’tis the season when many of us wind up spending time with family/relatives (falalalalalalalala). The holidays are really stressful for me, as I’m not out to my family (minus my brother), and thus spend several weeks having to watch what I say, how I act, etc. That said, about once a year, I start thinking, Maybe it’s time to come out to my parents. I then bring the idea up with my brother, he reminds me of what a spectacularly terrible idea it is, and I decide against it. But despite knowing that coming out to my parents is a terribly bad idea, I still consider it about once a year. Why? Why do I, despite not actually wanting to be out to my parents, want to come out to them?
It’s not just me either. The most common question I get in my askbox on tumblr is “How do I come out to my parents?” Often the question goes something like, “I think my parents will react really badly to my coming out, but I feel like I should, so how do I?” So what’s the deal? Are we all suckers for disownment? Or is there something else going on here?
I’ve thought about this a lot recently, in case you couldn’t tell. I think part of it is that there’s this idea that you’re not really out until you tell your family. When I was a teen I read a fair amount of gay YA literature, and there was inevitably a scene in which the gay guy (and it was always a guy, always always always) screwed up his courage and tearfully came out to his family. Sometimes they reacted well and sometimes they reacted badly, but once he came out to his family, he became a MAN. In these books, coming out to parents was portrayed as a coming of age ritual, a necessary step on the path to adulthood.
Needless to say, reading these book as a young teenager was somewhat terrifying. I had already gotten crushes on girls, so I knew that I wasn’t straight (although I wasn’t sure what flavor of Not Actually Straight I was), which meant that at some point I would have to come out to my parents. It was just a question of when. I had no counter-model, no YA hero who said, “No, my sexuality is my business, and I’m just going to stay in the closet while continuing to live a perfectly productive and happy life.” No, the closeted kids were inevitably the love interests who shot themselves in the heads by the end of the book.* (The closeted kids also always seemed to be growing up in conservative rural areas with alcoholic fathers who owned a lot of guns, which gave me even less excuse for staying in the closet.)
Even though I’ve now realized that I have more choices than YA literature suggests, I think there is still some part of me that wants that dramatic YA book coming out scene. There is still some part of me that is convinced that no matter how out I am to the rest of the world, no matter how much education work I do, no matter if I am the poster child for asexuality among my peers, I won’t really be out if I’m not out to my parents. So when the holidays start rolling around, I start thinking, Well, maybe it’s time for me to be Out For Real.
I think another thing contributing to the feeling that coming out to parents is obligatory is that a lot of GSRM folks I knew growing up thought that, unless they were out to their parents, they couldn’t come out to anyone but their very, very close friends. So they could choose to be closeted to their parents, but that meant that they couldn’t join GSAs or talk to counselors or get support in any way, shape, or form (unless they were lucky enough to be best friends with the leader of the GSA). This seems to be changing now, thanks to the internet (see: people storming my inbox to ask about how to come out to parents), but it’s still really sad that some people don’t think they “deserve” to have access to real-life resources because they aren’t out to their parents. I have friends in their mid- to late twenties who are only now starting to explore GSRM-support resources (despite the fact that they have identified as GSRM since their early teens) because they only came out to their parents within the past year or two.
Of course, there are plenty of other reasons why people might feel compelled to come out to their parents. Maybe you feel a sense of obligation to your parents for raising you. Maybe your parents are genuinely awesome people and so coming out to them is just like coming out to another group of friends. Maybe you don’t want to have to crawl back into your closet every time you go home. Maybe you see your GSRM friends with their Amazing Ally Parents, and you want that type of support, even though you know you probably won’t get it. Amazing Ally Parents tend to be a staple of YA fiction as well, now that I think about it–the clueless parent who transforms into the fearless ally, fighting for truth, justice, and the right for their son to take his boyfriend to the prom. I’ll admit it; I wish I had an Amazing Ally Parent to fight injustice for me, or even just to say, “Hey, Queenie, I love you just the way you are. Don’t let the haters get you down.” So maybe some part of that urge to come out is the desire for that Amazing Ally Parent that we all deserve but too few of us actually have.
But why the holidays? Why even consider heaping more drama on the (often) drama-filled holidays by coming out? Well, the most obvious answer is that, especially for those of us who live far from our parents, the holidays are one of the few times we visit our families. Of course, even if you live with your parents, you might not have a lot of “family time,” but the holidays are usually FAMILY TIME CENTRAL. So the holidays are often the most convenient time to come out to family. Plus, at least in my experience, the holidays are a time when emotions are running high, and so it serves as the perfect backdrop (or catalyst) for coming out.
The other major contributing factor to the number of people wanting to out themselves during the holidays, I think, is the discussion topics that inevitably come up. If you’re seeing relatives you haven’t seen for a while or even if your family’s having guests over for dinner, almost inevitably the conversation will turn to (if you’re single), “Do you have someone special in your life? *wink wink nudge nudge*” or (if you’re dating), “So, will there be wedding bells/a ring/small children in your future?” And, while I can’t speak for anyone else, being held up as the Paragon of Successful Heterosexual Relationships (in comparison to my actually straight brother, who does not have a girlfriend) because I am dating a guy is extremely awkward. I feel as though I am deceiving them in some way when I (politely as humanly possible) inform my parents’ well-meaning guests that, no, this is not an engagement ring, and, no, we are not planning on getting married at this time, and, yes, we have been dating for a while, but, no, kids are probably not in my future. And I feel like I’m lying when they tut and coo and say (while patting my hand), “Well, you’re still young; you’ll change your mind,” and I don’t say anything. I hate feeling like I’m deceiving people, even though the alternative is outing myself and potentially putting myself in a hostile environment. So even though I don’t want to come out, I want people to know.
The holidays can be a stressful time even in the best of circumstances, and being in the closet is more stressful than most people realize. If you’ll be in the closet this holiday season, remember to be kind to yourself, and be safe. Because, as much as YA books would like us to believe otherwise, your coming out (or not) to parents isn’t a reflection of your maturity or your soul or whatever else it’s supposed to be. Coming out to parents isn’t automatically more important or better or more special than coming out to friends or teachers or roommates or anyone else. Some of us read Your Holiday Mom because we don’t have that sort of parental acceptance in our lives, and that doesn’t mean we are worse people than those who are lucky enough to have holiday moms as their real moms. Some of us don’t have the option of Awesome Ally Parents, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t have Awesome Ally Friends. And speaking of Awesome Ally Friends, don’t be afraid to turn to your friends for support, and if you have a friend who will be closeted this holiday season, give them some support. The holidays are supposed to be a fun and happy time, and if you can give your friend the gift of a safe space, they will almost certainly be less stressed (and much happier) than they would be otherwise.
So, take care of yourselves, everyone. For those of you who are coming out to your parents this holiday season, I wish you the best of luck and I hope it goes well for all of you. For those of you who will be climbing back into the closet (or just camping in the closet, if you haven’t been out at all), I wish you the best of luck as well. (If any of you want to talk, I’ll be here.) And for everyone, out or not, have a great rest of your holiday season.
*The more I think about it, the more I realize how awfully morbid a lot of the books I read as a teenager were…