08/14/2012 07:04 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

When Unconditional Love Isn't


A few weeks ago I read a blog post from the gay son of evangelical Christian parents who'd attended the "eat-in" at Chick-fil-A. He'd seen a picture of them proudly holding up their takeout bag of food and had been understandably hurt and offended. When he called his mother to confront her, she had the photo taken down and was extremely apologetic. In her mind she was supporting Dan Cathy's right to free speech, and it somehow hadn't occurred to her that her gay son might find it objectionable. (I commented that her claim was rather disingenuous, as I doubted very much that she'd have gone out for chicken if Mr. Cathy had said he thought Jews were going to hell. Same right to free speech, though.)

I was struck by the way the writer insisted that he and his mother "love each other unconditionally." Irritated, actually. For a long time now, I've thought "unconditional love" an overused expression, claimed to describe more relationships than it merits. People say it so automatically that I'm not even sure they could tell you what it actually means.

My dog loves me unconditionally, for sure. It's hard to imagine a scenario in which he wouldn't, but I suppose if I started abusing him, that love would turn to fear. And that would be appropriate. (I hope my dog would bite me if I started hitting him. I'd deserve it.) Likewise, we certainly wouldn't expect a wife who'd vowed on her wedding day to love her husband "unconditionally" to feel the same if she caught him cheating. If he beat her, we'd think her a doormat if she stayed with him. If he abused their children, we'd expect her to call the cops.

The truth is, human beings condition their love on the behavior of others all the time. Sometimes this is a good thing. When I went to prison, my sister made clear that she would support me 100-percent if I truly committed to turning my life around. Thank God she loved me enough to love me conditionally. I'm a considerate, attentive brother now, and I take pride in having earned back her love and respect. I never want to take it for granted again.

Sometimes conditional love is an awful thing. Christian parents who "love the sinner" but "hate the sin" are loving their gay children selectively, and not very well. Love isn't some abstract notion; it takes real forms out in the world. Telling you to introduce your partner as a "friend" is a judgmental, crappy, and diluted love. It's certainly not a love that should be called unconditional.

In my book everybody gets a chance to be human, to learn and evolve. My mother reassured me that she loved me unconditionally when I first came out, and then told me she'd pay for a psychiatrist to help me "unblock." In so many words, I told her that if she was conditioning her love for me on my changing, I was going to condition my love for her on her willingness to educate herself about my being gay. I don't know where I got the nerve to do that at 17, but my instincts were entirely correct. Fearful of losing me, my mother and father both came around in record time.

I get how lucky I was to be raised in a liberal family with a relative soupçon of religious and cultural baggage. I applaud all the gays who survived evangelical Christian childhoods, and I acknowledge how tough it must be to push a fundamentalist family to question the mindset they've believed their entire lives. But you can certainly start by calling a spade a spade. If your family rejects a huge part of you, fine, but they don't get to claim they love you unconditionally. And if you let them get away with it, you're not giving them any reason to change.