Thursday, July 19, 2007

Muskegon Chronicle: Parents choose to accept son over church, friends

This article is on mlive; it will probably be archived quite soon and won't be accessible. So, I'm ripping off the entire article. Sorry, mlive.

By Susan Harrison WolffisChronicle staff writer
When he was in eighth grade, Ari Beighley told his closest friends at school he was gay.

But he kept his silence at home for two more years, his homosexuality hidden in the midst of his conservative evangelical Christian family.

"Then I just didn't want to hide anymore," he said.

In 2005, while his parents were getting ready for a Super Bowl party at their home in Spring Lake Township, Ari Beighley asked if his mother had a couple of minutes to talk.

Two hours later, mother and son emerged from conversation, their lives irrevocably changed.

"Even when we were talking that day, I remember thinking: Things are never going to be the same again in this family," said Ari's mother, Colette Beighley.

"In a sense, everyone had his or her own 'coming out.' "

By the end of the year, Ari Beighley's father, the Rev. David Beighley, 56, had his ministerial license "withdrawn" by the West Michigan District of the Wesleyan Church for, among other things, questioning the denomination's position that homosexuality is a sin, he said.

David Beighley, who also has his doctorate in family psychology, said even before his son "came out," he had a "growing uneasiness within me regarding some of the church teachings." The family sought out a new church home at Christ Community Church in Spring Lake, which is a "welcoming" congregation to gays and lesbians.

After his ministerial license was revoked, David Beighley said, "I felt a curious freedom."

The Rev. Mark Gorveatte, district superintendent of the Wesleyan Church, said "the only cause" for Beighley's license being revoked was his transfer of church membership.

"You have to be an active member of a Wesleyan church to be a Wesleyan pastor," Gorveatte said. "The withdrawal (of Beighley's) credentials was never punitive for supporting his son."

However, he said, "Wesleyans are clear" on our beliefs about homosexuality.

"We encourage monogomous marriage between men and women. We believe that's how the Bible defines things," Gorveatte said.

Their church affiliation wasn't the only change that occurred.

David and Colette Beighley -- both licensed marriage and family therapists -- also lost the majority of their clients at a counseling ministry they had in Spring Lake for nearly 20 years.

"There's been a lot of fallout from my son's coming out," Colette Beighley, 50, said.

But their "greatest heartbreak," she said, was the unexpected estrangement from some of their family and friends because Ari is gay.

"I thought when people learned Ari is gay, they'd love him because it's Ari," Colette Beighley said. "They'd loved him for 16 years. They'd held him in their arms when he was first born. How could they reject him?"

Ari listened to his mother's words and watched her fight a losing battle to curb her tears.

"There's this label that overshadows things," he said when she could no longer speak. "The label becomes bigger than the person."

At first, the Beighleys told people one family, one relationship at a time that Ari had "come out." Finally, in their 2005 Christmas letter, the Beighleys wrote about their son's revelation.

They ended their letter by thanking their son for "letting us know who you are -- not just who we need you to be."

Colette Beighley jokes that she "kept the living room clean, expecting people to come to see us and want to talk ... but silence. For eight months, all we got was silence."

It is a subject still so sensitive and painful that David Beighley, whose family lives in West Michigan, can barely broach it.

"They are on their own journey. We want to honor that," he said, choosing his words carefully.

For emotional support, the Beighleys turned to a group called Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays -- PFLAG, for short -- that has chapters in Holland and Grand Rapids.

"We are not a family with a gay son, no, we are a gay family," David Beighley said.

They are a gay family with three other children and a daughter-in-law who are an integral part of the story: Nate Beighley and his wife, Sarah Beighley, both 32; Collin Beighley, 28; and Chloé Beighley, 15. Nate and Collin are from David Beighley's first marriage.

"Sarah had the most classic response of anyone in the family to Ari. She said, "OK, so you're gay. You're still a butthead.' "

Family love and allegiance can be expressed in so many ways.

"I'm so proud of my kids," Colette Beighley said. "That's the coolest thing that came out of this -- how much they love each other."

The family ties are closer than ever.

"I got what I expected," Ari Beighley said. "I found out who my friends, who my family are."

His comments set off an impromptu family discussion.

"The minute Ari came out, and we started telling people, it was like, 'Oh my gosh, my uncle is gay,' " Sarah Beighley said.

"Everyone has a gay brother," Nate Beighley added.

When Ari Beighley -- who is 19 and majoring in liberal arts at St. John's College in Annapolis, Md. -- "came out," his parents say they worried first for his physical and emotional well-being.

"For me, growing up in West Michigan, my mind was already thinking consequences," David Beighley said. "I can't protect my son from those who despise him and call him an abomination, and because I cannot protect him, as a father, I have failed."

Originally from Muskegon, David Beighley practiced in the San Francisco area until about 20 years ago.

"We moved here because (West Michigan) is a great place to raise a family, and that's true, unless one of them turns out to be gay," said Colette Beighley who is originally from San Francisco. "We live in an area that demands assimilation."

A National Merit scholar and one of the top students at Black River Public School, a charter school in Holland from which he graduated in 2006, Ari Beighley always stood out.

He also stood apart from other students.

Gradually, he started telling his parents and siblings about some of the discrimination -- and bullying -- he had endured. For weeks on end, he was terrorized in the school stairway by several students, who punched him in the stomach so severely he vomited blood. The violence lasted for an entire school year, but he never told anyone, especially his family.

"It was so painful to hear he'd been suffering alone," Colette Beighley said. "It was heartbreaking to know he'd had no comfort."

That's not the case today.

His family is on the journey with him, every step of the way.

"We've become so much more comfortable as a family," said Nate Beighley. "I can't believe how honest we are. We aren't afraid to talk about anything. There's no need to put up any masks."

For their part, David and Colette Beighley say their lives have been "transformed" in more ways than one since that Super Bowl Sunday two years ago.

They have landed on their feet careerwise. David Beighley has started a new faith-based multidisciplinary counseling practice called the Community Wellness Association, on the campus of Christ Community Church.

Colette Beighley has turned to advocacy work as the West Michigan field organizer for Triangle Foundation, a group that works to educate the public and lawmakers about discrimination, hate crimes and harassment against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities.

But sometimes the best advocacy is to share personal experiences.

"It is exhausting to keep telling our story," David Beighley said, "but we want to be honest. And we want other parents to hear it, to know they are not the only people on the planet with children who are gay."

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