Editor’s Note: This month NACSW is pairing a couple of blog posts representing the voices of two Christians in social work on the intersection of LGBTQ issues and Christian faith. Our hope is that posting these two differing perspectives together will serve to broaden and deepen the conversation between Christians in social work on important issues that are relevant to our understanding of both our faith and our social work practice.
Post #1: A Letter from a Christian Social Worker Who Is the Mother of a Gay Son
I’m calling on the Christian Social Work Community to lead way on how to treat the LGBTQ population. As followers of Jesus and advocates of social justice, it is up to us to set the standard for how Christians treat diverse, marginalized people. In doing this, we reflect the love and teachings of Jesus Christ. For many of us, this is why we went into social work practice in the first place. Christians needs our example and our leadership on this important issue.
I am sharing my story to help spark social change in this area.
I’m a single mom of two wonderful sons, ages 17 and 15. One of my sons is gay and one is not. No one praises me for loving or supporting my straight son. But, I sure get a lot of accolades for loving and supporting my gay son, and I’ve been getting these comments for years. I suspected my oldest son may be gay when he was quite young, as he exhibited stereo-typically gay behavior as a child (wanting to wear dresses, identifying more with heroines than heroes in games, books, movies, and preferring the company of girls and women). As parents we often marvel at how different our children can be, but how many people get kudos, even hugs or notes for loving one of them? Yet there is a silent expectation that I’d just innately love the straight one, so I’m just a regular mom when it comes to him, but I’m “amazing” for loving the other half of my heart. Do I really deserve praise for loving one of my sons? Why wouldn’t HE get the praise for having the courage to be himself in a world constantly trying to change him, and for coping with microaggressions and discrimination he endures daily?
For the last decade teachers, fellow soccer moms (and dad’s), colleagues, acquaintances and other well-meaning people have consistently made comments to me and my boys such as:
- “I just want to tell you how great it is that you are supportive of Joe and everything, that must be hard. Bravo Momma, Bravo. You too, brother, great job.
- “Your son is so lucky to have you. I mean, you are such an amazing mother…. making peace with everything as a Christian and all…. I think it’s awesome!
- “You all are adorable, you know, are so lucky to have that momma of yours, do you know that?”
- I can’t even imagine how hard that must be. You’re such a great mom! We don’t choose are kiddos, do we?
- “You are so amazing, I mean he’s such a great kid, but wow, that’s a big pill to swallow. Is your other one ok?”
These comments are usually accompanied by a hug, pat on the back, and a smile, and they are genuine. That’s the problem. The authenticity and “pseudo-sweetness” in how these comments are made is the problem. What all of these comments really mean is: Hey, it’s great that you don’t reject your gay kid.
Now, if you want to praise me for anything that goes above and beyond unconditional love for my kids, by all means, pour on the praise. But, accepting one of my babies, simply because he happens to be gay, doesn’t make me an “amazing mom,” it makes me a parent. And not one that deserves a medal. In fact, the slew of accolades I receive for simply loving and supporting my gay son is a significant part of what I believe is sustaining the culture of homophobia in our society. The most interesting and scary part about this phenomenon is that these comments directly imply that my gay son is lucky that I don’t reject him, thereby setting the norm that rejection is normal in any way, shape, or form. It’s sick.
You may be thinking this isn’t important, or that it’s trivial, or political. It’s not. Here’s why.
The kudos to me as a parent for loving my son in spite of his sexual orientation is actually one of those microaggressions that normalizes homophobia. And, it really cuts deep on a lot of levels. It sends a message to my son and to everyone else who is not heterosexual they aren’t innately worthy of love the way they are. I would never go up to a fellow parent and say, “you are such a great mom for loving your tall skinny son” or your “brown eyed daughter.” Heck, I wouldn’t even say “good job loving your jerk wad bully son” or your “hormonal teenage prima donna daughter” to anyone. Why? Because I expect that they would and do. It would be abnormal if they didn’t. When people use language that implies a child is less worthy of love if they are gay or bisexual or transgender, it says to my son and all children who aren’t straight that if they receive love from their parents, we are “loving them despite” who they are – and it’s wrong, cruel and oppressive.
The good news is that we can change this norm with the language that we use. Just as language can sustain social norms, like homophobia, it can also change them, and quickly. And for many people who care, but don’t want to march in protests or call their legislator to make change, this is a really easy way to help. I’m not talking about political correctness or even knowing or understanding what LGBTQ means. As an advocate in the world we live in where racism, sexism, homophobia and denial are the norm, I don’t even expect people to educate themselves anymore. But, I do think we can awaken to each other’s humanity through language. I’m simply saying what we all know — that words can hurt or heal. They can empower or dehumanize. And that is important. Dehumanization is the scary stuff genocides are made of. When we strip people of their humanity, it starts with the words we use (i.e., illegal alien, white trash, savage, and other racial and sexual slurs), etc.
