Catholic Parents’ Story Reveals the Love, Struggles of Having Transgender Child

Time and again, it is the love of Catholic parents for their LGBT children that continues to define healthy relationships, both in families and with the Catholic Church. The story of Teresa and Bill (pseudonyms), and their transgender daughter, Grace, is no different.

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Bill and Teresa

In Australia’s Catholic Leader newspaper, Grace, 50, told the story of how she came out as a trans person to her parents nearly two decades ago. Then presenting as a male, Grace had come home to give her parents an article, “Boys Will Be Girls,” and then she told them, “I’ve decided I want to live as a woman.” The report continued:

“Bill stood up from the couch, looked his son in the eye, and wrapped his arms tightly around him.”. . .

“‘I see this as a blessing because, to me, that particular day, when that news came, I just know that I did not have to think about it (giving his son a hug). . .I knew it was love in me that made me do it.’

“‘It said to me that even though I may not always show it, I actually do love my children unconditionally as any parent should – that there wasn’t anything they could say or do – I might disagree with them, which I still do – but it doesn’t stop you loving them.'”

A previous blessing helped  informed that moment. Bill had taken a bioethics course six months before, and it had dealt with transgender healthcare issues from various perspectives. Bill said he still thought gender-confirming surgeries were “going a bit far,” but he affirmed the reality gender dysphoria, the controversial mental health diagnosis sometimes given to trans people.

Grace transitioned a year and a half after coming out to them, and informed them that she chose her new name because, in Bill’s words, “she was looking for the grace to become a woman.”

What most troubled Bill and Teresa was the church’s response to their daughter. She could not find “any sympathy or understanding within the Church,” and left. Teresa said she doubts Grace will ever return. The Catholic Leader continued:

“Teresa said she struggled to reconcile the Church’s position on gender dysphoria with her own Catholic faith, though it has not made her less faithful.

“‘I get very upset about their ignorance, that they don’t seem to listen to all the new psychology information that has come out about gender dysphoria, and most still seem to see that people who want to change their gender are mentally unstable,’ she said.

“‘I really wanted to do something about it and shake them and say, “Listen to them – don’t you understand that your position is so antiquated?”‘”

Bill also challenged the church’s response, saying “people with no knowledge of embryology” are making scientific claims they should be more cautious about. Gender identity, he said, is different than sex characteristics. Bill and Teresa rejected the idea that gender is a choice. Bill said:

“‘I even heard the Pope say it’s not a matter of choice; I also say it’s not a matter of choice – it’s just a fact. . .For a transgender person, it’s not saying “I choose to be this”, or “I choose to be that”, but “I am, I am a woman but I have been given an XY chromosome”– but that is semantics.'”

Though supportive of Grace, it is important to note Teresa and Bill are still struggling with aspects of trans equality. They have fears that children are transitioning too early, and hesitations about widespread use of gender-confirming surgeries.

This story of Teresa, Bill, and Grace, notably published in the Archdiocese of Brisbane’s diocesan newspaper, reveals the tensions with which many Catholic parents often grapple. Fitting together the realities of their LGBT children and the church’s weak response is not easy. On the other side of this grappling, parents often become some of the most committed advocates for equality in the church.

Whether Teresa and Bill can be considered fully-affirming advocates or people still grappling with trans issues is not clear in the story, but what is clear is that they are refusing to settle with failed pastoral care and simplistic answers.

Editor’s Note:  Fortunate Families, a ministry of Catholic parents with LGBT children, is seeking a new part-time executive director. If you or someone you know might be interested in the position, you can find more information here or by contacting Michael Duffy at michaelduffy.duffy@gmail.com

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, July 25, 2017

Being Elizabeth: The Call to Being a Parent of an LGBT Person

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Louise and Ivan Laferla

Today’s post is by guest blogger,  Louise Laferla. Mrs. Laferla is married to Ivan and is the mother of two sons, one of whom is gay.  She is a member of Drachma Parents, a Catholic organization for parents of LGBT people in Malta,  and she is also an active member of the Lay Community at MSSP Oratory Church, B’Kara, Malta.  This post is based on a recent talk Mrs. Laferla gave at her parish community. She was the first laywoman to do so.

