I grew up as a devout Evangelical Christian. Accepting myself as gay involved a lot of religious trauma for a few years. Eventually, I coped with faith issues by pretending they didn’t exist. But then I became a father. Pretending didn’t cut it anymore, not when I had a young teenager depending on me. How did I cope? Here’s my story.
“Brent!” I shouted. “Watch where you’re going!”
The old woman honked like a startled goose, the boy leaped off his skateboard just in time to avoid smacking into her, and I exhaled in huge relief. Even though her tweed-bulked body probably bested his slight frame by a hundred pounds, I could still imagine inertia having its way and shattering an elderly hip.
“Excusez-moi, madame,” I shrugged with gallic resignation, pointing at my foster son scrambling after his errant board. “C’est les garçons, vous savez bien.”
Her startled frown morphed quickly into a benevolent smile as Brent sprinted over, all breathless, blond, blue — skateboard clutched under one arm.
“Oh, madame, Je vous demande pardon! Vraiment! Ça va?”
She wagged a finger at him in mock severity. “Oui oui, mon fils. Tout va bien. Mais fais attention toi, la prochaine fois, hein?”
I laughed to myself at how polite and charming Brent became. Quite a change from his “at home” behavior. He chattered away to madame for a good 10 minutes, as if auditioning for the part of a devoted grandson. I don’t think she quite understands what he meant by ollies and nollies, though. If you don’t either, dear reader, fret not. The world of skateboarding is insular.
I grabbed a seat by the monument in the center of Montreal’s Place D’Armes, relieved to take some weight off my feet for a while. Charging all over town trying to capture flattering video of Brent’s inconsistent skateboarding skills had sapped my energy.
All too quickly, I heard madame chirp her goodbyes. “Que le bon dieu vous bénisse,” she trilled as she waved and sailed across the square toward Notre Dame Basilica, the soaring gothic church that dominated the scene.
Brent slouched over and sat with me for a while, either out of pity or because he was actually getting tired, himself. Or maybe what sounded like an offhand question was important to him.
“What does that mean?” he asked. “Que le bon dieu vous … vous … whatever.”
“Bénisse, buddy. It means bless. May the good God bless you. We’d probably say Lord, though. In English.”
“Oh… Ok. But what does it mean? Bless?”
“Well, nothing really. Just that she wishes us luck or happiness. You know, that God will be good to us.”
“Really? God? For real?”
“I dunno. She’s old. Some old people just say things like that because it’s a thing to say. They don’t really mean it. But she might. Look at her. She’s walking up the steps into the church. Probably for afternoon mass.”
“Mass? You mean like la messe?”
“Yeah. Same word.”
“Huh. But… but she can’t really think God could make us happy or anything, could she?”
“I dunno. She might. Lots of people believe in God.”
“For real? Like … like they believe that the God in the storybooks is a real thing? Like if somebody thought Harry Potter and Dumbledore were real? Are you sure?”
I raised a boy once.
My partner and I took him into our home when he was an early adolescent. He lived with us until after he finished growing up.
We lived in the Canadian province of Quebec, which if you don’t know, features a population that is overwhelmingly atheist and has been for almost three generations.
Brent had never heard of any gods outside the context of fiction. He was barely 14 in the conversation above. Before that day, it had never occurred to him that people believed the stories told in churches any more than they believed the stories told in movies or novels. He thought worship services were just colorful traditions that nobody took seriously.
He was surprised when I told him that some people thought religious stories about God were actually true.
He thought it over for a moment, then said, “Really? That’s weird,” and went back to skateboarding. Religion never made an impression on him. He never brought it up again. He never really even thought about it, as far as I could tell.
Our house was often full of kids, his friends.
They talked a lot among themselves about their futures, beliefs, hopes, etc. As teens tend to do. Interestingly, religion never came up. I mean, not ever. They weren’t hostile to it. They were just null. Completely apathetic.
I don’t think that would be expected among kids raised in the US, where I’m from.
Those kids in Quebec, including Brent, were native atheists. They were born to disbelief. None of them had ever been exposed to religion as something to be taken seriously, or as something that mattered in their lives.
People who took religion seriously would have puzzled them, I think, if they bothered to think about it at all.
Quebec culture is mostly like that. There aren’t any religious forces trying to push social values, trying to turn innocent people into scapegoats, or trying to force beliefs and practices on others.
So nobody HAS to care.
If people around him had been trying to tell Brent that my boyfriend and I were immoral because we were a same-sex couple, he probably would have resented that and become hostile toward those sorts of religious people. He was fiercely loyal to us as his chosen parents.
I wonder sometimes what it would have been like to parent Brent somewhere else, someplace where religion dominates public thought, like where I live now. I have a hard time — as a gay man — imagining a religious society that doesn’t despise me.
I know such a thing could be possible, of course.
I just have a hard time believing it, maybe as hard a time as Brent had that day in the square, believing that madame took God seriously.
Brent is straight, though, and he lives in an almost totally atheist culture. He’s privileged in that he’s never going to have to worry about the problems that religions cause, or about their campaigns of persecution against minorities.
As a gay parent, I wonder about how I’d have The Religion Talk in a place where my morality and humanity were called constantly into question.
James Finn is a long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Act Up NYC, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to [email protected]
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.