e-mail us
What happens when child says, 'I'm gay'?

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Marge Mayer of North Hollywood, Calif., found out nearly seven years ago in a letter from her son Tim.

"I want us to be closer and I want to be more open about my personal life," he wrote. "I am also sick of hiding who I am -- it's not fair to me or anyone else. If you haven't already guessed it, I am now ready to tell you that I am gay. I always have been. I am also gay! (happy)"

That letter, ironically, was dated Oct. 10, National Coming Out Day.

Mary Ellen Lapota of Rochester, N.Y., remembers how her son Jim told her. He said, "I'm lonely for a man." That was 13 years ago and Jim was a college sophomore, home for Thanksgiving vacation.

These and other Catholic parents have been changed by such announcements. They have listened and learned from their gay children's coming-out stories and have started sharing their experiences with others.

Nationwide, more and more parents keep joining their ranks, from families both conservative and liberal, from California to North Carolina, from Indiana to New York, from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts. As parents groups grow, in some areas so has church attention to the needs of gays and lesbians.

"I've really been transformed in very positive ways," said South Bend, Ind., resident Nancy Mascotte, whose son Carl came out to her about 10 years ago when he was a sophomore in college. The conversation occurred as the two were driving along. "I stopped the car and immediately started crying," Nancy recalled during a recent telephone interview. Mascotte used the phrase grief reaction to describe her shock, sadness, fear and hurt following his disclosure.

In interviews with a dozen Catholic mothers and fathers, nearly all of them describe coming to terms with a child's homosexual orientation as a gradual process and an emotionally painful and wrenching experience. The process itself seems to share characteristics with the six stages of death described in Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' 1969 classic bestseller On Death and Dying: denial, isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

The denial stage may have been evident in the questions asked by Casey Lapota, Mary Ellen's husband, when their oldest son came out to him. "Are you sure? Is this something that can change?" he asked.

All three agreed it was Jim's responsibility to tell the rest of the family. He soon told his younger brother and sister and later his youngest brother. Eventually he told the extended family, including grandparents, aunts and uncles.

"It was a shock but not a surprise," said Mary Ellen. "Jim was the first gay person we ever knew. That was probably a good thing, because any negative stereotypes we had absorbed from society were just turned around. If this is what gay is, then gay isn't what the world is saying, because this is a good young man.

"So we accepted Jim without much question at all. Not that there weren't a lot of tears on my part and a lot of questions. But it was never a question of rejecting Jim. It was a question of reconciling what you thought you knew with what reality is," she said.

During the interview, Mary Ellen recalled the profound isolation she endured. "It took us a long time as parents to come out. With the exception of a priest and nun, whom Jim had talked to, it took me three years to tell anyone. I wanted to be in a place where I could answer people's questions with confidence and not take things too personally. In coming out as a parent, one of my greatest fears -- especially in those initial times when I told people -- was pity. I didn't want their pity. So I had to get to a place where I knew that I didn't deserve their pity," she said.

First, the best friend

Mary Ellen told her best friend first. "She was great and that was good. People get quiet, but no one -- none of our friends or acquaintances have been negative. I can't remember a bad reaction," she said.

The Lapotas are now totally candid. "We just don't care anymore who knows," Mary Ellen said.

The anger parents feel is directed mostly at society and the church, at the latter for "what it's saying and not saying," said Charles Connors of Boston, the father of a gay son. Connors recalled how his anger bubbled up during a conversation with his parish priest, who reminded him of official church teaching on homosexuality.

That teaching, stated in the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church, demands abstinence from sexual activity: "Homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. ... They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved."

The Catechism also states that homosexual persons "must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided."

"Of course I know the church's g-- d--- position," Connors recalled snapping back. "I probably never bought it anyway, but now I definitely don't buy it. I don't think there's any place where Jesus is telling a parent to make a choice between his kid or the church. That's ludicrous. If anybody believes that, then there's something wrong with him," he said.

Connors' son, Mark, has been in a stable same-sex relationship for seven years. One of five children, he came out to his parents five years ago.

The mother of a lesbian daughter, who lives in the South and asked that her name not be used, described the bargaining and depression that can accompany finding out a child is gay. "I lived for a long time with feelings of guilt and regret. I languished in the syndrome of 'love the sinner, but hate the sin,' and yet I couldn't see [my daughter] as a sinner!" Her daughter, too, is in a committed relationship.

For the parents interviewed, the shame and shock eventually gave way to the final stage, love and acceptance. Sometimes the transition took a couple of years. For some it took as long as 10 years.

Connors described what he now feels for his son as unconditional love. Along the same line, Nancy Mascotte said, "I don't want to love him despite his homosexuality. I want to embrace him as a homosexual person."

