any of us know the tale of Persephone, in which the lord of the
Hades, abducts the lovely young Greek goddess. Demeter, Persephone's
and goddess of marriage and of the harvest and who brings forth the
of the earth, shines her lamp into every shadowy corner of the world
searching for Persephone. Soon, though, she despairs of ever seeing
daughter again. The crops and grass wither, cattle die, there is too
sun and too much rain. The people suffer and starve but still Demeter
refuses to allow anything to grow until Persephone is returned to the
of the sun.
A lot of parents develop a kind of "Demeter Complex" when their
come out to them as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
parents do not go through an ordinary, linear and ultimately healthy
grieving process through which they would release their own
expectations for their child's identity and life-path and come out on
other end of grief accepting their child as she or he is. Instead they
become so convinced that the "lord of the underworld" has subverted
baby that they become arrested at the anger or bargaining stages of
grieving process, unable to progress to acceptance and a healthy
relationship with their son or daughter.
These are not just the parents who try to whip the evil out of their
"sinful" kids, or turn them out into the streets. They're also the
send their daughter ex-gay books as birthday gifts, force their
stand up in front of their church to confess his "abominable lust,"
youth off to military or parochial school, or blaming themselves,
into bargaining prayer, attempting to barter with the universe for
child's soul. They are women and men locked into their suffering
they are afraid of change, and fear of change is at heart a fear of
Of course, bad theology is the main reason our society inspires so many
rend their clothes, take up their lamps and follow Demeter's lead. The
mistaken notion that same-gender-loving orientation and gender
inherently immoral and unholy, not to mention the popular idea that
go to hell, is usually at the root of a Demeter Complex. From these
parents' point of view, forces of darkness and light are waging war for
their child's immortal soul, and their son or daughter's homosexual
orientation or expanding gender identity is proof that the forces of
darkness are winning.
Marianne Williamson explains such thinking in her book of prayers,
"Illuminata," as a result of being "taught such lies as children, lies
God's anger, His [sic] revenge and His judgment ... We see such
of His teachings all around us, more small-minded than enlightening,
controlling than liberating, posing as His arbiters yet clearly His
obstructers." Whatever one's theology, it seems obvious that any path
should be rejected that teaches one to inflict suffering on oneself and
one's child in the way so many parents of LGBT children do in the name
However such an argument, obvious though it may seem, will have little
effect on the mind of a parent caught in a Demeter Complex. They are
arrested and expecting them to change their entire worldview is a very
hope. The best antibiotics to treat symptoms of bad theology are love,
logic and correct exegesis of religious doctrine, but even when offered
experts they are frequently ineffective. Parents with a Demeter
misperceive logical reasoning, scientific research and even sound
teaching as agents of the same "evil" that suborned their child. Of
such information must still be made readily available to them. At the
time, only a swelling of heart can heal such a twisting of mind.
The other Demeter
That's why it's so important for families and friends, but particularly
parents, of LGBT people who have moved beyond any grief and into joy to
adopt Demeter's second symbolic aspect. The first face of Demeter is
face of Death, the heart of winter; in this case, the unfortunate
arrested in a Demeter Complex. The second aspect, the one that PFLAG
parents strive to embody, is the kindly face of a person who brings
an otherwise desolate world.
"The influence of a vital person vitalizes, there's no doubt about it,"
espouses Joseph Campbell in "The Power of Myth." "People have the
saving the world by shifting things around, changing the rules, and
top, and so forth. No, no! Any world is a valid world if it's alive.
thing to do is to bring life to it, and the only way to do that is to
in your own case where the life is and become alive yourself."
For parents with queer kids, that moment during the grief process when
wake up and come back alive to yourself is like the eruption of spring
winter; that moment holds the third aspect of Demeter, Rebirth, that it
sometimes possible to midwife other parents into.
One way that PFLAG parents who have been through the grieving process
help parents with Demeter Complexes is to share their personal stories.
Sometimes those stories are tragedies, like Mary Lou and Bob Wallner's
account in Celebrating the Rainbow of losing their lesbian daughter
suicide. Sometimes they are inspiring, like the affirming journey
Jeff Ellis took coming to terms with their son's sexual orientation and
operate a Web site called Family Acceptance. Suggesting that
parents read resources like these may lead some people to healing.