When we use language, either consciously or subconsciously, that implies that people are less worthy or less of a human, history shows us we have no problem enslaving or eliminating them. And, that is already happening. Every day there is another pastor or legislator spewing hate about how gay people should die, be denied rights, and stating they are an abomination to God.
Ironically, it’s generally organized religion that suggests that we aren’t supposed to judge the worthiness of man (or woman), but rather that is for God to decide. Yet, we place categories of human worth on people every day: who is more or less worthy of help, of praise, of power, etc.
On the other hand, if we use language that protects people’s dignity as humans, then we must deal with them as such – legally, socially, emotionally, and so on. The language that we use sets norms that help condition us to think a certain way about groups of people. The way we think about them shapes the way we feel and ultimately the way we act. Thus, a simple change or shift in how we think about parenting can make a significant impact in our society, especially for the already-marginalized group of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals that live with institutionalized homophobia intertwined with religion and fear.
I’m just a mom who loves her son and always will. I don’t love him despite the fact that he’s gay. I love him and I’m proud of who he is. He is young man that is so many things: hilarious, wicked smart, kind, handsome, hard-working, strong, thoughtful, talented…. I could go on and on. Gay is on the list as well, it’s part of who he is. But, never have I thought to myself that I was doing him a favor or that I was a “great mom” for loving him “despite” his sexual orientation. I believe this is an example of the pure love that Jesus calls us to, every day, and with every person.
Dr. Satara Armstrong, PhD, MSW, has been teaching social work at the bachelors and masters level for over fourteen years. Prior to working in academia, Armstrong worked in public health and her research centered on health disparities in organ donation and transplants for Native Americans. She currently serves as a Professor of Social Work at Brandman University in Irvine, California.
Post #2: Believing the Best for Those With Whom We Disagree: Following Jesus’ Example for Difficult Conversations
For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 1 Corinthians 2:11 (English Standard Version (ESV)).
“For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” 1 Corinthians 2:11 (English Standard Version (ESV).
For professing Christians, let alone professing Christian social workers, I posit that no other topic has currently caused more division personally, professionally, and institutionally than the topic of human sexuality. Even more than racism and abortion, this topic cuts to the core of what makes us human. Each human on earth has the same biological map, is conceived using the same biological material (joining of sperm and ovum), and shares similar human development features regardless of race, ethnicity, and geographical location. Many people deal with the effects of racism and abortion, but ALL humans are formed and defined by their sexuality, an innate biological feature of human beings.
Beliefs about human sexuality encompass issues of sexual attraction/behavior and gender identity. These two subjects also interact with one another, as people who identify as transgender may consider themselves “straight” if they are, for example, a biological female presenting as a male and seeking female romantic partnerships. Indeed, the modern attention paid and validation given to gender fluidity and the expanding LGBTQIAP…designations have introduced new challenges in how we talk together about sexuality and the delivery of ethical social work services.
A troubling practice I have observed in our society and profession is the tendency to generalize a person’s intent based on their stated beliefs, as happens, for example, with the broad characterization of some people or group of people as “homophobic” (literally, “afraid of same”). This typically applies when persons hold the belief that same-sex behavior is not consistent with Natural Law, God’s created order for human sexual expression, and diverges from biologically-supported heterosexual sexual behavior.
The label of “homophobe” is often used based on the accused persons’ or groups’: 1) limited interactions with individuals who identify as same-sex attracted (SSA); 2) firm belief that same-sex behavior is not God’s created intention for the use of our sexual organs; and/or 3) advocacy for access to resources for people who experience SSA but want to be supported in living an other-sex oriented sexual life (thereby honoring client self-determination). When a professing Christian social worker makes such an accusation, they step away from critical thinking and scientific inquiry. Without concrete evidence of bad behavior on the part of the accused towards same sex attracted and behaving (SSA/B) persons or community, the only justification left to label someone as “homophobic” is to question and judge the inner motives of such individuals, believing we are somehow capable of fully understanding persons’ inner thoughts and motivations. A great threat to our unity as Christian social workers is our alignment with and adoption of secular society’s methods of debate and discourse which include name-calling, labeling, and generalizing, all from a core belief that “we know what they REALLY mean by that.”
The fact is that there is no conclusive scientific evidence, yet, that supports with finality that SSA is not mutable and that persons are not able to become other-sex attracted (OSA). Also, there is no conclusive scientific evidence that supports the claim that a person’s biological sex is mutable. Since there is no conclusive scientific evidence, yet, and the voices of peoples’ personal experience is largely influencing decision-making and the furthering of these ideas as fact, it behooves us as Christians, social workers and social scientists to reserve judgment upon people and people groups with differing opinions.
