I shall never forget the morning our firstborn child, Deborah Lynn, was born. Over and over in my mind I found myself thinking, "I am a mother, I am a mother." Here was this beautiful, perfect baby girl, our daughter. The miracle was almost more than I could believe. Debbie, as we called her, eagerly embraced life from her first breath. I remember a nurse told me that this tiny infant seemed to enjoy the walk from the nursery to my room when she brought her to me. She did everything early; walking, talking, getting into mischief. She taught herself to read a bit before she went to school and would sometimes sit for hours copying pages from a book even though she didn't understand what she was writing. She always did well in school, and earned high grades. Our church had a Bible Quiz team and she was a champion quizzer for several years. This required her to memorize a great deal of scripture. One of the proudest days of my life was when she graduated with honors from college.
Debbie had very definite ideas about things even as a child. She knew what she liked and didn't like. And when it came to clothes she certainly did not like frilly things. I wanted to dress my daughter in pretty little girl clothes, which I did when she was very young. As soon as she developed her own opinions, though, that changed. I recall one time she said she thought God would be much more pleased if everybody wore jeans to church instead of trying to outdo each other with nice clothes. She did not go through the phase of "giggly girl stuff" and spent a lot of time playing alone or with her two brothers and the neighborhood boys. She didn't date much, although there was the son of good friends of ours with whom she spent a lot of time. His parents and us talked about how great it would be if they were to marry. Thank God they never did.
When Deb was in her teens we learned that the daughter of good friends of ours was a lesbian. We were shocked and could not understand how she could possibly have chosen to live in such a way. And we were sure she had chosen to be lesbian. I remember how we talked about our disgust and dismay with Deb with no idea about how hurtful that conversation must have been for her.
I'm not sure when the idea that Deb might be a lesbian first crossed my mind. The idea was too awful to be thought about, so for a long time I tried to ignore my fear. She lived at home while attending Millersville University and after graduation got an apartment. She changed apartments and roommates several times and we saw less and less of her. We never met some of her roommates. Invitations to bring her friends home were not accepted very often. She even began to miss family gatherings. We knew she was not attending church and were quite concerned for her. We could not understand the changes in our daughter. When I think back to those days now I realize that she needed her parents and her church most of all during that time of her life, but knew full well that neither would have been able to do anything more than judge and condemn her. I feel so sad about this.
I told my husband about my fear that Deb was a lesbian. He said that was impossible. I wondered if I should talk to her because I felt there needed to be honesty between us but wasn't sure I could handle it if it was true. And suppose it wasn't true; how hurtful that would be, having her mother think such a thing about her.
One day, though, she did tell us the truth we dreaded. We met at a small restaurant for breakfast. She said she had something to tell us, something that we might already know. My heart started pounding as I heard my daughter tell us that she is a lesbian and very much at peace with who she is. She said she had found a church that had been a great help to her; the Vision of Hope MCC church and talked of her involvement there. She suggested that we might want to meet with her minister, who at the time was Mary Merriman. Perhaps this minister could answer questions we might have. Deb's father told her there was nothing she could say or do that would make him love her less. And, although I felt the same way, I didn't tell her so that morning. I went away from our breakfast stunned and shaken.
It was not that I was shocked; being already quite certain of what she told us, but hearing her say it dashed even the tiny hope I had that it was not true. Now we would have to deal with it, we could no longer tuck it away in the back or our minds and pretend it wasn't there. Now we knew the unthinkable was true, we were the parents of a lesbian daughter. How had our beloved little girl become such a person? Immediately the burden of facing up to the truth of who our daughter was descended upon us. What would we say to her? Who, if anybody, would we tell? Or does everybody know already? Will we try to get her to change? If others know do they blame us? What did we do wrong? How could this happen to our beautiful, intelligent daughter, brought up in a Christian home? We had never warned her not to become a lesbian, it had never occurred to us. We still believed at this point that this had been her choice.
It was during that painful, chaotic period of our lives that we made two visits that blessed us greatly. In both cases the people were respected Mennonite church leaders who happened to have a gay or lesbian child. They were people we could trust. Their gentle understanding and wise words were immensely helpful for us, mostly giving us hope that we would survive this dreadful experience but also, as they told about their own children, we sensed that they could accept them just as they were. It even appeared that they respected their children.
So we were able to make a very wise decision. We would not expect Deb to change. We would not pray that she give up being a lesbian (as if she could); we would accept her just as she was. This took away the burden of deciding what to say to her. There was nothing to say except that we loved her. Someone who heard of our situation suggested we be in touch with Day Seven Ministries. We contacted them but when they told us they would stand with us in prayer and never stop believing that God would change our daughter we told them we were no longer interested in their organization. Thank God for giving us the wisdom to make that decision.