It's not only official teaching that rankles these Catholic parents, but also the reluctance of the church to provide pastoral ministry and support for parents and families with gay children. "I've served the church all my life," said one parent. "Now I need help, and the church has nothing to offer."

The parents said some officials at both the parish and diocesan levels have been slow or even refuse to act.

On the other hand, Marge Mayer, who wrote a letter in 1991 to Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony about the need for outreach to gay and lesbian Catholics, now works as an administrative assistant in the archdiocese's Ministry with Lesbian and Gay Catholics. Recently, Mayer and her husband, Bob, who have five children, founded a Catholic parents' group under archdiocesan auspices.

One sign of the growing attention to gay and lesbian Catholics was the Fourth Annual Conference of the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Ministries held recently in Los Angeles.

In 1996 on the other side of the country, Casey and Mary Ellen Lapota founded the Catholic Gay & Lesbian Family Ministry on behalf of the Rochester, N.Y., diocese. From their experience, the Lapotas agree that breaking silence -- not only in the parishes but also throughout the diocese -- is an important step to take. That "silence around homosexuality is devastating," said Mary Ellen.

If the institution has been sluggish, some Catholic parents have taken direct action. Some of them bring to their ministry and activism unlikely backgrounds. Jean Proia of Canton, Mass., and her husband, Sonny, are a case in point. A pro-life activist, arrested three times for participation in Operation Rescue protests, Jean Proia fits the profile of a conservative Catholic. A product of 13 years of parochial school education and deeply committed to her faith, she has served in the church all her life, currently as director of volunteers at St. Francis Chapel and City Ministry in Providence, R.I.

For the past 18 years, both Proias have participated in the Charismatic Renewal movement. Jean, when she learned of her son Mark's homosexuality, set out on yet another spiritual journey. "Something led me there that day -- a mother's intuition," she said, recalling the Chippendale T-shirt and fliers for P-FLAG she found while cleaning her 17-year-old son's room. P-FLAG, or Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, based in Washington, is a national organization for families with gay members.

In those days, Mark was a student in all-male Xaverian High School, a Franciscan school in Westwood, Mass. She recalled Fr. Gregory, Mark's spiritual director, telling her, "Your concept of who God is is going to change. [Having a gay son] is either a blessing or a curse."

Jean Proia recalled, "I knew it wasn't a curse. Yet I wondered how God was going to look to me."

In hindsight, she said, "my husband and I have changed radically -- emotionally and spiritually. We had tunnel vision before. Now we have a fuller scope, wider vision. And we know that Jesus came for the people, not the [church] structure," she said.

Catholic parents wrestle with the same issues and questions as non-Catholics. Is homosexuality a choice? A sin? Unnatural? What did I do to cause it? Can my child be gay and Christian? And for Catholic parents, the companion questions: Can my child be gay and Catholic? Can she still go to church?

Finding out that homosexuality was not a choice made acceptance a lot easier, both fathers and mothers said during the interviews. "That was the intellectual turning point for me," said the Pennsylvania mother of a gay son.

Sr. Jeannine Gramick and Fr. Robert Nugent, who have been ministering to gay and lesbian Catholics for at least two decades, agree that mothers, generally speaking, seem to come to an acceptance more quickly, while fathers are more hesitant.

Gramick and Nugent founded New Ways Ministry in 1977, a Maryland-based national Catholic resource center promoting reconciliation and justice for gays and the church.

For some fathers, Charles Connors said, sex is a problem. "That's an uncomfortable issue for a lot of guys -- always in the back of most guys' heads. But for some of us, the kids don't assume their parents are sexually active and the parents don't assume their kids are sexually active either. A little Irish way to solve that problem," he said.

The main concerns for Connors were gay-bashing and discrimination. "I thought about the people out there who would hate Mark without really knowing him or who would hurt him just because of who he is," he said.

For Jean Proia, the overriding question was spiritual: "Is my Mark going to hell? Because that's what we were taught in church and that's all I knew about gays," she said.

"I wanted to know what the Catholic church said. I wanted to know if there were any people in the church who were saying something different. So I started searching and reading."

One of the first books Proia read was Challenge to Love: Gay and Lesbian Catholics in the Church by Gramick and Nugent.

Gramick and Nugent invited the Proias to a weekend retreat for 55 Catholic parents in Stamford, Conn., in October of 1995.

"On Friday night people ran to the microphone to share stories. We cried all night long. It was wonderful, and the ones who cried the most were the men," Proia said.

From that experience, she helped found the Catholic Parents Network, a nationwide association of Catholic parents of gay and lesbian children. CPN is not a membership organization, but parents may submit their names for a confidential mailing list, she said.

Diocesan ministries

The National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian & Gay Ministries, founded in 1994, also meets the needs of parents with gay and lesbian children. The association serves as a clearing-house of information for people providing ministerial services. More than 30 U.S. dioceses have established ministries with lesbian and gay Catholics and their families, according to Fr. James Schexnayder, of Oakland, Calif., who serves as the organization's president.

