In this queer commentary on Luke 2:41-52, I suggest that the finding of Jesus in the temple can provide insights for an alternative way of thinking about and approaching LGBT teenagers for Malaysian parents who are practicing Christians. A Bahasa Malaysia version is also available.
The title is an imagined reaction related to the anguish, bewilderment, anger, sorrow, relentless soul-searching and conflicted emotions of many Malaysian parents who feel that they have ‘lost’ their teenagers who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans* (LGBT), or who assimilate any other identity which defies Malaysian sociocultural and religio-familial expectations. Countless parents are thrown into whirlwinds of confusion when they discover, or are informed, that the children they have always known and loved are ‘different’ from other children. For Malaysian parents of any and all ethnicities and religious/non-religious persuasions, the crushing shame that comes from relatives, peers and religious leaders can often prove unbearable. For others, disappointment comes from the presumption that they will never see their LGBT children get married or bear children, which causes many parents to feel that they have lost their children to the barren wastelands of the Great Queer Unknown.
A great majority of Malaysians are schooled in the belief that to abide by heterosexual and heterogender identities constitutes a certain good, which for parents stereotypically involves a vision of their children engaging in ‘gender-appropriate’ dressing and mannerisms, ‘normal and proper’ sexual attractions, eventual matrimonial bliss and a resoundingly fertile lineage. When parents of LGBT teenagers realise that those expectations will not be fulfilled, many are thrown into despair, feeling that all is lost, and that the entire identity of a family has been irrevocably shattered. Hence, many Malaysian parents engage in self-blame, and attribute their children’s ‘abnormalities’ to their own genetic defects, undetected mental illness, faulty upbringing, botched diets during pregnancies, bad ‘Western’ influences, their teenagers’ keeping of ‘bad company’ and the oppression of evil homosexually-/transgenderally-inducing spirits. For Malaysian parents who are practicing Christians, learning that their teenagers identify as LGBT is mixed with the haunting dread of church exclusion and sin. Many such parents ceaselessly hope and pray for some form of ‘healing’ that could reverse what they see as distorted and broken existence.
Joining scholars who have offered alternative insights that constructively engage with LGBT persons, I offer a simple reflection through an interpretation of Luke 2:41-52 for Malaysian parents of LGBT teenagers. The Gospel passage portrays Jesus and his parents as having gone on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to fulfil a religio-cultural obligation. The young lad Jesus somehow strayed from his parents and was lost, only to be found later in the temple, conversing with the authorities and experts of the Jewish faith. My reflection aims to respond to the minds and hearts of many Malaysian Christian parents of LGBT teenagers who feel that their children are lost due to the latter’s gender or sexual identifications, and have abandoned both God and the paths of ‘respectable Malaysian living’. Through this reflection, I suggest to such parents that the finding of Jesus in the temple can serve as an alternative way to regard and understand their LGBT children. My reflection is not meant to be an academic essay, nor does it contain a hidden agenda to sway the minds of parents in favour of their children’s gender and sexual identities, nor is it a method of simplistically locating scriptural passages to support LGBT persons. Rather, I offer an interpretation and understanding based on a section of the Christian scriptures to Malaysian Christian parents who are struggling and grappling with issues related to their LGBT teenagers, and suggest another way of thinking about and approaching these teenagers.
Did Someone Mention Sin?
It is unfair to claim that Malaysian Christian churches dismiss, exclude or excommunicate LGBT people. Many church representatives are exemplary in terms of pastoral care. Yet, I do feel that some Christian institutions are more heavily invested in ‘praying the gay away’ or adopt a ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ attitude towards their congregants, rather than locating ways to affirm the dignity and sacredness of LGBT sexualities. Even more so, as I have mentioned elsewhere, such churches are notably silent when it comes to revisiting their theologies in order to help Malaysian LGBT Christians, and advocate pastoral support without a firm queer or LGBT theological basis. Some parents might avoid seeking out their pastors for their presumed predicament out of perceived shame or embarrassment, or the fear of being excluded from their churches, or dreading that such sensitive information could leak out and people would ‘look at them funny’ during church and at breakfast in kopitiams after church services. Even if parents of LGBT teenagers do muster enough courage to turn to their pastors, and are pacified by such pastors that they must continue to love their children regardless of gender or sexual expression, or hear the assurance that being homosexual is not sinful but acting out is, or in the outrageous scenario that they should pray and coach their teenagers into heteronormalised appearances and practices, there will always be the sinking feeling in some parents that their children are somehow inevitably heading towards damnation. Adding on to these complexities is the reality that many Malaysian Christians are caught up with in opinions of, and the impressions that are created on families, extended families and friends, frequently ‘lose face’ when things are not going according to ‘the norm’. I also wonder how much help can come from church and non-church friends in mahjong circles, cell groups or soccer kakis. While there are exceptions, popular opinions seldom pass beyond the point that LGBT identities are socially, culturally, ethnically and religiously unacceptable.
