A Parent’s Perspective: Making it Better for Our LGBT Family Members

by Bryce Cook
ALL Are Alike Unto God Conference, April 27, 2013

It’s my pleasure now to address you and express some of my feelings which are very tender here today as I look out and see so many people whom I love and other people I haven’t gotten to meet yet but whom I look forward to meeting.

I would like to ask each of you here to engage in an exercise of imagination. Brother Bob Rees talked about the power of Christian imagination. I would like you to imagine that you are a young gay or lesbian person who has great fears about what this means for your future. You’ve planned out what you’re going to say to your parents and you’re finally ready to tell them. When you tell them, these are some of the expressions you hear – and these expressions are from real-life experiences:

“After all we’ve taught you how could you do this to us.”

“No, you’re not gay, you can’t know this. You’re just confused. You’re not that way. Gays are sinful and awful people.”

“I think it would have been better if you had been born dead instead of gay.”

“You say that you’ve tried hard to change your perversion and my advice is that you try much, much harder. You need to pray more and fast more. Go to church. Pay tithing. Memorize the scriptures. Beat on the doors of heaven and humbly ask God for mercy that he might save you from this evil that is sweeping the globe.”

“You know, son, this makes absolutely no difference to me. I will always love you no matter what.”

“My dear daughter, we love you. Nothing can change that. We know you are a good person and so does Heavenly Father. He loves you and we love you.”

“As I told him I was lesbian, he looked over at me and he grabbed me in a bear hug and said ‘I don’t care if you have purple hair and three eyes. You are my sister and I will always love you.'”

As you listened to these statements, how did you feel? Do you see how some statements, even by those who believe they are following Christ’s gospel, tear you down and injure your spirit? They cause feelings that lead to depression, bitterness towards God and the Church, to risky, destructive behaviors and even to suicide. In contrast, how did the beautiful expressions at the end make you feel? Didn’t they make you feel hopeful and better about yourself?

You know, it’s a cruel irony that gay people, who are often the most sensitive, kindhearted and religiously inclined – as Bob Rees pointed out from some of the research performed by Dr. Bradshaw – they who tend to have the strongest testimonies and the deepest feelings towards God, are often made to feel like the most despicable of sinners. They hear those harsh words, “abomination,” “sinful,” “perversion.” And those sweet and sensitive hearts are taken and just crushed. And then we wonder why they leave the church or why they feel they don’t have a place among us.

Brothers and sisters, should there be any doubt in our minds as to how we should treat our gay brothers and sisters, especially as we have seen their sweet expressions here this day and witnessed the kind of people they are? Moroni taught us how to judge these things. He said everything that inviteth to do good and persuades to believe in Christ is of God. Which of those expressions that I read at the beginning persuades to do good and believe in Christ?

Now as a society and a church, I think we are getting much better. I’m very hopeful about the future. I’ve talked to many people in the church who, like my wife and me, have felt an inner compulsion to make this issue better understood – because for too long it’s been misunderstood and buried or hidden. And at this time many people all throughout the church are being moved on by the Spirit of God to come forth and be a voice for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. But there is still much room for progress.

This was very apparent with respect to the recent policy change by the BSA that allows gay youth to participate in scouts. I looked at the online edition of the Deseret news to see the reader comments that followed this announcement and found a lot of very horrible and disturbing comments. It was very sad to see how many of my fellow members of the Church could express such uncharitable, unkind and totally incorrect opinions about this issue, even when the Church supports it. It shows that we still have much room to grow.

As parents, as family and friends, how can we make life better for our LGBT brothers and sisters? I would like to talk about some of the things that we should do and some things we should not do, all of which are backed up by many years of solid research. This research has been used to create a very important resource – The Family Acceptance Project – a booklet designed specifically for LDS parents of gay children that was written and developed by Dr. Caitlin Ryan and co-authored by Bob Rees. I highly recommend this for families and Church leaders who are helping LGBT young people. The research in this booklet shows that there are rejecting behaviors that families engage in that lead to suicide, to depression, to substance abuse and risky behaviors; and there are accepting behaviors that lead to well-adjusted, happy gay children who have a positive outlook on life.

Too many people that I’ve seen, even in our group, have family members who are holding back love or who refuse to acknowledge the gay person’s feelings. They say yes, we love you but then never want to speak of it again. They basically have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in their own family. This is not outright rejection, but it is still not love – and it’s not emotionally healthy. Imagine being that child who knows that being gay is a core, fundamental part of who they are, but their parents don’t ever want to talk about it or acknowledge it. It’s still a sense of rejection.

Then there’s another big question that I often hear from some parents. And that is, “Well, what if my child decides to leave the Church and adopt the so-called ‘gay lifestyle’? Then what?”

To me, that’s like saying, “I will love you as long as…” “It’s ok if you’re gay, that’s fine – as long as you stay celibate. But if you dare act on your feelings, then I can’t accept you.” That kind of conditional love is not what the Savior teaches.

I’ve heard some people say, for instance, they could never accept their family member’s gay partner at a family event or family outing. And I think, but how could you really do that? If your son had a girlfriend, and he was not living the standards of the Church and was living with her, and he brought her to a family event, would you shun that girl? Would you ignore her, treat her rudely or forbid her to enter your home? I think most decent people couldn’t do that. And yet, for some reason there’s sort of this double standard with gay people, where that behavior is acceptable. So I think we need to watch what is in our hearts and in our feelings if we ever begin to have those types of thoughts.

