The Ethical Dilemma: Coming Out to Pastor Parents

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Coming Out to Pastor Parents: I’m twenty years old and a college student living at home. My parents are both pastors with the Salvation Army, and we moved over the summer. I completed my first year of college, and have three, maybe four, more years to go. I came out as agnostic about a year ago but didn’t read any stories or articles to prepare myself, so I agreed to do more research when my mom burst out in tears. Later on, I hinted I was still agnostic, but my parents still insist on making me go to church and trying to convert me.

I don’t know where to go from here. I know I should sit them down again and assert myself, but I’m afraid. I’m still dependent on them and don’t have a driver’s license yet. However, my being agnostic isn’t the only thing. I’m fairly certain I’m bisexual, and I just know they’re going to blame my online friend for “corrupting” me. How can I present myself without causing unnecessary conflict? I hate being forced to go to church and just want my lack of beliefs to be respected.

—Need An Army Of Salvation

Dear Salvation,
Oh my, you certainly are in a difficult position! Your parents have made it clear they cannot/will not accept that you have fallen away from their faith. Their response is to force you to go to church and work on converting you. If you were to tell them you suspect you are bisexual, they might force you into conversion therapy or into a heterosexual marriage. And your comment about depending on them so you can finish college suggests you think they might cut you off if you assert yourself.

I will leave it to others to urge you to stand proud, take the high road, come out on one or both fronts and deal with the consequences—even if that means being cut off financially and perhaps getting thrown out of your home. Not my idea of good advice.

Instead, I argue that what you believe (or not) and what gender(s) you are attracted to is your own private business, which you are not obligated to share with or defend to your parents. You have nothing to feel guilty about. You should not feel guilty about being agnostic or bisexual, and you should not feel guilty if you don’t express those leanings to your parents.

And please recognize that although you can control whether your parents are cognizant of these things, you can’t control whether they accept or respect them. Right now they don’t and they very likely never will. That’s something you may always have to live with. But you won’t always have to live with them.

Although you are no longer a minor (unless you live in Puerto Rico or Mississippi, where the age of majority is twenty-one rather than nineteen ), you are without a driver’s license or a job, financially dependent on your parents, and not yet capable of living on your own. So I recommend you focus on becoming independent. Get your driver’s license. Research alternative living arrangements on or near campus. (Check with your school’s student housing and financial aid offices.) Look for a job you can do while you complete your studies. (Your school might be able to help with that as well.) Without mentioning it to your parents, seek out secular groups such as the Secular Student Alliance and organizations for LGBTQ students. (Once again, your school may be the place to start your search.) Maybe your online friend can help you find LGBTQ support networks. Your school might also have counselors who you can help you with all these issues.

Concentrate on achieving financial, physical and—hardest of all—emotional independence from your parents. Once you’ve done that, you can decide whether it’s important for you to inform your parents about the aspects of your identity that you expect will deeply distress them. Right now you are chafing at being dragged to church and lectured as if you were a wayward child, which is how your parents view you. But once you are not living with your folks and relying on them, and once you are on your own without your parents witnessing your daily life, you may not feel the need to reveal or defend. You will achieve more self-respect and probably more respect from your parents even if they don’t agree with your choices.

In the meantime, the most pressing issue is the forced church-going. You could try telling your parents that making you go and preaching to you only pushes you further away. After all, you must have gone regularly for years and look how that turned out. Ask them to give you time and space to sort things out and inform them that you will return to church if the spirit so moves you. But if that tactic fails, and it likely will, you may just have to keep going with as positive an attitude as you can muster until you can function on your own.

Being an independent adult is more than just an age. It’s about having the wherewithal to live according to your own lights, independent of whether your parents know or approve.