Some parents would also resort to the Bible, and quote passages from the Bible that seem to buttress the sinfulness of homosexuality/transgenderism, notably what is known as the ‘clobber’ or ‘gay-bashing’ passages. When the Bible is quoted by parents to denounce their LGBT teenagers, I see it is an act of aggression where God appears as the main antagonist in the debate. These often well-meaning parents who have neither prior grounding in the background behind the writing of the bible nor awareness of alternative LGBT-affirming interpretations of biblical texts end up ‘proving’ to their LGBT teenagers that God is on the side of heterosexual persons. Little wonder then that such parents are haunted by the idea that their children are lost forever to the fires of hell due to gender and sexual ‘perversions’. In the next section, I suggest that instead of looking at the LGBT identities of their teenagers as sin, parents can adopt an alternative way of thinking and approaching the matter.
Re-Reading Luke 2:41-52
The Gospel passage opens by showcasing a familial activity – an excursion of Jesus and his parents “as usual” (v. 42), to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover (v. 41). Spending time together holds great value for any family, as shared activities forge and strengthen loving bonds between family members, and enhances their knowledge of each other, often in tacit ways. The sense of familiarity and togetherness that arises from living and doing things as a family is greatly cherished as a reliable and constructive method to maintain the cohesiveness and unity of a family. Each family member is expected to respond to familial expectations in a specific way by acting in a certain way or performing certain roles that are often considered as ‘the usual’. Yet, misunderstandings and rifts between family members can arise when certain members of the family do not subscribe to prescribed roles or do not respond in ways that conform to familiar expectations. What causes tension is when ‘the usual’ is no longer the defining feature of a family in terms of gender or sexual identity. Families can often feel fragmented upon discovering that a certain member is queer, when ‘the usual’ loved one becomes for them ‘the unusual’. In assuming that Jesus “was in the group of travellers” (v. 44), the parents of Jesus concluded that their son was within a familiar space where he was supposed to be, even though he had broken through the borders of that space and was moving in the direction of another space to understand himself more clearly. Parents tend to assume, and at times erroneously, that their children belong to the camp of heterosexual persons, or that they will grow to be men and women in accordance with their male and female genitalia. Nevertheless, what is not “as usual” and what defies assumptions need not be immediately thought of as wrong or deviant. God reached out to human beings in a special way in the birth of Jesus Christ, and “a sacred presence blossomed in the realms of the seemingly unconventional and peculiar.” In various times and at different occasions, Malaysian Christians have experienced God in unexpected and even peculiar ways. Situations which depart from the ‘norm’ can be unexpectedly-happy, grace-filled God-moments, including moments in which Malaysian parents of LGBT teenagers feel an acute sense of helplessness and loss of control as they struggle to make sense of the situation.
When the religious festivities were over, Jesus “stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it” (v. 43). The young Jesus is portrayed as someone who felt an inner prompting within himself that he could not suppress, that caused him to be momentarily distanced from his parents. There is an element of self-discovery in my reading of Jesus’ decision to remain in Jerusalem without his parents, a personal journey which he had to undertake without his parents in order to discern who he really was. I do not believe that Jesus received a perfect understanding and knowledge of his identity and mission at birth, or when he came to the age of reason. In order for me to believe so, it would mean that I would have to disregard the fact that Jesus was a true human person in favour of an idea that he was God disguised as a human being, but whose divinity completely overshadowed his humanity to the point that he could pre-empt every detail of his life. It would mean that I, as a person of flesh and blood, would have nothing in common with him as a super-human with extraordinary powers and who merely masqueraded as a member of the human race. On the contrary, I believe that Jesus deepened his identity and his life-purpose as he progressed in age, like any other human being. As such, I believe that Jesus saw the need and seized the opportunity to unravel the mysteries that were unfolding in and around him by remaining in Jerusalem, away from the comfort and security of his parents. His response to his mother’s enquiry as to his seemingly irresponsible action of getting lost, “‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’” (v. 49) is particularly important for this reflection. The “Father’s house” was not simply the temple where Jesus met God. It was a personal space which was crucial for the boy Jesus to come to greater self-realisation.
