By Caleb Kaltenbach
It can be surprising and emotional on many levels when someone you love “comes out” to you. Too many people have missed an opportunity to build credibility through this conversation. I hear about these discussions that have been described as “the stuff nightmares are made of.” All of us can understand how someone might not be able to control their emotions and initial reaction when a loved one has such a conversation with them. However, as challenging as it might be, we must make every effort to control ourselves going forward. When we don’t control our emotions, we unintentionally hurt people and nothing get's accomplished.
Let me be clear. My goal in sharing this is to help you successfully maintain a relationship with your loved one. Your love for this person, expressed through an authentic relationship, is the best representation of Christ you can provide for them. It is also the means by which you may earn the right to speak truth into their life – in time.
At this point in the conversation, your goal is to fight for your loved one’s heart and not alienate them. In my book Messy Grace: How a Pastor with Gay Parents Learned to Love Others Without Sacrificing Conviction, there’s a chapter called “The Marriage of Grace and Truth” where I list five things NOT to do when someone comes out to you. These “dont's” will help moderate the emotion of the situation, avoid hurting the person and damaging the relationship:
- Don’t look disappointed.
- Don’t get mad.
- Don’t throw out Bible verses.
- Don’t compare sins.
- Don’t try to get them counseling.
Since writing the book and having several conversations, there are some more “Don’t do this” ideas that I’d like to share. Later, I’ll share what I suggest you should do when your loved one comes out.
WHAT NOT TO DO IF YOUR LOVED ONE COMES OUT
DON'T ACCUSE THEM
I’ve heard of this happening far too many times. A person accuses the person who has come out of being disobedient or unfaithful to God. Whether that is or is not true is not the purpose of this moment. In this moment, refuse to accuse your loved one. Accusing in this conversation is just a way of trying to fix them by bringing immediate conviction. Let me save you the trouble: I’ve heard of this working 0% of the time. Don’t accuse.
DON'T BLAME YOURSELF OR ANYONE ELSE
Because a lot of people aren’t sure what to do when this conversation happens, some immediately start to blame themselves or other people. This is not a conversation in which to assign blame or hold someone accountable. This is a chance for you to hear the heart of your loved one. Consider that you probably don’t know everything your loved one will say, and you aren’t aware of various circumstances. Blaming in this moment creates distance.
DON'T BOMBARD THEM WITH THE WRONG QUESTIONS
Ever heard the phrase, “There’s no such thing as a dumb question?” Well, that’s not true. There are dumb questions, bad questions, poorly timed questions and a whole lot more. During or after a conversation where a loved one “comes out,” some people will begin to ask questions like, “Were you born this way?” and others. In the bulk of conversations you’ll have with this person, that question isn’t helpful. Notice, I didn’t say that we shouldn’t discuss it, but, in the long run, if you believe in God and the authority of Scripture, what God says on any matter trumps everything else.
DON'T PAINT WORST CASE SCENARIOS THAT YOU THINK WILL HAPPEN IN THE FUTURE
Imagine that a child tells a parent they’re LGBT or same-sex attracted and the parent is confused. Unwilling or unable to control their emotions in that moment, the parent makes statements like, “You won’t have kids,” “You’ll have a tough life,” “You’re going to disappoint people,” etc. While I wish that we were just using our imaginations — we aren’t. I’ve talked to people whose loved ones have done these things and further alienated them. Don’t be “that guy.” Please don’t try to “scare your loved one straight” or something like that. I believe that attitude is uncaring, untruthful, and is not being present with them in the moment. Fear shouldn’t control your emotions. Replace fear with faith and unconditional love.
DON'T BE OVEREMOTIONAL
I cannot overemphasize the importance of this principle. Crying, shouting, cold shoulders and more have often accompanied discussions regarding identification as LGBT. None of these displayed emotions move the conversation forward. Reserve the right to display heavy emotions after the conversation – by yourself or with a trusted person. Your loved one is going through many emotions of their own because they are having this talk with you. Don’t add to their emotions by loudly displaying yours. Guard your loved one’s heart by not throwing your burdens onto their shoulders.
DON'T WORRY ABOUT TOMORROW
Worry and anxiety can begin to well up in a conversation in which someone learns their loved one identifies as LGBT or same-sex attracted. Thoughts about what people will think, how the church will react, will they be in a same-sex relationship, and more are just a few examples of how conservative and evangelical Christians process this news. You already know what Jesus says about worry, right?