The gospel stories referred to in this post can be read by clicking the scriptural references:

The Announcement to Zachariah:  Luke 1: 5-25

The Annunciation to Mary:  Luke 1: 26-38

The Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth: Luke 1:39-45.

Each year, during the week before Christmas we are presented with ordinary folk whose life was marked by God’s extraordinary calling. These are  Elizabeth and Zechariah,  Mary and Joseph, God-fearing people who for me were always so far removed from my own daily experience. My outlook changed when I discovered that I am the parent of a gay son.

Being Catholic, and actively involved in pastoral ministry and spiritual companionship, I brought my own question to God, very similar to Mary’s at the Annunciation and Zechariah’s when he is told of Elizabeth’s pregnancy: “How could this be?”  How could this be that I continue to serve You within the Catholic Church while at the same time wanting to be true to who I am as the mother of a gay son?

In my own “coming out” process, which many parents of LGBT people experience as they come to accept their new family reality and share it with others,  I have come to realise that Mary and Joseph went through a similar process. As Elizabeth Sextro rightly puts it in the Scriptural reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Advent which was posted here on Bondings 2.0, we seldom hear of Mary’s courage to say ‘yes’ though her experience of getting pregnant out of wedlock would have meant death. We also never hear of Joseph’s trust in taking Mary as his wife, and believing it was God and not some other man who was involved in her pregnancy.

Similarly, we do not hear about how much gossip was made about them, but we have hints of it in the gospels if one is attentive to certain details. Similarly, one of the main fears I had to face as the parent of a gay man was the gossip in our Catholic circles.  I let Mary and Joseph become my mentors in trusting God and experiencing freedom while keeping true to what I felt I was called to do and be as a mother.

image1I believe it was not only courage that Mary had, but also her deep faith in His Word that God does not leave ‘his little ones’ alone. As a sign of God’s accompaniment, Mary is given Elizabeth, another ordinary woman who felt ashamed for not having borne any sons. Elizabeth is not only a sign but a companion in experiencing God’s unusual ways of showing His glory.

In my coming out process, I was also given an Elizabeth, another Catholic mother of a gay son, who was ‘older’ as she had passed through the same coming out process some years before me. My first encounter with her left me with a joy that reminded me much of what might have transpired between Elizabeth and Mary! We were given a gift and a mission in life, that we would have never thought of before, were it not for our gay sons! Most of all we were given a special gift of friendship. And we both had the desire to be Elizabeths to other parents in their coming out processes.

So, just before Christmas, I offer a prayer of gratitude for all the Elizabeths in our lives, the persons who one way or another, have encouraged us to continue on this unique faith journey, sometimes against all odds, but with peace and joy, knowing that God never abandons those who trust in Him.

–Louise Laferla, Drachma Parents, December 22, 2016

 

Parents Implore Pope to Put an End to Homophobia in Poland

We’ve often commented on this blog that the Catholic parents of LGBT people are among the strongest advocates in the Church for equality and justice.  Parents’ groups have been speaking boldly and effectively around the globe, perhaps most notably here in the U.S. through the organization Fortunate Families, and in Malta through the organization Drachma Parents.

A new set of parental voices has joined this growing chorus, this time from the very Catholic nation of Poland.  When Pope Francis visited there last month for World Youth Day, a group of parents of 16 gay Poles wrote to the pontiff, asking him to help put an end to the “widespread” homophobia which they say exists in their nation.

NDTV.com reported on the parents’ letter:

“Pointing to a recent string of ‘attacks on offices of organisations working with homosexuals, burning of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) symbols, and beatings of non-heterosexuals,’ the group implored Francis to intervene.

” ‘Instead of compassion for families, society is engulfed by a wave of homophobia,’ the group said in an open letter, which was published by several Polish newspapers and magazines in the past week [end of July].

” ‘Only the voice of Your Holiness can prevent future tragedies,’ they told Francis, who famously remarked ‘Who am I to judge?’ about gays earlier in his papacy.”

The news report described other important passages from the letter, including the experience of LGBT Poles, and the failure of the Polish church to protect the dignity of LGBT people:

” ‘On a daily basis, our children face hate attacks, verbal assaults and even physical violence only because they were created that way by God,’ said the parents, who did not publish their full names for fear of reprisals.

