by Jessica Carreras
“I was totally ignorant when I found out I had a gay son,” Tom Nelson of Farmington Hills says candidly to Between The Lines, sitting at the local Panera Bread with his wife, Linda Karle-Nelson, sipping his coffee and surrounded by strangers.
He says the words “gay son” openly, loudly, as though he is discussing something as simple and non-controversial as the weather.
The truth is that Tom, 80, and Linda, 69, have come a long way to be able to speak freely about gay issues. But now that they’ve started, they wont stop.
Both Tom and Linda are board members of Fortunate Families, a group created by and for Catholic families with lesbian and gay children. They participate in PFLAG Detroit. They advocate for gay rights through letters and speaking to legislators. And they work hard to ensure that parents like them can love their God and their children.
Their story is both universal and unique to parents of LGBT kids: grappling with the clash of religion and family, learning and altering their beliefs, and ultimately, becoming two of the most impassioned allies Michigan’s gay community has ever known.
Linda and Tom were both widowed by the loss of their first spouses. Both Tom’s son, Mark, and Linda’s son, John – now ages 50 and 40, respectively – came out to their parents in their 20s.
“I was in trauma,” Linda recalls of her son telling her he is gay. “And I stayed that way for quite a long time. I didn’t tell anybody.”
With coaxing from her son, Linda joined the Detroit chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. There, she met Tom and his wife Trish. Several years after Tom’s loss of his wife in 2004 to cancer, he and Linda married, combining their families and their activism.
A lot has changed in the family’s composition, as have Tom and Linda’s views on LGBT rights. But now that they have both come to terms with their gay sons, they want to share their message with the world – particularly other parents.
The couple is involved in several religious LGBT ally efforts, including the Always Our Children program, which targets local congregations willing to hear stories from and support for family members of LGBT people. They also started a PFLAG group in Manistee, Mich., a conservative area where they have a vacation home.
But Fortunate Families remains a large part of their activism, where Linda is vice president and Tom serves as a board member.
The Rochester, N.Y.-based group is comprised of Catholic families of LGBT people across the U.S. It provides resources, event listings and personal stories.
The support from other Catholic parents of gay and lesbian children, Tom and Linda maintain, is crucial. They are part of Fortunate Families’ Listening Parents Network, which connects parents with members of the network who can provide a listening ear and their wisdom.
“They have no role model on how to be a parent to gay and lesbian kids,” Linda says of their work with the network.
“It’s probably the most moving experience any person can have, to listen to another person’s struggle,” Tom adds. “It’s a confrontation between everything they’ve been brought up to believe from a religious training standpoint that seems opposed to their love for their children.”
Tom should know. A devout Catholic, he went through the same transformation that many religious parents of gay kids face. But what the father of six realized is that family comes first. And he credits his son, Mark, for having taught him that. “Having a gay child makes you suddenly realize that the unconditional love of a parent supercedes any religious doctrine,” Tom insists. “It just puts that on the side. I know my son is not disordered, as the church would have me believe.”
He and Linda want other parents to learn that, too, even though their church may tell them otherwise. “It’s our goal through the Listening Parents Network to reach out to families that have no where else to turn,” he says. “We’ve got a long ways to go to reach the people we need to reach.”
Likewise, the couple recognizes that changing the hearts and minds of the congregation is only half of the job of allies. The clergy need to change, too.
Linda and Tom relay that it’s difficult to get anti-LGBT churches to let them speak or put out literature there. Even pastors who are accepting are often unwilling to go against the archbishop or cardinal, weary of being dismissed from their position.
“There’s been some pretty severe consequences in areas where the pastor is supportive of the gay community and they’ve really taken a hit for it,” Tom shares. “They’ve been removed from their pastorship, or worse. The clergy who support us do so at some risk to their welfare.”
Changing the mind of the historically anti-gay Catholic church is all but impossible. But the primary concern of Fortunate Families and couples like Tom and Linda is helping other parents. Unfortunately, they can often be hard to reach as well.
“A lot of times people are afraid to come (to Always Our Children engagements) because of what might come of identifying themselves with this issue,” Linda says. “‘Are people going to think I’m gay or I have a gay kid?’ It’s the same thing with the PFLAG in Manistee.”
“That has got to be one of the most difficult things we face, is reaching people who are really homophobic,” adds Tom. “It’s so hard to do without becoming strident, and I think stridency is a thing we need to guard against because you don’t win people over to your viewpoint by being obnoxious.
“On other hand, there are times where you need to confront.”
Tom knows all about walking that line. When the local cardinal asked Catholic churches to publicly support Proposal 2 in 2004, which banned same-sex marriages in Michigan, Tom couldn’t help but speak up.
“Just before the election (the cardinal) put out an audio tape and told every parish they had to play it on Sunday,” Tom remembers. “They started to play that tape and I had a wave of emotion come over me that’s indescribable. … I walked to the alter, turned around and faced the congregation and in my loudest voice, I said, ‘This is a message of hate. It hurts me, it hurts my family and it hurts my friends. I don’t come to church on Sunday to hear a message of hate. I have to leave.'”
In that case, Tom’s pastor called later that day and apologized for playing the tape, promising never to do such a thing again.
The outcome of their activism is not always so productive, but Tom and Linda keep going just the same. They have a story to tell and wisdom to share. So they talk -a lot, and openly, and to whomever will listen. Or, perhaps more importantly, to those who won’t. In their community. In their church. Even, sometimes, in a Panera Bread.
To learn more about Fortunate Families, visit www.fortunatefamilies.org.