Many parents are distraught upon suspecting or unexpectedly learning of their teenagers’ gender and sexual identities, and feel that they have been locked out of a space in which they feel they rightfully belong, of not having been allowed explicit access to this intimate knowledge of their children. These parents may ask what Mary asked of her son when she did not understand him, “‘child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety’” (v. 48). Some parents zealously seek a ‘cure’ in the form of counselling ministries in their churches or reparative therapy, or professional psychological help, or search out bomohs and Chinese mediums in hopes of enabling their LGBT teenagers to conform to societal expectations of gender and sexuality in Malaysia. These often well-meaning ‘rescue’ efforts of parents to recover their seemingly ‘lost’ LGBT teenagers is not unlike Mary and Joseph’s search for Jesus “when they did not find him,” and “they returned to Jerusalem to search for him” (v. 45). While some parents are keen to ‘normalise’ their LGBT teenagers due to embarrassment or shame, others do so with a genuine desire to protect their children against bodily harm due to possible homonegative sentiments, a misunderstanding of gender and sexual diversity, as well as from a confusion and lack of understanding in what it means to be parents of LGBT teenagers.
Even if LGBT teenagers display signs which may raise suspicion and doubt among parents, such children may want to delay or even flatly refuse divulging this intimate part of their lives, or end up hedging uncomfortable questions, or even deny their gender and sexual identities. The fear of being rejected and disowned by the people they love most is very real for LGBT teenagers, particularly as they may be uncertain of the extent to which their parents have assimilated anti-LGBT sentiments in Malaysia. The years of protecting their gender and sexual identities from awkward discussions or full disclosures may be critical periods of time when LGBT teenagers, like the boy Jesus, feel the need to disengage themselves from their parents in order to come to some form of stability and confidence in their self-understanding. Like Jesus, it is important for many LGBT children to disentangle the knots of confusion and self-doubt in their own way as part coming to their self-realisation. LGBT teenagers have the need to enter “the temple” (v. 46) of their hearts, thoughts and emotions, “sitting among the teachers” (v. 46) of LGBT peer support and accessible information on LGBT identities, “listening to them and asking them questions” (v. 46) just as Jesus did when he strove to understand himself. Just as the parents of Jesus discovered that there was more to their son’s ‘difference’ than met the eye but “they did not understand what he said to them” (v. 50), Malaysian parents may also never be able to totally comprehend the intricate details of their LGBT teenagers’ identities, behaviours and practices. Nevertheless, I believe that Malaysian Christian parents would do well to stand by their LGBT teenagers as co-journeyers rather than accusers or interrogators, providing valuable gifts of support and non-judgement as their teenagers’ lives continue to unfold in deeper meaning and understanding, just as Jesus “increased in wisdom and in years” (v. 52).
This leads me to the question of sin. Malaysian Christian parents who have long been accustomed to the idea that the gender and sexual expressions of LGBT persons is sinful may need to revisit and question their convictions, and perhaps even turn them upside down. I believe that many Malaysian Christians may understand sin from two perspectives. Sin is first seen as an offence against God, which is expressed by carrying out actions which are against God’s law. Yet this idea of sin is often translated within the various Malaysian sociocultural contexts. Sin is often seen as not only something which is against God, but as something against the ‘norm’ in society. When a sin is committed, it is not only a person’s action that is contrary to God’s will. It is also an action that brings shame and embarrassment to the person and the people with whom the person is connected, because that person did not act according to the sociocultural ‘norms’.
These concepts of sin may also be deeply ingrained in the minds of parents of LGBT teenagers. Perhaps Malaysian Christian parents can allow themselves to consider for a moment that what they have always seen as sin in their LGBT children is actually not sin. Perhaps parents can consider the possibility that instead of being offended, God has deliberately and beautifully created their children, and bestowed upon them the vocation to be LGBT persons. From this perspective, loving, accepting and journeying with their LGBT teenagers is a way for Malaysian Christian parents to participate in God’s loving design, instead of treating these teenagers as sources of shame or embarrassment because they do not ‘fit’ into sociocultural and religio-familial expectations. Rather than seeing LGBT teenagers and their desire to live as LGBT persons as sin, Malaysian Christian parents can rejoice in their presence as a clear sign of the power, creativeness, wisdom, grace and love of God who works in wondrous and often unpredictable ways. By creating an atmosphere in which the latter are comfortable to speak of their joys and struggles, particularly in relation to issues of gender and sexuality, parents can provide opportunities for their LGBT teenagers and themselves to learn from each other.
Therefore, the basis upon which Malaysian Christian parents can best regard and respond to their LGBT teenagers is love. This is a love that refuses to listen to and join in with condemnatory voices in familial, social and religious circles, a love that allows the hearts of parents to expand and grow as they travel with their teenagers along the path of self-discovery and self-realisation, a love that deeply understands that identifying as LGBT is not sin. The journey of deepening the understanding of what it means to be LGBT need not be a solitary one for LGBT teenagers for whom the growing awareness of their gender and sexual identities can cause fear, apprehension, uncertainty and confusion. This is particularly true for many LGBT teenagers who feel that they are failed human beings for not engaging in romantic or sexual relationships with a person of the opposite sex ‘like other people do’, for not ‘carrying on the family name’ by having children, or for resisting the pressure to appear and behave according to public expectations. LGBT teenagers who experience rejection rather than loving support from friends and family may see little reason to continue living in an existence that is considered ‘abnormal’.
