Author Laila Ibrahim has a background in psychology, human development, and attachment theory, and as a wife and mother, she knows the struggles parents face. It can be hard when our children express differences from us that are unexpected, especially when they relate to our faith. In Living Right, Laila Ibrahim writes a story about a mother's struggle to reconcile her religious beliefs with her son's sexual orientation. I had a chance to interview her to learn more.
Why did you decide to write this book?
The seeds for the idea were planted at a Marriage Equality rally in San Francisco. I was there with my family and noticed a group of teens protesting. It took me aback because I imagined that they were there in support of their deepest values, and that they believed they were saving lives, just as I was there for. I doubt they considered the pain and suffering they might be causing to a close friend or relative. Perhaps someone in that very group was struggling to accept themselves. At that moment I wished I had a piece of paper that said something like:
What if you’re judging your sister, child, cousin, uncle, friend, or coworker? Gay people are four times more likely to attempt suicide and twice as likely to succeed as straight people. Are you sure this is the message you want to send to your loved ones?
After Yellow Crocus sales were strong, I was asked about a next novel. That scene popped into my mind. I considered telling the story from Sara’s, the daughter, point of view, but I realized that it would be a good emotional challenge to empathize with Jenn, the mom. She had the hardest time opening herself up to a larger understanding of the holy.
Why are the personal stories often overlooked in the overarching LBGTQ discussion?
I think they were much more common in the 1980s and 1990s when the cultural shift was happening in liberal communities. But now popular media treats LBGTQ rights as ‘old’ news and so there are fewer personal stories portrayed in popular culture. It’s unfortunate since so often the move towards full acceptance comes from bumping into someones personal story.
How can a person support LBGTQ friends or family members, regardless of their personal beliefs?
In my church we have a saying, “We don’t have to think alike to love alike.” I think that goes to the heart of your questions. Condemning or arguing with a family member isn’t going to change who they are attracted to. You can accept them or drive them away from you, either physically or emotionally.
Coming to a place of acceptance will most likely take time. After writing Living Right I’ve heard from some liberal parents that are embarrassed to admit it publicly, but that they had a hard time when their kids came out. These are people who marched in parades and put bumper stickers on their car, but they just didn’t imagine their own child would be gay.
I highly recommend that you talk to people who have had the same experience as you, like Maya in my novel. Do your best not to process how you are feeling with your LGBTQ friend or family member. There are also great online resources such as itgetsbetter.org. It has so many beautiful examples of showing love and support.
How has your faith helped you deal with this shift in your life?
My faith tradition, Unitarian Universalism, has been at the forefront of the LGBTQ rights movement. Being a Unitarian Universalist made it fairly easy for me to come out in my late teens. Back then I often said that the church was a safe sanctuary that gave me courage to be my whole self in the rest of the world.
But even with that it wasn’t simple. My liberal parents were anxious when I first came out to them—for good reason. They couldn’t know that I would get married, have children, and be respected in the world. I’ve lived a life my parents couldn’t envision because it only existed in our imaginations in 1983.
As a Universalist, I deeply believe that humans aren’t separated into saved and unsaved. Whenever I bump into a situation that makes my heart flutter or raises my fury, I hold onto that truth. I do my best to extend love and respect to people who are overtly homophobic or inadvertently so. It’s been a great spiritual practice, staying grounded in God’s love and offering that to others, while still being clear and strong about my value and my family’s right to be seen and valued.
The critically acclaimed author behind the 2014 bestseller Yellow Crocus, Laila Ibrahim grew up in Whittier, California on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County, and moved to Oakland, California to attend Mills College where she studied Psychology and Child Development. After getting a Master's Degree in Human Development, she realized she wanted to do more hands-on work with children, and opened up her own preschool, Woolsey Children's School. Ibrahim and worked as the Director of Children and Family Ministries at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland. She lives in a small co-housing community in Berkeley with her wife, Rinda, who is a public school administrator.