A Letter to the “Just Because He Breathes” Haters

This week I’ve been deluged with messages and comments by people who are incensed and infuriated by our story. By us. I didn’t see it coming this time, since I haven’t blogged or knowingly posted our story anywhere lately.

You have called us f-king murderers, child abusers, people who should never have been parents, and self-obsessed narcissists, who demanded apologies from our son, without ever realizing that we were the ones who had wronged him. You’ve told us that we might as well have shot our son, point blank, before he came out, because that would have been more merciful than what we did do. We’ve read how idiotic and stupid we were to not learn basic parenting truths until our son was on the streets, killing himself with narcotics. You’ve called us some pretty horrible names, some that have been posted online, some not. I’ve only read a small fraction of these kind of comments, but from those I have read, I hear your message loud and clear.

And these are just from those of you who hate us from the “left” side of the conversation. There is a whole separate contingent of people who condemn us from the other side…but thankfully, they’ve been quiet lately. Nope…the religious folks don’t like us much, either.

I have cried a lot this week. I have sobbed at the threads of truth contained in these hate-filled messages. Which might be gratifying to hear, for some of you.

I have to wonder, though, about you, the people who hate us. Do you really think that we are bragging about how we parented? Do you suppose that we told our story, at the request of a small group of underground LGBTQ students, with the intent of getting attention or garnering pity? Or even worse, with the purpose of accumulating accolades?

If so, you would be wrong. Dead wrong.

Admittedly, there have been countless LGBTQ people who have written to tell us of their similar experiences, and to thank us for sharing Ryan’s. There have been parents of gay children, both young and old, who have written to tell us that our story has prevented them from doing the same thing – following the prevalent, still widely preached belief that Christian parents with gay kids must do everything possible, if they love their children, to protect them from this allegedly soul-endangering immorality.

And many of those people have been exceedingly loving and gracious toward us. We are so thankful for each one who has written to tell us that our story has changed their story.
But please, don’t for a second think that those affirming words let us off the hook.

Please don’t imagine that we revel in some newfound “fame” or that we find solace in the number of times that the Huffington Post article was shared, or the view count of the video of our testimony at Exodus’ final conference.

None of this makes the pain any less.

For those of you who want to be sure that we know how wretched we are, be comforted. We know all too well and feel the pain of that knowledge every day.

I wish you could sit down and ask our close friends, our surviving kids, our therapist and our pastors whether or not we are really aware of the severity of our mistakes, the complete wrongness of our actions. They would tell you what I tell you now:

We don’t live for a single moment without regret.

Our much loved eldest son and dear friend Ryan is dead – a fact that I daily try to get my brain wrapped around – and if you have ever had a child and lost them, you know that the pain of losing a child NEVER leaves you. NEVER. We will live with intense sorrow over his death until our own deaths, and right now that sounds like a very, very long time.

When we weep and mourn we don’t question God or wonder why He allowed our son to die. We don’t have questions for God that complicate our grief…we only have questions and accusations of ourselves. The tapestry of our grief is woven through with threads of remorse, regret and self-reproach.

Each time our Affirming Hope LifeGroup packs our living room, we die inside a little as we ask ourselves if THIS was what we were so afraid of. These amazing, loving, responsible, honest, generous children of God. Really?? We didn’t want Ryan to grow up and be like them? These people who have become some of our closest friends?

Each time we read a heartbreaking coming out letter, we hear Ryan’s voice echoing from the pages, revealing new depths of the pain he felt as a very young child, knowing that something was different…that he didn’t fit into the expected mold of our family.

Each time I sit down to work on writing a longer version of our journey through Ryan’s coming out and our responses, and in preparation, I read the things we wrote to him along with his replies and journal entries from those years, I fight utter despair at the deep, deep level of our misunderstanding. Once he wrote to me, in very large, all caps, “YOU JUST DON’T GET IT!!!” Oh, how right he was. How completely right he was, and how tragically wrong we were. WE JUST DIDN’T GET IT.

For those of you who seem determined that we know how completely and totally wrong we were, WE GET IT NOW.

We have not insulted ourselves from the hundreds of stories from LGBTQ teens and adults, both written and told to us, stories that recount the intense pain, agony, self-loathing and suicidal thoughts caused by the same teachings that we communicated to Ryan. We have not stopped reading Ryan’s own journals that record that very same suffering.

But we also know that we’ll be continuing to “get it” at a deeper level the longer that we live in community with those who have been oppressed, listening to their pain and through them, learning about our own child.

For those of you are seem determined that we suffer and are held accountable for our mistakes, we can only say that the pain of knowing how deeply we wronged Ryan and not being able to sit down across from him and ask his forgiveness (as we did during the last ten months of his life, and as we do now with our surviving kids when we wrong them) is agony beyond all attempt to describe.

We tell our story to anyone who will listen for ONE REASON ONLY. We are trying, in our own small way, to do something right. By exposing our own disastrous errors, we pray that others will learn from us, and treat their own children differently. We pray that it won’t take them six long years and losing their child to drugs and the streets in order to wake them up to the truth that every parent MUST love their children without any condition. Our children learn to love themselves through the love that we have for them. And a child who is told, “I love YOU, but I do not love your sin” does NOT hear love. He does not learn to love himself or that God loves him. Ryan did not. None of the thousands of gay children who have written to me have heard love through those words. None.

So, to those of you who have written to tell us of our utter depravity, we couldn’t agree more.

