You Need Help: My Parents Want Me to Respect My Sister’s Homophobic Religious Beliefs

Q:

I came out to my family when I was 14 as bisexual, and at 22 as a lesbian (when I learned what comphet was and everything suddenly made sense). I’m 24 now, in a committed relationship with a woman (the first long-term relationship, and she’s met my parents but not yet my siblings). I recently learned that my little sister converted to Catholicism (her serious boyfriend is devout Catholic) and that she has adopted some of the Catholic teachings on homosexuality. This includes belief that “marriage is between a man and a woman” and that gay people are “people who experience same-sex attraction”.

I found this out by accident because my mother mentioned Mass, which is a term my Protestant family doesn’t use. She’s fully converted, which is a year-long process, and she didn’t tell me at any point in it (except for asking me to facetime with news a month ago and then backing out when she learned I was with my girlfriend and never trying to reschedule)

When I asked her if that meant she wouldn’t come to my wedding one day, she deflected the question. This happened yesterday morning, and since then I feel like I’ve just swung back and forth between feeling numb and crying uncontrollably.

On top of that, my parents believe that I should learn to respect her belief. There has been no acknowledgement of her homophobia and the hurt that’s caused me. The only person who stood up for me was my little brother, and aside from my dad telling me we all could have reacted better, neither of my parents nor my sister have said anything to me since.

I feel so incredibly alone, and all the resources on homophobia are for people who are newly out. I don’t know how to even begin to contend with the fact that she came to this belief knowing she has a queer sister (unless she’s simply been hiding it for a decade).

I’m supposed to bring my girlfriend to meet my entire family for the Fourth of July, and now I’m rethinking if I should even go. I feel like my world has been turned upside down and I just don’t know what to do. Please help. Do I reach out to them? Do I wait for them to reach out (even though every second feels like an hour waiting)? How do I get my parents to see that neutrality in this situation feels like they’re rejecting me too?

[Editors note: Due to a scheduling mistake on my part, we did not publish this question in advance of July 4th. I want to personally apologize to the LW, and I hope that whatever choice you made about the party felt okay to you. That said, I think Casey’s response will still be helpful for your life, and I hope that this conversation overall will be helpful for many of our readers, not just the original LW. Thank you for your patience with me as the editor of this column, and thank you to Casey for sharing such compassionate and resource-filled advice. — Vanessa]

A:

Dear friend,

I am so sorry you’ve been put in this terrible situation. Your parents are minimizing the hurt and impact of your sister’s decision and I want to start by acknowledging that what your sister has done and what your parents have done are hateful and disrespectful. You are not overreacting and you are very much entitled to feel angry, betrayed, and hurt.

I have four step-siblings that I grew up with who all became very religious – more run of the mill Christianty with varying levels of evangelism – as teens / young adults. Even before I came out, it was very weird and challenging for me. I could see the people I remembered them to be pre-Christianity being eroded by and replaced by these cookie cutter Christian ideas that they were adopting without question. (Like, my previously Harry Potter loving stepbrother suddenly started saying the books were sinful and refused to read them. I mean, JKR is a horrible TERF, but that’s not what he meant).

It’s a kind of grieving process I think, that you have to go through when someone makes such a fundamental change to how they’re living their life, especially when that takes them away from you emotionally and puts them in line with doctrine full of hate.

I think your sister knows, at some level, that what she’s done is not okay. Why else would she hide this year-long process from you? She didn’t answer the question of whether she’d come to your wedding one day. Why not? She knows saying she wouldn’t attend your wedding based on her new belief system would be incredibly mean. It sounds like your parents were aware of the conversion process and also sensed it didn’t feel right, because they also at least lied by omission by keeping it from you.

Your sister knows it’s hurtful and she’s doing it anyway. That really fucking sucks. I have no idea why or how she could come to this belief knowing she has a queer sister, except to say societal and religious homophobia are deeply, deeply engrained. I think it’s likely she’s trying to tell herself these beliefs aren’t homophobic – that’s what the church would be telling her and this conversion process has had her steeped in their indoctrination. IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT.