I believe that the parents of LGBT teenagers need to adopt the attitude of the mother of Jesus, who was depicted as one who “treasured all these things in her heart” (v. 51). The storage of these details was not, I believe, indicative of an obsessive need for a parent to know all the details of a child in order for the parent to regulate the child’s life, but a commitment to walk with the child, no matter what would happen along that child’s journey of life. Mary pondered all that happened and treasured them in her heart, the central space of her lovingness. Similarly, by pondering over the insights, behaviour or actions of their children through the lens of love, Malaysian Christian parents can undertake powerful roles of affirmation in the lives of their LGBT teenagers, particularly as these teenagers learn to discern what is life-giving and what is death-dealing as LGBT persons. The parents of Jesus may not have fully grasped who Jesus was, but they embraced him in his entirety as he grew into a person who was true to himself and his purpose in life as an emissary of God. Through caring hearts, Malaysian Christian parents may also be able to see that their LGBT teenagers reflect the wonderfully diverse creation of God, who creates without mistakes. Similarly, Malaysian Christian parents can also become living signs of the love of God to their LGBT teenagers in real and concrete ways. The love of his parents became the cornerstone of the love that Jesus manifested to the people around him, and the choices that he made in his life to flourish. By displaying unconditional love, Malaysian Christian parents can accompany their teenagers as they grow “in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour” (v. 52).
 The blank space is deliberately intended as many parents find it difficult to articulate the gender and sexual variances of their children, and often use terms with which they are more familiar. Such terms may not accurately describe their children, but my interest here is not in the accuracy of description. My hope is to assist Malaysian Christian parents in finding an approach that is both scripturally-based and LGBT-affirming in loving and understanding their LGBT teenagers.
 According to Vaden Health Center, Stanford University, “the term transgender* or trans* (with an asterisk) is also used to denote not just transgender people, but transgender people and all gender non-conforming identities.” See http://vaden.stanford.edu/health_library/transgendertermsglossary.html (accessed May 27, 2013).
 I note that gender variance and non-normative sexualities are often highly misunderstood and equated with each other in Malaysia. For instance, a gay man of ‘masculine’ mannerisms could be referred to as pondan or akua (effeminate man/trans*), a ‘masculine-acting’ woman is often considered a lesbian, and an effeminate man is sometimes assumed to be heading towards gender reassignment surgery.
 I use the terms “LGBT” and “queer” loosely in this essay for any person whose gender or sexual identification contradicts heteronormative expectations in Malaysia. Such identifications are highly diverse, and exceed lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans* identities. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that the meaning of “queer” goes beyond simple non-heteronormative identities.
 I am in no way suggesting that this statement is true of all Malaysian parents. I have, however, been privy to insights that many Malaysian parents harbour expectations of marriage and progeny from their children. Honourable alternatives which mitigate such circumstances include a respectable single life, or a life in religion with mandatory celibacy.
 Joseph N. Goh, “The Word was Not Made Flesh: Theological Reflections on the Banning of Seksualiti Merdeka 2011,” Dialog 51, no. 2 (June 2012): 145–154.
 As is the stand of the Roman Catholic church. See, for instance, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2357 and 2358, http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a6.htm#2333 (accessed on May 26, 2013).
 Some of these passages include Genesis 19:1-4, Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, Romans 1:21-31 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.
 The parents of Jesus are depicted in the Gospels as a man and a woman, and many Malaysian Christian parents who struggle with LGBT children are also man-woman couples. I am in no way dismissing the existence of same-sex couples with children, but for whom the notion of LGBT children may not stir up unfavourable sentiments.
 Joseph N. Goh, “Bethlehem revisited - the sacred in the unfamiliar,” Malaysiakini, December 22, 2012, http://www.malaysiakini.com/letters/217261 (accessed February 21, 2013).
 A good example is Edmund Smith’s Real Love Ministry in the state of Melaka, Malaysia, which aims at helping LGBT persons attain a “redeemed lifestyle.” See http://www.heraldmalaysia.com/news/Resolving-homosexual-issues-11018-2-1.html (accessed May 1, 2013).
 I am not saying that LGBT are not capable of making sinful choices in their lives. In this commentary, I am addressing the idea of many Malaysians that identifying and living as LGBT persons is sinful.