Many of you have rejected the God whose “words” were used to reject you, and we can see why. But for us, we know that we are utterly, completely broken and without hope. Our hope comes in the form of Jesus Christ, our Redeemer, the One who can take our deplorable actions and use them, somehow, to give hope to others…to speak His love to those who have been told they are unworthy of it…to give parents who have told their children they are no longer welcome at home the humility to ask their kids for forgiveness…to kneel before them and weep for their own sin. In the words of a band that Ryan loved, here is what our Hope looks like, in the face of our utter depravity:

I know one day, all our scars will disappear, like the stars at dawn
and all of our pain, will fade away when morning comes
and on that day when we look backwards we will see, that everything is changed
and all of our trials, will be as milestones on the way

and as long as we live, every scar is a bridge to someone’s broken heart
and there’s no greater love, than that one shed his blood for his friends

on that day all of the scales will swing to set all the wrongs to right
all of our tears, and all of our fears will take to flight
but until then all of our scars will still remain, but we’ve learned that if we’ll
open the wounds and share them then soon they start to heal

as long as we live, every scar is a bridge to someone’s broken heart
and there’s no greater love, than that one shed his blood for his friends

we must see that every scar is a bridge, and as long as we live
we must open up these wounds

when someone stands in your shoes and will shed his own blood
there’s no greater love. we must open up our wounds
From Thrice’s album Vheissu, released on October 17, 2005.
Listen here

And as long as God keeps using our story in to build bridges for others, we will continue to open up our wounds and share each time He prompts us to.

We don’t expect you to agree with, or even respect our faith (especially since many of you have been gravely harmed in the name of Jesus) and you don’t have to believe that our motives are good, but I hope you will see that we choose to speak out about our story ONLY because we believe that we were wrong.

There are many, many leaders and pastors out there still teaching that parents should treat their gay children just as we did, and for that reason, we cannot stay silent. This is not about us. This is about the children, the pre-teens, the teens, the young adults and adults who are still living in self-condemnation, not believing that they are worthy of God’s love, because that is what they are hearing from their church communities and from their parents. And that has to stop.

Lives are at stake.

So even if you hate us, can we please agree on this one thing? If we each do our part to stop the oppression and start saving the lives of LGBTQ kids, maybe we can actually be a world with fewer haters and a lot more lovers.


Note: To those who feel compelled to write and tell us to forgive ourselves…thank you for caring about us, and wanting to ease our pain by encouraging us to be merciful to ourselves. But if you’d simply pray for us instead, we’d greatly appreciate it.

We have a very close circle of friends and family who speak into our lives and have permission to talk with us about this, as well as a distinguished psychologist and spiritual director who we meet with regularly. And most of all, we talk to the Lord about this all the time, and He is walking this journey with us. We don’t know if He will lead us away from our journey of learning more about the pain that we caused; He might or might not. But we do know that He is faithful and good, that He has never failed to provide for us and that we can trust Him. Thank you for respecting this request.

Coming Out with Regrets – Counting on Redemption

During the past few months, while I have NOT been blogging, I have been spending a lot of time with our gay friends, parents of gay kids and reading and replying to emails and messages both from LGBTQ “children” and their parents. I’ve read so many heartbreaking stories; stories that God has used to remind me why He has asked us – and keeps giving us opportunities – to tell our story.

But I am also hearing the stories of previously conservative, Christian parents who have learned what not to do, and how they are loving their children so very, very well. They are communicating real, unconditional love to their kids, and being willing to question and challenge their previous convictions in order to really hear what their children are saying. These parents are coming alongside their kids in beautiful ways….helping their young gay teenagers figure out how to date (very much like young straight teenagers), defending and protecting them from bullying, unsafe relatives and anyone who dares to attack them for telling the truth about who they are, and not simply tolerating their kids, but CELEBRATING them.

At the Gay Christian Network Conference in Chicago, I heard the story of a pastor and his wife whose 16 year old had very recently come out to them. I was deeply moved by their story, not only because they live in the same community where our kids went to college, but because of the very clear way that God had changed and prepared their hearts for what their youngest son had to say to them.

Today that young man, Drew, came out publicly on YouTube, and he did so with such vulnerability, honesty and candor that I am in awe of his courage, his humility and his wisdom.

His 15 minute video is poignant and moving (don’t miss the last five minutes), but I bawled through it, and am crying again as I think about it. For me, the mother who did not respond as Drew’s parents did, it triggered a great deal of sorrow for all the mistakes I made…mistakes that I cannot now undo. It really doesn’t matter much when you make a mistake in balancing your bank statement…or when you vacuum up a broken light bulb to clean the floor, but then break the vacuum…or when your car slips on the ice and hits a curb, thus keeping you home on a weekend when you had planned to go away. But when you make a mistake like giving your own son the message that he IS a problem, that who God made him was somehow flawed and that although it will be difficult, he doesn’t have the option of following God AND having the chance to fall in love…well, that mistake carries with it some pretty hefty consequences. We had no idea, at the time, that the stakes of getting that wrong were so incredibly high.

People tell me all the time that I need to forgive myself, that they are sure Ryan has forgiven me and that I shouldn’t spend one more minute thinking about what I did wrong. But I disagree that I shouldn’t think about my mistakes. It has been this introspection that has allowed us to share our story in the first place, and that has continually kept us learning as we listen to the stories of our LGBTQ friends. It has been this vulnerability that has allowed us to truly look at our errors and explain to other families why doing the things that their pastors tell them (with confidence undergirded by Scripture) actually does not lead to life, but to death.

Everything we told Ryan was communicated in love…love interwoven with an awful lot of fear. But it was, honestly, love. We believed with all of our hearts that his very soul was in danger, and so we were doing everything we could to protect him. But our pleas for him to reject his sexuality in favor of seeking obedience to Christ only led to DEATH. Relational death, spiritual death, emotional death and PHYSICAL death. Not one OUNCE of good fruit came from trying to live those ideas out. Seriously, not one. When I look back, I can’t think of anything positive that came from our efforts to convince our son that he could – and should – be straight. Or if not straight, then completely celibate for the rest of his life on this earth.

Lately Rob and I have been reading a lot of the letters that Ryan wrote us during those early years, along with the journals he kept. We are also planning to read the letters that we wrote to him, which I expect will be excruciatingly painful. But we both feel God telling us to not to fear reading those letters, and not to pretend we never wrote them. It is only by fully accepting what we said to our son, and by grieving our words, that we will ever truly heal. Looking hard at our regrets has changed, and will continue to change, the way we interact with our surviving children. And, God willing, we will be able to better help other families who are responding just as we did, as we share the things we tried, and the results that came from those efforts.

