Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Independent: Interview: Building bridges with a Church we strongly feel part of – Drachma Parents
27 December 2011 by Chiara Bonello

"Our raison d'être is that of building bridges with a church we strongly feel a part of," Drachma parent Anna* tells Chiara Bonello, as they speak about the founding of the Drachma Parents' Group, which is committed to helping parents deal with their children's 'coming out'. The problems young people encounter with their families when coming out in Malta calls for a change in mentality.

It was during a talk by Sister Jeanine Gramick that the idea of the Drachma Parents Group was born. It was founded three years ago, in 2008, and Anna and Michael* were among the founding members. The idea is to offer support to parents and relatives of LGBT people and to build bridges with the Church, so those who may have distanced themselves from it may find a place there again.

Michael explains that the Drachma Parents' Group is a Catholic/Christian group which hopes to create more awareness and acceptance, although he adds with a smile that it is not a case of them seeing that they are going to change everything, certainly not in his lifetime.

He admits that the Us and Them mentality unfortunately remains imbued in many, although Anna points out that acceptance is not really a problem among peers of LGBTs. "Rather it is the older generation that tends to experience difficulty and mainly because of what I call a 'cobweb mentality', due to our poor understanding about this reality."

Anna goes on to admit that this is most probably due to what they've been taught, and the influence of the Church's teachings on how one views homosexual relationships.

"This creates a dilemma, since as a parent you wonder about integrating morality with accepting your child. There is a need to learn and read more, but this is not always accessible to all," she says, adding that she knows for a fact that some parents do not accept their children's 'coming out', which causes a major traumatic experience for the child.

Instead of being embraced after having made such a difficult step forward, they are sadly being penalised by their parents, she says, adding that this time of year is usually hard for many families. It is a very sad truth that they must battle issues such as whether their son's partner or their daughter's partner should attend Christmas events with the wider family or not.

The inspiration for the name Drachma stems from Luke, Chapter 15, which deals with the lost sheep, the lost drachma and the prodigal son. In the Gospel the father rejoices when his lost son returns, but unfortunately some parents do not rejoice when they find what their children were painfully hiding.

"In some cases I think the Church is preaching to the converted, since it does not approach those who have distanced themselves from it," she says, adding that before her son came out he had distanced himself from the Church and the extended family gatherings.

"At the time I knew something was not right, as whilst he insisted he was fine, he was distancing himself from the family and the Church, as well as losing weight. By the time he came out to me it was a relief, as I was imagining something far worse," she admits.

Anna goes on to say that how children feel about their 'coming out' depends primarily on the quality of the relationship they share with their parents - whether it is one in which the child feels they can be themselves, or if the parents have a tendency to be judgmental.

In some cases the child will also carry out a series of 'tests', trying to gauge their parents' reactions to minority groups, for instance. Sometimes, however, they are still shocked by their parents' negative reactions when they do actually 'come out', she says, adding that this is ultimately something beyond their child's control, and they deserve love and acceptance.

"To me it was a big boost that my son felt comfortable trusting me so much, as the pain for a parent is that their child was struggling alone for so long. Thankfully my son was strong, but what about those who are less so?" she questions.

She explains that her initial reaction was that it was just a phase, but when she saw her 17 year old son's face, and realised he was certain, she told him that he would have to teach her. She also admits that she was not ready to give up belonging to the Church. Therefore, reconciling both truths was crucial to her.

Michael admits that his situation was somewhat different, as his daughter 'came out' when she was around 27 and had been in a steady relationship with a man, which suddenly broke up. "Although we should have noticed then, we didn't, although my wife kept insisting that this could be the case," he says.

He went on to say: "In my opinion it is harder for a woman to come out in Malta than it is for a man, although in our case it was no problem," adding that he did however tend to become rather more protective of his daughter after this.

"My daughter's partner comes home and is invited everywhere – she's part of the family. Acceptance was gradual, but it is there," he says, adding that grandparents, for example, are another story, as they have never mentioned it.

Anna asserted that she did not want to hide this from her siblings, who she is very close to, but thankfully their reaction was very accepting. "My elderly mother took it very matter of factly, but won't mention it again," she says.

Although Drachma is not a large organisation, it is very active, Michael adds, explaining that they meet monthly and organise mass and a party at Christmas time and Easter time, which are both open to the general public.

In fact, only a nucleus of eight to ten parents remains, and other people come and go. People seem to come to assure themselves they are not alone, but for a variety of reasons attendance then peters out.

"We have also had meetings with the Church (Archbishop), and both had the opportunity to express how we feel about the situation, which was where there was a bit of a deadlock," he admits, adding that although the Church accepts homosexuals, it does not accept homosexuality.

Intervening, Anna questions how the Church could expect a mother to discriminate between the relationships of her two sons with their respective partners, as to her, this would jar. She admits the Roman Catholic Church has gone much further than other religions in bridging the gap, but it still remains far off by her standards when it comes to sexuality.

Although there is a law against discrimination, there are still people who get away with discriminating against LGBT people, Michael says, adding that the people in power need to do a lot more to fight such discrimination.

There are currently five groups working to create awareness and fight for more rights for persons having a different sexual orientation. These are: the Malta Gay Rights Movement (MGRM), Drachma LGBT, Drachma Parents Group, We are and LGBT Labour.

While MGRM works on a political and legal level, Drachma works on bringing people who have distanced themselves from the Church back in touch and We Are works at creating a space on campus where it's ok to be different. In fact the University Chaplaincy has taken great strides forward in the past year and a half, in getting people to be more accepting, she admits.

Anna questions how society can remain idle when it knows some young people are being rejected by their own families and their world is crumbling around them. In fact some of them consider, and even attempt, suicide. In Catholic Malta we need to decide not to accept this reality and be proactive about it, she says, by offering more knowledge.

Once labelled a child will often see hell, as anyone who is slightly different will find it very difficult in a society such as ours, where we tend to compartmentalise everything and consequently fear whatever we cannot understand. This in turn stunts growth, Michael explains.

Anna admits that there have been occasions where thoughtless gestures by some may have hurt her, but she knows they were not badly intentioned and she took these as opportunities to educate. "Helping where I can to educate on this subject, is my contribution to society," she says.

She thinks Malta is heading into a new phase, in which a number of new issues such as marriage equality for same sex partners will emerge and Drachma must have a clear stance on these. It is currently still in the process of discerning, understanding and assessing what's happening in other countries.

The next step will be to register Drachma as an NGO with the Commissioner for Voluntary Organisations, she said, adding that they also wish to register it within the Archdiocese of Malta as a recognised body, as this would make it easier to reach out to parents, as parishes would be more willing to accept them.

Speaking about the MGRM campaign, which is supported by Voices, Anna admits that in so far as it is allowed to penetrate well into the educational sector it can help to create more awareness. The campaign aimed at the parents would help to better understand how precious our relationship with our child indeed is.

She admits that some parents will do whatever they can to stop this campaign going through at schools – and maybe in the past she might have agreed, but today she sees things differently. If I can prevent one suicide then the campaign is worth it.

Anna's message is to love unconditionally, something not everyone is ready to do, and accept fully the reality which was hidden. "After all, love rejoices in truth, so if my child's truth has come out I should rejoice in it."

Drachma will be holding its Christmas Mass, which is open to the public, tomorrow at 6.30pm at the Millennium Chapel, Paceville. It will be followed by a small party.

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