This Father’s Day post is by guest blogger, Casey Lopata, co-founder of Fortunate Families, with wife Mary Ellen, and the proud father of four children including Jim, who is gay.
This week, with Father’s Day approaching, I was thinking about other fathers who learn they have a gay son (or lesbian daughter). Would their journeys be like mine? Would they find theirs is a fortunate family?
“Dad, I’m gay.” In 1983, I was totally unprepared for those words from my son, Jim. After letting that sink in, all I was capable of was, “Are you sure?” [“Yes”], and “Can you change?” [“No”]. Knowing virtually nothing about homosexuality and not knowing any gay people (so I thought), I said something like, “OK.” And that ended the initial coming out conversation.
My knowledge of gay issues was limited. Sure, I must had read about events like the NYC Stonewall rebellion (1969), and Brian McNaught’s 1974 firing as a columnist for the Michigan Catholic newspaper because he had come out in an interview with the Detroit News. But my earliest personal experience having to do with homosexuality was at the original 1976 Call To Action conference in Detroit, convened by the U.S. bishops. I was having a great time traipsing through progressive exhibit booths motivated by the Vatican II spirit until I came upon a booth for an organization called “Dignity.” When I saw that it was about advocacy for gay and lesbian people, I instinctively and immediately detoured around it. Why?
I simply “knew” homosexuality was wrong. Period. No sin was worse than homosexuality. It was so wrong you couldn’t even talk about it. In hindsight, I realized I thought like this because of osmosis: negative Church and societal messages, overt and/or subliminal, reinforced by the silence surrounding homosexuality, had seeped into my mind.
This week, as I reflected on those attitudes I had in the late 1970s and early 1980s , I searched my files for clues as to what those messages actually were. I found a 1980’s gay alliance document that listed myths prevalent at the time, such as: homosexuality is unnatural and abnormal; homosexuals choose their orientation and are sick, promiscuous and child molesters; they recruit young people and want special rights; and, AIDS is a gay disease. Wow! I recall how prevalent such erroneous messages were.
I also found a 1975 Vatican document – the only one which specifically addressed homosexuality before 1986. It differentiated “transitory” from “incurable” homosexuality that was due to “some kind of innate instinct or a pathological constitution.” It concluded: “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and can in no way be approved” because they “lack an essential and indispensable finality” [i.e. non-procreative]. Also: “they are condemned as a serious depravity” in the Bible. Wow again!
Given that environment, it’s no wonder I automatically harbored such negative feelings. A 1995 poll said 89% of U.S. adults said they would be upset if they had a child who told them he was gay or lesbian. Today, a 2015 Pew Research poll says 57% say they would not be upset Thank God we’ve come a long way!
Despite the negative messages I’d absorbed, I also knew Jim was a wonderful son and a good person. How to reconcile those negative messages with these concrete facts about my son? Along with my apprehensions about Jim and his future, my primary concern was: Can Jim be gay and be Catholic?
So, I began to explore the genesis of my original questions to Jim: Are you sure and can you change? I tried to remember when I decided to be heterosexual. Of course, I never made such a decision, and Jim never decided to be homosexual. I learned that the American Psychological Association says “sexual orientation ranges along a continuum” and “both heterosexual behavior and homosexual behavior are normal aspects of human sexuality.” Even Church documents now support the unchosen, fixed nature of sexual orientation. The US Bishops’ Always Our Children summarizes it this way: “Generally, homosexual orientation is experienced as a given, not as something freely chosen.”
That’s when I realized feelings I had had as a boy for Annette Funicello (Mickey Mouse Club TV star) were okay and not a sin. Likewise Jim’s feelings for Spin or Marty (male stars on the show) while watching reruns were okay and not a sin. Learning Jim didn’t choose his homosexuality was a big step for me.
Recent polling found for the first time a majority of U.S. adults believe sexual orientation is not a choice. And the 2015 Pew Research poll says 60% of Americans do not think their orientation can be changed, up 18 points since 2003. Thankfully, fathers today get less negative messaging than I had.
I was also able to dispel some of the myths that I and many other Catholics have had about what the Church says about homosexuality and sin.” Specifically: 1) having a homosexual orientation (an integral part of who we are, not something we do) is not a sin, 2) homosexual acts are not necessarily a sin ( even if considered objectively wrong by the Church, an act is not a sin for a person who honestly believes it’s not wrong (for him or her) or who does it without full free will); and 3) in good conscience, if Jim believes physically expressing his orientation is right for him (even if considered objectively wrong) he not only has a right to do so, but he risks condemnation if he doesn’t follow his conscience. A fuller description of my learnings about Church teaching can be found by clicking here.
So, I had the answer to my major question. Jim can indeed be Catholic and gay, even, if in good conscience, he believes it’s right for him to have a same-sex relationship.
Of course, other questions popped up. But the bottom line for me for secular issues was that I learned gay and lesbian people are essentially the same as anyone else–as individuals, as couples, as parents–and there is no credible evidence to the contrary. In the religious realm the bottom line for me was that gay and lesbian people, like all of us, are created in God’s image and gifted with sexuality that’s an integral element of their human dignity.
In my years with Fortunate Families I met many dads who, initially upset, came to realize their gay son or lesbian daughter was the same whole and holy gift from God they already knew. Early on, I met a dad who kept saying over and over: “My daughter can’t be gay. She’s beautiful and smart and good.” It was quite a while before he could get pass the stereotypes he had absorbed to realize his daughter could be gay and still be as beautiful, smart and good as he knew her to be.
It’s about love–God’s and yours (as parents). It’s about heeding what your conscience is telling you.
Whatever negative messages parents may have absorbed that are obstacles to accepting a gay son or lesbian daughter, these can be resolved by honestly exploring these ideas and seeking factual information. By coming out gay and lesbian people take a huge risk, one they hope will result in a deeper and closer relationship with their parents. Over 100 parents who are part of the Fortunate Families Listening Parents Network can witness to that. Any of them would be happy to listen to concerns of parents or family members who need information and support. To find these trained listeners, click here. Listening Parents can offer related wisdom gained in their journey, and refer people to additional resources.
This Fathers Day, I pray for all dads with gay sons or lesbian daughters. May they be open to and guided by the Spirit as they strive to become a most whole, holy, and blessed fortunate family!
–Casey Lopata, Fortunate Families
Other Bondings 2.0 posts by or about Casey and Mary Ellen Lopata: