A Study of Seventh-day Adventist Parents and Their Responses to Their LGBTQ+ Child’s Coming Out
In 2016, a team of researchers from Andrews University conducted a study of how Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) parents experienced the coming out of their LGBTQ+ child, the subsequent changes in family functioning, and how families restored equilibrium when disrupted by the coming out. The findings reveal a picture of a group of people who faced difficult and painful situations and resiliently worked to maintain and restore strong family relationships. These findings speak to the strength of Adventist families when facing what they, at least initially, experienced as adversity.
Coming Out Experiences
Most parents reported that their LGBTQ+ child came out through planned face-to-face interactions or other direct means, such as a letter or phone call; most parents (86%) recalled listening attentively when their child came out to them. The feelings that parents experienced ran the full gamut of human emotions. However, most parents felt some emotion that fell on the hurtful or negative spectrum, including feeling shocked, confused, wounded, and even devastated.
Most parents (93%) expressed unconditional love for their child at the time or soon after the coming-out event. Along with this declaration of love, however, there often existed a simultaneous internal sense of angst that parents kept mostly hidden from their child. Looking back, nearly half (45%) of the parents struggled to accept their child’s orientation or gender identity. A small number continued to be in denial about their child’s orientation/gender identity.
Most parents reported engaging in a variety of supportive behaviors of their child after coming out. These included being open to exploring ways of supporting their child as an LGBTQ+ person, defending their child if anyone else demeaned or attacked their child’s sexual orientation or gender identity, and being open to their child inviting LGBTQ+ friends to come to their home. It is heartening that a strong majority (81%) of the parents in our study were welcoming to their child’s LGBTQ+ friends. Parents who are accepting of their child’s LGBTQ+ friends help their child feel accepted and supported in their LGBTQ+ identity. By contrast, families who block access to their child’s LGBTQ+ friends or resources lead their LGBTQ+ child to feel unacceptable and unloved, which can lead to higher rates of suicide or depression, according to a 2009 paper authored by Ryan, “Helping Families Support Their Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Children.”
Although most parents reported supporting their LGBTQ+ child, at the same time, the parents expressed concerns for their child. Two issues surfaced as concerning to many parents; the first issue focused on their child’s safety in today’s world (49%). The second involved their pastor or church members saying something offensive to or about their child (49%); this finding explains why parents are passionate in having the SDA church work to educate clergy, congregations, and communities. The threat of the pastor/church pushing away their child from God and His love and acceptance is considered a grave risk.
Parental Feelings and Beliefs Post Coming Out
This study was interested in identifying parental feelings and reactions about their child’s coming out and whether they changed over time. Looking back on the coming out experience, nearly all parents recalled feeling glad that their child came out to them. In most cases, the coming out opened a door of trust, more honest communication, and closer relationships in the family.
Survey results revealed that in the aftermath of coming out, most parents (93%) seemed to be laser-focused on loving and protecting their LGBTQ+ child. Concern about their children’s well-being led 82% of the parents to say they believed it was important to continually tell their children that they were loved in order to counteract the rejection they feared their children might experience. Many parents (70%) even reported they would be ready to defend their LGBTQ+ children should anyone demean or attack their children due to their orientation or gender identity.
Despite all the outward support, researchers found a good number of parents internally continued to struggle with the news that their child was LGBTQ+. Nearly 47% shared that they felt disappointed, 45% struggled to accept their child’s sexual orientation/gender identity, with 31% privately praying that God would change their child’s sexual orientation/gender identity. It is important to note, as well, that 65% of the parents stated that they drew on their religious faith and beliefs to help them understand and support their child’s sexual orientation/gender identity.
Parents in our study identified multiple ways their child’s coming out prompted changes in their own activities, behaviors, and beliefs. Some of these changes included engaging in personal growth activities, learning relevant information about sexual orientation, coming to a new understanding about what it means to accept or show love to their child, seeking information and support from the LGBTQ+ community, and advocating on behalf of their LGBTQ+ child at school, with the church, or with extended family members.
The majority (65%) of respondents to the survey reported being fully accepting of their child’s sexual orientation/gender identity. However, more than a third (38%) show outward acceptance but felt fearful for their child and prayed for God’s love to protect them. Similar numbers of parents reported struggling with or not struggling with the coming out of their child (45% and 42%, respectively). These results support the findings of a 2000 study conducted by Merighi and Grimes, reported in “Coming Out to Families in a Multicultural Context,” who found that the coming-out experience in families is greatly affected by the values of the family system. This likely contributed to the split between these two groups of parents.
Although the SDA church is often seen as a place where one can generally find love, care, and support for many occurrences in life, it continues to be a struggle to provide these in the areas of sexual orientation or gender identity challenges. Our findings are similar to those of a study by Yakushko, reported in “Influence of Social Support, Existential Well-being, and Stress Over Sexual Orientation on Self-Esteem of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Individuals” (2005), which revealed that LGBTQ+ children are often forced to choose between their faith communities and their sexual orientation. A strong majority of our sample (78%) believed that the SDA church was generally rejecting of LGBTQ+ youth. Although a very small minority in our study (6%) shared that it was important to share their disapproval of their child’s sexual orientation/gender identity to stay faithful to the teachings of their church, 93% believed that love was more important than their personal feelings when it came to relating to their child. More than half of our sample of parents (58%) questioned how the SDA church was interpreting the Bible due to what they had experienced with their child or to resources to which they had turned. The SDA church’s stance appears to produce a collision between a persons’ religious faith and the parental love and care given to their child. It is as if there is no room to allow both beliefs to be in the same room, much less attend the same church, or worship the same God, together.
In terms of supportive relationships within the SDA church, the study found mixed results. Whereas some parents found support from their pastors or church members, others experienced rejection. Still others left the SDA church over the treatment of their child or LGBTQ+ individuals in general.
Helpful Resources and Personal Growth
Researchers also wanted to discover ways that families reach a new equilibrium after a child comes out. The focus here was to understand both internal and external resources that helped the family move forward post–coming out. The strategy that the majority (83%) of parents used was listening carefully to their child’s experience. An external resource that was helpful to many respondents (61%) was reading science-based literature or books about sexual orientation/gender identity. A little more than half (51%) of respondents noted that having friends who were LGBTQ+ helped them understand and navigate life after their child came out.
In-depth interviews revealed many other internal and external resources that parents used to cope and even flourish post–coming out. These included engaging in personal growth activities, learning relevant information about sexual orientation, coming to a new understanding about what it means to accept or show love to their child, seeking information and support from the LGBTQ+ community, and advocating on behalf of their LGBTQ+ child at school, with the church, or with extended family members.
Certified Family Life Educators (CFLEs) can become sensitive to the challenges that face parents with an LGBTQ+ child, particularly those who process this event from a faith perspective. Listening to the stories of parents is one of the most valuable ways of growing in empathy and learning what has been helpful or not helpful to them. This research shows that CFLEs would do well to develop support groups in their communities for parents of LGBTQ+ children. Developing a resource file of articles, books, and websites will prepare CFLEs to meet the needs of parents whom they will inevitably encounter.
David Sedlacek, Ph.D., LCSW, CFLE is Professor of Family Ministry and Discipleship at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University and directs the MA in Youth and Young Adult Ministries program. He has been the Principal Investigator of studies of both SDA LGBT+ millennials and the parents of SDA LGBT+ children. He co-facilitates a care group for LGBT+ students on the campus of Andrews University. Together with his wife, Beverly, he has written a book entitled Cleansing the Sanctuary of the Heart: Tools for Emotional Healing.
René D. Drumm, Ph.D., MSW, is a professor of social work and serves as the Area Coordinator for the College of Education and Health Sciences and the College of Nursing and Health Professions at the University of Southern Mississippi. [email protected].