In this heartbreaking article from the New York Times, it’s clear that Jane Clementi’s church failed her and her family when they faced the reality that their sons were gay. Her youngest son, Tyler, felt strongly that she didn’t accept him, largely because of the teachings of her church. The truth is, she was on a journey towards understanding and acceptance in spite of her church’s dangerous theology, but when Tyler ended his life by jumping off the George Washington Bridge, there was no more time for conversation. This is difficult to read, but a sobering reminder for those who work for full affirmation of LGBT people in faith communities.
But their son’s suicide has also forced changes, and new honesty, upon them. They have left the church that made Ms. Clementi so resistant to her son’s declaration. Their middle son, James, acknowledged what the family had long suspected and said that he, too, was gay. The family is devoting itself to a foundation promoting acceptance with the hope of preventing the suicides of gay teenagers.
Most of all, Ms. Clementi has had to grapple with her own role in Tyler’s death.
“People talk about coming out of the closet — it’s parents coming out of the closet, too,” she said. “I wasn’t really ready for that.”
At the time Tyler sat down to tell his parents he was gay, she believed that homosexuality was a sin, as her evangelical church taught. She said she was not ready to tell friends, protecting her son — and herself — from what would surely be the harsh judgments of others.
“It did not change the fact that I loved my son,” she said. “I did need to think about how that would fit into my thoughts on homosexuality.”
Yet it did not occur to her that Tyler would think she did not accept him. She had long talked with him about how his brother James was gay — though at the time James had not said he was. “Tyler knew we weren’t going to reject him or stop paying for college for him or not let him come home, because James had done all those things and we had a good relationship,” she said…
In the months after Tyler’s death, some of Ms. Clementi’s friends confided that they, too, had gay children. She blames religion for the shame surrounding it — in the conversation about coming out, Tyler told his mother he did not think he could be Christian and gay.
“I think some people think that sexual orientation can be changed or prayed over,” she said now, in her kitchen. “But I know sexual orientation is not up for negotiation. I don’t think my children need to be changed. I think that what needed changing is attitudes, or myself, or maybe some other people I know.”
She decided she could no longer attend her church, because doing so would suggest she supported its teachings against homosexuality. And she took strength from reading the Bible as she reconsidered her views.
“At this point I think Jesus is more about reconciliation and love,” she said. “He spoke more about divorce than homosexuality, but you can be divorced and join a church more than you can be gay and join churches.”
What has troubled her most is the thought that Tyler believed she had rejected him.
Read the full story at the New York Times.
How You Can Make a Difference
If you have friends who are associated with churches teaching anti-gay beliefs, please prayerfully consider proactively initiating conversations with them. Your personal story – why acceptance of LGBT people is a result of your faith journey, not an exception to it – could make an enormous difference.
Have you ever attended a PFLAG meeting? Most parents who reject their LGBT children cite religious bias, whether or not they are part of a faith community. Your witness could make the difference for struggling family members.
Are you timid or unsure about effective ways to engage folks in conversation?
Please consider attending a training or a PFLAG meeting, and becoming intentionally proactive in sharing your faith around LGBT people’s lives. There are thousands of Jane Clementis who need your help sooner rather than later.