Dear Ask Mormon Girl:
I grew up in a conservative Mormon home in a small rural town of southern Idaho. I am also gay. After serving a mission in Russia and graduating from BYU, I am now attending a graduate school in the Bay Area. I stopped attending church within the last few years and now consider myself agnostic or atheist (depending on the day). Without going into details about my transition out of the church—which is rather complicated—I think it is sufficient to say that I am very happy with the path in life I have chosen.
While I am at peace with myself and happy with the relationship I am in, I find it difficult, as a non-Mormon (or post-Mormon) interacting with my devout Mormon family. I have to give my family credit for still loving and accepting me and how well they have adjusted. I think they generally understand that being gay was never a choice I made and not something any of us can change. I see that they also want me to be happy but I am unsure how they feel about my relationship and lifestyle.
I generally try really hard to respect my family’s religious beliefs and hope for the same in return. Recently, while traveling with my brother I was waiting for a very early morning flight. I stopped to get breakfast and without thinking bought coffee. My brother was deeply offended. Several days later, my parents called requesting that I do not drink coffee in front of them because of its offensive nature. I understand that some behaviors may be offensive to them, but to what degree should I change my life to accommodate them?
I am personally a little uncomfortable going to church, reading scriptures, and having family prayer with them. I never refuse to do so because I do not want to cause drama. I now try to avoid situations where things like this are an issue, such as not visit my family on Sundays. I love my family very much and want to be close and involved in their lives, but what is the appropriate boundary between respect for their religious beliefs and compromising my lifestyle?
Thanks for writing. To start, let me say I can only imagine how much you’ve been through as a Mormon growing up gay in a predominantly LDS environment. You have likely carried a great deal of pain, loss, anger, and sadness over the years, and I am glad to hear you have established a path in life that is making you happy.
Your family too is wrestling with its own set of incredibly deep feelings. They are torn between the teachings of a Church that has given them their entire world and their love for their son. They are probably terrified that they will lose you for the eternities.
And now introduce into this potent emotional mix a cup of airport coffee. It was early in the morning. You didn’t mean to offend anyone. You just forgot in that bleary-eyed airport moment to “straighten up” or edit your life the way you’ve been editing it for so many years to protect them.
Please understand this: when your brother and parents reacted so strongly to the coffee, it was not entirely about a simple cup of coffee. In Mormonism, there is no such thing as a simple cup of coffee. For even though my Idaho-born LDS pioneer stock great-grandparents drank coffee (and perhaps yours did too) coffee has become in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries a major boundary marker between inside and out. When your parents reacted so strongly to your drinking a cup of coffee, they were probably sublimating or displacing onto the coffee their larger anxieties about you being gay.
Both you and your family are facing one of the most wrenching family situations in Mormon life. Many LDS parents reject or cut off their gay children entirely, and many gay Mormons find they cannot continue their relationships with their parents. But it sounds like you all are doing remarkably well. You are all trying to continue a loving relationship with each other while figuring out complicated new sets of boundaries. There will be rough patches, even mistakes.
I wish they hadn’t come down on you so hard for a simple cup of coffee. Heaven knows, you’ve carried a great deal of shame over the years, and your parents’ heavy-handed phone call may have brought up those old feelings. No one likes to feel that they have disappointed their parents. Everyone wants their parents to appreciate and understand them. But I think that in this instance you may have to be the one who extends the deeper understanding. Try to forgive them. Sooner, or later: it’s up to you.
Forgiveness, forgiveness, forgiveness. It is the greatest gift we can give one another. Try to put the heavy-handed phone call behind you. Continue to live your truths. Continue to find ways to relate with your family that spare you all as much drama as possible. We can’t change the cards we are dealt to play. We can only play them with as much grace, dignity, and love as possible.
Readers, what has your experience been with shame, disappointment, understanding, and forgiveness as adult children of LDS parents, or as adult parents of LDS children? What compassion and encouragement can you offer JM?
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