“Here I am — this is me in my nakedness, with my wounds, my secret grief, my despair, my betrayal, my pain, which I can’t express, my terror, my abandonment. Oh, listen to me for a day, an hour, a moment, lest I expire in my terrible wilderness, my lonely silence. Oh God, is there no one to listen?”
Many of us know the tale of Persephone, in which the lord of the underworld, Hades, abducts the lovely young Greek goddess. Demeter, Persephone’s mother and goddess of marriage and of the harvest and who brings forth the fruits of the earth, shines her lamp into every shadowy corner of the world searching for Persephone. Soon, though, she despairs of ever seeing her daughter again. The crops and grass wither, cattle die, there is too much sun and too much rain. The people suffer and starve but still Demeter refuses to allow anything to grow until Persephone is returned to the light of the sun.
A lot of parents develop a kind of “Demeter Complex” when their children come out to them as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. These parents do not go through an ordinary, linear and ultimately healthy grieving process through which they would release their own preconceived expectations for their child’s identity and life-path and come out on the other end of grief accepting their child as she or he is. Instead they become so convinced that the “lord of the underworld” has subverted their baby that they become arrested at the anger or bargaining stages of their grieving process, unable to progress to acceptance and a healthy relationship with their son or daughter.
These are not just the parents who try to whip the evil out of their “sinful” kids, or turn them out into the streets. They’re also the ones who send their daughter ex-gay books as birthday gifts, force their teenager stand up in front of their church to confess his “abominable lust,” pack the youth off to military or parochial school, or blaming themselves, plunge into bargaining prayer, attempting to barter with the universe for their child’s soul. They are women and men locked into their suffering because they are afraid of change, and fear of change is at heart a fear of death. …
Of course, bad theology is the main reason our society inspires so many to rend their clothes, take up their lamps and follow Demeter’s lead. The mistaken notion that same-gender-loving orientation and gender diversity are inherently immoral and unholy, not to mention the popular idea that queers go to hell, is usually at the root of a Demeter Complex. From these parents’ point of view, forces of darkness and light are waging war for their child’s immortal soul, and their son or daughter’s homosexual orientation or expanding gender identity is proof that the forces of darkness are winning.
Marianne Williamson explains such thinking in her book of prayers, “Illuminata,” as a result of being “taught such lies as children, lies about God’s anger, His [sic] revenge and His judgment … We see such bastardization of His teachings all around us, more small-minded than enlightening, more controlling than liberating, posing as His arbiters yet clearly His obstructers.” Whatever one’s theology, it seems obvious that any path should be rejected that teaches one to inflict suffering on oneself and one’s child in the way so many parents of LGBT children do in the name of their God.
However such an argument, obvious though it may seem, will have little effect on the mind of a parent caught in a Demeter Complex. They are arrested and expecting them to change their entire worldview is a very faint hope. The best antibiotics to treat symptoms of bad theology are love, logic and correct exegesis of religious doctrine, but even when offered by experts they are frequently ineffective. Parents with a Demeter Complex can misperceive logical reasoning, scientific research and even sound spiritual teaching as agents of the same “evil” that suborned their child. Of course, such information must still be made readily available to them. At the same time, only a swelling of heart can heal such a twisting of mind.
The other Demeter
That’s why it’s so important for families and friends, but particularly parents, of LGBT people who have moved beyond any grief and into joy to adopt Demeter’s second symbolic aspect. The first face of Demeter is the face of Death, the heart of winter; in this case, the unfortunate parent arrested in a Demeter Complex. The second aspect, the one that PFLAG parents strive to embody, is the kindly face of a person who brings Life to an otherwise desolate world.
“The influence of a vital person vitalizes, there’s no doubt about it,” espouses Joseph Campbell in “The Power of Myth.” “People have the notion of saving the world by shifting things around, changing the rules, and who’s on top, and so forth. No, no! Any world is a valid world if it’s alive. The thing to do is to bring life to it, and the only way to do that is to find in your own case where the life is and become alive yourself.”
For parents with queer kids, that moment during the grief process when you wake up and come back alive to yourself is like the eruption of spring after winter; that moment holds the third aspect of Demeter, Rebirth, that it is sometimes possible to midwife other parents into.
One way that PFLAG parents who have been through the grieving process can help parents with Demeter Complexes is to share their personal stories. Sometimes those stories are tragedies, like Mary Lou and Bob Wallner’s account in Celebrating the Rainbow of losing their lesbian daughter to suicide. Sometimes they are inspiring, like the affirming journey Patti and Jeff Ellis took coming to terms with their son’s sexual orientation and now operate a Web site called Family Acceptance. Suggesting that suffering parents read resources like these may lead some people to healing.
