A few weeks ago we posted Part One of a two-part interview series with Dr. Michael LaSala, associate professor at the School of Social Work at Rutgers University and practicing psychotherapist and teacher/trainer. Part One focused mainly on how parents can work through their own reactions to a child’s coming out. Here in Part Two, Dr. LaSala speaks with Erin McKissick specifically about issues of religion and sexuality, and provides advice for parents looking to integrate their religious beliefs with the love they have for their LGBT child.
In your therapy practice, do you find that people of faith seem particularly interested in seeking out help when an LGBT child comes out to them, or do they sort of push the issue away and use counseling as a last resort?
You know, it’s hard to know because I don’t get to see the people who don’t come in for counseling. It would be really great to know why people aren’t coming! And I think you may be right that some parents of faith don’t see this as an issue that deserves attention in counseling.
But what I will say is that whatever the reason a person or family is struggling with an LGBT child, when they walk in my door, the prognosis is excellent. Because these are people who, no matter how they feel, are looking for help with how to deal with this. And if you’re willing to step over the threshold of a therapist’s office, then you are a person who really wants to work on this and find a way to accept and integrate your child’s identity into your life. I would say the same thing for people who go to PFLAG meetings.
Even if they come into a PFLAG meeting or into my office spewing all sorts of anti-gay hate, I take it with a grain of salt because they’ve come to see me. They’ve come to see a therapist, and therefore there is some part of them that wants help, and that’s the part that I seek to acknowledge and to amplify.
What kinds of options do you suggest to religious families to help them integrate their religious beliefs with the love they have for their LGBT child?
Well, my take on this is that a good therapist doesn’t tell people how to believe or how to act, but helps them find their own way. So when people come to me with a religious conflict on this issue, I tell them that they’re on a journey, and like all journeys, they have to keep traveling to find their way. I try not to tell people what they should find. But I can tell you the possibilities that I’ve seen both personally and professionally in terms of how people try to deal with this.
For the LGBT folks themselves, one option is that they decide to be celibate. There are groups of Catholics who identify as gay or lesbian, but have decided to be celibate so that they are in compliance with church dogma. As a therapist and a sexually progressive person who believes in the importance of sexuality, this isn’t necessarily an option that I promote, but I respect that people have to find their own way and that this may be an option for some. Others choose to become “Cafeteria Catholics,” meaning that they believe in certain aspects and traditions in the Catholic Church, such as the Sacraments, the Holy Trinity, or the importance of attending mass, but they do not necessarily agree with some of the dogma and practices, such as the ban on divorce or abortion or the condemnation of homosexuality. So they find ways to practice their faith while at the same time maintaining opinions and behaviors that they identify with.
Catholic families who have an LGBT child often find a congregation that is somewhat more open and progressive. For example, I know of a Catholic Church run by a priest who has established a prayer group for LGBT and allied persons that meets on a regular basis. And it’s not meant to be a discussion space for politics, but they do pray and talk about different aspects of religion, and it’s a space where LGBT people and their allies feel welcome. So the importance of this is that even though some churches struggle, people can find a congregation that’s a bit more open, where they can say “OK, this place isn’t all the way there, but it’s better than most.”
There are also other churches or religious groups that are very openly LGBT accepting. For example, I know of a group that has gathered to worship that is composed of people who identify as Catholic but also LGBT and allied, so they will meet to conduct mass and have various gatherings. There are other Catholic groups that people can find online, such as Fortunate Families, DignityUSA, and New Ways Ministry.
Now you have to be very careful, when you talk about Christianity, not to paint everyone with the same brush. There are some Christian churches or traditions that are more accepting than others. A good friend of mine belongs to an Episcopal Church where same-sex couples are regularly married and warmly accepted. In fact, I believe that they are now ordaining openly gay and lesbian priests. So that’s another option for people who are LGBT or allies—to find a church where the LGBT issue isn’t an issue. Alternatively, they can even practice a religious or spiritual tradition that they feel is even more accepting, like Buddhism or Quakerism. This could be one that enables them to practice their spirituality in a way that acknowledges and accepts their sexual orientation or gender identity. Some people also choose to become agnostic or atheist.
What kind of positive influence have you observed gay children having on their parents?
I don’t only deal with parents and families, I also work with gay and lesbian people themselves who are perhaps struggling with their own identities. And I find that in order for an LGBT person to be mentally and emotionally healthy, they have to come to a point where they develop a critical consciousness around society’s norms regarding sexuality, sexual orientation, and relationships. In other words, they have to turn around and say, “You know, society’s just really wrong and messed up when it comes to sex and gender, and as an LGBT person I know that and I’ve come to learn that and I have that knowledge.” If you’re convinced that society is right about all of these things, it’s almost impossible to be a healthy LGBT person. So that’s a marker of progress, when someone gets to the point of realizing that society is wrong about this, not the individual.
And this can apply to parents, too. I’ve noticed that parents are able to develop and simulate that same reaction to society’s norms. This is typically white, middle-class parents who sometimes lack a critical consciousness about issues of social injustice, but through having an LGBT child are sort of awakened to these issues. And then their eyes are opened to problems of social injustice that relate not only to their LGBT children, but also to things like institutional racism, sexism, homophobia, those kinds of things. I’ve seen parents that take off in that way, and that’s one of the potentially enriching experiences of having an LGBT child.
Michael C. LaSala, PhD, LCSW is associate professor at the School of Social Work at Rutgers University and has been a practicing psychotherapist and teacher/trainer for 30 years. His research and clinical specialties are the couple and family relationships of gay men and lesbians. Dr. LaSala’s book entitled: Coming out, coming home: Helping families adjust to a gay or lesbian child (Columbia University Press) describes the findings and practice implications of a National Institute of Mental Health funded qualitative study of 65 gay and lesbian youth and their families. Other examples of Dr. LaSala’s work can be found in over 25 journal articles and his blog for Psychology Today. Dr. LaSala is a much sought after speaker on gay and lesbian couple and family issues and has recently presented workshops, keynotes, and plenaries in Sweden, Canada, Finland, Estonia, Italy, and throughout the U.S.. Further information on Dr. LaSala’s work can be found on his website.
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