People often tell me that Ryan wouldn’t want us to be sad and that Ryan would want us to forgive ourselves, as he has already forgiven us. Those sentiments don’t resonate with me, because Ryan, being someone who was incredibly sensitive and who carried enormous guilt for every wrong he had committed against others, would “get me.” He would know why I needed to come to him and ask his forgiveness, even though he had already forgiven me. And he would have listened and cried with me as I apologized for so profoundly disappointing him after he chose to come out to me, trusting that because I loved my gay brother and our gay neighbors, that I would stand by him, as well.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, in his brilliant book “Lament for a Son” says this about regrets:

I believe that God forgives me. I do not doubt that. The matter between God and me is closed. But what about the matter between Eric and me? For my regrets remain. What do I do with my God-forgiven regrets? Maybe some of what I regret doesn’t even need forgiving; maybe sometimes I did as well as I could….Still, I regret.

I shall live with them. I shall accept my regrets as part of my life, to be numbered among my self-inflicted wounds. But I will not endlessly gaze at them. I shall allow the memories to prod me into doing better with those still living. And I shall allow them to sharpen the vision and intensify the hope for that Great Day coming when we can all throw ourselves into each other’s arms and say, “I’m sorry.”

The God of love will surely grant us such a day. Love needs that.

Rob and I believe we need to grieve our regrets, and, as Wolterstorff said so eloquently, that they have become a part of who we are. They urge us on to share our story, to encourage other parents to put aside their fear and embrace their children fully, trusting Jesus with the outcome. Our regrets give us the courage to get up in front of hundreds of people and tell them of what we’ve learned, without ever thinking that now we’ve got it all figured out. Our regrets keep us humbled and they keep us desperately needing our Savior.

Yes, our regrets have become part of our lives. Just as our countless joys, sacred memories, soul-wrenching grief, and profound gratitude have become part of us. And as I feel God calling me to dig deeper, to look, without fear, at the things I communicated to Ryan in the years after he came out to us, I am trusting, with complete faith, that God will go with me to those painful places, and that somehow, out of the mess I made, my Redeemer will make beautiful things.

Speaking to Seattle’s Future Nurses? Yup. 100%.

Last May, about a month before our lives would change drastically due to a mostly forgotten essay that went viral (before I even had a blog site), I wrote the following and posted it on FaceBook. It is almost six months later, and we are in Eastern Washington, preparing to speak again for another group of nursing students.
bursting with excitement at the prospect of getting to spend the morning tomorrow with a large classroom full of individuals who want to learn how to not only care for the body of a patient, but for their mind, heart and soul…especially when those patients may be homeless, struggling with addiction or unable to speak English. Perhaps their religious faith or sexual orientation are very different from what is deemed “normal” in the hospital’s local community; do they not still deserve the same excellent care that is boasted about in all the hospital’s advertising materials? So, if you’d like to know what Rob and I are up to, feel free to read on. Thanks for taking the time!

I have to be up in four hours, in order to get to Seattle University on time for a 7:30 am class. Rob and I have been invited to speak, this week and next, to two groups of first year nursing students, on the topic of respect and dignity for every patient.

Part of our intro goes something like this…

You have chosen a career that has incredible meaning and huge potential to impact the lives of not just your patients, but the families of your patients, as well.

We tell them, through our story, how that impact can be for harm or for healing, depending on how they wield it. We share a bit about the painful scorn, glaring neglect and blatant discrimination Ryan experienced at two different hospitals where we were with Ryan in the ICU. But our focus is on the GOOD stuff – the endless acts and words of kindness, respect and genuine compassion that we received from the medical team at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle during our 17 day stay there.

Each time we prepare to speak to a group of nursing students, I have trouble sleeping the night before. Typically something goes wrong to cause us to be unable to get into bed, or, like last time and again tonight, I received a “random” extremely disturbing phone call or message from one of Ryan’s old friends – friends that are still, tragically, using drugs. For those of my friends who believe in God – and Satan – it seems obvious where these come from. But for those of my friends who don’t believe in a personal God, much less the devil, I’m okay with you saying it is just bad luck. Even bad karma. I respect your beliefs; I have amazing friends, and I am grateful that you respect mine! But whatever the case, for the 24 hours before we go do this presentation, it always seems like all hell breaks loose in an effort to keep us from speaking.

Perhaps that is because our story illustrates exactly what Jesus taught when He told us to love the least of these…when He modeled treating those society despised with the utmost respect…when He broke commandments by healing those who were suffering on the Sabbath. As one of our doctors at Harborview said, “Didn’t Jesus hang out with prostitutes and sinners??” Yup. 100%. And who did He spend the most time calling out?? You got it. The “good people” of the day…those super religious folks that were always – ARE always – harping about who is doing what wrong. And sadly it typically doesn’t involve much self-reflection.
Rob and Ryan - Day 4 at Harborview

Perhaps it is because our story challenges our listeners to put aside their fears, judgments, prejudices and biases to see the SOUL of their patients. We encourage them to do what our team of nurses did – they looked beyond the outward condition to Ryan’s story. They didn’t judge him by his addiction, the number of times he had already overdosed, the horrific condition he was in, his sexual orientation or the fact that he no longer owned anything of value other than a few items of clothing, a lot of well-read books and memorabilia from childhood. The Bible has a LOT to say about our human tendency to judge others by their outward appearance, and God’s constancy in looking only at our hearts. And He sees – and loves – EVERYONE. No exceptions. Not even those religious folks He was so often calling out.

Or maybe it is because we can’t tell the story of our 17 days in Harborview without recounting at least a few of the many wonders we witnessed there. Our story wouldn’t make sense without telling about the day Ryan was being transferred to the hospice to die and then…he wasn’t. The next six days, and the way that the hospital lovingly cared for Ryan, and for our family, while we experienced things nobody could explain was…well, as one of Ryan’s doctors said, “Even the most staunch atheists around here are using the word MIRACLE.”

