'For years, we didn't tell': Family comes to terms with daughter's sexuality
She came out during her senior year of high school. Paige Williams acknowledged she was gay, and her devoutly religious parents were devastated.
It took more than three years for their fractured relationship to begin to heal, and now they all deal with the issue publicly, albeit different avenues.
Paige Williams, a Montana fimmaker, created a documentary called "Mississippi Queen" that tells her coming out story and her parents' transformation.
Although designed to "liberate people from homosexuality," Judy Williams, Paige's mother, said the organization taught her empathy, understanding and unconditional love.
It's a message she and husband Jerry hope to impart as co-directors of Restoration Grace, an upcoming seminar at Morrison Heights Baptist Church.
Known to some as an "ex-gay" ministry, it offers support, conference leaders say, to families dealing with homosexuality issues and hope for those struggling with "unwanted same-sex attractions."
"For years, we didn't tell anybody," said Judy Williams. "My attitude (initially) was to try to change Paige. Once she realized we weren't trying to change her, we started to heal."
Her mother has come a long way, Paige says, recalling an earlier conversation. "At one point, my mom told me she wished one of us were dead instead of having to deal with it."
Although Paige Williams' parents haven't abandoned their beliefs about homosexuality, they established a ministry at their church to better help others dealing with similar issues.
"One person said his parents kicked him out at 17 saying, 'We'll be praying for you when you die of AIDS,'" she said. "For us, it was a shocking statement, but the good news is he's dealing with a lot of issues in his life, and there are people who love him and support him."
Having love and support from family - without conditions - is crucial, Paige Williams said.
"One of the lines in my film that Mom says is: 'I just came to the point where I decided to let God be God, and I'll just be your mom,'" Paige said. "Because of the ministry, my parents realized they had put a condition on our love, and I think that realization began to enable us to have a relationship that is more honest."
Paige said that condition was forcing her to be something she was not - straight. "While I don't necessarily agree with the ex-gay ministry, it has allowed us to love one another better. It's little moments, like not just acknowledging, but embracing my partner of 10 years, that mean so much."
"Mississippi Queen" features interviews by gay and ex-gay Christians, and Paige said it's being considered for Jackson's Crossroads Film Festival.
"All over the country, but specifically in the South, there is a need for a discussion and a personal look into Southern homosexuality and Christianity," she said.
It's a controversial issue that not every church, nor members within the church, can agree upon.
The Rev.John Pigg, minister of Lake Harbor Drive Church of Christ, said the Bible clearly states that homosexuality is a sin. He believes it's a choice that requires discipline and restraint, and his church has offered counseling and support for families and individuals dealing with issues of homosexuality. Helping them "overcome" same-sex attraction is the ultimate goal.
But Pigg also feels Christians should treat others compassionately.
"I believe families are forever, and you have to show your children love," he said. "You have to make it clear that you don't condone it, and that you are praying for them. But from my point of view, if I'm ever (hypothetically) going to bring my son or daughter out of it, I've got to love them out of it and provide an atmosphere where they feel comfortable to question it ..."
The Rev. David Lemburg, an Episcopal priest who serves at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Crystal Springs and Mediator/Redeemer churches in McComb and Magnolia, is a member of The Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi's Gay and Lesbian Ministry Committee. Lemburg said he believes people of all faiths can find some common ground when it comes to preserving important family relationships.
"Whenever one person believes something and another believes something totally different, there either has to be a compromise, or you have to move to a position where you agree to disagree," he said. "The only universal advice I would give is to continue the conversation as best they can, and
for gay and lesbian people to find a place where they can be cherished as the child of God they are."
Paige Williams encourages family members to pray for one another, and says those who feel rejected shouldn't give up on their families.
"Sometimes you have to sit down and say, 'My actions are hurting you, and your actions are hurting me. What can we do to bridge a gap that has left a gaping hole in our lives?'"