“So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” – Matthew 6:34 NLT
DON'T MAKE THIS MOMENT ABOUT YOU
A lot of people I’ve spoken with have told me that their loved ones have replied with comments like: “Do you know what you’re doing to me?” or “You have no idea how much you’re going to disappoint your father,” or “I had so many hopes and dreams for you.” Read these words very carefully – this conversation is not about you. Of course you have emotions and feelings regarding what is being told to you. Naturally you will have very deep emotions and beliefs regarding the talk, because you love this person deeply. But remember, you’re fighting for the heart of your loved one. Allow this conversation to be about them.
DON'T DISCIPLINE OR TRY TO CONTROL THEM
Be careful about trying to control your loved one. You can’t really control anyone, and when you try to, especially teenagers, it never works out well. If your child comes out to you, this is not something for which you should discipline or make them face consequences. Instead of trying to force your loved one to get Christian counseling to cure them, try asking them to get counseling to process the emotions that they must be feeling in this moment. It took a lot of courage for them to come out to you. Now you need to be brave by walking alongside them. Remember, neither you nor anyone else can change your loved one… but you can love them.
Now, let’s talk about some things you should do.
WHAT TO DO IF YOUR LOVED ONE COMES OUT
So, your loved one has come out to you and you’ve kept your cool. Now, let’s discuss how you can best build credibility in this conversation. You’re fighting for your loved one’s heart, and you do that by investing in them. One of the ways you invest in them is by doing so emotionally.
From my experience, these are just a few suggestions for how you can invest in someone during a very emotional conversation:
Your loved one trusted you enough to let you in on a very important part of their life. Honor their trust with your attention.
ALLOW THEM AS MUCH TIME AS THEY NEED TO SHARE THEIR STORY
Don’t rush the conversation or become so uneasy that you noticeably want to leave the conversation. This is an opportunity for you to discover more about your loved one – very likely even some things you never knew.
THANK THEM FOR TRUSTING YOU ENOUGH TO SHARE WITH YOU
Though you may not like the fact your loved one says that they’re same-sex attracted, or may not agree with them being in a same-sex relationship — you should thank them for sharing with you. They could’ve made the choice to not share with you. If they have shared with you, show how grateful you are by thanking them. Remember, thanking someone isn’t condoning something. Thanking someone is honoring that person’s love for you.
REAFFIRM YOUR LOVE FOR THEM
Not all, but some people may get to the point of insecurity where they will believe this revelation could change your love for them. Reaffirm your love for them. Say things like, “You never have to worry about me not loving you.” Even if you are certain they would never question your love for them, reaffirm it anyway. I mean, can you ever say, “I love you,” too much? Nope, I don’t think so either.
REASSURE THEM THAT NOTHING HAS CHANGED ABOUT THE RELATIONSHIP
While you reaffirm your love, reassure them that your relationship is the same. You won’t push them away, alienate them, give them the cold shoulder, or treat them like they are weird. Reassure them that you love them deeply and nothing will come between you. I hope that we get to a day where we no longer hear stories about parents kicking their kids out of the house or people ending relationships as a result of the coming out conversation.
HONOR CONFIDENTIALITY IF THEY SO DESIRE
There’s a good chance your loved one will want to keep this somewhat private. Maybe they aren’t certain what they’re going to do, have made the decision not to move forward in a same-sex relationship, or want to have the same conversation with others at later times. Whatever the reason, you will build immense trust with them if you keep the conversation private.
ASK HOW YOU CAN BEST SUPPORT THEM
You know what will thrill your loved one in this conversation? Ask them, “How can I best support you?” Most people don’t get that kind of a response from their loved ones. You might think, “Doesn’t that sound like I am supportive of their decision?” I understand the concern, but this question doesn’t equate to approval. There’s a difference between acceptance and approval. Acceptance is loving someone where they are in life in that present moment. Approval is affirming a life choice that someone makes. Those are two very different things. I’m talking about accepting your loved one and loving them where they are.
If you are willing to consider responding in these ways, you’ll build credibility with your loved one. If you’re willing to make the hard choice to allow the conversation to be about them, discover who they are, recognize their love for you by their sharing with you, reaffirm your love for them and your relationship with them, and try to understand how to best support them — you’ll make an investment you’ll never regret.
Wouldn’t you want to be loved like that?