 ” ‘Why is there so much homophobia among Polish Catholics?’ they asked, quoting passages from Church teachings that call for gays and lesbians to ‘be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.’

” ‘Why aren’t priests reminding people in their sermons that LGBT people are also God’s children and only God can judge them?’

” ‘Jesus himself never said anything about the love between people of the same sex,’ the letter said.”

Unfortunately, Pope Francis did not address LGBT issues in any of his public addresses at World Youth Day, though he did refer negatively to gender issues in a private meeting with Polish bishops.

One Polish gay advocate feels that Francis’ more positive messages on LGBT issues is having an influence on the minds and attitudes of Catholic Poles.  NDTV.com reported:

” ‘It’s not yet at the point in history when the Catholic Church in Poland would be ready to agree (to officially recognise LGBT groups) — we are not yet there,’ [said] Misza Czerniak, an LGBT activist.

“He however acknowledged that ‘Francis has changed the tone and the vocabulary that is used when speaking about LGBT people in the Church, and we are extremely grateful for that.’

” ‘And what is a big sign of hope for us, is that the Polish church is gradually learning from him.’ “

Catholic parents of LGBT people are the true prophets in our Church.  Their journeys of acceptance and love, their experience of understanding new realities, are exactly the same journey that the entire Church, especially the hierarchy, need to learn.  Parents have a lot to teach church leaders about unconditional love, and about treating all people equally as brothers and sisters.  Their strong voices in support of their LGBT children are a true gift to our Church.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry.

Detroit Parents Receive National Award for LGBT Equality Work in Catholic Church

Catholic parents of LGBT people have been some of the most passionate and effective voices for equality and inclusion in both the church and society,  Their natural love for their children motivates them to try to make the world a better place for them, and so they are often tireless in their efforts.  Similarly, they know that understanding or accepting a child’s sexual or gender identity can be challenging for many Catholic parents who are just learning of these realities for the first time.

Linda Karle-Nelson and Tom Nelson

So, it is fitting that two Catholic parents were honored this past weekend with a top award at the PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) convention in Washington, DC.   Linda Karle-Nelson and Thomas Nelson, a married couple from the Detroit area, received PFLAG’s highest honor, the Betty DeGeneres Award (named for lesbian comedian Ellen DeGeneres’ mother) for their work not only in helping to spread the word of LGBT acceptance and family togetherness, but particularly for their advocacy and ministry within the Catholic community.

The Detroit Free Press reported on the background of the award and why this couple was chosen:

“PFLAG president Jody Huckaby said more famous and visible people were nominated for the honor — only the second time it has been given since Betty DeGeneres received the first award two years ago. But Huckaby said the Nelsons were deserving because they’re seeking to change minds while staying members of the Catholic Church.

“ ‘They are a tremendous example of parental love and affirmation. And then talking about it, and talking about it in one of the most challenging areas — the faith community,’ Huckaby said. ‘Our work in faith communities is the most important work we’re doing — because it’s not easy.’ ”

The Nelsons, who married as widowers in 2006, each have a gay son from marriages to their first spouses.  They met at a PFLAG meeting and fell in love, serving as living proof that it’s a lie that LGBT advocacy doesn’t help promote heterosexual relationships and marriages!   Though they work with PFLAG groups, the main bulk of their Catholic work has been as part of Fortunate Families, a national network of Catholic parents of LGBT children.   Linda served as the organization’s board president, and Tom has served on the board. Both have been active in the organization’s variety of activities.

They will be hosting a Fortunate Families gathering at Detroit’s Christ the King Catholic parish on Saturday, November 9th, 2013, 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.    You can  find more information and register for this free event by clicking here.   Registration deadline is November 4th.

The Detroit Free Press quoted reactions about the award from the couple’s two gay sons:

“John Karle, 44, who is gay, said his mother’s and stepfather’s activism amazes him, and inspired him to join a gay-rights protest in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

“ ‘She is such a strong and persistent voice in support, and particularly support for gay kids in schools, and in churches with their families,’ said Karle, a publicist for St. Martin’s Press and churchgoing Catholic who will be at the ceremony. ‘It inspires me. I just can’t sit back and do nothing if she’s outside marching out front of the archdiocese’s office.’ ”

“Tom Nelson’s son, Mark, who is gay, as well as three of Nelson’s five daughters, also will attend.

