This week’s Huffington Post Gay Voices RaiseAChild. US “Let Love Define Family” series installment challenges our readers by combining the triple threat of hot-button topics: politics, religion and sexual orientation. Read on as Rich Valenza of RaiseAChild.US shares his frank conversation with one truly amazing mom, Wendy Williams Montgomery.
Rich Valenza: I hope you don’t mind if we start back in 2008. As if the Great Recession wasn’t bad enough for a person’s self-esteem, here in California we also had to deal with Prop 8. That was an especially painful time for my family and for me, personally. I was raised Catholic and when the news hit that the Mormon Church and Catholic Church were bankrolling Prop 8, I had a very hard time with it. The church that I grew up in very vocally campaigned against people like me and families like mine. Of course, my family had a “No on Prop 8” sign in our front yard. I assume that your family had a “Yes on Prop 8” sign in yours. How did that come about for you?
Wendy Williams Montgomery: My husband and I both grew up in conservative, devout Mormon homes. We had heard our whole lives that when the Mormon Church asks you to do something, you say yes. It was an opportunity to serve and an opportunity for blessings. So when our bishop, who is the head of our congregation, came over to our home and asked if we would participate, to our shame, pretty much without thinking, we said yes. He asked if we could donate financially. Because we have five children, we really didn’t have the means to donate financially. He asked if we could go out one day and go door-to-door and we said yes. So we went out one day and we did a survey. We asked people if the vote was that day, what way they would vote. We didn’t advocate for or against Prop 8, we just wrote down what their vote was and reminded them of the date that the vote was. I think it was Nov. 8 if I remember correctly. So that was our day of going door-to-door.
But yes, we had the sign in our yard. It got stolen once and we replaced it and got another sign. But looking back now, if there was ever one moment in time or one day I could take back, it would be that. Because my son was 9 turning 10 and going through that period of time and he walked home from school every day and he walked past that sign and I just wonder about the message he got walking past that sign every day. And what he thought his parents thought of gay people and what his Church thought of gay people and what he was internalizing about himself before he even knew for sure about himself. It’s my biggest regret of my entire life. I hate that I even had a part of that. We saw in our home the unrelenting consequences of Prop 8 and I doubt that the church knew how many of their own were hurt by it. I know that it’s not the message that they were intending to convey, but it was the message that was received. At least, in my home.
Valenza: How did you learn that your son is gay?
Montgomery: Well, we started getting really concerned about him when he was in junior high. He’s normally a very happy, enthusiastic kid. He was always smiling. Really energetic. Really bubbly kind of personality. Midway through 7th grade he started becoming really mopey and very depressed. His A’s and B’s turned into D’s and F’s on report cards. He wouldn’t talk to us. He wouldn’t smile. He hung out in his room. His friends started changing.
So we just started becoming really, really concerned about him. We would try and talk to him and he wouldn’t talk to us. We were getting really worried. So I just had this feeling come over me to read his journal, which he had just barely started keeping. It’s not something that I’d ever done before and I haven’t done it since. There were only maybe three or four entries in it. In one of them he had mentioned a boy in his class that he had been talking to and he was caught off guard by noticing what beautiful eyes this boy had. Then he thought of some girls that were his friends and their eyes didn’t interest him at all. There was another entry that talked about a school play that he was trying out for that was “Beauty and the Beast.” It said that “in my dreams I would be Belle” and another boy would be the Beast. So that was kind of my realization. But there were about two weeks before Jordan was able to come out to us and before he knew that we knew. This time period was a huge blessing for us because I spent those two weeks doing nothing but reading everything that I could get my hands on and trying to figure out the best ways to help him. I wanted, when he came out to us, for that to be only love and only support and a really beautiful experience for him and not a horrible, terrifying, scary thing like it is for so many kids. I just wanted him to be surrounded by nothing but love from his parents.
Valenza: This is really remarkable. As the Prop 8 campaign unfolded, I got the message of my Church loud and clear. I kept my personal beliefs, but gave up on my church.
Again, you are of the opposite belief. You and your husband want to affect change from inside the Mormon Church. How does one family try to change the belief of the Mormon Church? How does one family do that?
