This is a story about my daughter Kat and just one area where she had a profound impact in my life. Actually although Kat is at the center of this story, the story is about me. Many who did not know Kat were made aware of her existence because of her tremendous fight with cancer. She was, of course, in my life long before she got sick with cancer. There will be more stories about Kat in the future, but likely none more pivotal for me than this one.
When I was a kid, I was a loner. I preferred spending time alone to playing group games. I have a vivid memory of playing alone during school recess with a magnifying glass. I don’t know if I did that often, but that one moment stands out clearly. Magnifying glasses are wonderful playthings. Everyone knows how it magnifies things. That is after all what they were made to do. When you examine a thing long enough, you find out a lot more than you imagined on the surface. I found that if I held the magnifying glass away from me, it turned the world upside down and best of all it can bend light to a sharp focus. That day on the playground, I was focusing sunlight to a tiny dot so bright I could hardly stand to look at it. Focusing that dot of sunlight on a leaf caused that tiny bit of the sun’s energy to be so intense that it burned the leaf, nothing huge, just enough to have some good fun.
Kat’s influence in my life was like that magnifying glass. Seeing the world through her eyes frequently turned my world upside down. It is easy to have a surface understanding of someone that makes them all good or all bad, but such an understanding is always surface; never deep and never fully true. Our house was normal and Kat and I had more than our share of difficulties. Through them, I learned how to be more patient and forgiving… the hard way. The last year and a half, Jeanie and I have devoted our lives to helping Kat fight for her life. Every facet of her impact in our lives is burned deeper than I ever imagined possible, as if the very struggle itself were a magnifying glass focusing her life on us. My hope is that Kat’s life energy will continue to influence others through her story.
To speak about her in past tense feels so awkward and unreal. It simply does not seem possible that she is gone.
Most of us do not discuss our sexuality in public and Kat’s sexuality would not be a relevant topic in most circumstances. But it is pivotal to this story; a story about one of the deepest, most profound influences Kat had in my life, a fundamentally life-changing journey that I might never have taken except for my love for her. Kat was a lesbian and she was not shy about saying so. As an evangelical Christian, this was a tough pill for me to swallow. Her sexuality shook me deeply and challenged my world view to the core. I am telling my story because my silence on the subject allows others to make assumptions and “speak for me”.
This story is about how I dealt with Kat’s sexuality and how it changed me. It is not an attempt to preach or to convince anyone of anything. While my story will undoubtedly affirm some people and irritate others, that is not the point. This is very simply a vulnerable, intimate part of my story and the story wants to be told.
Kat growing up
Katie was a happy little girl. She was mischievous and loved to have fun. From the start, she was more masculine than her sisters. It seemed as if she needed to make her own place in her world. Unlike her older sisters, she never ever played with dolls. She preferred toys like cars and tools. She loved to follow me around with her shovel and rake to help me in the yard and I loved having her along to “help”.
She was tough too. When she was about 4 years old, she fell and cut her cheek pretty badly. Jeanie and I took her to the our family doctor, Dr. Leventhal who decided he needed to stitch the wound. When they gave her the shot to numb the area, she did not cry. She did not even flinch! I can still remember that stoic set to her face that said, I can endure this pain. Dr. Leventhal said he had never witnessed such a thing from a child. He said he has adults that cry from that shot.
When Katie was around 10 – 12 years old, I had a business at home repairing musical instruments. She helped me in the shop by taking instruments apart for me. I would get her to look at them closely to diagnose the problem and tell me how she would fix it. She was very good at troubleshooting! She also loved working with the tubas. She took a lot of pride in wrangling those huge instruments, taking them apart and giving them a bath so I could fix them. It was good for her to do the work and very helpful for me to keep up with the never ending queue of broken horns.
The next period of her life was not so pleasant. When Kat hit her teen years, they hit back… hard! The middle school years were very difficult for her. It seemed like she was sucked into the depths of depression overnight. It was right in the middle of this turbulence that we moved from Charleston, SC to Charlotte, NC. Kat was agreeable to the move, but it put her in a totally new school system with all new friends. I won’t tell all of her embarrassing stories, but I will tell you this one…
Kat was a daredevil. Her boundaries were rarely what we would have chosen for her. During middle school, Kat had pretty long hair with bangs. One day when she came home from school, Jeanie was talking to her when she noticed a flash of reflected light from under her bangs. She asked what it was while she pulled her hair back. There, to her amazement was a safety pin attached to Kat’s head! Someone at lunch had asked her if she wanted to have her eyebrow pierced! Kat agreed and so this friend stuck a safety pin through her eyebrow. Jeanie was furious. She took Kat to our new family doctor. He took a look at it and laughed. He thought that was pretty funny and let Jeanie know she didn’t need to worry about it.
