“There but for the grace of God go I.” There are moments in life when you get a frightening glimpse into what you could have been, had things turned out just a little differently. What I could have been is absolutely terrifying. Over the weekend, I watched ‘For the Bible tells me so’, a feature-length documentary telling the stories of American families who had been biblical literalists. And their gay children. The stories themselves are a mixture of heartbreaking and heart-warming, largely dependent on whether those involved managed to break away from fundamentalism, and find a faith that has space for them to love their children for who they are rather than in spite of it. But the tears I found myself wiping away by the end of the film were not only of despair for some, nor only of inspiration from others.
They were tears for what I saw of myself on-screen. Tears for who I could have become. Tears for the damage I could have inflicted.
Back in the days of AOL instant messenger, I had a conversation with a school friend, who was herself attracted to other girls. Off-loading the various stresses and struggles of my teenage life to her, I concluded a list of mainly genuine difficulties with, “…and besides all that, I’ve got a gay mum.”
I’m grateful that my friend was incredibly gracious in the way she gently asked me to consider whether it was such a bad thing to have a gay mum. But I’m ashamed that I ever typed those words in the first place.
Much like the families in the documentary, I grew up with a mostly literal understanding of the Bible. I knew that a lot of what I believed was unpopular, but that only made me more determined to hold on to it. God said it so I believed it, tough as that may be. There was a kind of inherent virtue in standing up for an interpretation of the Bible that was hated by everyone else.
To me, homosexuality seemed a bit like the temptation to have sex outside of marriage – it was just temptation to have ‘wrong sex’. Just like I could pray against my own pre-marital temptations and hope they went away for long enough to make it to the altar, I thought gay people needed to pray against theirs and hope it went away… well, forever. I was sure God could save them from it.
I squirmed at the thought of it. I didn’t like the look of it. I couldn’t understand it. I definitely didn’t want my mum involved in it. I wished she’d just choose not to accept that identity. I wished she wouldn’t be herself.
I loved my mum anyway, sure. I assured her as much when she first told me she was gay.
I still love you just the same, Mum.
The ‘anyway’ was implicit. I love you, even though I don’t love that. I love you anyway, because I don’t accept the gay thing as part of you. It’s not you, really. I love you despite this bit that I refuse to love.
Those are the kinds of words that some of the parents on this film spoke and wrote to their gay kids when they came out. Those words represent the supposedly ‘nicer face’ of a deep prejudice, expressed in so many nastier ways. Those are the kinds of words that led a young woman to hang herself, as acknowledged by her now repentant mother who had written them.
I know what I would have said, a few years ago. I would have said I was accepting my mum as she truly was, but not acknowledging sin as part of her identity. As if I was doing her a favour. Just like, I’d have said, my true identity is not in the lies I tell or the gossip I spread or the ways I hurt other people. I am not ‘Liar’ or ‘Cheat’ or ‘Bully’ even though I might do those things, so my mum was not ‘Gay’, whatever life she led.
I can’t quite believe how damaging that perspective is. How incredibly damaging to equate one person’s deep love for another person with my lies and anger and gossip. It sickens me now that I thought that way, that I called someone else’s love ‘sin’, that I could consider the very best in them ‘evil’, that I could pour shame on the most natural way in which we mirror God, by loving others.
I’m so sorry for the damage I did simply by holding and expressing that view. Those people on that film… they could have been me.
I wish there were stronger words to say it, but I’ll make do with the ones I have:
I love Mum.
Not anyway, not despite, not except. I love who she is, and I love how she loves. I love her love for me, for her friends, for her church, for her partner. I love the way she models to me how to love better. I love how she models Jesus to me.
Of course I don’t think Mum’s perfect, and I know she’d be the first to stand up and say it. There are things I wish she’d do more, others I wish she’d do less. But I will not, I cannot ever again, say that I wish she loved less. It makes absolutely no sense for someone with faith in a God who is Love to say that a person’s love is wrong. The Bible doesn’t say it and I won’t say it.
I’m convinced that as I’m called to follow Jesus, I’m called to fight prejudice. I’m called to challenge ignorance. I’m called to celebrate love as something holy and beautiful, and to learn from it much more about the God who loves me.
I hope you can forgive me, Mum. Thanks for bearing with me. All the love in the world x