As many times as we’ve presented this story…as many times as we’ve read it through and vividly remembered each moment as it is retold, Rob and I never stop marveling. It always brings us to tears, and leaves us in awe of our good God who proved His love for Ryan by giving us all unexpected time to spend together, and an invaluable chance to say good-bye.

If you’ve never heard the story, you ought to come sometime and sit in the back, behind all those super smart nursing students, and listen. I am, and have always been, prone to doubt. But when we tell our story, even my doubts go out the window (and that is really saying something, especially these days!).

I am reminded of how personal, powerful and passionate God was toward us in those 17 days.

Or if you know a group of nursing students or people in other caring professions who could use a real-life example of how they can change the lives of a family forever (even if their loved one doesn’t survive), by the dignity, respect, compassion and kindness they show in their words and their actions, let us know. For us, getting to share both about the painful things we went through, and the gloriously precious days provided for us by Harborview (with a bit of help from God) is all about healing and redemption. It binds our wounds, and makes our grief a little easier to bear, knowing that maybe even a few other families will receive the kind of extraordinary treatment we did when they experience the worst trauma of their lives.

At the very least, you’ll learn why, in our opinion, there is NO WHERE else to go but Harborview if you have a serious medical emergency in the Pacific Northwest. But no, we don’t get referral bonuses, nor do they even know we tell all sorts of people about how amazing they are!

But most of all, we tell Ryan’s story because Ryan matters to us. Because we will never stop honoring him and all that he taught us in both life and in death, as long as we have the voices to do so. Because we adore our beautiful boy…just because he breathes…and even when he does not.

Yup. 100%.*

*To know the enormous significance of those two words…you’ll have to listen to our story. We’ll be sharing it on January 10th at the Gay Christian Network Conference in Chicago – Join us there!

Fighting for the Right to Live in the Light

Today my heart feels burdened to share with you something that comes from a family whose courage and love have changed our lives. I am crying as I write this, because words cannot begin to express the magnitude of the gratitude I feel for this family or the urgency of the need for which they are fighting.

If it wasn’t for this family we wouldn’t be the leaders of an HIV/AIDS Local Outreach Team that partners with RoseHedge MultiFaith in Seattle to serve those suffering with HIV and the often associated challenges that can come with it (isolation, homelessness, stigma, addiction).

If it wasn’t for this family we would never have agreed to write our story for the website of Biola Queer Underground – the story that became “Just Because He Breathes,” and which went viral several times in June of this year.

If it wasn’t for this family we would not have traveled to Irvine, California to speak in front of hundreds of people to tell them what God has taught us through the life and death of our son. The video of that presentation, which was our first time speaking in public, has over 80,000 views on YouTube.

If it wasn’t for this family we would not be starting an LGBTQ small group at our church this fall.

If it wasn’t for this family there would not be a rapidly expanding online FaceBook group of parents who love Jesus and who also love their gay/lesbian/bisexual/trans/queer child; this group is the ONLY place that most of the parents feel safe to share how fiercely they love their child without fear of being judged and condemned by their churches.

If it wasn’t for this family we wouldn’t have befriended other parents in our church community whose teenagers have come out to them….we wouldn’t have known them.

If it wasn’t for this family, I wouldn’t have the courage to continue this work. When I have been at my lowest point, feeling beat up by both the right and the left, wishing that I could just go back to my “normal” life, these are the people who remind me to keep listening to God’s voice and trusting HIM with the consequences.

I could go on and on. Without the support and encouragement of this family, who have loved us unconditionally and who have been behind us every step of the way in our journey, we wouldn’t be speaking out on behalf of the LGBTQ community today, especially not in conservative Christian circles, which is where our message needs to be heard, but is often unwelcome.

Please take a few minutes to watch this family’s video, and to read the words of my dear friend, Jodie Howerton, who is doing something that MUST be done in order for all of our kids to have accurate information about how to prevent AIDS. The only way we can stop this disease from killing more of our children is through EDUCATION.

I’m prepared to fight for my son’s right to live in the light.

Several years ago, when my oldest was in 5th grade, I previewed the HIV/AIDS video that our local public school uses to fulfill state educational mandates. The video was produced in the 1980’s (might have had an update in the early 90’s), was incredibly fear based, and contained very outdated information about the virus.

I was stunned. In most other ways, I’ve been very impressed with the curriculum our school district utilizes. The video featured newspaper headlines that read, “Thousands Die of AIDS” and even spliced in a shot of the grim reaper at one point. To illustrate how HIV attacks the immune system, the video used abstract concepts related to baseball that even I, as an adult, was confused by. Then there was the personification of HIV as a red monster.

My 8-year old son, Duzi, is HIV positive.

He is not scary and he is not contagious. He takes a regimen of anti-retroviral medication every day and has an undetectable viral load. He is not a threat to anyone.

The information in the video was scary. Those without additional information would be afraid of my son after watching it. Afraid of my son – a “normal” (whatever that means!) kiddo who plays soccer, basketball, and baseball, does karate, and is a talented hip-hop dancer. Afraid of my son who is a human being that defies stereotype. He is a survivor and simultaneously, a student that loves and reads the Magic Treehouse series. Just like your kids.

The video I previewed perpetuated stigma, the terrible stigma that still criminalizes HIV positive individuals, even when they adhere to their medication and have an undetectable viral load. The chances of transmission are seriously almost moot (if you consider 1 in a million via sexual intercourse moot, even less if blood outside of the body is involved- I TOTALLY do) when HIV viral loads get to undetectable – meaning HIV can’t be detected in the blood.

Back to my preview of the public school video resources:

When the video ended, my head was spinning, blood rushed to my face, and my hand shot up. Why, I demanded, was this video being shown at all? Wasn’t there something else produced in this century that we could show instead? The poor teacher showing the video was simply utilizing a resource that had been approved by our district, and by our state. I then complained to the principal and to the school nurse, who put me in contact with the Health Coordinator at the school district.

