Just a few weeks ago on October 12th I did a talk at TEDx Charlotte. Here it is!
See the transcript below…
From the TEDx Charlotte site:
How we relate to people we don’t understand is more important than we know! Life is too short and the stakes are too high to reject our loved ones. We must find a way to acceptance and love while we live.
What do you want people to learn from your talk? Accepting and loving our LGBTQ family and friends for who they are is not only possible but is a foundation for the best life possible! It’s hard emotional work, and our LGBTQ loved ones are worth the effort.
What action items do you want people to take away from your talk?
1) To understand that they are not alone. It is hard for many of us to accept our LGBTQ loved ones.
2) Understand that their loving acceptance is more vitally important than they know.
3) Feel the urgency to accept… time is short.
4) Just decide to accept this person they do not understand.
5) Seek out support through organizations like PFLAG to help them love well.
Jim is the father of four daughters and 7 grandchildren. He and his wife have been together for over 40 years. Originally from Charleston, SC, he moved to Charlotte with his family in 1999 to join First Union National Bank as a programmer. He is now an Application Systems Engineer with Wells Fargo working with Document Management COE.
Jim loves backpacking, gardening, bird watching, and photography, but most of all, he loves sharing these with his fantastic grandchildren. He has been active in the Charlotte PFLAG organization for 4 years where he is now a member of the Faith Action Committee.
This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at https://www.ted.com/tedx
Many years ago, one of my daughters had a secret. Now this was the kind of secret you don’t want to tell your dad. But it was also the kind of secret that just can’t remain hidden. So when she was 15 years old she told me and it scared me. I saw it as a problem and I wanted to help her fix it.
Her secret was that she was attracted to girls.
It had to have been hard for her to tell me. It was sure hard for me to hear it.
I thought if she would just change her mind, everything would be okay. So being the wise father that I was, I made it my goal to “help her change her mind”. Here’s what I did… I let her know how disappointed I was… and then waited for her to change. And I waited and I waited…
I thought I had all the time in the world to wait. But endless time is just an illusion, and that illusion was shattered for me on the 23rd of September 2012, when my daughter was just 26 years old, she died… from a very rare cancer.
After helping her fight that awful disease and then watching helplessly as it took her life, her secret doesn’t seem like such a big deal anymore. But back then it felt enormous.
I hope that my story will help you understand what I mean when I say acceptance is the first step to Love. My dream is that you will get it for yourself and then you can embrace that idea with me that acceptance is the first step to love.
Her name was Leah Kathryn Anderson. We called her Kat. She was the youngest of our 4 daughters and, our special surprise baby. She was a happy youngster and from a very early age, she was different from her sisters. She liked playing with trucks and cars, and getting dirty helping me in the yard. Now they all four loved to act out stories, especially Disney stories and whenever they did, Kat always took the role of the prince.
As a teenager, things began to change. My wife and I, we had already gone through this transition to adolescence with her three sisters, but with Kat it was different. She was dealing with depression and that depression sucked the life out of her and her happy disposition changed to this sullen lethargy.
You have an advantage over my wife and me, because you know about her secret. Kat knew and she knew how hard it was going to be to tell us. It had to have seemed like just a no-win situation to her.
But she hadn’t told us yet, so we didn’t know if this was teen angst or something else, we just knew it was awful!
We blamed ourselves, and we desperately needed help. But we couldn’t even ask for help. We were frozen by feelings of embarrassment and shame. And the downward spiral continued and things got worse and worse until it seemed it could not possibly get any worse. And that’s when she came out to us.
I couldn’t believe it. I’m the kind of person that I had spent my whole life trying to learn the rules and doing my best to follow them (and of course doing my best to hide my mistakes and my failures), but not Kat. It seemed to me that she was choosing anything and everything she could to distance herself from us and our faith.
Now I don’t remember what my exact words were in that moment, but my message was clear. This is unnatural. There is something wrong with you and it needs to be fixed.
I couldn’t even hear what she was telling me because of all the things I was projecting onto her.
Imagine how much courage it took for her to reveal her most intimate secret… to her parents… who she knew would not accept what she was telling them!
I couldn’t see it in that moment, but looking back I realize that she was the bravest person I ever knew. It breaks my heart to think how my rejection must have felt to her.
I did not want to reject my daughter. I just couldn’t see any other way. I wanted her to have the best life possible, but all I could see for her as a lesbian were problems. It didn’t occur to me that it was people like me who created those problems.
In our faith, homosexuality was a sin and the only way forward was for her to change and she clearly wasn’t going to do that. So I realized that I needed a new approach. I needed to stop trying to fix her, but this was not acceptance. I hoped that without pressure from me, she would be able to see her own brokenness and then she could find a way back to the happy, healthy young woman that I remembered.
