I received an email from a reader who asks, ‘I’m not sure I can give proper advice to my brother. He’s gay and really loves our parents, who are slightly religious but don’t practice. They’ve made anti-gay remarks in the past, and he’s afraid they won’t approve of his sexuality. He’s 18 years old and a freshman in college. I’m really at a loss for what to say.’
When your parents make anti-gay remarks, they’re not talking specifically about your brother. They’re talking about the “floating abstraction” of homosexuality. For your parents, there’s a disconnect between ‘the gays” whom they dislike in the abstract, and your brother, whom they presumably love. When they learn of his sexuality, they will have to throw out one or the other of these contradictory assumptions: “Our son, whom we love, is a good person,” or “Being gay is bad and wrong.” One of these things has to be false. In other words, they’re either going to stop disliking gay people OR stop loving your brother. But not both.
In my experience, most likely they’ll keep loving your brother. This is because most parents are only “slightly religious,” as you say, and don’t practice with excess fervor. In this relatively enlightened time, many religious people are liberal on the subject of same-sex relationships, but some are still not. There are numerous exceptional cases. For example, a male couple I knew adopted three young children back in the late ’80s — very early, culturally speaking, for that kind of thing. The mother of one of the partners was an unyielding fundamentalist Baptist who, upon learning of her son’s homosexuality a few years earlier, had cut him off. But once the grandchildren were on the scene, she began to show up at the household, offering to babysit, offering advice and the like. It went as well as it possibly could.
One of the reasons homosexuality is such a hot-button issue is that it forces people to confront their contradictions. In particular, the contradictions surrounding ‘selfishness’ and self-interest. Religious or not, we’re all taught that selfishness and self-interest are bad. Then, in contradiction, we’re also taught that we must go out in the world, pursue our dreams, and act with self-preservation. The vast majority of people are exposed to this inconsistency. No wonder there are so many emotional problems and disorders.
This dichotomy takes a special form in the case of romance and marriage. Many religious conservatives teach their children that marriage is selfless and that its sole purpose is to create a family. Personal happiness has nothing to do with it. Homosexuality challenges the assumption that love must be selfless. If one accepts his or her sexual proclivities, then, by definition, they have elevated personal fulfillment above the supposed virtue of self-sacrifice. This stirs up a lot of uncomfortable feelings in people — feelings that go beyond the boundaries of sexual orientation.
You said your brother doesn’t want to disappoint your parents. I would tell him, “So what? Disappointment is based on a standard. If the standard is reasonable, then you’ve disappointed yourself as well. If that standard is based on something unreasonable, or something that doesn’t apply to you, then accept the fact that you’re an adult and get on with your life.” I would go so far as to say that disappointing your parents, or anybody, really, is part of growing up. If one doesn’t know how to handle that, then he or she is not yet their own man or woman. That, not his sexual orientation, is your brother’s primary issue.
We don’t need approval from anyone in order to survive and flourish. Once we liberate ourselves from the myth of perpetual self-sacrifice, the emotional reward of freedom and self-esteem is ours to enjoy. Tell your brother that this is his life, not anybody else’s. In order to be a happy and well-adjusted adult, he must stop apologizing for it.