Joseanne Peregin: “Fears and hopes as a Catholic mother of a gay son – a parent’s perspective”

Presentation by Joseanne Peregin (President of Christian Life Community, Malta – “LGBT children’s parents’s fears and expectations”) for “The ways of Love”, an International Conference towards pastoral care with homosexual and trans people (Rome, Italy, October 3, 2014)
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Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever imagined I would be giving a speech to theologians. But then again, never would I have ever dreamt that one day, I would be the mother of a gay son either. I come from the tiny island of Malta, where everybody knows everyone and most of us are traditional Catholics. I have been happily married for nearly 30 years, and am a proud mother of three children all in their 20s. I have been an active member of the Christian Life Community for over 35 years, 6 of them as president of CLC Malta.
More recently, however my service in the church has evolved as the helpline for parents struggling with their child’s ‘coming out’. In 2008 the DrachmaLGBT group which was established in 2004, had invited St Jeannine Grammick to Malta. After listening to her talk, a handful of us parents decided to meet again and we still meet every month. The Drachma Parents’ Group offers a SAFE SPACE for parents to come to terms with their own process of acceptance. But although it is a SAFE SPACE, it is not a closed space so I am delighted to share this experience with you, although I am certainly no theologian.
I will start from how I dealt with my son’s ‘coming out’ – driven by the Ignatian phrase: ‘God is in all things’. Then, I will explain some difficulties with the Catholic Church’s position on homosexuality. And finally, I will say something about my own ‘coming out’, as a parent. (Probably, my participation at this Conference is like my final stage along this process).

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Dealing with my child’s ‘coming out’

So how did my 17- year old son ‘come out’ to me? Well, quite typical of his generation – by sending an SMS! It happened while I was driving him home one evening. We were in the car together so I stopped to read my incoming message and it said: ‘Ma, I’m gay’– isn’t that crazy? ☺) So anyway, I began with the typical denial remarks: like ‘it’s probably just a phase….’ But he stopped me in my words and explained that he had been sure for a long time and he had just told all of his friends. Then he told me he had written ‘the famous letter’ some weeks before, which would explain everything I needed to know, once we got home. Anyway, thankfully when we arrived, my husband (who I thought may react negatively) was fast asleep on the sofa in front of the TV.
So as I read through the letter (my son always wrote very clearly, in fact he became a journalist later in his career)– I felt I could fully understand the whole painful journey he had been through – and like St Paul, I felt the scales came down from in front of my eyes, and I was able to see it all so clearly: why he refused to come to Sunday Mass with us; why all the headaches; why the loss of weight; and why the many tissues inside his dustbin from nights of crying etc. Deep down I felt guilty that he had to go through all that uncertainty on his own – it was not easy for him. Yet on the other hand, I felt a great sigh of relief since I had imagined many worse things like: drugs, terrible sickness, trouble with police, getting someone pregnant etc.
I knew something was wrong, but I never suspected this. So when it was clear that he was gay, I said to myself, “Aaahh! Ok, this I can do, cos all that is needed is love! So I hugged him and assured him of my love. I felt privileged to have such a wonderful relationship with my son – one where he could trust me with something so intimate and special. It was a boost to my motherhood. But then he commanded, ‘I am telling you but I will not tell dad myself, cos I don’t want to have it on my conscience if he drops dead with a heart attack. So if you think he should know, you can tell him yourself, not me’. So that night was the longest night of my life and I didn’t sleep a wink. I had to process all the implications of this new reality that had just landed onto my lap.
I had to choose whether to stand by my 17 year old son or protect my marriage and my reputation in the Church. So I prayed for strength …. and by the morning I chose to stick with my son and be open about it, even if the whole world would turn against us. But it was a difficult decision to take. But I wanted to stand by my son, at such a vulnerable point in his life. So early that morning, I told my husband and the journey slowly unfolded….. and you would be pleased to know, that thankfully after this initial shock, my husband and I are both here.

It seems almost all parents feel this initial shock. Confusion and fear paralyze most parents. But for us Roman Catholics, an added concern is what the Church says about homosexuality. I realized that, when it comes to the LGBT reality, there are many misconceptions and myths that enwrap people in doubt and fear. Although we may have some laws in place that protect the rights of homosexuals, there is still a long way to go until we see the change in culture and mentality that is needed. One of the very first challenges parents of gay children must face is: “What will people say?” but then in Catholic Malta, the second one is: “What does the Catholic Church say?” Unfortunately, this is where many parents get confused and this is where pastoral care is felt most lacking.

For instance, one of the members of our group is a separated mother of a 35 year old gay son. She tells her sad story of being rejected by her own brothers and sisters who before, were very close and supportive while she was going through her separation. But ever since her son ‘came out’ years ago, she and her son were no longer welcome to family weddings or Christmas reunions – they had been excluded by the whole extended family. This resulted in the son taking the blame upon himself and as a consequence, he is often suicidal. And these are people who go to Mass every day and receive the Eucharist – yet find it so easy to judge and to exclude.