At the same time, a more effective method continues to be person-to-person contact, dialogue and listening. Directly and personally sharing information and testaments of hope with parents caught in a Demeter Complex can give them faith in a future not so full of pain and separation, and offers them a safe and supportive space to learn and grow. Sometimes hard truths can only be heard coming from a stranger, a peer; a person who’s been there and knows what it’s like. Someone who can step in and help excavate the one who is truly trapped in darkness: the parent with a Demeter Complex.
The mysteries of silence
In the ancient myth, it is Zeus who intervenes at Demeter’s beseeching and orders Hades to release Persephone. Unfortunately, Hades tricks his young captive into sucking the pulp from some pomegranate seeds, and that act binds her to his realm for half of the year. While Persephone is in the underworld each year, Demeter does not allow the earth to flourish, and autumn and then winter overtake the world.
When the world within them where they still cling to old dreams for their children is failing, we cannot tell parents with Demeter Complexes to deny what they’re feeling. We can’t browbeat them with correct and helpful information, urge them to “look on the bright side” or to stop expressing their painful and confusing feelings without pressuring them to hide or deny those emotions. Instead, we must know when to speak and when to be silent.
There is a time for teaching and storytelling and a time for listening, and we must be adept at discerning the difference. Many times parents just need a peacemaker who is willing and able to hear them, to really hear them, deeply and respectfully, even when they’re wrong. Or rather, their thoughts about their child’s gender identity or sexual orientation may be wrong. Their emotions, of course, must be honored as their own deep truth even though they may be conflicting and stressful.
It’s easy to listen to people with whom we agree. It’s when we are called to listen to those we disagree with that it gets challenging. “The fundamental premise of compassionate listening is that every party to a conflict is suffering, that every act of violence [physical, verbal, or spiritual] comes from an unhealed wound,” Leah Green of the MidEast Citizen Diplomacy’s Compassionate Listening Project writes in the Winter 2002 issue of YES! Magazine. “What we’re doing is creating an environment conducive to peace-building through deep, empathic listening … We work to see through any masks of fear or hostility to the sacredness of each individual.”
If PFLAG parents engage in such peacemaking in other families, it’s vital that everyone involved, parents and children, feel valued, needed, understood and affirmed. The temptation to sweep in like Zeus and pontificate can be strong. Things might’ve turned out differently for Persephone if Zeus had taken the time to compassionately listen to Hades’ side of the story and had heard about the lord of the underworld’s long loneliness or found out that Hades had been ambushed into love by Cupid’s arrow.
In the peacemaking process, both Demeter Complexed parents and BTLG child need to be able to express their thoughts and feelings. Part of the strength of allowing both sides to participate is that the difference between thoughts and feelings becomes clear. A parent, for example, may have negative thoughts about her daughter’s bisexuality even though her feelings for her daughter are all loving and caring. What a realization for her daughter, who had felt so rejected and unloved by her mother! Perhaps a new, healthier relationship can be constructed on the foundation of those loving feelings, instead of letting judgmental thoughts tear their relationship apart.
After all, even mythical Demeter never really completes the grieving process; her daughter actually returns to her from the underworld. Still, the Persephone that emerges from the depths is not the innocent child who spilled her flowers and cried when she was kidnapped. Persephone at the end of the story is both grown woman and queen.
For the sake of all the families torn apart over sexual orientation and gender identity, and in the name of the Beloved Community we’re creating in which no parent will ever grieve because their child is queer, once you’ve finished grieving and fully affirm your LGBT friend or relative, reverse your mythic identification. Become Demeter the life-bringer instead of the withered mother of winter, and help other families grow back together and be reborn.
Once you’ve emerged from Hades into the sunlight, get prepared to turn around and go back for the others by educating yourself about love, logic, correct exegesis, storytelling and compassionate listening. Then you are called to reenter other parents’ caves of arrested grief, not just in PFLAG meetings, since most “Demeters” will never come to one, but making yourself available whenever and wherever you’re needed. Invite pleas for help from LTBG people in your community who are having difficulty with their parents, and be ready to help their families reconcile. You bring with you the lamp of your success and the nascent Phoenix of peacemaking. Lay out your story like a glowing thread, marking a way through grief’s labyrinth to the surface.
Michigan native, author and activist Clayton Gibson wrote Shirt of Flame: The Secret Gay Art of War under the pen name Ko Imani and is the creator of MyOutSpirit.com and founder of QWELL Community Foundation in Austin, Texas.