What Religion Is This That Loves But Does Not Love?

As a gay activist and son, I finally, openly reflect on my mother’s inability, after 15 years, to escape her homophobic religious surroundings in which my father, her husband who is a lay-pastor, dominates her life, manipulating her landscape through the grid of his own dreaded, hidden, secret homoerotic feelings.

Yesterday my mother refused to speak with me on the phone when I called her on my birthday. All she could say, in a soft-spoken voice, was “OK” to each of my several awkward small-talk comments. Then she said “I love you, I always have,” and hung up. In 15 years times – since I came out and entered into a same-sex union with my lover in 1997 – my mother and I have spoken perhaps 5 or 6 times.

I wish she could see this present-day, 2013, video of a Parsippany, NJ, high school student coming out to his classmates and suddenly realize, like an epiphany, that we gays – by virtue of our omnipresence, if nothing else – are not sinners from whom to separate. Ostracism is one of the worst forms of abuse a person can suffer, so psychologists tell us. We gays are people to love just as we are, not off-spring to disown and disassociate from, to discharge as if suddenly we become still-born when publicly coming out as gay.

I don’t know why God made me this way … but I am … and I wish they could all love me unconditionally (just as they once did): That my parents and my children and my college friends from Bible college and seminary days, and my former clergy peers and church friends since my childhood, and my ex-wife (who knew before we married), — that they could all love me now, love me still.

God is my witness: I did not choose this! So, I will live it with gusto and thanksgiving, honoring the God who blesses me with it.

Yes, I am gay and I am blessed with a husband of 15 years who holds me in his arms at the end of each day and is lovingly, passionately dedicated to our union. I hurt. He loves me, oh so tenderly, when I hurt. With sympathetic eyes, he looks deep into mine while holding me.

They – my (former) family, (former) friends and (former pastor) associates – are missing out on some of the greatest ventures and accomplishments of my life. I miss them, but I cannot go back. I pray they will, with love and affirmation, at long last step into the light with me, and embrace me, and rejoice in God’s creative diversity – so obviously, universally attested to.

“I love you, I always have,” my mother said as she silently hung up the phone, shutting me out of her life again. How sad that she cannot live the love she testifies of: the love for her first-born, a love she keeps swallowed up in her breast. What religion is this that loves but does not love?

I live the love I know, the love I have, the gay-love God has given me that I, too, should live to the fullest. The moment is mine, it belongs to those who love. I’m gay. I love. I’m present. I’m alive.

It is my mother who is still-born, tethered to a by-gone, man-made church-based heterosexist moralistic era from which she cannot now escape, forever closed-off to her son, knowing only the heart-beat of her own lonely heart, making the choice to never see, or hear from, her son.

She hurts.

And who is he who loves her, my mother, oh so tenderly, when she hurts; who with sympathetic eyes looks deep into her own? It is my father, who late in life became a popular lay Baptist pastor in Central New York, who became enamored with a new found prestige and power, who when I said, as a married adult with four children, that “I must tell my mother I’m gay because someone who loves me must know,” said to me, grabbing my throat with both his hands and raising me bodily two inches completely off the floor by the strength of his rage, “I will kill you if you tell your mother.” It is he, my father, who comforts her, my mother, with goodly words like “Follow me as I follow God.”

A year or two will pass before I call again and say, as I did yesterday, “I just wanted to hear your voice, mom.” “OK,” she will manage to say. And just before hanging up, without the slightest hint that my one-way conversation with her is over, will whisper “I love you, I always have.” 

The phone will go dead and she will go on dying one day at a time, believing she is honoring God and honoring her husband by aborting, again, her mother-son relationship, believing she has made this holy choice of abortion on her own accord when in reality she is tethered. Tethered to an out-dated God who is majestically ascribed by some worshipers as “the same yesterday, today and forever,” misappropriating the sacred text to shield themselves from whatever changes in society or in life they cannot face.

It is my father who cannot face life as he knows it. He is a homophobe for reasons, he only knows, found deep in his dark heart. Reasons he attempts to hide from others. What is it that makes him especially hateful towards gays that he would say to his own son “I will take a bat to your head if you attend your grandmother’s funeral?” or “All gays should be taken out and hung,” or “Your ten-year old son should never see you, or your partner, again – what all gays ever do is molest minors,” or “If you ever tell your mother you are gay I will kill you,” or “I’ve told your children [ages 10 and 16] what kind of deviant, pervert you are, and I am not sorry for having told them.”

Such hateful statements are as telling as they are hurtful.

Many argue that such hatred for gays is really a hatred of self because of one’s own homoerotic feelings. It is not unthinkable that my father falls into this category: a self-hating closeted bisexual or gay man. His refusal to attend his granddaughter’s wedding (on the basis that it would amount to adultery, being her second marriage); his refusal to be his brother’s best man (same reason, a second marriage and therefore legalized adultery); his refusal to acknowledge a shower for his new-born grandchild (because the live-together parents had not yet decided to be wedded and so they are, therefore, living in fornication); and his insistence that his grandchildren should separate from the man their sibling sister was to marry because he was outside of the faith, all point to a hyper vigilance, and in most cases to a hyper vigilance for moral or sexual purity.

