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When parents in distress call Linda and Tom Nelson, they often have no place else to turn. If they are in a traditional Catholic church, they may not feel comfortable turning to their congregation members after just learning that their child is gay.
“Think of the classic coming out story, the children know for years and struggle for how to tell their parents. But for most parents, when they learn, it’s a sudden revelation. So for parents it can be quite traumatic,” said Tom Nelson. He and Linda have dedicated their lives to standing up against ignorance in the Catholic Church and helping families deal with the schism between church teaching and same-sex relationships.
The couple met in PFLAG. Both widowed, and both with a gay child, the couple found comfort and love in their activism work. Five years ago they were married and since then their unified voice has been echoing through several faith-based gay advocacy projects and organizations.
They are both board members of Fortunate Families, an international organization that connects Catholic parents of gay children for both support and advocacy. Linda is the President. The Listening Parents Network of Fortunate Families provides the framework to help hundreds of parents each year through email and phone support. They are active in PFLAG and are also part of the Equally Blessed Coalition, which is made up of Fortunate Families, Dignity USA, Call to Action and New Ways Ministry. The Coalition is working to unite Catholics “to have a more obvious voice in response to the negative information from the Catholic hierarchy,” Tom said.
On a local level, the Nelsons are working with activists of many faiths to empower LGBT people in all church settings. The LGBT Faith Initiative launched at Affirmations on Jan. 12, and the Nelsons were on the first panel discussion for the group.
They take calls and emails on a daily basis from parents in distress or confusion, seeking an understanding ear.
“Things are getting better,” Linda said. “It used to be that there was a lot of anger when children came out to their parents. Now, thanks to the media and more people having conversations it’s a little bit easier. People still hurt, but there are fewer people who are shocked. But we still need to help those who hurt.”
Tom also handles calls from upset parents. “Most reasonable parents will realize, ‘I’m ignorant and I need education.’ Their first stop is the website, and they’ll get more information from a Catholic perspective. They’ll see there are other Catholic parents that have been through this, and it’s okay,” he said.
The Listening Parents Network has 143 parents from 101 households in 29 states, providences in Canada, and one in Nicaragua.
“One of the benefits of the listening parents network is that people are all over the country. We can refer them to a parent who may be able to meet with them for coffee or we can give information through the website,” said Tom. “We did have our first conference in 2010. It was a parent conference in Chicago, with about 60 people from across the country. It was pretty good for our first attempt.”
He said “positive Catholic voices are not heard very often.” However Tom and Linda have thrived on the strengthening of those voices. “Telling our stories really makes a difference,” Linda said and Tom followed up with an example:
“Someone called us up and after a bit of conversation, we went to Plymouth to meet for a cup of coffee and it lasted a couple of hours,” he said. “A year later I met that person and she came up to me and said ‘Mr. Nelson, you don’t know what you did for our family. I don’t know how we would have gotten through without you.’ And I thought, how did I get to be so lucky that I get to help people like this. There is no feeling like it.”
The radiant, embracing attitudes of Linda and Tom were not always so bright. Both had been devout Catholics with blinders on to the plight of gay youth until they were faced with it directly.
“For me it was very scary when my son came out,” Linda said. “John is my youngest son. When he was 7 or 8 we felt he was a little different. In that day and age you didn’t talk about homosexuality. We just swept it under the rug. John came out to me when he was 23. I went into the closet for 2-3 years and when I came out I joined PFLAG. It changed me.”
Linda’s first husband had passed away before her son came out, leaving her to go through the experience alone, but giving her the opportunity to meet worlds full of new, open-minded people and a support system like nothing she’d experienced before the journey of accepting her son’s sexual orientation.
Tom and his family were traumatized because of the contradictions engrained in them by the church. “The Catholic Church has a special problem with homosexuality. Some of it is really offensive,” he said. “My son was the kind of kid you had no clue he was gay. He never fit the stereotype I had of gay kids. So he concealed his closet very well. Over the years he’d heard a lot of negative pontificating by his father. And as a result he didn’t come out to me. He tried to commit suicide, and was almost successful. It was a hard struggle for us both. But ultimately God gave me a gay son, and I want other parents to know that it is okay. A gay son is a gift from God.”
After the suicide attempt, Tom’s first wife Trish led the family to PFLAG, where she ultimately became president of the Detroit chapter for three years. After she passed away, Tom felt drawn back to the group, particularly after seeing Trish in a dream. “I really believe that my wife was lining the two of us up. She told me, in my dream, to go back to PFLAG. She said ‘It’s more important than I thought.’ So I went. I ran into Linda and we went to church together. And about a year later Linda and I got married.”
While most of their outreach work has been one-on-one support, the Nelsons have seen a rise in the need for political action and advocacy.
“People getting together, like the Faith Initiative, to send a message to church leaders is becoming more and more important,” Linda said. “We are getting more contacts from inside churches wanting to know how they can not only help individuals, but how they can change the minds of Catholic leaders.”