The Health Coordinator was incredibly kind and helpful. She admitted that the video was outdated and together, we searched for replacement videos – for an entire year. We found nothing appropriate for the public school setting. And I really mean nothing.

Don’t just criticize. Create.

So, I decided to make some new videos. With the collaboration of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction in Washington State, physicians from Seattle Children’s Hospital, and fundraising help from Seattle Children’s Hospital Foundation, I’m creating a series of four brand new video resources for 5th grade, 6th grade, middle school and high school students.

These videos will be available FREE OF CHARGE to any school district in the nation that wants them.

Utilizing a documentary format that features a “day in the life” of an HIV positive person, the videos will contain medically and scientifically accurate information and will focus on reducing the devastating social stigma still associated with the disease. Students will understand the truth about prevention and transmission, and will feel compassionate, not fearful.

Of course, given the nature of education budgets in states across our nation, there is not any funding available for these videos. We need to raise $150,000 to create all four videos. We’ve launched a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo to help us create the first video.

A collective family decision to share.

Before you go to Indiegogo, I need you to know how much thought, discussion, and prayer went in to my family’s decision to disclose Duzi’s status so openly. Up until now, we have only disclosed his positive status on an individual basis. We have never believed that HIV is something to be ashamed of. We have never communicated to Duzi that he has something to hide or be embarrassed of. Never. We have so normalized HIV in our home, that we actually rarely discuss it any more. Every morning, Duzi takes his HIV meds, I take my thyroid meds, Caleb takes his acid reflux meds, and Alex takes her iron supplement. It’s no big deal.

We started to realize sometime in the middle of last school year that more people knew about Duzi’s HIV status than we thought. Unfortunately, even though HIV status is protected under federal privacy laws, moms at the bus stop, parents at athletic events, and well-meaning people in our church like to chat about “secret” things. We realized that we were not in charge of the information people were communicating to one another about our son’s health. People that knew about Duzi’s status didn’t know that we knew that they knew and so were not coming to us directly to ask questions. We had no idea what myths were being perpetuated.

We’ve decided, with Duzi’s input, with my other kids’ input, with perspective from our community of positive families, and with counsel from friends who know us well, to disclose openly.

Secrets have much more power than truth. We desperately want Duzi to live free of the burden of secrecy and shame; I have no doubt that open disclosure will have some consequences. I have no doubt that we will encounter ignorance and prejudice But, at least we will know about it.

And, I’m prepared to fight for my son’s right to live in the light.

We have 30 days to raise money for our “Redefine Positive” campaign on Indiegogo. Would you consider contributing?

Indiegogo Campaign // Facebook Page // Twitter // Pinterest

No Shame About Being HIV Positive

We Cannot Be Silent

“In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sometimes I forget why I am writing. When the days are too short and too full of undone tasks and too little money to pay to have them done for me, I can forget. When I get one message informing me that my selfish insistence on faith in the Gospel of Christ was the cause of my son’s death, while another declares that my wishful thinking and rewriting of Scripture is the reason my child and many others will spend an eternity in hell – those are the days I want out. Out of this “arena” (as Dr. Brene Brown puts it), where I find myself, bruised and bloody and wondering how in the heck I ended up here.

And then there are weeks like this one. This past week began with a text from a pediatrician friend in Tennessee who sent me the link to an article detailing a scandal happening in her hometown. A mother who, after supporting her daughter as she and her partner fought for benefits for same-sex couples, was given an ultimatum by her church family: Repent of your sin (apparently holding the hand of your child in court has become an unholy act) or leave the church. I was shocked and horrified, and am still shocked and horrified, that a parent is being publicly condemned by her church for loving her child.

No wonder many of the parents I have come to know through this journey do not want their LGBTQ kids to come out in their hometowns and desperately fear their church families knowing of their unqualified support of their child. Among many other things, it could mean rejection by the very people who helped to welcome that child into the world. They know that their children will not be enfolded by the body of Christ, but will be quickly written off as being “led astray by the enemy,” without ever taking the time to hear their story, or to learn how fervently they continue to seek God.

No wonder I sat at a Starbucks this month with a friend who told me, after revealing that her 18 year old child had recently come out to her, that she could no longer be a Christian.

Then today I was reminded of a blog I read earlier this week that was so deeply disturbing that I purposely disengaged it, knowing that I would be unable to function normally with my other children if I thought about it while visiting them. It was posted on a mainstream evangelical website and when I stumbled across it again today and took the time to reread it as well as many of the supportive, affirming comments, I couldn’t dismiss the distress I felt.

Reading it, I was reminded of the Christian radio shows I listened to back in the 80’s and 90’s that, unknowingly at the time, greatly influenced me when our own son came out to us in 2001. Their messages – messages I see now as hate-filled, homophobic propaganda – subconsciously but deeply affected me by planting seeds of fear and prejudice against the gay community. These seeds took root and grew rapidly after finding out that Ryan was part of that community.

If this blog was an exception or aberration, it wouldn’t bother me so much. Unfortunately, it is not.

This horrifically offensive blog has already been articulately and intelligently refuted by others, and given that I am neither a theologian, philosopher or social scientist, I won’t attempt to add my own arguments. However, what I want to do is this: encourage others to ask the same questions I have been asking myself all day.

When those of us who call themselves Christians stand by in silence as someone, speaking with the authority and respect granted to those who are pastors entrusted with teaching the Word of God to their congregations, uses the written word to cultivate disgust toward individuals made in the image of God, we tacitly concur with his conclusions. If we do not speak up – loudly and repeatedly – to object to the use of homophobic, demeaning and dehumanizing tactics, just as we would do to racist, hate-filled bigotry, we are silently condoning the actions.