What value there is in the idea of respecting someone’s beliefs does not include being respectful of someone’s disrespect and hate. I think for your parents especially, the issue is that they do not see your sister’s beliefs as hateful. They are applying the idea of “respecting everyone’s beliefs” as if all beliefs are created equal.

Your parents are likely also viewing themselves as caught between you and your sister. I imagine they think they are trying to “keep the peace” in your family by avoiding conflict and falsely equating your sister’s new homophobic beliefs with your queerness, as if they are in any way comparable.

I did some cursory research into resources that might be suitable to pass on to your parents and sister. PFLAG is an obvious choice for your parents. Is there a local group you can steer them to so some cishet people their age who they will listen to can explain why what they’re asking of you is not okay? I know you said they’re not beginners since you came out a long time ago, but if they are pulling this “respect everyone’s beliefs” shit they are!

PFLAG also lists some resources for LGBTQ Catholics and their families, specifically, Dignity USA and Fortunate Families. There is also New Ways Ministry, which seems to be the most up to date. These, obviously, are still Catholic and they weren’t as radical as I hoped they would be before browsing their websites. But they may be good places for your sister to start in her comfort zone. At the very least, they share stories of LGBTQ people raised Catholic who have been harmed by the church’s teachings.

Chrissy Stroop, a trans exvangelical writer and scholar, has an extensive list of resources that criticize conservative and evangelical Christianity on her website. Some of her recommendations that seem pertinent include Bilgrimage, a blog by a gay theologian with a Catholic background. and Lord Have Mercy, a podcast run by a queer progressive Christian, Crystal Cheatham.

Okay, now that you’ve got some resources on hand, let’s talk about your options practically, in regards to the fourth of July party.

Option 1: Do not attend the party, do not engage in discussion with your sister or parents about why you’re not coming.

This option might seem like the “easy way out” but I think it has its merits. This horrible situation is very fresh. It would be very valid to take some time to disengage and take care of yourself. IF you decide you want to try to educate your family, you don’t have to do it right now. You also might decide that this is not a good time or place to introduce your partner to your siblings. How does your partner feel about going to the party? I’m guessing not good!

If you are asked why you’re not coming, you could decide to a) ignore their calls/etc; b) simply say you’re not discussing it; or c) come up with a short response beforehand like “Your new beliefs and/or request for me to respect those beliefs are hurtful and homophobic. I’m not discussing it any more right now. Don’t ask me to again. ” Then, hang up, log off, don’t respond to follow up emails, etc. YOU decide if and when you get back in touch. If we’re being really optimistic here, this approach may</> prompt them to look for educational resources on their own.

Option 2: Do not attend the party, attempt to engage in discussion long distance with your sister and/or parents to explain why not.

IF you decide you want to and you’re ready to try to educate your family, I think this is the safest option right now. Your sister and parents are almost certainly not going to react well to being informed that they are being hateful. It’s best to give them time and space to digest whatever information you give them, whether that’s a personal explanation of how this has negatively affected you and/or outside resources.

I think written communication, probably email, would be the best venue. Tell them directly what actions you want them to take. Read the message / information and send you a response in a week? Discuss it amongst the three of them? Discuss it and ask questions they have with your younger brother or another ally first before talking to you? (Obviously you’d have to get him / them on board and give him the same info you sent them). Do you want an apology including a statement that shows they understand why what they’ve done is hateful and harmful? An apology that details explicitly how they’re going to avoid the same behavior in the future?

I’ll be honest here, I don’t know how realistic it is that you’ll get some of these positive responses any time soon, particularly from your sister. Your parents are not personally invested in this Catholic doctrine as your sister is, but it sounds like they are invested in avoiding conflict within your family and in this “respect everyone’s beliefs” nonsense. In my experience, it took years for my religious step-siblings to shake off the grip of the most harmful doctrine they’d internalized. I never got any apologies and my relationships with them to this day suffer because of it. I’ll never be close with them again. This is a very sad reality

Option 3: Attend the party, attempt to engage in discussion with your sister and/or parents in person about how their actions are harmful.

