Coming out is one of the most discussed topics when it comes to LGBTQ2IA+ issues, and coming out to family in particular is the subject of many advice columns, blogs, and resource materials targeted at the LGBTQ2IA+ community.
Coming out is a highly personal and unique process for every individual, and disclosing sexual orientation and/or gender identity to others is only one part of this often complex process. Coming out to family is a breeze for some people, and not such a great experience for others, but in any situation the most important factor is personal safety. There is tons of advice on the internet concentrated on deciding when to come out, particularly for those who are living at home with parents or guardians, or who are not financially independent. It makes sense that when there is a risk of physical harm or homelessness, the person coming out may decide to wait until they are out of that situation completely. At the very least, in every case, it is a good idea to have a safety plan—a place or person to go to for support, even temporarily—if the news is not received well. There are also LGBTQ2IA+-oriented support organizations in many larger communities, such as the Pride & Prejudice group and the Harcourt Memorial United Church of Guelph, among others (including OUTline!).
When coming out to immediate family doesn’t go as well as one would hope for, but there is not a threat of harm and no pressing need to leave the situation, it can be important to understand that they may need time. Maybe a lot of time, or maybe the adjustment will be quick. Either way, while it is not necessarily fair that you should have to wait for everyone else to come ‘round, recognize that it can be especially hard for parents to alter the image of the future they’ve always envisioned for their child. Accepting the terms of their child’s future may not be easy, but they deserve the opportunity to do so. And if possible, a series of conversations with these family members where their feelings are expressed (hopefully respectfully, and if not then this approach may not be practical) may be beneficial on their personal road to acceptance. However, it is not a child’s job to counsel parents through this time or any other, and there are plenty of support groups for family members of LGBTQ2IA+ folks that they can be directed to (i.e. PFLAG Canada).
If and when you have given plenty of time for family to adjust and accept you, or you are running out of emotional endurance, it may be time to evaluate some relationships. If it appears a person is not likely to ever come to terms with your identity, and they are a toxic presence in your life, cutting them off like gangrene may be the route to take in order to protect your personal comfort and mental/emotional health. This is of course a difficult decision to make and act on, and is a highly personal choice.
If the ideal scenario plays out and immediate family is totally cool with your coming out, then great! One of the hardest parts is over. However, your family is likely not as educated on LGBTQ2IA+ issues as you may be. If they are asking questions, even when doing so problematically, consider taking the opportunity to educate or direct them to resources they can use to do some learning. It may take some time for your family to get it right (and none of us always gets it right), but it is important to appreciate that they are making the effort to learn and support you.
Family members that are in your corner after coming out to them can also be valuable in the process of disclosing your identity to other relatives. They can be present while you come out to other family members, advocate for you to these relatives, and if you would like, may even be willing to do some disclosing for you. There is no shame in delegating some of this disclosure; you are not hiding, and it does not invalidate your coming out experience or make it any less authentic than another LGBTQ2IA+ person’s. This approach may be especially useful when you are living away from home, such as during university. For example, after coming out to my mom, we both waited until I left the house for university before she had a discussion with my father about my identity. This worked well for me and alleviated some (certainly not all) of the emotional stress of coming out to a person whose response I was wary of. Ultimately, my father surprised me by being far more accepting than I expected. Plenty of people might surprise you when coming out, either by being accepting or not when you were waiting for the opposite, or by responding with something along the lines of “yeah, I already knew.” Brace yourself for a few shockers, and know what you need to do to emotionally deal with and heal from the less positive ones.
It is also worth deciding who in your family you want to make aware of this particular facet of your identity. Do you want your great aunt on your step-father’s side to know that you’re the human equivalent of a unicorn that evacuates rainbow glitter? If the answer is no, that’s fine! Sometimes, depending on the strength of the relationship you have with a relative or how often you see them, coming out just might not be for you. And that’s totally cool. If they are a person you know wouldn’t take the news well, maybe you simply decide not to waste the effort on someone that just is not going to get it. Coming out is not an absolute process. We don’t do it once and call it a day. Coming out is something we do continuously throughout our lives, and not always to every person we meet or know. There are plenty of judgement calls to make, and it is important to realize that you can be authentic and true to yourself and identity while not always disclosing it.
Of course, this largely applies to cisgender queer folks, as the choice to come out is a privilege we are afforded. For trans* folks, it can be more important that extended family are kept in the loop, since everyone has the right to be addressed by the correct pronouns and name. If there is slim to no danger when coming out, other than perhaps those few cranky uncles being cranky, trans* folks might come out completely within the family to avoid being misgendered and called by the wrong name at family functions. Again, this is a personal judgment call that has to be made—as a cisgender person I cannot speak to the coming out experience of trans* folks—and personal safety and comfort should always come first.
Coming out can be turbulent, and good self-care practices are hugely important during this time. But coming out can also be exciting, leading to new friends and relationships and a new level of authenticity in everyday living. It may be a weight lifted, or not at all change how you feel. Even if coming out doesn’t happen all at once, or if it happens in a rushed monologue whilst the turkey (or tofurkey?) is being carved, it is an important personal event in the lives of LGBTQ2IA+ individuals and cannot be invalidated or made less real by the experiences of others inside or outside of this minority community. Coming out is not a competition, and despite the internal or external pressure you may feel to come out, only you decide when and if you do. Ask for support, take care of yourself, and be proud of your identity—it’s fabulous.
Do you have a coming out story you’d like to share? Comment here to do so publicly, or submit it anonymously to our blog and your inspirational story could appear on Ask OUTline!