Montgomery: Well, I don’t know if one family is able to do that. I would love it if one family could do that. I have been a Mormon my entire life and I love being a Mormon. There is so much about it that resonates inside of me and I believe it deeply. There is so much about it that I find beautiful and good and that really speaks to me. There are a lot of things over the past couple of years that have caused me to question and caused me to falter in some of my beliefs. But the core things that I believe in have not changed.
Some of the policies and some of the culture in the Church is what I feel needs to change, like what has revolved around how homosexuality is handled in the Church. That’s not a doctrinal issue, that’s a policy issue. So to me, that could be something that would not be that hard to change, especially with how gay people are treated in the Church. Regardless of where someone is in their personal lives, they should be welcome in our congregations. Outside every one of our church buildings is a sign that says, “Visitors Welcome.” How we treat others, including gay people, is just a common decency thing.
One of the things we’ve tried to do as a family is to start a local support group for LDS (or Mormon) LGBT people and their families, because there is nothing like that where we live. We have a PFLAG group that we attend and are active in, but that’s a non-religious, non-denominational thing. But we started a local support group for people that are Mormon (or any religion). Anybody can come. We’ve also been vocal on social media, we’ve written articles, we attend lots of conferences and have spoken at lots of different events. We’re vocal in any forum we can and talk about this wherever we can — about how to us, it’s just a matter of accepting and loving people as a whole and looking beyond stereotypes, just seeing the person behind the stereotype and loving them as Christ would love them.
Valenza: I am curious to know how you are received now in your church.
Montgomery: Well, it’s been really difficult to be honest. Before my son came out in 2012, we had been in our ward or the congregation for about 10 years. We had many, many dear friends in that ward. So when we had started to tell people in that ward that our son was gay, the friends that we had (not overnight but gradually) just sort of evaporated and the friends we thought we had… we didn’t have as much. It became what felt like an old-fashioned Amish shunning. When Jordan was 13 (two years ago, when he came out) and he passed the sacrament, which is similar to Catholic communion, there were people in the congregation who wouldn’t take it from my son, they would only take it from other boys. It was incredibly hurtful for me to see that happen. My son is 15 now and has never broken any of our church’s standards: he’s never even held a boy’s hand, he’s never had a boyfriend, he’s never broken any commandments that our church has set. It shouldn’t even be an issue if he had. But according to the rules that our Church has, he is still totally worthy to pass the sacrament, but people there still didn’t think he was good enough. So that was rough. And we would have people say pretty ignorant things to us. I had a woman tell me once that I should have my children taken away from me and given to some mother that would teach them to follow the prophet better. You know, my husband and I had assignments in that ward. I was teaching a class to the 15- and 16-year-old teenagers and my husband was president of the Elders Quorum, a group of older men of the congregation. We were getting so many complaints from other people in the ward that they didn’t want us working with their children or people in their family that we finally just stepped down from those callings. People wouldn’t sit by us in class, they wouldn’t talk to my son, they didn’t want him to go on scout camp outs. They wouldn’t let their sons go if my son was going and things like that.
We ended up switching wards. We are attending a different ward now. We have been there for about a year. And it’s been a little bit better, probably because we don’t know people as well so it’s not as hurtful when they’re not as friendly. We have a few people that have been supportive and sweet, but it’s still really hard. A few people will talk to us privately and thank us for what we’re doing, but there has not been anybody that’s been vocally supportive and will stand up for us. We feel very alone.
Valenza: You know, you are making me realize that when a child comes out, there’s a long process of coming out, reconciliation and realization that the parents have to go through, too. I guess I never fully understood the impact of that before talking to you.
Montgomery: Yeah, we’ve had to do our own coming out. How we did that will tell you how courageous and brave my son was at 13. He didn’t want to be in the closet at all. He hated the closet and I didn’t blame him. I think it’s a shameful, horrible, awful place to be. He wanted to let people know that he was gay. He didn’t want to hide. So I said, “Okay, how are we going to do that?” And he said, “Why don’t we just write a letter?” This was after family and close friends already knew. But just to let everyone else know. So I suggested that we write a letter and put it on Facebook so everybody would know.
He helped us write this letter. We wrote it but he set the time for its release and everything. It went out two days before he started high school as a freshman. As if that day’s not scary enough! We put it out on a Saturday and I remember going to church the next day on Sunday. I just remember being terrified, wanting to throw up because I was so scared and I thought this is probably nothing compared to what a gay person goes through. I remember thinking: I’m going to walk in this church, I’m going to look around and people are going to be pointing at us or whispering and wondering how many friends am I going to lose today? So that’s kind of our coming out story. Jordan has this therapist he sees sometimes and she said, “You guys didn’t come out, you crashed out.”