Only you know your family best, and maybe you think they’ll respond best to your telling them in person about your experiences the past few weeks and how this has hurt you. Maybe your partner is ready and willing to go and support you. Engage the support – in specific ways you discuss beforehand – of your younger brother and/or partner while you talk to your sister and parents. Make a plan for what to do if it goes badly (ie, being able to easily leave). Decide beforehand what kind of words or behavior you won’t tolerate.

If you choose this option, please be gentle with and take care of yourself and your partner. Remember, it is not your job or responsibility to educate your family on why they should not embrace homophobia or support homophobia as a value-neutral belief. You may choose to do so, of course. This is also an excellent time to lean on allies! This IS their job. This is their chance to step up. Go little brother! Or, perhaps, there’s an opportunity here to invite another ally to the party, like the parents of your queer friend who are well versed in PFLAG.

Option 4: Attend the party, do not discuss your sister and parents’ harmful behavior and try to pretend everything is fine.

I can pretty much guarantee this option will feel like shit. I do not recommend!

Take care of yourself first dear friend! You will get through this.

💜💜💜 Casey


You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.


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Casey

Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer, librarian, and new parent. She writes for Book Riot and Autostraddle about queer and/or bookish stuff. Ask her about cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer books, drinking tea, and her baby. Her website is Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian. Find her on Twitter, Litsy, Storygraph Goodreads and Instagram.

Casey has written 90 articles for us.

15 Comments

  1. I’d recommend looking at some resources for/by queer Christians, which are more likely to be fulfilling and encouraging than mainstream stuff — some good places to start are queertheology.com and believeoutloud.com, which has a tag for Catholicism. If you decide it’s worth it to pursue dialogue with your sister, she might be more receptive to resources that come from within Catholicism and affirm queer Christians.
    It’s more than possible to be Catholic and queer-affirming. I’m not saying that to try to absolve your sister or your parents or anyone else who uses religion as an excuse to hurt people — the opposite, actually. These people can and should do better. Converting doesn’t automatically make you a bigot, and defending bigotry in order to “respect people’s beliefs” assumes that bigotry is a necessary part of Christianity, which it is NOT. You have the right to expect better from your family.

  2. GO TO THE PARTY. With your girlfriend. Be your happiest, gayest, most fantastic self. You’ve done nothing wrong, so don’t act like it. You have every right to be in that space. If she feels uncomfortable, SHE can leave. Don’t try convincing anyone of your humanity, you’re better than that and it’s a waste of your time.

    If she brings it up – switch the topic to fornication. I love seeing straight Christians with long-term “serious boyfriends” squirm when this comes up.

  3. So…I find myself wondering how much LW’s parents know about the contemporary Catholic church in America. I think the massive division in American Catholicism is not always perceived by Protestants – right now there are such extreme differences between the left (shout out to the socialist workers and radical nuns) the center and right – with the far right Trad Catholics being pretttty much actual nazis and even the Pope being all ‘wtf is up with you people? Could you chill with how anti-gay you’re all being?’ I think until the parents understand the extremes of the Church and how it is oppressing lgbtqi+ people right now – not just historically – they won’t understand how concerned and alienated LW is feeling. I’d strongly recommend a crash course in contemporary Catholic politics for them for the health of their family. I dunno – that’s my two cents.

  4. if you have the $ for it or can share a library book, illustrated On Tyranny book may be helpful & called for – not for comfort but for future safety. https://www.penguinrandomhouseretail.com/book/?isbn=9781984860392

    not speaking to a sibling bc of lgbtq+ status is political even if it is draped in ‘religion.’ the parents may be struggling with it, and if so, may be a time to wake them up to how accepting this behavior enables political violence

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