Rob and I have many beloved friends and family who do not agree with us about gay marriage or other gay rights that we view as human rights, but they do so soberly, realizing that they are speaking about a topic that is not an only a current “issue” but a subject that touches the hearts and souls of individuals who were created by God and who are deeply loved by Him.

We do not have to use the language of hate – disgust and contempt – to communicate our opinions. And we dare not.

If we do not speak out, the words of this pastor may reach the ears of vulnerable listeners, unquestioned and unrefuted, causing them to think that this is the conclusion of those who follow Christ, and much worse, that this twisted perspective represents the opinion of God Himself.

I have not been able to stop asking myself:

How many teenagers, fervent in their desire to please God, will read this and conclude that it is a virtually impossibility to please God, given that their orientation that just won’t change, no matter how hard they pray?

How many young adults, hiding their true sexuality from their families and church communities because of stigma and condemnation, will read this, allowing these words to add another thick layer to the already suffocating shame and contempt they attempt to breathe through so that they can live another day?

How many LGBTQ people will read this, and conclude that this is one more piece of solid evidence that people who love Jesus are also people who hate them?

How many young adults will read this, never thinking that someday they might be parents who give birth to a child who realizes that he or she has, as a result of no choice of their own, a sexual orientation described by this writer as abominable?

How many parents of teenagers will read this, not realizing that one of the adolescents in their own home is struggling to reconcile his or her faith with the realization that they are attracted to the same sex?

How many parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and siblings will read this, and be influenced by these words, so that when their family member finally gathers the courage to share with them the secret they’ve been hiding, they respond with even a little of the “gag reflex” that this pastor encourages us to attend to and nurture?

How many children, when confronted with the disgust of the people whose love they need most in all the world, will conclude that the self-reproach they’ve been fighting against is valid and legitimate after all? How many will decide that their families would be better off without them? How many more funerals will be held for LGBTQ children who feel that their lives are without value?

How many more parents will disown their own children, because they’ve been told by a spiritual authority that the love that their child feels is nothing more than a perverse desire for a repugnant act?

These are just some of the questions that have been nagging at me relentlessly all day today. And though just the thought of both the situation in Tennessee and the words of the pastor turned blogger have been enough to kill my appetite today, they also serve as a powerful reminder of why God has kept whispering the same thing to my husband and I, over and over and over, “Tell your story. Tell your story. Just tell your story.”

This week, while on a long, beautiful bike ride, Rob turned to me and said, “Even if I lose every single one of my straight friends, I cannot stop sharing what God has shown us. To do so would be disobedience.”

Today, I have been powerfully reminded of the potential cost of that disobedience. To stop sharing, to stop speaking out or to choose to be silent just might make the difference in whether or not another family gets to attend their child’s wedding, or, like us, can only visit a gravestone.

If I could, I would shout from every mountaintop the truth that I know with more certainty than I know anything else: That our Creator God is a God of love, and that He fiercely loves every single one of His children. Our God is compelled to chase after those who feel that they don’t belong, those who have been cast away and left out. Our God is the God who leaves the ninety-nine to chase after the one…the one who He loves with unfathomable passion, and with whom He is never disgusted.


The article about the mother condemned for supporting her gay child can be found at TimesFreePress.com.

If you feel it is necessary to read the blog in question, or to ask the editors of the website that hosts it to remove it, you can find it here: The Importance of Your Gag Reflex When Discussing Homosexuality and “Gay Marriage”

One of the many well-written rebuttals of the blog and clarifications of what the Gospel really is was written by Rachel Held Evans, and includes links to other valuable resources, as well: Responding to homophobia in the Christian community

Another fabulous and thought provoking response to the complete irony of the blog in light of the Gospel is this one: What If Jesus Had A Gag Reflex?

While Your Child is Still Alive: A Letter to Parents Who Aren’t Ready to March in the Pride Parade

Lately I have become newly aware of how many parents, particularly (but not exclusively) Christian ones, are extremely uncomfortable with the fact that one of their children happens to be gay. I used to be one of those parents, but am no longer; instead I find myself in the very odd and ironic position of being jealous of them.

I have come to the conclusion that it is a luxury to have things to complain about. It is a gift to have something to give away or to even reject. If you chat with someone who has been unemployed for months, you won’t find them complaining about the bad dental benefits at their last employer.

When I talk with parents who have recently buried their infant daughter, I never hear them complain about sleepless nights up with their crying toddler. A friend of ours who spent years living on the streets of Seattle knows that he is more than fortunate to have found affordable housing. He wouldn’t dream of noticing the features in his apartment that aren’t exactly to his liking. It seems to me that it is those of us who have much who also have the extravagance of trivial grievances.

I think parents with gay kids are richly blessed. They have the luxury of being able to choose whether or not to love their gay child, because they have a gay child. But for those of us whose gay children have died, most frequently from the scourge of AIDS, the horrors of addiction or the tragedy of suicide, we no longer have that luxury.

When we hear of parents who have told their lesbian daughter that she is no longer welcome to come for Thanksgiving, of the transgender son whose mother refuses to acknowledge him as part of the family or the gay teen whose parents repeatedly remind him that he is headed for hell, we experience a plethora of acute emotions: shock, astonishment, envy, confusion and anger. Sometimes, even rage.

I have to be honest and say that if I had come across these words – my words – six or seven years ago, I would probably have felt defensive and upset. I might have stopped reading. But it would have been to my peril. Back then, I needed someone with perspective and wisdom to say the hard but true things. I needed someone who had compassion for my fear and grief to help me figure out why I was so scared, sad and deeply bothered by the thought of our son having a boyfriend.

Sadly, I let my fear keep me from understanding, cherishing and embracing my son. Instead of protecting Ryan, as I intended, my fear and reluctance backfired, causing a far greater danger and crisis than any I had ever imagined. This is not just our story; I have heard from hundreds of men and women whose experiences of rejection and alienation from family members have sparked downward spirals of depression, addiction and despair.