So, that was kind of what we did. But there were already rumors and things that were being said about my son. People were saying, “Are you gay?” and there was bullying going on because he’s not a super masculine kid. It would be really hard for him to fake being straight. So we thought, you know what, they’re already asking, there are already rumors and bullying, why don’t we address it and demystify the whole situation and say, “Yeah, he’s gay, he’s a fantastic kid, he’s wonderful.” Let’s set the tone for how we expected him to be treated, and then move on to the next conversation. That was kind of our intention. Once everybody knew, initially everybody was really nice and saying, “We still love you,” but as time went one I think the “We love you” part was forgotten and the “Oh, my gosh, he’s gay” stuck.
Valenza: Your own family, you said, is conservative. Has your relationship with your siblings and parents changed?
Montgomery: A little bit. It’s been a journey, I think, for all of us. I think the best way to describe it is when we found out that Jordan was gay it was like somebody told us that we had to learn Mandarin Chinese overnight. It was the most foreign thing ever and we had to learn it overnight to help our son. And other people can take a year or a decade and it can take longer for them to get it, but their love and devotion and support to Jordan hasn’t wavered even a little bit. But for some it’s taken a little longer but they love him 100 percent. They haven’t treated him any differently. We’re still invited to every family gathering. It’s been good. There are certain things that are a little bit awkward, but I think that’s just how it’s going to be. But it’s okay. They’ve been loving.
Valenza: So what is it like having a gay son?
Montgomery: I think if somebody asked me a few days after I found out that he was gay, “If you could change him and make him straight, would you?” I would have said absolutely. Make it go away, this is so hard, I don’t want him to have to go through this, his life is going to be hard. That would have been my first, initial response because you grieve. I grieved what I thought his life would be, as a straight Mormon boy. But that was my selfish vision of what it was going to be and not who he really was.
But now two years into it, and even just a few months into it after I found out, I completely changed and I just see this wonderful boy. There has always been something so special about him, he just lights up a room. And I’ve had people my entire life tell me, “He’s the perfect boy, I wish my son could be more like him.” Then we find out what it was about him that was so special, and it’s that he’s gay. I wouldn’t change him for the world — the things that make him special, the traits that are my favorite about him, he’s that way because he’s gay and I would never ever trade those things. The way he is and the beauty of his soul is because he’s gay. I would never take that away.
I have become a better person for having a gay son — the things that I’ve learned and the way that I see other people and the way that I love other people, it’s just more loving, more open, less judgmental. I think I was wearing blinders for so long and I didn’t even know it. Having those blinders taken off has been the most wonderful experience. I tell him all the time “You are such a gift from God” because he has shown me how I’m supposed to be loving other people and I wouldn’t know that without him. He’s such a gift, such a gift. And my religion, as wonderful as it is, my religion didn’t teach me how to love. Jordan did. My son did.
Wendy Williams Montgomery and her family live in California’s Central Valley and are featured in a new film by Caitlin Ryan and The Family Acceptance Project, a research, intervention, education, and policy initiative that works to decrease health and mental health risks for LGBT children and youth, including suicide, homelessness and HIV, in the context of their families. http://familyproject.sfsu.edu/family-videos. On Sunday, May 18, 2014, the Montgomery Family will be presented with a “Let Love Define Family” award at the annual RaiseAChild.US HONORS gala. For more information about the RaiseAChild.US HONORS gala, visit www.RaiseAChild.US and click on “RSVP.”
Rich Valenza is Founder and CEO at RaiseAChild.US, a national organization headquartered in Hollywood, California that encourages the LGBT community to build families through fostering and adopting to serve the needs of the 400,000 children in the U.S. foster care system. RaiseAChild.US works with foster and adoption agencies that have received training in LGBT cultural competence through the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s “All Children-All Families” initiative. Since 2011, RaiseAChild.US has run media campaigns to educate prospective parents and the public, and has engaged more than 2,000 prospective parents. For information about how you can become a foster or fost/adopt parent, visit www.RaiseAChild.US and click on “Next Step to Parenthood.”