So how did it happen that we were the ones who changed and how did we make the transition from homophobia to acceptance and inclusion? First of all, we knew our daughter was not the awful person so many people considered homosexual people to be. She was not repulsive, disgusting, abnormal, wicked and all the other dreadful things that we heard used to describe gays and lesbians. Deb was certainly not such a person. Sensing our willingness to accept her, she began bringing her friends home and we discovered that they too were fine people, even more open and committed in their Christian lives than we were. So, how could this be? The Bible talks about wolves in sheep's clothing. Is that what they were? Of course not! We thought a lot about the inconsistency of what we had believed was right and what we were witnessing in the lives of the very people whose behavior we had thought was gross sin. Had our church been wrong? What about the scriptures used to prove that homosexuality is sin? We wanted to know the truth.
Then we attended a Connecting Families weekend. There we found a group, mostly Mennonites, with a different view than what the church traditionally teaches about homosexuality. That weekend we heard stories of young people who agonized for years over their sexual orientation, who pleaded with God to change them, and who finally came to the place where they could accept themselves just as God had made them. Parents told stories of struggling with the same issues we were. We heard discussions about the relevancy of scripture. We worshipped with this group, and knew God was present. Suddenly we found ourselves not so sure about what we had always thought was right. It's difficult, though, to change long held beliefs and we found ourselves wondering if we were being led astray in an attempt to justify our daughter. I asked a trusted friend about that possibility and will never forget his answer. He said, "Esther, don't worry about what others think you might be doing, just be open to what God wants to teach you. Thank God you have been given this opportunity to grow."
Soon after that weekend my husband, Deb's father, died suddenly. I was left alone to continue the journey. It has not been easy. Together we had felt very alone as we dealt with this issue, finding that even close friends didn't want to hear anything about it. One person had said to us, "Why would you even want to talk about something so disgusting?" Now I was alone, without my husband to stand with me. So for quite a while I said very little to anyone about my growing awareness of what a mistake the church was making in excluding some very special people.
We had been part of a small Bible Study group for many years; a group that meant much to us. We were all close friends, and shared our joys and sorrows; seeking support from one another through many of the experiences life had brought us. I wanted to share with them what I was learning and thinking concerning homosexuality. This group knew about Deb's sexual orientation, and, I observed, were very uncomfortable when I mentioned her even in a casual way. I asked my friends if I could share with them the story of where God was leading me as I learned more about this controversial issue. With great reluctance they agreed. I carefully prepared what I wanted to say, asking for God's guidance every step of the way. The evening I shared with them was the last time we ever all met together as a Bible Study group. I was told by one couple that they could not study the Bible with someone who had thoughts as sinful as mine. I was stunned and hurt. It had seemed right to share with this group; we had always been open with one another. But, unfortunately, the subject we were considering is one some people simply cannot handle and have such strong feelings about that they don't even want to hear about another's journey, different from theirs. I felt so sad that they didn't want to ask questions or consider my feelings. They only judged and condemned.
The loss of that group still hurts, years later. How could years of friendship and trust be broken because of what I believed concerning homosexuality? I guess I was naive to think they would not judge me. I was not expecting them to believe as I do, I made that very clear. I only wanted to share my journey with them. Even more painful is the fact that some of the group influenced the parents of my grandchildren to believe that it is dangerous for the children to be around Deb and Christen, her partner. One of these parents told Deb that she and Christen are evil people, demonic, and the children might be influenced by that evil.
In spite of the pain I feel because of what has happened I believe I have learned some valuable lessons. Now I can understand better what it feels like to be judged and excluded because it has happened to me too. God used this experience of pain and loss to provide me with a clearer insight into what life is like for many of my homosexual friends.
I was so happy when Christen came into Deb's life. Amazingly, I found that I could be as happy for her as I would have been if she had followed the course that I had dreamed of for her when she was little. It was with joy that I participated in their Holy Union. There was no doubt in my mind that God's presence was there and that they had been led to that moment. If someone had told me years ago that I would rejoice at the union of my daughter and another woman I would have been appalled. But it's God's way to bring surprises into our lives and I am so glad for this one. I have many GLBT friends who have enriched my life tremendously. Many of them call me Mom. I'm glad to be a token mom to them. I enjoy worshipping at the Vision of Hope church in Mountville. A few years ago I changed my church membership to CMCL. Now I don't feel like I'm being stifled and smothered at church but attend with joy and anticipation.
Thinking about my daughter and other young people growing up with an awareness of their sexual orientation and not having anyone to go to about it makes me very sad. I regret that the two places there should be support and safety, family and church, usually are not able or willing to offer what is most needed by these hurting people. Some day, I hope, that will change.
Sometimes I say I believe that having a lesbian daughter has been my greatest spiritual blessing. Because of her I have had the experience of growing from homophobia to acceptance, which, in turn, has helped me to be open to other new insights of God. I have been awed by the wideness of God's mercy, the wonder of God's love of diversity, and the joy of knowing God's hand on me as I open myself to the truths God is teaching me. I will always be on this journey of learning and know that the part I've shared with you here has had special significance for me. I thank God for it.