I wish someone would have told me what I did not know: that having a living, breathing gay child who challenged me, caused me to be uncomfortable and uneasy and whose desires caused me to lose sleep at night because of fear and worry was vastly, immeasurably, infinitely better than having a gay child who is dead.

No more challenges. No more discomfort. No more worries. At least not the kind we used to have. Instead, all of those relatively insignificant emotions were replaced by overwhelming sorrow, paralyzing grief and crushing regrets.

While your child (whether 14 or 49) is still alive, please treasure the fact that you have the luxury of having an LGBTQ child to enjoy, to love and to learn from. Please don’t take that gift for granted. It is a privilege far too many of us will never have again.

While your child is still alive, join a support group for parents of LGBTQ kids. Read books written by gay “children.” Make friends with people who are gay and ask them lots of questions. Let them teach you.
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While your child is still alive, take advantage of every single chance you get to tell him that you love him just the way he is.

While your child is still alive, call her and invite her over for dinner and ask her to please bring her girlfriend.

While your child is still alive, ask them if you’ve done anything that has been hurtful, so that you have the chance to say, “I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.”

While your child is still alive, reassure her that God adores her, and wants a relationship with her. God doesn’t only love straight and cisgender* people. He loves every one of His children, all of whom are fearfully and wonderfully made.

While your child is still alive, don’t worry about what your friends will think. Twenty years from now, your friends’ opinions won’t keep you up at night. But your remorse about not loving your child while you still had the chance will. Trust me on this.

While your child is still alive, pray and ask God to show you how to be a reflection of His love for him or her, so that your child can see God’s love shining through everything you say and do.

While your child is still alive, don’t miss an opportunity – not even one – to get to know each of the people your child loves, her world, her passions and her dreams. Adore your child, just like you did when he was small. Take lots of pictures. Make more memories than your heart can hold. Soak up every single moment you get with her.

While your child is still alive, make sure that they aren’t living in shame because of who they are. Shame causes us to keep secrets, to hide and run from God and others. God calls us with kindness. God delights in us. God is not ashamed to call any of his children His own. He loves us unconditionally because He is God, and God is love.

While your child is still alive, please do all these things and more. We who visit the gravestones of our gay children would give everything that we have to do just one of them.

Once you have lost a child, you get to know lots of other parents who have lost children. Many of our friends had a healthy, thriving child one minute, and the next minute, they were gone. In an instant, without warning or a chance to say goodbye. We never know how long we will have our children; today could be your last chance to love your child while he or she is still alive.

I have heard a lot of Christian parents say, “I love my kid, but I don’t have to like what he is doing. Don’t expect me to go marching in any of those darn Pride parades.” I get that; there were many years when that would have been far too difficult for me, in spite of my fierce love for my son. But don’t give up trying to get to know your child, learning to love him/her fully, and allowing yourself to feel uncomfortable for the sake of communicating unconditional love.

Learning to love is a task for a lifetime. We get to spend our whole lives learning to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and learning to love our neighbors as ourselves. There is so much more still to know about His love for all of us. I don’t ever want to stop discovering the depths of it; He has given me so many good gifts as He keeps teaching me how to love as He first loved me. I am so thankful He doesn’t give up on me, even when I am so slow to grasp His lessons.

I am regularly reminded, as I read my Bible, that when Jesus walked the earth, He was continually doing stuff that made the religious people say he was a heretic and a blasphemer. He was continually hanging out and loving the people that the religious people condemned. He was continually causing scandals.

So what would Jesus do? Jesus would make those religious people mad, by heading right down to the part of town where all the gay people live and causing an enormous scandal by marching in their parade, sharing a meal with them and making sure that they knew that they were loved.

So while your child is still alive, reconsider marching with them in that parade. It might just save their life – and yours, too.

* A cisgender person is someone who identifies as they gender/sex they were assigned at birth. For example, your birth certificate says female, and you identify as a female woman.

Weep with Those Who Weep…Please.

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When a child dies, the first place that parents, siblings, aunts and uncles often look for comfort is the church.

The church – the Body of Christ – will know how to help us. The church will know how badly we hurt – they’ve helped hundreds of families bury their children.

The church will be our safe refuge from this blinding storm of grief that has stolen our peace, our sleep, our appetites and our ability to think more than five minutes into the future.

The church – where people embody the love of the Man who wept at the death of his dear friend – will weep with us.

When our son died, it was difficult to get out of bed, much less to get up, get dressed and go face hundreds of people on a Sunday morning. But we did go, because we follow Jesus, and going to church on Sundays has been vitally important to our family.

It took about six months for me to realize that I had begun dreading Sundays. Sundays were when we had to see people who would, for the most part, do one of two things:

  1. Act overly happy and bright, in an effort to cheer us up, or to, perhaps, avoid talking about death.
  2. Avoid us entirely – turning the other way when they saw us coming, refusing to meet our glances, suddenly becoming busy looking up something in their Bibles as we walked by.

When our son died, churches were the place where we heard some of the most painful things, many of them from pastors.

Are you better yet?
We heard this one for the first time two weeks after our son’s death, and then countless times afterward.

The death of a child is like falling down and scraping your knee.
When this was said to us, one month after Ryan’s death, by a pastor responsible for funerals at a large church, we couldn’t even respond. We walked away, tears rolling down our faces, and Rob said, “He obviously has never lost a child.” I said, “I don’t think I ever want to go back to church again. EVER.”

This is what your experience will be like: blah, blah, blah.
At this point I always tuned out…the pain was too intense. To be told what we would feel by a pastor who hadn’t lost a child, rather than asked what we needed or what grief was like for us only made our pain worse.

Ryan wouldn’t have wanted you to be sad!
This was usually said by those who didn’t know Ryan well, or how he would have completely understood our tears. And it always made me feel like the person speaking was really the one who didn’t want me to be sad…or to be honest.

I know exactly how you feel.
This was typically followed by examples of how the person had lost a parent, grandparent or once, a pet. Nobody knows exactly how someone else feels, no matter how close you are. We would never say this to another family who lost a child, even if that child was 20, gay, struggled with addiction, depression, Hep C and recent hearing loss, and was named Ryan. Every child is unique, and every death is unique.

Be glad! He is an angel now, watching over you for the rest of your lives!
Aside from the fact that I don’t think this is the way Heaven works, it does what so many trite phrases do: it invalidates our grief. It communicates that we should be happy, not sad. It can make us think that it isn’t okay for us to be honest about how we are overwhelmed by sadness.
In the four years since Ryan’s death, I have heard the stories of far too many grieving families who have found not comfort, but only more pain, by attending church after the death of their child. I don’t think it has to be this way. I don’t think it should be this way.

If I had ten minutes to tell pastors, priests, teachers and leaders what to say to grieving parents and siblings, this is what I’d say:

Ask them what their grief experience has been like.
Allow your parishioners to teach you about grief and loss, and to let you know what they need. Please, please, ask them questions about their grief, and listen without interrupting.

Say their child’s name.
How are you feeling about Annelise? What do you miss most about Matt? The power of hearing your child’s name after they have died is enormous. Most grieving parents fear that their child will be forgotten and that their child’s life and death will not matter.

Our oldest son had been gone for about seven months when someone at church pulled me aside and gently asked, “How are you feeling about Ryan?” I wept with gratitude and relief. I didn’t realize until later that it was the first time I had heard Ryan’s name at church since his funeral. Just the sound of his name – the acknowledgement of his life, his existence and his value were like a soothing balm to my soul.

Let them know that they are welcome no matter how terrible they feel.
If we feel we have to force ourselves to act happy just to come to worship, we’re likely not to come. When we are feeling our worst, we need God the most. Please allow us to find Him in community with others, even when we are miserable. Even when we’re not sure if life is worth living.

Tell them that there is no timeline for “getting over” a child.
Parents who have lost a child – if as a newborn or a middle-aged adult – desperately need to know that there is no expectation to “get better” in six months, one year, five years or ever.

Reassure them, if needed, that God can handle all their questions, doubts and anger.
Although my husband has only felt closer to God since Ryan’s death, after about six months, I began to struggle with a lot of questions that affected my faith deeply. I didn’t need answers – only permission to wrestle through my doubts and fears with God. Remember, too, that asking questions, doubting and not attending church don’t mean we are walking away from God – quite the opposite. Please trust Him to meet us in our pain. He has, and He will.

Listen…without having to provide solutions. And then listen some more.
Unless you are Jesus Himself, you will not be likely to be able to bring their child back. And that is the only thing that would alleviate their intense sorrow. So don’t even try to fix anything. You can’t.

Know that grief – and tears – demand to be felt and experienced.
The research all points to the same thing: if one doesn’t acknowledge and make room for their grief, their grief will find another way to express itself. Alcoholism, health problems, rage issues, marital problems, mental health concerns and a myriad of other stress-related problems can all be the result of “stuffing” grief inside in order to make others feel more comfortable.

Teach your congregation to keep reaching out to the bereaved, even if they don’t know what to say.
In the “club” of parents who have lost children, almost all of them have also lost many friends as well. Friends who used to be close never call or come by anymore. It makes the experience all the more painful. Remind friends that they don’t have to have the perfect words. Often the most comforting thing to hear is, “I don’t know what to say.” Or, “I just cannot begin to imagine what you are going through.”

Know that birthdays and anniversaries of a child’s death are particularly painful, but immensely important.
A simple way to let a grieving family know that you haven’t forgotten them – or their child – is to make a note of their child’s birthday and the anniversary of their death on your calendar, so you’ll be reminded to send them a card, leave them a voice message or shoot them a text. On Ryan’s would-have-been-24 birthday, our pastoral staff sent him a birthday card, complete with personal notes to him telling him how his life has impacted them. It was one of the most comforting, honoring things anyone has ever done for us since Ryan’s death.

Remember that by bringing up their dead child, you won’t remind them of anything they aren’t already thinking about.
Some well-meaning friends avoid talking about the child, because they don’t want to make the grieving family cry. But truly, we can hardly think of anything else – especially in the first months and years. It is only comforting to know that other people remember, too. And our tears aren’t bad…they are necessary. They are healing.

Ask about their child.
Get to know him or her by asking about favorite memories, what they were like, etc. This is especially important if the child committed suicide or died as a result of addiction. Grieving parents of kids who struggled feel especially alone, and often sense judgment and condemnation of themselves and their child. Please acknowledge to beauty of every child’s soul, not just those who were successful in the world’s eyes.

Recently, Anne Lamott was asked what job she’d like if she wasn’t a writer. Here is an excerpt from her response:

I’d like to sit out in the very quiet courtyard at St. Andrew Presbyterian, with a bowl of cherries, and a bowl of M&M’s as communion elements, and talk to people one at a time.

If people were grieving, I would sit with them while they cried, and I would not say a single word, like “Time heals all,” or “This too shall pass.” I would practice having the elegance of spirit to let them cry, and feel like shit, for as long as they need to, because tears are the way home–baptism, hydration–and I would let our shoulders touch, and every so often I’d point out something beautiful in the sky–a bird, clouds, the hint of a moon. Then we’d share some cherries and/or M&M’s, and go find a little kid who would let us swim in his or her inflatable pool. I’d tell the sad person, “Come back next week, I’ll be here–and you don’t have to feel ONE speck better. It’s a come-as-you-are meeting, like with God, who says, “You just show up, my honey.”

This says it all: just giving permission for people to show up, knowing that someone will just be with them, allowing them to feel exactly how they are feeling. Sitting with a friend in their sorrow is the greatest gift we can give to someone in pain. Allow us to be sad as long as we need to. It is in that sadness that God meets us, and that He, slowly, redeems and restores our souls. We will never “get over” our dead child, nor do we want to.

But if we can be patient with ourselves and with God as we heal though the pain, He will help us not to get better, but to be better.