Kat’s escapades were many, like bungee jumping while on a trip with her friend, Karyn. And who could forget the night Erin and I picked her up at the police station at 2:00 AM, but since she cannot give me permission, I will not share them publicly. I firmly believe that if it had not been for the influence of her sister, Erin, she would have been sucked into a dark hole where we would never have been able to reach her.
Kat had never been much of a talker and was not likely to start opening up as a teenager. So knowing what was going on inside her was a virtual impossibility. It was a troubling time for Jeanie and me; not knowing what was going on with her nor how to help.
It was in the middle of this turbulent time that Kat came out to us as a lesbian. To properly tell this story requires a little backstory about me. Please bear with me…
Jim growing up
Church was a big part of my story, but church means many different things to people. When I talk about church, I am talking about a weekly event at a place with a steeple and a system of belief that is agreed to without question by its members. My experience with church was that it was a place where we had all the answers and were evangelical about bringing in others who were not already a part of our congregation. In retrospect, the focus was not so much on loving God and and loving people the way we love ourselves (as Jesus taught). In practice, loving God was about praying and reading our Bible daily and getting our act together, loving ourselves was about keeping up masks so no one would see our flaws, and loving others was about bringing them to church events with us. This description of church may sound critical. That is not my intention. My intention is to define an ambiguous word in order to be able to communicate my story. If we all read the word, “church” with our own understanding then my story becomes something very different. This description is merely my “grownup view” of the church that played a major formative role in my life.
When I was a young man, I was as evangelical (in your face) about my faith as an introverted person could be. Like everyone else on the planet, I was learning how to get by, learning how to find love and acceptance. Unlike everyone else, I came to the conclusion that if I could learn the rules and follow them, I would be set and have no problems. I was looking for black and white rules for life, and the church was glad to feed them to me. As an obedient disciple, I studied my bible and did my best to live by it. When I messed up, I covered up. I considered myself to be an ambassador of Christ; possibly the only representative that some people would ever see. This was a very important appointment. It was important to me that I did not let Jesus down. If I screwed up, it made God look bad. I was setting up my “game pieces” for a life of hiding my true thoughts and feelings… the unique things that only I can bring to this world. I know now that we are all different for a reason. At that time, I thought the point was to be the same.
If you knew me then, you would have thought I was unquestioning in my faith. But under the covers, I was full of questions and doubts. I was looking for security in my faith and since questions and doubts did not add to my feeling secure, I mostly kept them suppressed. The church reinforced my silence by letting me know that all the important questions had already been answered. Anytime I asked a question, I was given the “right answer”. The underlying message was, “Don’t worry about such things. We already figured this one out. This is what “we” believe. All you have to do is learn and obey.” Another factor in keeping me silent was that voicing questions would have made me into a trouble maker. At heart, I was a pleaser. The more I learned and fell in line, the more praise I got, which made me feel more secure… I still had questions but I continued to stuff them. These questions were buried so deep under the “unquestionable truths” that they hardly had a chance to surface.
I was compliant, but not the epitome of compliance. I could not ultimately suppress the questions burning inside me. Finding a balance between the safety of acceptance and honoring my own questions was difficult. I knew the boundaries of my denomination well and pushed right up to the edge without crossing the line. When I went to college, I met other faithful followers of Christ who were from other denominations. I made sure that none of my new friends were involved in any of the “cults” that we were taught to avoid. This list is the same one that was recently changed due to the presidential race (sigh). My friends and I became friends and formed a small and tight knit community of believers.
Befriending people who are different than we are is a recipe for changing our world view. These folks in my community had already earned my respect as brothers and sisters in the faith when I was shocked to learn that they openly practiced expressions of faith that were forbidden by the church I grew up in… behaviors that I was taught were “of the devil”. For the first time in my life, I found myself on the other side of “the line”, confronted with a challenge to the fundamental teachings I grew up with. These friends were clearly not “devil worshipers”. They seemed like honorable followers of Christ to me. What to do with this? Fundamentally, I believed that the Bible was true, so someone’s interpretation of it must be off. This began one of the first big times I found myself wrestling with conflicting “facts” in hopes of finding a clear explanation and the right answer.
I talked to people I trusted from both sides of the issue to learn the facts so that I could decide for myself which side had the truth. What I found out was that truth is not so easy to figure out. Well meaning, godly people disagree about important things. As fundamental as that statement sounds, it was news to me. In my isolated existence in my church, we all believed the same things. So I thought that was the truth.