“ ‘I’m proud of them,’ Mark Nelson, who lives in metro Detroit.”

Tom Nelson recently published An Ordinary Catholic:  A View from the Pewa memoir on his evolution in faith and reflections on a new vision of equality and justice for the Catholic Church.

The Nelsons were featured in a previous Bondings 2.0 post when they organized a demonstration at the Archdiocese of Detroit’s headquarters to protest Archbishop Allen Vigneron’s suggestion that Catholics who support marriage equality should not receive communion.

New Ways Ministry salutes these prophetic leaders, and we are deeply grateful for their ministry and witness!  May they continue to aid and inspire other Catholic parents to do likewise.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 

 

 

More to the Story Than Simply an Exorcism

While reviewing news stories and opinion pieces for this blog, I tend to avoid pieces which scream of sensationalism, of which there are many since this blog deals with two journalistically volatile topics:  religion and sexuality.

Image from the movie "The Exorcist"
Image from the movie “The Exorcist”

One story came across my computer screen a few weeks ago about a priest in Italy recommending an exorcism for a young gay man.   Reading the headline, I initially wrote this off as a sensational story.  Yet someone sent me the link recently, and when I read the whole story, I realized there was more to it than just the exciting headline.

Indeed, the story is not so much about  the priest, but about a mother who is a strong advocate for her son and LGBT people.

Gay Star News  reported the incident this way:

“A faithful Catholic mom was comanded to get an exorcist and leave the church, after her priest discovered her teenage son was gay.

“His condemnation came after she begged him to read a letter to his congregation in favor of gay rights on behalf of her and her son.

“But he replied: ‘Your son is a devil. So, please, go to an exorcist. And, please, leave this church.’

“The incident earlier this month in Palermo, the capital of the Italian island of Sicily, has now been reported by LGBT Christian group Ali d’Aquila.”

But buried in the story is the fact that this mother was a fearless advocate for her son:

According to Ali d’Aquila coordinator Giovanni Capizzi:

“She asked the priest to read a pro-gay letter during the service. But this is how the priest reacted.”

More importantly, Capizzi also noted that he sees this priest’s response as uncharacteristic of the Catholic clergy that he knows:

“Ali d’Aquila is hosted by priest Padre Cosimo Scordato in the San Francesco Saverio church in the Albergheria area in Palermo.

“We have to thank all the wonderful priests who believe in us. Not all the church people are homophobic or anti-gay.

“Some priests don’t want us to pray and hold public meetings, but some of them are really friendly and pro-gay.”

So, far from being a story about  a priest’s ignorant reaction, the story turned out to be about a mother who was advocating her son, and the fact that Catholic priests in Sicily are more welcoming of LGBT people than is usually thought.  I’m glad I read the story past the headline.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Catholic Parents Protest at Detroit Archdiocese in Communion Debate

Catholic parents protesting at the headquarters of the Archdiocese of Detroit.
Catholic parents protesting at the headquarters of the Archdiocese of Detroit.

Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron’s suggestion that Catholics who support marriage equality in  his diocese should not receive communion has sparked a protest led by Catholic parents of LGBT people.

The Detroit Free Press reports that

“. . . supporters of gay Catholics gathered for a prayer vigil in front of the Archdiocese of Detroit’s chancery headquarters. . . .

“About 25 people sang, ‘All are welcome in this place,’ and marched with rainbow flags in front of the downtown chancery building, saying they had gay relatives and friends.

“Artemae Anderson, 69, of Detroit said she attends mass regularly, receives communion and supports gay marriage. ‘It’s very hurtful,’ Anderson said of Vigneron’s comments. ‘If we just follow the gospel message of Jesus, we’ll be OK.’ “

The demonstration was organized by Linda Karle-Nelson, president of Fortunate Families, a national network of Catholic parents of LGBT people, and her husband, Thomas Nelson. Another Free Press article quotes their thoughts on the protest:

Linda Karle-Nelson and Thomas Nelson
Linda Karle-Nelson and Thomas Nelson

“ ‘He’s [Vigneron] not going to keep me from the Eucharist,’ said Nelson, 83, a retired engineer from Farmington Hills. ‘Somebody’s got to stand up and say, “Enough.” ‘

“ ‘We’re not going to change churches,’ said [Linda] Karle-Nelson, 72, a speech pathologist. ‘We can plant seeds. Our theme has been sharing stories, and sharing stories is a way of changing hearts.’ ”

A local Catholic pastor noted the ridiculousness of Vigneron’s suggestion:

“The Rev. Norman Thomas, who is a pastor of Detroit parishes Sacred Heart and St. Elizabeth, said Vigneron’s statement ‘was kind of insensitive.’

