Dr. Jack McKinney

Posted on: September 12th, 2012 by feyadmin

John sits across from me in the big easy chair in my office. His arms are crossed tightly and his knees are pressed firmly together giving the impression he is trying to slip through a crack in the cushions. Next to us on the couch are John’s parents. If possible, they look even more uncomfortable than their son.

The reason for this tense gathering is that John wants to talk to his parents about his sexuality. He is a college student who started coming to see me for counseling several months earlier. John believes he is gay, has wondered about it for many years, and even tried to talk to his mother about the issue when he was in high school. His mother’s response then was direct: homosexuality is a sin and she could not tolerate the thought that her son was gay and going to hell. That one conversation convinced John he must not speak to his parents, or anyone else, about the confusion he feels regarding his sexuality.

John grew up in the church and considers himself a devout Christian. He loves and respects his parents, and is particularly close to his mother. Their opinion means a great deal to him. Yet, in the years since he left home for school his attraction to men has only grown stronger. He has not acted on that attraction because he is afraid of the condemnation he would face from his church and his parents. This is the tension that brought John to counseling in the first place. He is more and more clear that he is gay, and he is convinced coming out will cost him the people he loves most in the world.

There are countless young adults like John in our country today. They are people who are trying to figure out their sexuality in a world that sends them conflicting messages about it. Many of John’s peers, including some of his Christian friends, don’t see what the big deal is if he is gay. (Public Policy Polling published a poll on April 24, 2012 two weeks before a constitutional amendment on same-sex marriage was voted on in North Carolina; though the amendment denying same-sex marriage ended up passing easily, the poll indicated only 31% of people under 30 supported the amendment.) Yet, his parents and pastor from his home church make it clear to John that being gay is not only a big deal, it puts his soul in mortal jeopardy.

This is the backdrop for the meeting between John and his parents that John has asked me to mediate. He desperately needs to talk about the tension he feels between his sexuality and spirituality, yet is so afraid of being rejected by his family he cannot bear to risk that conversation alone. As I watch these three tortured souls in my office, I think to myself that there has to be a better way for Christian families to address this issue.

Changing Perspectives

Conservative churches have long believed that sexual purity is an important teaching to emphasize. Over the last thirty years, the focus of that message has featured a heightened denunciation of homosexuality. Evangelical Christians in particular have led the way in stating the belief that being gay is a chosen lifestyle and not something innate in the person who has same-sex attractions.

In the last few years, however, some important conservative Christian leaders have begun to express a different opinion. Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, and a leading spokesman for Evangelicals, made headlines in March 2011 when he told the Christian Science Monitor that Baptists have lied about homosexuality and practiced a “form of homophobia.” When asked about those comments at the Southern Baptists’ annual meeting a few months later, Mohler reiterated his point by saying:

But we as Evangelicals have a very sad history in dealing with this issue. We have told not the truth, but we have told about half the truth. We’ve told the biblical truth, and that’s important, but we haven’t applied it in the biblical way. We have said to people that homosexuality is just a choice. It’s clear that it’s more than a choice. That doesn’t mean it’s any less sinful, but it does mean it’s not something people can just turn on and turn off. We are not a gospel people unless we understand that only the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ gives a homosexual person any hope of release from homosexuality.

Mohler’s comments caused a firestorm among Southern Baptists and other conservative Christians, even though he emphasized his belief that homosexuality is a sin.

Other conservative Christian voices heavily involved in the debate have gone a step beyond Mohler’s position. Warren Throckmorton and Mark Yarhouse are psychologists who became influential figures in the ex-gay movement for their belief that sexual orientation is something that can be changed (Yarhouse teaches at Pat Robertson’s Regent University and Throckmorton teaches at Grove City College, a Christian school in Pennsylvania). Both of them eventually recanted their position and realized the research they presented to support such claims was flawed. Throckmorton said: “What I came to find out was those people (who claimed to have changed their sexual orientation) felt the pressure of the social contract and said they had completely changed when they had not. They were in my tradition, so I trusted them. If they said they had changed, why would I doubt them? That was sloppy scientifically, and I regret that.” (Quoted in “Living the Good Lie,” by Mimi Schwartz, The New York Times Magazine, June 19, 2011) Throckmorton and Yarhouse now believe that research that has been presented to demonstrate sexual orientation can be changed is not sound and encourage the conservative Christians they counsel to begin from a perspective of self-acceptance as they seek to reconcile their sexuality and spirituality.

Alan Chambers, the President of Exodus International, an organization that for years has claimed to have helped thousands of people change their sexual orientation, also has a different perspective now. Chambers spoke at the annual gathering of the Gay Christian Network in January 2012 and said: “The majority of people that I have met, and I would say the majority meaning 99.9% of them have not experienced a change in their orientation or have gotten to a place where they could say that they could never be tempted or are not tempted in some way or experience some level of same-sex attraction.”

Perhaps the most noteworthy change of heart on the question of whether a person’s sexual orientation can be changed happened recently when Dr. Bob Spitzer apologized to the gay community. Spitzer has long been a controversial figure in the culture war over homosexuality. In 1973 he led the way in convincing the American Psychological Association to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness. However, in 2001 Spitzer published research that he said demonstrated sexual orientation could be changed. His report became the most heralded piece of scientific evidence used by the ex-gay movement to bolster claims about the possibility of changing one’s sexual identity.

When asked recently about the many critics of his research, Spitzer said: “In retrospect, I have to admit I think the critiques are largely correct. The findings can be considered evidence for what those who have undergone ex-gay therapy say about it, but nothing more.” He said that failed attempts to rid oneself of same-sex attractions “can be quite harmful.” (Quoted in “My So-Called Ex-Gay Life,” by Gabriel Arana, The American Prospect, April 11, 2012)

A New Approach

If being gay is not a choice, as conservative theologian Al Mohler asserts, and it is not a condition that can be changed, as evangelical psychologists and leaders in the ex-gay movement now concede, what does that mean for the way Christian parents talk to their kids about this issue? Shouldn’t that shift the conversation from one of condemnation to compassion? Christian teens and young adults who deal with the internal conflict of trying to reconcile their sexuality and spirituality need to feel safe in bringing their questions and concerns to their parents.

Dr. Deborah Neel, a Christian sex therapist in Raleigh, North Carolina works closely with conservative churches and pastors in trying to help them develop healthier approaches to addressing sexual issues. Dr. Neel explained her message to me in a recent email exchange:

I would prefer that our children learn about God’s design for his creation of sexuality from the church and from parents. This may include a youth questioning their sexual orientation – often a part of growing pains, sometimes something more. It is important to be receptive to open discussions with our teens as they navigate the journey into adulthood. That is, to listen without fear, and to acknowledge the struggle the teen is going through. Culture often ridicules or ostracizes things and people that they do not understand. A young person has made a courageous step to talk with their parent (from whom they most want approval). Accept the trust a young person has placed in you, a parent. I encourage parents to proceed to help him/her feel comfortable – or as comfortable as possible. Because their youth is questioning their sexual orientation does not necessarily mean that they are gay, straight or bi. It means that they have feelings that do not seem to fit with their expectations or those around them. They are trying to make sense of these feelings. They need someone who cares about them to still care about them despite these uncomfortable questions. Otherwise, your teen or young adult may draw some erroneous conclusions that could cause a lifetime of pain and struggle.

Dr. Neel’s encouragement for Christian parents to listen to their kids’ questioning of their sexuality without fear or judgment is critical both for the parents and the child. If the child believes he or she can talk about this delicate subject without fear of rejection, the bond with the parents is strengthened. If the child experiences denunciation from the parents when this subject is risked, the child learns to hide their struggle and suffer in silence.

A Painful Ending

It has been several years since John first risked telling his mother that he might be gay. Her fear and rejection sent him underground, but now his suffering is so acute he has decided he must try one more time to talk to his parents about the issue that is causing him great distress.

John begins by quietly telling his parents he loves and respects them very much. He wants to be connected to them, but has found that more difficult in recent years because he is increasingly clear that he is gay and fears they won’t love him any more. His voice is barely above a whisper as he gets these few sentences out.

John’s mother is quick to assert that there is nothing John can tell her that will make her stop loving him. She recalls the conversation they had when John was in high school and laments her judgmental reaction. She confesses that she didn’t understand how much John was suffering and wishes she had been more open to him then. I can sense John relaxing a little as his mother speaks.

Then John’s father interrupts. He says the question is not about love, it is about biblical truth. He tells John that if he persists in this nonsense that he is gay, then there is no question that John is headed for hell. The father utters the painful words “abomination” and “deviant,” and I can see John shutting down. For a moment the comments of his mother had given John hope that this conversation might be very different than he feared, but now his worst fears are realized. He offers a couple of meek rebuttals to his father’s judgmental tone, but John is not really interested in a debate. Soon he falls completely silent until his parents leave my office.

When we are alone again I ask John what he is thinking. He said, “It is clear that my parents’ love for me is conditional. If I am straight, they will love and accept me. If I am gay, then I have no place in their lives.” Tears pool in his eyes as he speaks. He faces an uncertain future without the support of his family or church. He is alone.

Dr. Jack McKinney

Dr. Jack McKinney is a pastoral counselor in Raleigh, North Carolina. He works closely with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and their families. Watch video.