Out of the Closet: Straight Clergy With Gay Family Members

Many straight Episcopal clergy and their spouses with gay family members aren’t all that surprised by what they see going on in the Anglican Communion these days. Members of Clergy Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (CFLAG) see the church behaving as many families do when a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) family member comes out. We know what that’s like, because we are their parents, siblings, cousins, grandparents, and spouses.

So where are the family voices in all the controversy over Bishop Gene Robinson’s consecration?

Approximately one in five straight people in the church — and throughout humanity — has a family member who is not heterosexual. The struggle to keep families together after someone comes out is very real and personal for us. Likewise, the church’s difficulties over Bishop Robinson’s consecration and its consequences for the Anglican Communion are not abstract issues for us. In Gene, we see our children and other gay family members so long marginalized by the church. Our own theological reasoning on matters of sexual orientation is informed by the realities of our families and founded on scripture. It goes to the very heart of our experiences of God.

God works with us through the difficult process of listening, understanding, accepting and embracing the LGBT people we love and reconciling our love for them with all we have assumed and been taught about people who are not heterosexual. That process is not pretty. We are all too familiar with it as it plays out across families.

Family members respond in many different ways to the news that someone in the family is gay. Some suspect the truth before it’s revealed and prepare themselves for the news. Some don’t pay attention until the person comes out, but love leads them to listen deeply to the experience of those they love. Some are so profoundly upset by the news that they talk of cutting the cord to the family member who has strayed from the acceptable path.

For virtually all families in a world that still denies the full humanity of people who are not heterosexual, coming to terms with a gay or lesbian family member is a process that takes time. Some families work through the process fairly quickly and find their faith and love expanded and strengthened. Others get stuck somewhere along the way and live with the pain of damaged or completely broken relationships.

Wherever they end up, families go through predictable stages on this journey. Now we are seeing these stages played out in the church at large.

First comes the “if I don’t look, it will go away” phase that many families experience before someone comes out. Since the Lambeth 1978 statement that “We recognize the need for deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality,” and the 1998 statement that “We commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons,” plus General Convention’s many directives to do so over three decades, many have failed to study or listen, both in the Episcopal Church and in the wider Communion.

We are not surprised. In families, the reality of homosexuality does not, literally, come home until someone we love comes out. In the church, the reality did not come home until we consecrated an “out” gay bishop. Now, denying that gay and lesbian clergy are members of the worldwide church family is impossible.

After the consecration, we saw a second stage familiar to families: shock. Typical responses include, “Where did we go wrong?”; “What will people think?”; “This is the worst thing you could have done to our family”; and the most reactive, “Oh my God, my son is gay! It’s all about ME!” Now we hear these responses in the church.

The Episcopal Church is now in a place very familiar to LGBT people and their families. In this stage, the family makes it very clear that they are not really welcome at home, especially if they’re going to be gay while they’re there. The Windsor Report’s suggestion that we be careful which meetings Bishop Robinson attends reminds us of families who tell their gay children, “We really do love you, but please don’t bring your boyfriend home for Christmas. It makes everyone so uncomfortable!”

With the primates’ recent request that ECUSA withdraw from Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) meetings for the next three years, it’s no longer just our gay bishop, but our representatives on the ACC who are supposed to stay away for awhile. The message is, “You’ve upset us greatly, so please just stay in New York or San Francisco and spare us the details.” (At least we are invited to make our case to the ACC. But the June hearing also brings to mind the terrible justifications our children so often feel burdened to produce just for being born. We hope ACC members are prepared to lay aside their assumptions about theology and scripture and listen with their hearts.)

While being told to stay away is extremely painful for those excluded, it’s actually the family that pays the biggest price. When we banish our children, we cut ourselves off from the many gifts our LGBT loved ones have to bring our families, most importantly the gift of themselves. Some parents literally stop having any knowledge of or involvement in their children’s lives. Gay people go on to create new families and lives in their community of friends. While carrying the scars of rejection, so often they are amazingly resilient.

But what a horrific loss their families of origin have brought upon themselves. This is precisely what the Anglican Communion is in danger of doing to itself. Now we Episcopalians find ourselves in the sad and frightening place that so many LGBT people have known in their families and in the church. For those of us with gay family members, the church today offers us a chance to experience solidarity with those we love; we are given a taste of their much more extended and deep suffering.

Some families that cut themselves off from their LGBT family members eventually realize how much they’ve lost and start to come around. The transformation we’ve seen in our own and other families gives us hope that the church can move through this painful process, come to its senses, and let God’s grace do its healing work. The straight spouses of gay and lesbian people in our clergy network go through a different, invariably painful process, often leading to divorce. Their perspective on the church’s struggle is especially moving. One of our straight spouse members speaks of the church’s need to look at how the larger family remains family, even when members are drawn in different directions. Here, Gene Robinson and Isabella McDaniel have set a remarkable example by the way they and their children have remained a family in the most generous sense of the word.

As the church family processes the reality that an estimated 4.5 million LGBT people are members of the Anglican Communion and untold numbers are ordained, those of us who are both clergy leaders and straight family members have experience the church can use. There are thousands of us in the Episcopal Church alone. Many of us have discovered what a great gift LGBT people are to our families and to the church, and we are coming out of the closet.