At that time, I thought I needed something concrete that I could count on. What I learned instead was that I was receiving personal perspectives. I was looking for the ultimate authority to give me objective truth. What I got was views of people whom I trusted, but who disagreed. Each of us sees the world the way we do because of influences in our lives and because of who we are. More perspectives are important to know, but not to pick the “right answer”. The really important questions rarely have an easy answer. Rather, I learned quickly that I have to do my own wrestling and that it rarely ends with clear answers.
I honestly don’t remember the conversation with Kat when she came out to us. Things were so upside down, it must have seemed like “just another issue” to deal with. We were already concerned about her on multiple levels. She was depressed and having such a hard time with life in general. She was basically and fundamentally unhappy. Added to this was the fact that she was abandoning the faith that we held so dearly. As if this were not enough, adding homosexuality to the mix was overwhelming for Jeanie and me.
At first, we felt an overwhelming sense that we were complete losers as Christian parents. Everyone else in our circle kept their families intact in the faith. What was wrong with us? How could we have messed up so horribly with Kat? Unspoken and unwritten community standards caused us to feel shame. We were sure we didn’t measure up so we went into hiding. We could not talk about what we were going through for fear of people wondering what was wrong with us. Hiding kept us in the dark about the truth that lots of parents have to face the fact that they have a child who is gay. The truth that “good Christian” parents are not immune. Our self imposed isolation added to the community perception that there is something wrong with parents who have gay children. This shameful silence of the community keeps others hiding in their own sense of unworthiness.
Our initial focus was on what we had done wrong and how we had failed Kat. Ironically the questions we were asking had very little to do with Kat. To be sure, she was the reason for the questions, but rather than focusing on what was best for her, we were focused on how to “fix” her so we could feel better about ourselves. We were so caught up in the shame of being horrible parents that we could not see or think straight. The largest part of our journey was to be the removal of the focus from ourselves and getting back to our fundamental love for our daughter.
Shortly after she came out, I got a communication from Focus on the Family that they were beginning a new ministry to help bring people out of homosexuality. They were bringing their “road show” to Charlotte, where we lived, for an abbreviated Saturday session. I immediately signed up for this event. I felt that the coincidence of her coming out with the timing of this event was an appointment from God Himself. At the event, I heard all about the conspiracy of the pro-gay faction to infiltrate our culture through media. This abomination was being shoved down the throats of good Christian people. I was told how we needed to be vigilant and ready to fight this horrible movement. I heard success stories of gays who had been healed to encourage us that our loved ones were not beyond saving. I left the conference, still shell shocked, but with notes and books I purchased in hand. I was now ready to begin reading, learning and wrestling in earnest (and in private).
I was ready to take on my share of the blame and all the rest too. What had I done wrong. How did I fail her? Kat had always been more masculine than her sisters. When she was a little girl, I frequently referred to her as “my boy”. (Side note: Unlike the stereotypical dad, I was not trying to have a boy. I was perfectly content having daughters. So to call Katie “my boy” carried no negative connotations or wishes whatsoever. It was simply an observation of who she was). I began to feel guilty for having referred to her that way and beating myself up for having encouraged her masculine behaviors. I blamed myself for unknowingly influencing her to choose to be gay.
A Space of Grace
Over time, I was able to let myself off the hook. I gradually came to a deeper understanding that Kat, like me, was a complex person. No one person could take full credit for her positive characteristics. Similarly no one could properly carry the blame for any of her negative characteristics. This understanding helped me give myself more grace. I did not hold all the cards with Kat and I was not to blame. By this point in my journey, I knew I was not responsible for Kat’s sexual preference. I still believed it was a poor choice she made, but it was no longer solely my fault.
Coming out of this self blame stage helped me to remember that this was not just some ‘issue” I was wrestling with. This was my daughter! My daughter who I loved completely. I understood that in the next phase of my wrestling, I needed to separate my love for Kat from any conclusions I might draw concerning homosexuality. The most important thing I wanted for Kat was for her to be healthy emotionally and physically. Selfishly, I wanted her to be a heterosexual Christian woman too, but even then I knew that was a desire I might have to give up. As much as I wanted her to be straight, I did not want my daughter to be a shell of a woman who pretended to be someone she was not, just so she could be accepted and make me look good.
I know that I am at my best in every way when I am in a safe place; a place where I can feel free to be myself. When I am accepted as a person just as I am, regardless of what craziness I might feel or believe, I can stop investing so much energy in managing the way others feel about me. In that space of grace, I have the freedom and the opportunity to wrestle with the questions burning inside. If this was true for me, it maked sense that it would be true for others too. I reasoned that if there were any chance for Kat, it would happen inside a cocoon of love and grace. As long as we were trying to change her, she would not have the freedom to be herself. Without that freedom, she could never get better. I was becoming resigned to the possibility that I might not win this war against her sexuality. But if Kat were to ever find her way out of her depression; if she were ever to embrace our faith again, if there was any chance that she would ever be straight again, it would happen most likely if she were loved and accepted for who she was.
This was a turning point for me. My purpose changed from trying to get her fixed, to loving her in spite of how I felt about her choices and her situation. I stopped saying things like, “She is struggling with homosexuality,” which wasn’t true. Kat was not struggling with homosexuality. She knew exactly who she was. She was struggling with feeling accepted for who she was.
I was struggling with her homosexuality.
Now that I had addressed my relationship with her, it was time to deal with the part that really was solely mine to deal with. Without regard to any personal relationships, what did I believe God has to say about homosexuality?
Ruminating and learning
Every one of us has to adjust in some way when our experience does not match our belief. Some things just will not be ignored. Will we hold onto our dogmatic beliefs without question, in spite of the fact that it does not match our own experience. Will we abandon our beliefs and simply following our senses and experience wherever it might lead. Will we explain away the discrepancies in an attempt to reconcile the two? Don’t we all do these behaviors? I know I do. Usually though, when real life does not line up with my beliefs, it will not easily let me go. I tend to start a sort of wrestling match in my mind. The internal wrestling match that was triggered by Kat’s sexuality took many years and much heartache. I did not know it at the start, but my world was beginning to get much larger and my life much richer.
The Bible was the place for me to begin. It is the foundation for the faith that I held dear. What I found there were two key pieces of information: 1. There are only a very few places in the Bible where it even mentions homosexuality and Jesus himself never even mentions it. This tells me that it was not a pivotal topic in the Bible, no matter what you believe it says. 2. The places where homosexuality is mentioned seem to be absolutely and unequivocally against it. This realization caused me to fear that I was going down a road that could only end in choice between accepting Kat’s homosexual lifestyle or the Bible. It felt like watching a fight to the death where I cared deeply about both the contestants. I avoided this topic as long as I could and I never talked about it.
The word, ruminating, comes from the way cows digest their food. They swallow it for a while then bring it back up to chew on it then swallow it again. Pretty disgusting, but it fits. I found myself ruminating on this frequently (and silently of course); reasoning and arguing for a time, then putting it on the back burner to let it simmer for a while. Just when I would forget about it, something would remind me, and I would pick it up where I left off. As much as I tried to avoid it, I could not let it go… or maybe it wouldn’t let me go. I loved my daughter unconditionally. Nothing could change that, but there was something in me that made me feel like this issue was bigger than my relationship with Kat. As much as I loved her, I was a committed follower of Christ and I was not going to walk away from that so easily. So I ruminated.
I began to trust my intuition that this attraction to other girls was not a choice Kat made, but was the way she was from the beginning. As I thought about the notion of choosing to be gay, I reasoned that if it were a choice, then any gay person could tell you when they made the choice to be gay. So if a homosexual chooses to be that way, then I reasoned a heterosexual must also choose to be straight or at least choose to not be gay. I knew that I never made such a choice and I have a hard time imagining that I somehow missed such a developmental milestone. As far back as I can remember, I was attracted to girls. It was the same for Kat. I now believe with every fiber of my being that she never chose to be a homosexual woman. It was simply one of her characteristics. To put it another way, she was born that way.
This assurity that Kat was ok bothered me. It felt too convenient. I was afraid that, because I wanted it so badly, I had convinced myself that she was ok. Was I succoming to confirmation bias? Was I naturally looking at things in a way that confirmed what I already believed? I was afraid of buying into a conclusion of convenience with no depth. I questioned that my desires for a clear answer to this problem were clouding my judgment. It had happened before. Ironically, the fear that my love for Kat was clouding my thinking was making it harder to accept the very conclusions that would eventually draw me even closer to my daughter.
Beliefs about Faith
Over my lifetime, I had my own set of preconceived notions about even the idea of faith. I expected my faith to be strong enough to see me through any situation. The Christian leaders I looked up to were firm and dogmatic in their beliefs and could quote chapter and verse why they believed what they believed and why they were right; right meaning correct and also on moral high ground. I admired that ability. In my eyes they seemed to have their acts together. I felt that the path to maturity in the faith went something like this… learn objective truth, practice it, add new truths, rinse and repeat. This process would build a structure of faith that would weather any of life’s storms. I reasoned that a mature faith should be strong enough to see me through any crisis or decision by simply applying what I know to be true.