At the same time, a more effective method continues to be
contact, dialogue and listening. Directly and personally sharing
information and testaments of hope with parents caught in a Demeter
can give them faith in a future not so full of pain and separation, and
offers them a safe and supportive space to learn and grow. Sometimes
truths can only be heard coming from a stranger, a peer; a person who's
there and knows what it's like. Someone who can step in and help
the one who is truly trapped in darkness: the parent with a Demeter
The mysteries of silence
In the ancient myth, it is Zeus who intervenes at Demeter's beseeching
orders Hades to release Persephone. Unfortunately, Hades tricks his
captive into sucking the pulp from some pomegranate seeds, and that act
binds her to his realm for half of the year. While Persephone is in
underworld each year, Demeter does not allow the earth to flourish, and
autumn and then winter overtake the world.
When the world within them where they still cling to old dreams for
children is failing, we cannot tell parents with Demeter Complexes to
what they're feeling. We can't browbeat them with correct and helpful
information, urge them to "look on the bright side" or to stop
their painful and confusing feelings without pressuring them to hide or
those emotions. Instead, we must know when to speak and when to be
There is a time for teaching and storytelling and a time for listening,
we must be adept at discerning the difference. Many times parents just
a peacemaker who is willing and able to hear them, to really hear them,
deeply and respectfully, even when they're wrong. Or rather, their
about their child's gender identity or sexual orientation may be wrong.
Their emotions, of course, must be honored as their own deep truth even
though they may be conflicting and stressful.
It's easy to listen to people with whom we agree. It's when we are
to listen to those we disagree with that it gets challenging. "The
fundamental premise of compassionate listening is that every party to a
conflict is suffering, that every act of violence [physical, verbal, or
spiritual] comes from an unhealed wound," Leah Green of the MidEast
Diplomacy's Compassionate Listening Project writes in the Winter 2002
of YES! Magazine. "What we're doing is creating an environment
peace-building through deep, empathic listening ... We work to see through
masks of fear or hostility to the sacredness of each individual."
If PFLAG parents engage in such peacemaking in other families, it's
that everyone involved, parents and children, feel valued, needed,
understood and affirmed. The temptation to sweep in like Zeus and
pontificate can be strong. Things might've turned out differently for
Persephone if Zeus had taken the time to compassionately listen to
side of the story and had heard about the lord of the underworld's long
loneliness or found out that Hades had been ambushed into love by
In the peacemaking process, both Demeter Complexed parents and BTLG
need to be able to express their thoughts and feelings. Part of the
strength of allowing both sides to participate is that the difference
between thoughts and feelings becomes clear. A parent, for example,
have negative thoughts about her daughter's bisexuality even though her
feelings for her daughter are all loving and caring. What a
her daughter, who had felt so rejected and unloved by her mother!
new, healthier relationship can be constructed on the foundation of
loving feelings, instead of letting judgmental thoughts tear their
After all, even mythical Demeter never really completes the grieving
process; her daughter actually returns to her from the underworld.
the Persephone that emerges from the depths is not the innocent child
spilled her flowers and cried when she was kidnapped. Persephone at
of the story is both grown woman and queen.
For the sake of all the families torn apart over sexual orientation and
gender identity, and in the name of the Beloved Community we're
which no parent will ever grieve because their child is queer, once
finished grieving and fully affirm your LGBT friend or relative,
your mythic identification. Become Demeter the life-bringer instead of
withered mother of winter, and help other families grow back together
Once you've emerged from Hades into the sunlight, get prepared to turn
around and go back for the others by educating yourself about love,
correct exegesis, storytelling and compassionate listening. Then you
called to reenter other parents' caves of arrested grief, not just in
meetings, since most "Demeters" will never come to one, but making
available whenever and wherever you're needed. Invite pleas for help
LTBG people in your community who are having difficulty with their
and be ready to help their families reconcile. You bring with you the
of your success and the nascent Phoenix of peacemaking. Lay out your
like a glowing thread, marking a way through grief's labyrinth to the