Instead this quiet confidence emerged and everything about her said, “This is who I am and it has nothing to do with you.”
I began to realize that if I were ever going to understand what was going on, I needed to focus on myself and not on my daughter. I made a critical decision to deeply examine my own beliefs. I was no longer satisfied to simply repeat the answers I had been taught. I needed to know what I believed and I needed to know why. Kat was my reason.
The Bible was our guide and I brought my questions to it. I was surprised at how little there was. Just a very few verses scattered here and there throughout this huge book.
In my faith, homosexuality was a big deal. I was confused. Why wasn’t there more?
What little I found did seem to be against homosexuality, but as I dug just a little deeper I came to see that that these biblical passages had nothing to do with the questions I was asking.
And I found I could no longer use the Bible to justify my rejection of my daughter’s sexual orientation [and my driving question changed from asking, “Is this sin?” to a much more helpful question… “Are my words and actions loving?”] I unintentionally skipped this on the TEDx stage, but it was important enough that I wanted to keep it here in the transcript.
This transition took a lot longer than it had to. And I have struggled to understand why, As much as I loved my daughter, why was it so hard for me to just simply accept her as she was?
As I peeled back the layers, I began to see that I too was looking for acceptance from my faith community and I was very afraid of their rejection. I had seen it over and over, when people disagreed on some points of theology and were never seen or heard from again. That fear was an anchor holding me back, but my love for Kat was greater than my fear.
As I have become more outspoken as an ally, most of the people in my faith community have withdrawn to a polite silence. But not everyone. Not too long ago, someone told me on FB that I had “Lowered my theology to meet my pain.” This person has no idea how hard I fought to hold on to that theology. His comment made me angry, but it also helped me remember when I used to think like that and it helped me remember my journey and left me with a question I think is kind of important. You say that I’ve lowered my theology to meet my pain. What good is theology that doesn’t meet us in our pain?
Somewhere along the way. someone asked me to explain to them about when I chose to be heterosexual. There are many things I don’t understand, but I know my own experience and I was attracted to girls long before I knew anything about sexuality. I clearly remember when I was 5 years old, there was this little girl in in my class… when she walked into the room, my heart skipped a beat and this flood of emotion came washing over me. If someone told me that what I was feeling was unnatural or an abomination, it wouldn’t have changed anything. It would have just added confusion and shame to the mix…
Confusion and shame. That is what my daughter felt. And it was coming from me. How could I have been so blind to the the hurt I caused her.
Kat knew that I was on this journey, but we didn’t talk about it. Until one night when I decided I would tell her how things were going with me… sort of a State of the Dad address. I said to her “Kat, I can tell this is who you are and I could not love you any more completely. I am glad you are gay!”
You see, her coming out brought me face to face with some very ugly parts of myself and my community. Things I had to face head-on and I am a better person for it. I began to see that this “moral high ground” taken by people like me was less about morality and a whole lot more about fear of things we don’t understand. And that fear caused me to behave in some very unloving ways and I couldn’t even see it.
If only I could go back and do it all again. But none of us gets a do over. What if I could write a letter to myself and send it back in time, what I would say?
I am writing to you from your future. There are some things I need to give you a heads up about. But first I want to tell you that you are a good dad. . Not because get it right all the time, but because you love your family. There are some heavy things coming your way, and that love will guide you to the very best outcomes.
You have a wonderful faith community. But it’s not important that you agree on every little thing. Your community will be stronger with voices like yours pushing the boundaries and speaking up for marginalized people.
Speaking of marginalized people, when your youngest daughter is 15, she’s going to come out to you as a lesbian. And it’s going to frighten you. It’s okay to be scared. It’s not okay to be mean. When she tells you, don’t talk, just listen. Listen to her as if she is telling you the most important secret of her life (because she is). When she’s done, tell her how much you love her. Make sure she knows this changes nothing about your relationship. And save your rejection for later… you’re going to find out you don’t need it.
You will find the strengths courage to face the fears and beliefs that stand in your way. Don’t take too long. You do not have as much time with her as you think.
As you begin to accept her, you are also going feel alone, but you are not alone. You will meet others who are loving and actively supporting their LGBTQ children. Join them. You need them and they need you too.
Finally, there’s no easy way to say this, but just as you were there to welcome Kat into this world, you are going to be there with her when she breathes her last breath. It’s not supposed to be like that, and there is nothing I could say that would make losing Kat be okay. But know this, Jim. When she leaves this life, your daughter will feel loved and completely accepted by everyone who mattered to her, and you are one of those people. That is worth everything!
Most people hear a story like mine and think, “It could never happen to me,” until it does. What are you going to do when it happens to you? Please take my advice and save your rejection for later. You’re not going to need it.
Acceptance… is the first step to love.