|This is an
Rev Steve Parelli,
August 19, 2009
Photo by Steve Parelli
Three Christian Funerals and Three Closeted
Sons in Eight Months
by Rev. Stephen Parelli, written Monday, May 28, 2012, Bronx, NY
(The three characters depicted in this writing are real and their stories are true; names have been
changed, places are left unidentified, and some descriptions have been altered.)
On a Wednesday morning while traveling out of the city, my husband and I received an unusual text
from a gay friend: “My mother is dying right in front of my eyes.” Four hours later: “She’s gone.” It
was sudden and totally unexpected. Burt is in his thirties. He has never come out to his parents or
siblings, or virtually anyone other than his sex partners. His self-loathing as a gay man is evident at
every turn. He’s sexually active, but ridden with guilt. His parents are religious and committed to their
local, fundamental church. He and his siblings were brought up in their parents’ faith. Committed to
the closet and filled with shame, Burt is somewhat of a loner. He finds his sexual partners in places
where his steps won’t be retraced.
Burt introduced himself to us a few years back immediately following our presentation on religion and
homophobia to a group of the disenfranchised from his own faith-tradition. Since then he would
phone, text, phone again. It became obvious to us that he was searching for connections. My
husband and I, as an extension of our ministry, took him in. Evenings, after work, he would drop by,
but only after texting and asking for permission. More often than not, we were busy and graciously
told him it was not a good evening. But we said yes enough that he became a regular guest – maybe
once every two months.
When his mother died, we were his closet friends.
He never said much about his family. Mostly about computers and gadgets and his favorite shows and
Internet clippings. He was very, very happy in our closeted home. He was himself. He told us about
his life as a gay man in the closet. It became evident to us that the closet is where he will stay
forever. No question about it: no one is to ever know.
He asked us to come to his mother’s viewing. Of course, we did. We wanted to be there for Burt. He
told us how to introduce ourselves: we were to say we were someone for whom he had fixed our
computer. And by all means, we were not to mention that we are married, a gay couple.
The viewing was a celebration of the mother’s life. She was, along with her husband, an artist, and
their paintings, drawings and photos, that had taken them on tours in America and Canada, were on
display on video. Dancing women in white flowing dresses with wide sleeves were just beginning their
mournful movements as we arrived. The singing words of the pre-recorded choir that accompanied
the dancers promised God’s presence and healing.
Later, at his mother’s casket, Burt bent over her body, and chest to chest, he embraced his mother
and gently stroked her hair and the side of her face. He lay, for a while, prone on her body, resting
his heart against hers, his soul with hers.
Who was this boy who was now being held, embraced by his dead mother? Who was this man, not yet
middle aged, yet far from the years of young adulthood; this man who hides from everyone close to
him? Could he tell his mother then, at her wake, who he is and close the casket, leaving his secret
safe with her?
Upon leaving the funeral home, I commented to my husband and lover: “Yea, though I walk through
the valley of the shadow of death . . . Psalm 23 . . .; If God can take us through the shadow of death,
why doesn’t anyone trust God to take us through the shadows of life. Why couldn’t Burt’s family have
worked through knowing and accepting their son and their brother as gay?” If religion is our hope for
life beyond the grave, should it not also be our hope for life on this side of the grave, that when one’s
son says “I’m gay,” in this life, religion finds the way for love and acceptance and belonging. As far as
Burt was concerned, religion offered no life-giving power that could overturn the living death he daily
knows as a gay man, hidden from his religious family and everyone, convinced that their Christian faith
would reject him outright.
Several months back, a second gay man we personally know lost his father. The son, Craig, in his
forty’s, was living in one country in Asia with his lover of four years when it became known that his
father was dying in another country in Asia, his parents’ mother-land. With his lover at his side, he
went to be with his mother and his dying father, and for many days nursed his father until he died. He
introduced his lover as a very close friend who was with him for support and comfort. On the day of
the burial, as the guests and family left the site of the internment, the son and lover had to separate.
The family was to have a time of remembrance alone as a family. Craig’s friend, it was understood,
was not to be included, albeit the in-laws were included, of course. It was a difficult moment for both
Craig and his lover.
About six months later, Craig and his partner stayed in our home while visiting New York City. We had
meant them a couple summers back while traveling in Asia and we became fast friends. They talked
with us about the father's last days, Craig’s religious family, and Craig's life-long fear of coming out to
his Christian mother and his Christian brother because of the utter rejection the mother had once
vocalized if she were to ever learn that Craig was gay.
Together they discussed the difficulties and hurts they were bringing to their relationship by staying in
the closet when it came to Craig’s family. During their stay with us, we discussed a strategy by which
Craig could come out first to his brother who is living in America, and later to a second sibling and then
to the mother. To Craig’s credit, and to his lover’s great joy, within days, Craig came out to his
Christian brother who, to Craig’s surprise, was accepting.
The same week that Burt’s mother died, a gay friend, Antonio, from Latin America, now living in the
United States with his European lover of four years, visited in our home while his lover was away to
Europe to bury his Christian father.
“I don’t have any friends,” he told us, which is not the Antonio we know. We met Antonio in South
America, always at the center of any gathering. Antonio is somewhat quiet, but as a gay man he was
open to the world and flowed with the party. But now, he was telling us, that here in America with a
closeted professional as his partner, he was all alone. His partner comes out to no one. When they
do something together out of the home, it is always where they can be hidden, alone with no one else.
If they do walk together where Antonio’s partner may be known, Antonio is treated like a distant
acquaintance, not even as a close friend. At Christmas time, the partner returns to Europe without
Antonio to celebrate the holidays with his parents.
“I want family,” Antonio told us while his partner was in Europe to bury his father. “I want to have the
experience of what family is. I’ve always wanted that. But in this relationship with my partner we have
neither family nor even a social life with other gay men. Our life together is friendless. And I am finding
that the friends I did make when I first came to America are no longer in my life in any practical way. It
is extremely lonely.”
These three funerals; these three gay sons – all depict aspects of life in and out of the
Because his relationship is sacred to him, Craig, our friend from Asia, is making changes. He is
coming out to his family in America, whatever the cost, and his lover, back home in Asia, is thrilled
On the other hand, Antonio’s partner and Burt show no signs of ever coming out.
For Burt, he may be hurting no one but himself, but my guess is he has limited the love his siblings
and father would shower upon him if he did come out, and in that sense he hurts them by limiting
them. Burt will go on being a loner; there is no sign of that changing. At the viewing, among his
siblings, his father and their friends, he said good-bye to his mother, embracing her with longing, the
embrace he never received as a gay son.
In Antonio’s case, his closeted lover will go on hurting him. He has no intention of ever, ever coming
out of the closet. The closet is his profession. It is his religion. It is where he gets his strength and
reason for being. He likes the closet. In fact, it is my sense, from what Antonio tells us about certain
dynamics of the relationship, that his partner’s secret life is perhaps his turn on, his mode-of-
operation, his sexual high; he’s hooked. For Antonio, his relationship is on a dead-end street. After
visiting all evening in our home, and strategizing on how to free himself from the economic trap he’s in
as a kept boy, Antonio’s depressed, lost expression turned into a smile and he said, “You’ve liberated
my mind.” Antonio is moving on. When the time comes that his partner has to bury his mother,
traveling by himself to Europe for a second funeral, Antonio won’t be here in the states alone and
depressed in their lifeless house. He will have moved on, finding that partner that wants to celebrate
life as family with family (unlike his present partner), not waiting to do so over the body of some
deceased parent who never knew the child was gay (like Burt).
I’ve heard it said: It is better to be hated for who I am, than loved for who I am not. Men who step out
of the closet know this.
A gay man’s closet is his own closed casket – he is dead and no one sees him (his parents above all),
and those who do see him, like Antonio, are dead with him in the closed casket.
And similarly, a mother’s open casket cannot love a closeted gay son – only in his mind. Whatever
Burt told his mother as she lay in her casket (so that he could say, “OK, I’m ready now”) will not
radically reduce his fear of rejection. Only a loving, understanding living mother gives acceptance.
Why didn't he take the risk when she was alive, to say who he is. Isn't relationship worth the risk, even
the risk of running up against the wrath of the church?
His surviving family will never be told who he really is, and Burt will go on seeking out people like us -
my husband and me, who, far from his actual world, will take him in for an evening so that for a few
moments he can be Burt.
How can faith resurrect the dead if it does not have the power to give life to the living – like
empowering the Christian families of Burt, Craig and Antonio, that would have to work through the
immense challenge of accepting a gay son (in the face of opposing church teachings)? Perhaps it
was in this kind of context, in which religion marginalizes, rejects and oppresses others that Jesus told
Nicodemus, a religious leader, “You must be born from above.” In these cases, some radical change in
thinking and believing would have to occur on the part of the Christian parent if real acceptance is to
be shown the gay son. "You must be born from above" - a whole new way of thinking!
It is not the valley of the shadow of death I fear, it is the shadows of life I fear; those shadows that go
unchecked, unchallenged, unstudied, unquestioned, unseen; the shadows of shame and rejection that
we refuse to dispel by embracing a huge love for life and others, and by creating the potential for
genuine inclusion by naming who I really am: "Mom, dad, I wanted you to know before you die, I'm
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