It is not hard to see how my father’s hyper vigilance for sexual purity and his open hatred for gay men may indicate a preoccupation with unwanted homoerotic feelings.

One of the most telling accounts of my father’s fear of his homoerotic feelings is this: When I was in seminary studying to become a pastor, my father – much to my surprise – became a lay pastor (as I stated above). This was in the early 1980s. He was in his late 40s. He had no education beyond high school, no formal training in Bible or counseling. I was about to be married. He wanted to give me some father-to-son, pastor-to-pastor, advice about the marriage bed. He told me this: “Let me tell you what I tell all the couples I counsel before marrying them. I tell them not to practice oral sex on the male partner for this reason. It will only increase the husband’s desire to look for more of the same outside of the marriage and he will find himself seeking out men who will provide the service.”

I was shocked to hear my father tell me he was giving this advice to couples he marries, that, in fact, according to him, the heterosexual marriage bed would, indeed, in this one case, foster desires on the part of the husband for same-sex sex.

How un-insightful, on the part of my father, to fail to know that, at this juncture of the counseling session, he was telling on himself! For all his hiding and hyper vigilance to keep his homoerotic feelings unseen and in tow, it was here in the counseling chambers of the pastor’s office that he completely, unwittingly, let his secret escape him, telling it to couple after couple.

So, yes, it is in this homophobic context that my mother squanders out the last days of her life, living in mindless religious isolation with her moralizing, parading, husband, separated forever from her gay son, tethered to a homophobic God who is made over in the image of the man who impregnates her with decades of his self-loathing, self-hating, because of his homoerotic feelings.

If time allows, and if I can muster it, I will phone her again months down the road, and she will quietly say as she prematurely hangs up the phone, “I love you, I always have,” while beseeching her asexual God to forgive her once more for having bestowed a mother’s love upon a despicable, God-forsaken son.

I will hear her words of love; I will be thankful for it; yet I will always carry an amount of sadness that life, in her case – in our case, could not be lived to the fullest as parent-child as God had intended when he created family.

Although my father’s homophobia overshadows and beclouds my mother’s ability to clear her head and think, there are her own long- standing, debilitating fears that play into my father’s homophobic disdain for his son.

From what I know of her puritanical lecturing over the years, this must be added: it would appear that my mother’s mother-son miscarriage is due, in part, to an irrational fear she has ofsexual misconduct occurring in others, especially in others close to her. She spoke of this repeatedly, in one form or another, over the years.

So now, when you tie religion into all of this, you have both father and mother, man and woman, paralyzed before a wrathful Edenic God who created humankind as sexual being sand who, subsequently, sent them out of the garden because of their disobedience. Sex, God and their complex, internalized fears, all tied to gather, complicating their relationships with others.

My parents always were their own, unscripted, abiding moral guides. The father, homophobic, forming his world and life view during the McCarthy era, was very much guarded – obviously so – as to what is and what is not masculine in himself and in his two sons. The mother, truly doomsday shocked, since the ’50s and Elizabeth Taylor and Alfred Kinsey, at the new norms society was forging and re-forging, became the house spokesperson in the sex-revolution ’60s for moral awareness, for what is sexually right and wrong.

Now enter their seminary graduate, preacher-boy son, father of four, divorcing his wife, openly gay, openly celebrating his new-found same- sex lover.

My parents immediately resolved, without discussion or further thought, and as a matter of course, due to their good Christian character (rooted in their irrational respective sex-laden fears), to never accept their son again, to never see him, to never talk with him, to never acknowledge him. He is, after all, what they each fear most: sexual misconduct in others(my mother)and dreaded homoerotic feelings (my father).

A pervasive, long standing fear, or any negative emotion that rules us, is a hard task-master, crippling our ability to freely love ourselves and others. That was and is my parents. Throw in religion, and now you have my parents unknowingly disguising themselves from themselves, preventing themselves from seeing themselves.

It brings me some comfort, however, to know that, while they are not able to love me, neither are they able to love other people like me, including other immediate family members, who openly cast off traditional moral values. Such people with “immoral life styles” bring my parents too close to their own gripping fear that their own marriage, or their own standing in religious society, could be compromised, some day, some way, at some unguarded moment.

My mother’s words, as important and as significant as they are to me, that “I love you, and I always have” fail to empower her to actually live in a loving relationship with her son, her fear of sexual misconduct in others overpowering whatever feelings she may have for her son.

She must address her gripping fears, along with her husband’s fear of the homoerotic, and only then, I feel, will she free herself to openly love me unconditionally and others like me who do not adopt her moral values as their own.

My husband and I, we would, of course, welcome unconditional love from my mother and father, but with every passing year it seems less likely, especially knowing that religion, in their case, is their enabler, that is to say, their brand of religion permits them, encourages them, reinforces them, celebrates them in their resolve to disown their son and his partner and others like us, gay or straight, who compromise my parents’ standard of moral integrity.

Essentially, it is their kind of religion that leaves them little to no room for self-reflection or self-analysis as to what are the other factors, rather than their religious code, that may be pushing them towards cutting off all dealings with significant others. It is their sort of religion that leaves them with no ability to adapt to society’s changes around them, so that to say “I love you, I always have” is, sadly, a window to the past, a lamentation of what once was, a polite way to say “This is the parting of our ways.”