“ ‘Are people expected to exempt themselves, or is there going to be a check-off right there at the (communion) line?’ Thomas said.”

The Huffington Post  quoted one of the founders of Fortunate Families responding to protest:

“Mary Ellen Lopata, who is the co-founder and on the board of directors of Fortunate Families, said it’s a ‘sad situation’ that many children have left the Catholic church over its lack of acceptance of gays and lesbians.

” ‘We encourage people to speak up, because the bishops don’t know our children and they need to hear our children, and understand that our children are every bit as whole and holy,’ Lopata said.

” ‘We’re starting to see tiny glimmers of hope that pastors and members of the hierarchy might be willing to talk,’ Lopata said. ‘We do believe that if they would just talk to us and talk to children and listen to what they would have to say, their hearts would be changed.’ “

Parents of LGBT people are some of the strongest justice and equality advocates in the Catholic Church.  They love both their children and the church, and they are not willing to let their be animosity between these groups. Catholic parents of LGBT people have had to go on a journey of understanding, acceptance, and love, and, as a result, they have a LOT that they can teach the rest of the church about understanding, accepting, and loving LGBT people.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related Posts

April 27, 2013: Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson Chastises Archbishop on Communion Issue

April 19, 2013: Bishop Gumbleton Preaches on Christ’s Radical Welcome for All

April 12, 2013: Gumbleton to Pro-Marriage Equality Catholics: ‘Don’t Stop Going to Communion’

Fr. James Martin Honors Passing of PFLAG Founder Jeanne Manford

In a Facebook post, Jesuit Fr. James Martin recently commemorated the passing of Jeanne Manford, the founder of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). Accompanying a photo of the founder, Fr. James posted a reflection worth sharing about the positive impact that PFLAG has had which began because of the unconditional love Manford had for her gay son, Morty.

Jeanne Manford
Jeanne Manford

In part, Fr. Martin stated:

“For she loved prophetically. That is, she publicly expressed her love for a group of marginalized people before it was safe to do so. That kind of love might remind you of another person who worked in and around Galilee, publicly loving all sorts of people–lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, Gentiles, Roman centurions–when it was not safe to do so, at all…

“There is a lot of talk about gays and lesbians these days. But in every thing we say and do, particularly for Christians, love must come first. And not the love that condemns first, or judges first, or labels first. But the love that loves first. Because God is love.”

Metro Weekly offered some details about Manford’s personal story, and how PFLAG originated:

“Hailed as one of the LGBT-rights movement’s first straight allies, Manford founded PFLAG after her son, Morty Manford, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1992, was among those patrons at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village when a police raid sparked the 1969 Stonewall riots. When Morty Manford was beaten during a Gay Activists Alliance demonstration in April 1972 and police failed to intervene, Jeanne Manford wrote a letter to the New York Post standing by her son.

“‘I have a homosexual son, and I love him,’ her letter read.”

James Martin, SJ
James Martin, SJ

From that moment, she began marching alongside her son, and in ensuing years, PFLAG grew to have over 350 chapters and 200,000 members in the U.S.

Catholic parents continue to be some of the best advocates for their LGBT sons and daughters.   Through their prayers, advocacy, and, most importantly, their example, they are teaching the Catholic church how to unconditionally accept LGBT people.  Their natural love for their children mirrors the love that God has for all people. Organizations like Fortunate Families support Catholic parents who have LGBT sons and daughters.

New Ways Ministry echoes Fr. James’ closing words of the reflection:

“May Jeanne Manford rest in peace, and may we always love prophetically, recklessly, prodigally, dangerously, eternally.”

–Bob Shine and Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry