Jim and Merrie Smithson say they’ll never forget their surprise Christmas present in 2011. It was late Christmas evening. They had just returned from a family gathering. Their 25 year-old son was catching an early flight the next morning to return to California. He came into their room and told them he was gay.
Their son’s Christmas-night revelation was a complete surprise. But over the next few weeks, as they processed the news, they started recognizing how much they had been prepared for it. A few years before, Jim realized “sort of out of the blue” that his late uncle (whose name he shares) was gay but was never able to be open with his family about it. That experience reminded them how harsh and unnecessary family rejection can be–and that they never wanted their son to feel rejected. Merrie and Jim’s nephew, who is a few years older than their son, had come out a few years before. That experience helped them recognize that their feelings toward their nephew had not changed. He was still the same great guy they’d always loved–and so was their son. And Merrie, in her 20-plus years as an educator, had worked closely with many gay colleagues who were great teachers, professionals, and co-workers. That experience taught her that these colleagues were living full, meaningful lives–and so could their son.
The Smithsons say they also recognized they needed support in their own journey. Within a few weeks they went to PFLAG (Parents, Friends and Family of Gays and Lesbians) where they met other parents who had gone through similar experiences. They’ve been attending their local chapter ever since. In fact, Merrie currently serves on the executive committee.
They also started wanting to learn more about gay issues. So, they attended their first Pride Festival that June (two years ago this weekend) and had a “surprisingly great time.”) Merrie also walked in the Pride parade with Mormons Building Bridges as they participated for the first time (a “spiritual high,” she called the experiences). At the festival they first came in contact with Affirmation and, as a result, started participating in a series of Outreach Firesides held first in a South Jordan stake and later in a downtown stake where all LGBT members and allies were welcome to share a gospel-focused experience, whatever their current level of church activity. They have been helping also with monthly socials held jointly with LDS Family Fellowship, Mormons Building Bridges, Affirmation and the Affirmation FHE Salt Lake group. Jim was the MC along with another family member who sang at the first of two such Hilton Socials held at the time of the April General Conference. And more recently, Merrie spoke before some state legislators in support of an ordinance that would protect all gay people in Utah from discrimination in housing and employment. Her picture from that event ended up on the front page of the Salt Lake Tribune.
This past year, Jim and Merrie became involved with several others–some parents, some not–in developing and launching a new website specifically for LDS parents who have recently found out their beloved son or daughter is gay–in other words, parents who find themselves in the position the Smithsons were in two-plus years ago. The website is called GaysAndMormons.org. It brings together some of the best and most current guidance and resources for LDS parents (and others) who want reliable, accurate, helpful information. Some of these resources, such as the Church’s website were not available in 2011. Other information was available, but sometimes hard to locate. Now it’s all in one easy-to-find place. And it will be updated with the latest, best information. “The website is meant to be gospel-oriented and, at the same time, completely affirming regardless of the kids’ or their parents’ current relationship with the Church,” say the Smithsons. Material from this website also forms the main section of the Affirmation website devoted to “Friends and Family.” On the website a key resource section is on suicide prevention information. Jim and Merrie last year helped develop a one page guide for LDS parents on “Protecting our Gay/SSA Youth from Suicide and Other Risks” which was posted with an introduction by Jim on both the No More Strangers blog and the North Star website. The Smithsons believe it is important that efforts be made to bring better understanding to all LDS families affected and so have worked for greater communication among different Mormon support groups and with other groups like P-FLAG. This simple but easy to duplicate handout uses LDS guidance from the new Church website to form the main message. Along with the brochure “Supportive Families, Healthy Children” LDS parents now have valuable tools on suicide prevention not available in 2011.
Not long ago Jim told their son, “[Your coming out has] become a wonderful journey for us. So, thanks.” Their experience has been wonderful, they say, largely because of the loving, supportive people that have taught them and supported them along the way, and because of the helpful resources now available, including the wonderful stories of other LDS parents that love and support their gay kids. You can see several such videos on the new website…in the “videos and stories” section.