I listen to many of these painful stories. To me, pastoral care is about meeting people where they stand and building a friendship with those who feel isolated, distant or cut-off from the Church or even their families – with those who are on the periphery of society – focusing therefore on emotional support and spiritual care.
As Christians we must stand by the side of the poor and rejected, even if it causes us discomfort and humiliation. But there is still a lot of hostility and judgment out there. Our Christian communities need to build bridges and dialogue with those who are at the periphery of society. We need to offer them a SAFE SPACE where they can continue their faith journey. A SAFE SPACE where they can share their vulnerabilities.

So the more I was open about having a gay son, the more I became a magnet for people to approach me and these pastoral friendships began to unfold. In some ways I could offer emotional support and spiritual accompaniment to parents, who like me have experienced, overnight, that we have now become ‘the outsiders’, ‘the others’ who are under society’s critical gaze – ‘the talk of the town among friends and colleagues’, the misfits in society and the outcasts in our own church communities. This is something I experienced myself. I suddenly realised that ‘I too am being judged’ and ‘I too am being excluded’ but I would cling to the words from Isaiah: ‘You are precious in my eyes, you are honoured and I love you’ (Isaiah 43:4).

Anyway, I started to read many articles (eg: ‘Always our Children’) and books (some authors are here today☺) and to learn more about what the Church has to say about homosexuality. I felt however, that there were a number of contradictions in what my church said and what I know about my gay son.
I wanted to unite the two things I love most: my family and my Church. But while my Church refers to my son’s sexuality as ‘intrinsically disordered’, my son refers to my church as ‘judgmental and irrational’. And this interior dilemma is common among many Catholic parents who like me, feel somewhat let down by our own church. So since there was nothing being offered in the Parishes, the Drachma Parents Group offered some pastoral accompaniment and helped parents deal with their trauma:

• denial: ‘It’s just a phase’,
• blame: ‘who’s fault is it?,
• guilt: ‘what should I have not/done?’,
• anger: ‘why did God permit this?’,
• loss/grief: ‘we can’t become grandparents and must give up our dreams’,
• fear: ‘being excluded and judged’, ‘will my son die of HIV Aids?’,
• rejection: ‘should we risk telling family and friends?’,
• loneliness: ‘feeling abandoned even by the church’,
• and shame: ‘have I failed as a parent?’,

With regular bursts of tears and honest sharing in our meetings, we have moved toward a process of acceptance and reconciliation. Drachma takes its name from Luke 15 the parable of the lost coin – I think deep down we all want to be known, appreciated and ‘found’, and when our gay children are no longer hidden but ‘come out’ in the open, then it is our turn to make our own journey of ‘coming out’, as parents.

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Dealing with the Catholic Church’s position on homosexuality

Despite my years of commitment and service in CLC Malta, I still tasted the stigma that LGBTIs experience. Whenever I put to question the harsh language used in the Catechism of the Catholic Church such as: intrinsically disordered – oh, how I wish the Bishops would begin this Synod by changing that hurtful phrase!! – I felt I too was being stigmatized. I experienced rejection and exclusion from persons and institutions who knew me well.

For instance: When I attended my first Gay Pride March as a guest speaker of the Family Group LISTAG in Turkey, some people in my community took it against me. I was misunderstood. And when I attended the ILGA Conference in Turin some years ago, I had the chance to know how it feels to be in the minority, (myself among over 200 LGBTIs) – I must have been the only Catholic heterosexual mother over there! It was not an easy experience for me. But this propelled me to appreciate diversity and to continue to act as a bridge.

Church statements lacking in understanding and compassion towards the LGBT situation have pushed away many young people and the church is sadly ‘bleeding’. Priests and Popes have told our homosexual sons and daughters that they cannot express their sexuality in an intimate relationship, in a manner that would naturally lead towards a lifelong commitment. Their life is merely looked upon as an offering of oneself to God only by remaining celibate. These contradictions cause much pain and confusion for parents.

Pastoral care means that our Christian communities must go out of their way to make another feel cared for, to give the opportunity for people to feel special – more accepted, more loved as s/he is. We ‘are sent’ to the periphery to show hospitality and embrace diversity and in doing this, we should be radiating the merciful love of Jesus that goes beyond any family discord, any personal weakness, any community division and any human expectation. We ‘are sent’ – we do not go out of our own accord. It is all about ‘being open’ to the greatest needs around us and then, ‘being sent’ to places where we may be afraid to go. After His Resurrection, Jesus assured his apostles (and us) of His promise: “I will go before you into Galilee” ….. yes, I believe He is ALWAYS ahead of us, ready to accompany us in our pastoral journey.

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Dealing with my ‘coming out’ as a parent.

Like I said before, I too experienced being judged and felt the stigma LGBTs feel. The moment my son had ‘come out’ to me, I automatically started my own journey towards my own ‘coming out’ as a parent. This is also a very long and painful journey for us parents as much as it was for our children. While our children would have struggled interiorly for several years, the day we are told or find out our child is gay, we parents somehow have to be ready with the right answers and show the right attitude – but this is not always the case.
In my encounters with parents having gay children, I note that for some parents this news would come to them as the final blow, after a series of several disappointments in life. They shut down or crumble, sometimes having to go on anti-depressants for several months. There is a deep sense of failure which leaves parents feeling paralyzed. These past six-and-a-half years, as a co-founder of the Drachma Parents Support Group, I have met many such parents who feel sorrow and regret about their initial response but they tell me that their child never really ever forgave them for the harsh words exchanged that first day.