Some supporting ministries, while presenting the full, authentic church teaching on homosexuality, do not push mandatory chastity or celibacy.

By contrast, other ministries take a more orthodox approach, emphasizing the immorality of homosexual acts. Endorsed by the Vatican, a ministry called Courage supports both men and women striving to live in accord with official church teaching, while the group Encourage offers a support system to parents and other family members of those who have "homosexual inclinations."

Twenty dioceses in the United States offer the Courage ministry, which provides spiritual direction, fosters fellowship, stresses chaste friendships as necessary for celibate Christian living and provides role models, according to Fr. John Harvey of New York City, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales and founder of the Courage movement. The Courage ministry broadened its scope, adding Encourage during the last five years, he said.

Encourage helps parents "stand by the principles of faith and -- the best they can -- relate to their sons and daughters. The parents are not going to approve the lifestyle," Harvey said in an interview.

According to its promotional literature Courage believes "homosexuality is not the work of God -- nor is it usually a person's choice -- it is an aspect of an arrested sexual development resulting from no one simple factor. This arrested development will disorder a person's normal sexual feelings. For those who really want it, reparative growth is a possibility and happens regularly."

According to Harvey, reparative or conversion therapy seeks to help people alter their sexual orientation and exit the "homosexual condition."

Harvey said, "No one may be morally required to come out of the condition. One should proceed with great caution. There's no guarantee that you'll make it despite your best efforts. But I've personally watched four people come out of the condition" during his 40 years of involvement with the ministry.

Still, Courage's approach and philosophy seems out of sync with some documents released from Rome. The Vatican does not always use stark and negative terminology to discuss homosexuality, nor has the Holy See yet endorsed trying to change one's sexual orientation.

More than 20 years ago, for example, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a statement based on insights of modern science. "According to contemporary scientific research, the human person is so profoundly affected by sexuality that it must be considered as one of the factors that give to each individual's life the principal traits that distinguish it."

Part of personality

According to Gramick, "That was the first time the Vatican talked about homosexuality in terms other than sexual behavior. It recognized that a homosexual orientation is a part of a person's personality, broadening the teaching from [sexual] activity to orientation."

But then came Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's 1986 "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons." The letter stated, "Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered to an intrinsic moral evil, and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder."

The letter also stated, "It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the church's pastors wherever it occurs. ... The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in work, in action and in law."

That 1986 letter, more than any document, rankles Catholic parents with its apparently contradictory references to "intrinsic moral evil" and "intrinsic dignity."

"That drives me crazy," says Proia. "so I don't pay it any attention. I know my son. I know who he is, how he was brought up. ... I know that he has a personal relationship with the Lord. How can he -- and all the other gay people I know -- be what the church says. That's not who Mark is."

Connors said, "It's my church, too. There's nothing wrong with these kids. They're fine. It's the church that's wrong. I can't find any logical argument that causes me to pause."

Meanwhile, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops is set to issue a pastoral letter to parents who have learned that their children are gay. It is tentatively titled "Always Our Children." Three years in the works, the document may be ready for release at the end of the year, pending the review and consultation process, according to Richard McCord, the conference's associate director of the Secretariat for Family, Laity, Women and Youth.

"It's meant to be an outreach, primarily to parents, to try to help them and other family members understand what the catechism says in a very short sentence, that homosexual persons are to be accepted with 'respect, compassion, and sensitivity,' " he said.

But those qualities in practice mean different things to different people, especially to Catholic parents, many of whom want their gay children to find someone, settle down and be happy -- the same hope they have for their non-gay children.

"God calls people to love," Proia says. "If Mark came home or called and said, 'Ma, I found someone I really love and want to spend my life with,' I'd say, 'Mark, you have my blessing.' How can you deny someone's loving someone? Why? And how can I say, 'No, Mark, you have to be celibate because you're gay?' "

A North Carolina mother of a lesbian is more emphatic. In a personal essay for Bondings, a newsletter of New Ways Ministry, she wrote, "Personally, I look upon all sexual excesses such as lust, rape, promiscuity and pedophilia as serious moral abuses of a God-given gift. However, I can no longer accept as 'sinful' a committed relationship between two people of same or different gender who are seeking fulfillment in their lives through love, intimacy and companionship.

"I see that as their God-given right, as they live out their lives and destinies in union with God and one another according to God's plan for them. I cannot believe that he would place any restrictions on the gays he so lovingly creates, taking away their free will in effect by expecting them to remain celibate."

Catholic parents like these have resolved to stay and fight for their children. "My husband and I love the church. I am very involved in it. I'm not leaving and I'm not going away," says Proia. "I'm going to educate people one-on-one. That's how you make change and be there for other parents."

National Catholic Reporter, September 19, 1997