Elder Quentin Cook on the website mormonsandgays.org addressed this issue specifically. He said, “Let us be at the forefront in terms of expressing love, compassion and outreach. Let’s not have families exclude or be disrespectful of those who choose a different lifestyle as a result of their feelings about their own gender.” So what did he mean when he said let us not be “disrespectful” or “exclude”? I think it’s very clear that we are to still love and include them in our family gatherings.

President Roger Carter, who’s also featured on the Church’s website and I believe is Mitch Mayne’s Stake President, addresses this subject as well. He says, “The best case scenarios that I have dealt with are where families have been unequivocal about their love and compassion for a family member who is gay who has decided they are not going to live the standards of the church.”

We have to recognize that when a gay family member makes the decision to have a same-sex partner, it’s probably not a rash, spur-of-the-moment decision made out of rebelliousness. It carries tremendous weight. They know the huge consequences that they face. It usually comes after much thought, much study, maybe years of difficulty in working through this, and often times with much prayer, especially in the case of LDS gay people. But no matter what they choose, they must make a huge sacrifice. If they choose the Church’s position, they choose life-long celibacy, never knowing what it means to have a companion they can love and grow old with, and living alone for the rest of their lives. If they come to believe that that choice is not what God wants for them, and after a number of years they choose a path in which they feel they can fall in love and be with someone of the same sex, then they lose the full blessings of their Church and sometimes even the fellowship of their community and their family.

So either choice is fraught with pain and difficulty. Why then would we want to heap on and make the burden any heavier? We’ve covenanted to bear one another’s burdens so that they may be light, not to make it harder. I hope that we’ll remember that if we’re ever faced with that situation.

It’s interesting that as Sara and I have thought about this and expressed these feelings, occasionally we hear comments like, “You need to be careful because you may be too tolerant and too accepting, and you might lead your children astray.” One went so far as to say, “Don’t ever give them any hope about that kind of future, it will only do them greater harm.”

And my thought is, “My sons have their agency, they’re adults. I trust them. They are good, honorable young men. They believe in God. They have testimonies. They have always sought to have the Spirit in their lives. This is a choice between them and their God that no one else can make for them. And it is a supremely difficult choice. No matter what, I will love them. As Nephi said, “I don’t know the meaning of all things, but I know that God loveth His children.”

I’ve witnessed with my own eyes the effect on LGBT people who have come from families who are supportive and loving versus unkind and closed off, and there’s a big difference. Those who come from supportive, loving families are so much happier, they’re more well-adjusted, and have a much better outlook on life than those whose family members are unkind or judgmental or refuse to acknowledge the gay person’s feelings. The person whose family is able to talk about it without embarrassment or judgment, who lets them know that they love them unconditionally and will stand up for them and support them in the face of criticism or unkindness, has a much better outlook on life, and in fact finds it easier to feel comfortable in the Church and to abide by gospel principles. In contrast, those families who are openly uncomfortable or judgmental or dismissive tend to make them feel worthless, conflicted, hopeless. And then they begin to have feelings of, “What’s the use? I’m an awful person; I might as well do whatever because that’s what people expect of me.” And these feelings of course lead to all sorts of bad outcomes.

Let me give you one last example in closing. It’s something that I heard just this week on a podcast by a gay man – who’s actually about my age – relating his life experience. He was a life-long member of the Church, served a mission, married, divorced, and came out as gay to his family later in life. And while his family loved him and accepted him, they drew a line in the sand, so to speak. One of his sister’s said, “We felt if we were too loving and too accepting we would lose him. We would lose his soul forever. And so we couldn’t just fully accept him. We had to draw a line somewhere.”

And so he never felt fully loved by his family. He moved back East. And a few years ago he suffered a life-threatening aneurism in which he almost died. A gay couple took him into their home after he got out of the hospital. And as so many of them do in showing Christ-like love, they nursed this man back to health. After years had passed, this man’s family had finally begun to come around and be more loving and accepting. So they travelled back East to see their brother and meet the couple who had taken care of him. This good couple had invited the whole family to dinner in their home. And so this man tells about how wonderful it was to have his family with him as they stood on the doorstep of the couple’s home, knocking on the door, and anticipating being able to introduce them all. As soon as the door opened, this man’s brother rushed into the house and threw his arms around one of the men, gave him a big bear-hug and kissed him on the cheek and said with great emotion, “Thank you so much for saving my brother!”

Isn’t that what it’s all about – saving our brothers and our sisters? The worth of souls is great in the sight of God, and He wants all to come unto Him. As our conference theme and the scripture says, “All are alike unto God, black and white, male and female, bond and free.” And I would add, “gay and straight.”

I want to tell my two gay sons, all of my family and my extended LGBT family who are here today, how much I love you, how much you have helped me grow inside. Because I have to confess that I was not the kind of person Jesus wanted me to be earlier in my life in the feelings that I had towards LGBT people. But I’ve been blessed with two wonderful gay sons who have taught me an amazing lesson, and I’ve been blessed to associate with so many good, wonderful, humble, kind-hearted LGBT people who are now part of our family and part of our life. And I just express that thought again to all of you who mean so much to us and pray that God’s grace will be with us, that our hearts might be filled with love towards each other.

In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Bryce Cook