Recently I had the opportunity to review the names and addresses of people who subscribe to Matike magazine. Some I know to be gay men or lesbians. Sometimes where there were two entries with the same surname I could guess they were of parents and children. Many other subscribers are obviously employed in church ministry in one form or another. Some of these I know to be supporters. Some have obviously subscribed to keep tabs on what we, the opposition, are up to. Each has different needs and expectations from Matike. In the past I have had in mind readers such as myself, starved of information for and about people like me, gay and Christian. But it's obvious that not all our subscribers are gay or lesbian, though I suppose all are Christian. What, then, can the magazine offer to interest the others?
Something special for me about the 1990s has been the flood of books which have been published for gay and lesbian readers. Most recently there have been a number focussing on the plight of our families. I have recently read four written by parents who have gone from the shock and dismay of discovering that one of their children was homosexual to becoming movers and shakers in P-FLAG - a support group for parents, family and friends of lesbians and gays.
Many parents pass through a process quite similar to mourning the loss of a family member. In fact they do experience a type of death - that of a set of important parental images and expectations, including visions of grandchildren and of a respectable and respected future for their child. Healing, as after an actual death, proceeds at different paces for different people, and is marked by disbelief, denial, grief and anger, and ending for most in acceptance. But unlike the death of a loved one, this trauma can't be shared. Friends and neighbours don't bear solace to the family hearth. (God forbid they should even know!) Society provides no comforting rituals, no funerals or wakes.I remember my own coming out to my parents more than 30 years ago. I had several years to prepare for the event but for my parents it was a shock. Both assured me of their continuing love for me. My father said it made no difference to his feelings for me and, to the day he died, it never seemed to. He totally affirmed me and my partner Malcolm. For my mother it was the start of a long journey to the position she now holds, of acceptance and as a champion of gay and lesbian rights in both church and society. I wish they hadn't had to become involved in this issue. I didn't choose it and neither did they. But I am immensely proud of them both, and grateful for their willingness to travel this journey with me.
For Malcolm it has been different. His parents know but don't want to talk about it. They are in the "denial" stage. It's the same with his sister, another Pentecostal Christian. And we are fortunate. Many of our friends have yet to share their lives with their immediate families. It seems an enormous price to pay for both the children and their parents.
This November was the third anniversary of the death of a wonderful young friend of ours. At the time he died he had recently come out to his parents and was seeking their approval. It seems he expected too much of them at that moment, and perhaps it was his impatience which ended his life. (There were other contributing factors.)
The books I have just been reading had yet to be published. Terry Stewart's Invisible Families might have helped, but was declined by his parents. We held them responsible. Perhaps that was unfair. To whom could they have turned for help? As it happens we know people in their district who could have helped, but there was no obvious way for them to have linked up.
An exciting development for those of us who seek to be "reconciling" is the establishment of a network of parents, family, and friends of gay and lesbian people, P-FLAG. This has the potential to make a significant difference both to the individuals directly involved and to society in general. For as family and friends become comfortable and supportive they will gain the courage to challenge homophobia, be it in the church or within the wider community.
One remarkable aspect of the stories of parents who have moved through the stages of "coming out", from denial to full support, is their conviction that the experience has been immensely enriching. It has challenged their easy acceptance of the "truths" of their upbringing, and resulted in a new and authentic basis for their lives. The process of understanding their gay and lesbian children and working through society's attitudes toward homosexuality has given the parents new insights on which to base their own philosophy of life and, for churchgoers, often a new theology as well.
If we take the conservative churches' reluctant admission of 2 percent of our population having a homosexual orientation we are talking about maybe 70,000 people. Each of us has two parents, four grandparents, and probably a brother or sister. That suggests that at least 500,000 New Zealanders are potentially involved in this process. If we take the Kinsey figure of 10 percent that personal involvement is around two million. Either way, it seems a lot of people for the Church to leave to struggle in silence without appropriate support.
Many parents are unable to talk to anyone about their gay son or lesbian daughter. For some who have joined P-FLAG the first time they share their secret is often a highly emotional event, only possible with the support and understanding of others who know this moment from their own experience.
Information regarding P-FLAG is readily available on the Internet. See, for example, the Melbourne P-FLAG site, which offers links to others. The organisation has created a huge resource of literature to enable groups to be established. I believe that for our Reconciling Congregations a valuable outreach would be the facilitation and support of P-FLAG groups in each of our communities. Since in many cases it is the Church which fosters homophobia, it would be appropriate for a group such as ours to put energy into countering the devastating results.
Euan Thomson, November 1997