It is important to understand that Christian social workers who might be referred to as “theologically conservative” share concerns that the concepts of “born in the wrong body” and “born gay” are not yet conclusively scientifically supported, as well as being extra-scriptural viewpoints. From the beginning, those who see God’s Word, the Bible, as the inerrant standard for living believe God established perfect order and created humans, male and female, in His image (Genesis 1:27). The Gospel of Jesus is true only as God is true and real from the beginning. As a member of the Trinity, Jesus is inseparable from God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, from the first word of the Scriptures to the last.
Using another example, a Christian who is against abortion must realize that some do not agree that life begins at conception. As one who believes life begins at conception, I posit that my duty as a Christian social worker is to discern where the differences in beliefs are in order to know how to proceed in my respectful discussion with persons who hold differing views. Participating in name-calling with people who do not believe life begins at conception and calling them “baby-murderers” is not beneficial. My care for persons with whom I disagree is always primary, providing the context from which I may engage in an open, respectful discussion, if desired, about scientific facts. Similarly, calling some Christians “homophobes” is also not beneficial when their position about SSA/B is based on a belief that any departure from God’s created order according to His Word is inconsistent with God’s design for human sexual expression. Perhaps a better term to describe their views would be, “hamartiaodium” (“hamartia” Greek for “sin” or “tragic flaw” and “odium” Latin for “hate”) which directs the focus to the “sin”, not the person. “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:22b – 24, ESV).
Christians are called to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12, ESV) and to “count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3, ESV). Examples from the Bible where Jesus dealt with those who disagreed with Him are the moneychangers in the temple, the Pharisees, and the woman at the well.
While Jesus exhibited what we might describe as “righteous anger” when He overturned the tables in the temple (John 2:13 – 16), it appears to me that in other areas of Scripture, Jesus peacefully challenged those who challenged his teachings, such as the Pharisees who were ever trying to trip Him up (Matthew 19:7) with questions and traps. He spoke the truth in love while remaining peacefully engaged with his dissenters (except when they were actively trying to stone him; then, He simply “passed through the crowd” (Luke 4:30) as it was not yet time for him to be slain for our sins).
Jesus spent time talking with the woman at the well, not condemning or persuading, but listening and speaking the truth about the Living Water available to her (John 4: 1-30). If we examine her life from a “traditional values” viewpoint, the fact that, as Jesus pointed out, she had five husbands and the one she was with was not her husband, would cause us to surmise that she was not embodying the religious standard set out in the Scriptures. In response to Jesus, though, she was duly impressed, not appearing traumatized by Jesus’ truth-telling, but amazed that He knew her. She ran to the town and declared, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” (John 4:29, ESV).
In light of these examples where Jesus dealt with those who disagreed, or were living an alternative lifestyle of the day, I want to illuminate flaws in how some are dealing in the present day with topics that threaten to polarize professing Christians in social work.
Because of the hurt experienced by people who identify as LGB etc. and T, there has been an understandable backlash towards the perceived “majority belief system,” namely, people who subscribe to the belief that same-sex sexual behavior is a departure from Natural Law and God’s created order. This backlash is an attempt to right the wrongs that have been inflicted by people not representative of Christ’s ways. There will be no argument from me about the absurdity of bombing abortion clinics, picketing military funerals in the name of Christianity, or terrorizing persons with SSA/B in any way. However, the backlash goes too far when attempts to talk and listen to each other about differences of opinion resorts to name-calling and claiming of the moral high ground. Pointing fingers at others and declaring them homophobes, racists and bigots OR highlighting SSA/B as a “worse kind of sin” are simply not Christian responses. We expect that shaming behavior from secular society, but not from the Christian community.
I think the time has come to cease the ultra-generalization that all of the majority groups in the United States experience power and privilege all of the time. We say we want peace, but in reality, “peace” seems to make people anxious. In my experience and readings, I see much analysis and assessment of division in our society but with few suggestions for reconciliation, while people ruminate and perpetrate blaming the majority for the problem. Psalm 120:6 & 7 cries out, “Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace. I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war!” (ESV)
As Christians, let’s be different from the world, so we can be the light of the world as He has called us to be (Matthew 5: 14-16). What did Jesus say? He told us to do difficult things: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, ‘Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.’” (Matthew 5:38-40 (ESV). And then there is this wonderful scripture to chew upon concerning all of what I have written: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, ESV).
Let us embrace peace, leave the judgment of others’ motives to God, and believe the best for each other. And yes, let’s keep talking and listening.
Amy Mitchell, BMEd., MSW, is an online adjunct professor of social work (BSW and MSW programs) for Liberty University and The Catholic University of America (CUA). She has 29 years experience in church ministry leadership, including 22 years as Director of Music Ministries. Amy is in her 2nd year towards a PhD in Social Work at CUA, and is a Substance Use Therapist with Northwestern Community Services Board in Winchester, Virginia.