In Malta, something that appears to be helping in this healing process is Drachma’s monthly meetings. As I mentioned, we offer a ‘SAFE SPACE’ that welcomes parents who would be struggling with their child’s ‘coming out’. In the beginning, parents are typically quite lost and so we offer some leaflets with information in Maltese since very little exists. We offer encouragement so they can strengthen the bonds in their own family relationships. Sometimes the spouses take opposite positions and argue for months without any progress. But when they come to Drachma they realise they are not alone, and this fills them with hope. They begin to explore new and positive approaches and to understand better this reality and understand their children too.

We learn from each other, we accompany one another during life’s difficult and also happy circumstances. We offer safety, understanding, support and compassion. We pray together, we share experiences, we cry, we pass on good articles and books but we don’t judge, we don’t exclude and we don’t give answers. We provide a vehicle where people are free to come and go, but after a number of meetings, they start to find themselves again and gain deeper perspective – they feel more ready to continue their faith journey in hope. Even if they choose to stop attending, they are still assured that we would still meet every third Thursday of every month! This stability is important in pastoral care.

Something else that works is sending emails to the Bishop. Whenever I listened to a priest’s homily that was delivered with a prejudice tone against gays or whenever the Drachma Community celebrated a wonderful Christmas or Easter Mass, I would write to my Bishop to inform him and give him a most vivid description of the event.
Like me, other members of Drachma took different initiatives. Eventually, this led to building enough interest in the pastoral work of Drachma and some important follow-up meetings were held with the Bishops. Last February the Drachma Parents Group wrote a letter to the Bishop with specific recommendations for the upcoming Synod. And on May 17th IDAHO Mass was celebrated by the Bishop and was made public in the media. This was an important pastoral gesture by our Bishop which also helped to heal some wounds (especially after the Civil Union Law). Recently, I was also invited to give my input during a consultation meeting with the Bishop representing Malta at the Synod and I was one of 20 such advisors – so these humble initiatives are helping to build bridges, gain credibility and strengthen dialogue in the church.
Much of my time these days is spent meeting parents or answering their phone calls, listening and offering friendship. This is pastoral care. Although I feel I have little to offer them, yet there is little else where they feel they can turn to, to share their dilemma about linking ‘gay and catholic’. I usually meet them alone first and they pour out their painful stories.
This releases some of their anxiety and they are able to see some hope in that they are not alone in their journey towards acceptance. When they attend their first monthly group meeting they often find solace in ‘letting it all out’ with parents who understand them since they share a common reality. It is God’s active presence among us that begins the healing process of many, as we listen to one another’s experiences. It is a joy to hear a husband express his gratitude and relief after finally seeing his wife smile for the first time in 12 years by the end of their first meeting.
It was wonderful to watch the elderly couple go home with some renewed hope in their hearts saying, ‘We were afraid you would judge us and scold us for being bad parents, but you’re ok …. you people are nice people’ ☺ She felt SAFE.

And so, from my own ‘coming out’ process I began to realize:
That it’s ok to be identified as a parent of a gay child,
it’s ok to talk about it with others,
it’s ok to stand up in their defense during a casual conversation at a wedding,
it’s ok to stop people from passing unfair remarks or jokes about gays,
it’s ok to write something that shows what side of the fence I am on,
it’s ok to confront a priest about a homily or a Bishop about the words he used in his Pastoral letter in regard to gays.
Yes, it is a gradual but liberating process of becoming a parent, a second time.

St Ignatius of Loyola reminds us to ask: what is the most urgent and universal need? In my view, taking the hostility experienced by LGBTIs upon ourselves, and choosing to defend them instead of judge them, is perhaps the need I see most urgent and universal right now in the life of the church. We need to help stop the bullying that goes on in schools. We need to help persuade countries to change their laws starting with those countries that still consider homosexuality to be a crime. The Church can lead by example.
It needs to address this phenomenon by first showing it is on the side of gays and ready to defend them, with the same determination as when we defend the unborn child. It is important that we reduce the number of attempted suicides by educating people, so as to respect diversity. Immediately following the Bishops’ Synod, the Catholic Church would do well to implement better ways of expressing its support in a concrete and outward way. We should insist on this. If we don’t, who will?

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Conclusion:

Yes, our church is tired of pompous judgmental statements – it is tired of clashing symbols and empty words – people want to see real people, real testimonies of hope and love, people who listen, who make themselves available and who are ready to offer their time and their friendship.
So whoever feels lost, hidden or forgotten in the church would be pleased to find us busy right now, (like the woman in the Drachma parable) sweeping up the whole house of God and causing a household stir. They would be happy to know that we value and celebrate their worth and are doing whatever we can to build an inclusive Church. And hopefully, we will REJOICE with our friends, including the Bishops and the Pope!

Annunci