids. I know of a young man who had been living out of state and tried to move back to Cache Valley and had to leave again because he couldn’t find himself here. He felt like it was too hard.”

I’ve seen changes in the church. Elder D.Todd Christofferson for one, has been involved in meeting with the Montgomery family. I think they [church leaders] are starting to look at things instead of automatically saying this is the way it is and this is the way it always will be. They are starting to be more open to the fact that there are differences and it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are bad or wrong.

The women who were seeking priesthood ordination, if I get it right, all they were asking was that the church hierarchy take it to the Lord and ask the question. The same thing when the blacks were given the priesthood. They took it to the Lord. I think that if more of the apostles were more open then they could discuss (LGBT issues) and take it to the Lord, changes could be made. I don’t believe that the church will ever say that same sex marriage is ok. But I would hope that they can make it more comfortable for LBGT persons to be able to attend church without the shunning and judgment that they are subjected to now. That people would realize that being gay is not a choice, but how a person is born.

Progress and hope—Justin: “I see all the progress being made around the world and in the states and that gives me hope that I will find my spouse. I had a partner for 8 years and we were very happy. We had out ups and downs like any married couple. We had arguments and we had some of my most cherished and happy moments. In the end, we knew we had to make a change. We are still very close friends. I want him to be happy and I hope I will be too. Now that there are 16 states that have marriage equality, I hope that when I am able to get married I will have someone to share the rest of my life with.”

Blessings--Judi: “I have learned to be more open to other lifestyles, other religions, other beliefs. It used to disturb me for instance, a black and a white person together. Who cares? If they love each other, go for it. I’ve learned a lot. I’m more open to learning things. I don’t want to say accepting, because that sounds like something is wrong if you have to accept it. I’ve tried to learn a lot more and be more knowledgeable and try to understand, instead of forming opinions from antiquated ideas. I think I’m a better person for it. I really, truly believe that. I’m not as narrow as I used to be.”

“I just want my son to be happy.”