However, this particular “storm” seemed to be too much for my faith. There were no easy outs that I could take with integrity. I wanted desperately for my desires for Kat to align with my childhood faith, but the pieces would not fit together neatly. The thought of changing what I believed in order to fit my own circumstances went against the very fiber of my being. But the very idea of abandoning my daughter whom I loved for a rigid stand against an idea was appalling. I was disappointed in my faith. I thought surely that it would see me through this.
There are many things about life that cannot be fully explained and comprehended. This mystery of life is fascinating to no end. There is so much to be learned. It would be nice to have easy answers to all the difficult questions, but not reasonable. I am a learner. As a learner, I naturally ask questions and question answers. Even though I do not always voice my questions, they are always there. There are too many things I don’t know and I am naturally curious. Trying to align belief and experience frequently causes me to get tied up in knots. It is just who I am.
Where’s the Humility?
Inevitably, those of us who accept the official answers without question end up looking for ways to defend these answers against the evidence of our experience. It is a humbling experience to find that what you have been taught has been scientifically proven incorrect. What do we do with that? To illustrate, one evening many years ago, I joined a church group on the beach with my telescope. I love showing interested people a view of the universe that most never get to see. Some of these folks that night believe that the earth is only a few thousand years old. Some of the objects they observed are hundreds of thousands of light years away… When I mentioned that the light we see when we look at them is hundreds of thousands of years old, one of the ladies without missing a beat marveled at how amazing it was that God could create the universe with everything already in motion giving the illusion that it is much older than it is. Really!?! This statement was made up in order to explain away the contradiction between the scientific facts with with what she already believed. That is dishonest and arrogant. What is so wrong with saying, “I could be wrong, but I believe…”?
These kinds of dishonest explanations caused me to begin questioning everything. Did anyone really have an objective interpretation of the Bible. Is that even possible? Back to the question of homosexuality, I knew that there were a lot of people who believed that they did not have to abandon their sexuality to follow Christ. As I read what they had to say, I found a few themes; the Bible is too antiquated to use as a guide, our interpretation of the Bible is wrong, or we are simply picking and choosing what we want to believe. There is plenty of information and misinformation out there to be read. It is not my intention to defend one side or the other here, but I will tell you where my own story landed on this question.
When Jesus was asked what was the most important command, he replied to “Love the Lord with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.” Most people don’t seem to know that they asked him a follow-up question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered with one of his famous parables. We know it as the story of The Good Samaritan. To his audience, Samaritans were the worst of the worst. Jesus was saying our neighbor is the one who is hardest to love. My interpretation of this encounter is that the best way to love God is to intentionally love the people we find hardest to love. Nothing is more important than this. Love is becoming the plumb line against what everything else is measured for me. Where is the love in my action? Where is the love in my faith? Having the right answer is rarely about loving someone else.
One evening Kat and I were alone together and I told her that I was glad she was gay. I was not saying that I was just ok with it. I was actually glad about it. The reason, was that this was no longer just an “issue” for me. This was personal! I told her that I had searched for the right “Christian” answer to the question. I had not found one, but I knew without a doubt that I loved her just the way she was. I was not sure what she thought about what I had said because, true to her nature, she didn’t really visibly react.
It is a risky business to love others from the heart. Loving actions are not always received the way they were intended. Most of the time, like that night with Kat, we do not even know whether we succeeded in helping the other person feel loved. One evening, after Kat got sick with cancer, some good friends (a gay couple) brought dinner over for us. Kat was feeling well enough to join us and she engaged with us in conversation about many things. During the conversation, she related her experience of my telling her I was glad she was gay. She talked about how much that meant to her. What a gift for me! I was so glad to know that she felt loved by my statement.
I loved Kat from the moment I first laid eyes on her. I loved her when she was easy to love. I loved her when I was angry with her. I loved her when she hurt me, when she called me names, when she rejected everything I believed in. Ironically, even when I rejected Kat’s sexuality, even then my motivation was love. That love burned its way through layers of of self-protective lies and became a much purer love that was
on her, rather than my own righteousness. Kat had a rough journey through life. During much of that journey, she did not feel loveable nor did she feel loved. I know without any doubt that when she died, she felt loved; completely and unconditionally loved.
This journey began with a conundrum between my faith and the issue of homosexuality. It ended with a new love and appreciation for a group of people who see things differently than I do. I am a richer person for it. The journey continues…