Coming out is a big deal in the lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.
I work with people at all stages of the coming out process:
People who are questioning their sexuality and wonder if they are gay, bisexual, or something else
People who are struggling with coming out to themselves after years of hiding their same sex attraction
Adults who are coming out later in life and are worried about coming out to their spouse and children
People who want to come out to their parents, but are concerned about letting their parents down or worried that their parents will reject them
For most people, the scariest coming out of all is when it's time to tell your family.
LGBT children of all ages fear parental rejection most of all. Some will put off coming out until after the death of a parent, just to avoid the possibility of rejection.
Married LGBT people worry about losing the family they've worked so hard to build over the years. Some people who come out after years or decades of marriage struggle with feelings of guilt for having misled people they love. They worry their spouse won't understand the struggle they've been through to get to the point of coming out.
4 things to know about coming out to family
1. After a brief period of turbulence, most relationships return to being just as close (or as distant) as they were before coming out.
Do you remember how hard it was for you to come out to yourself? You probably went through periods of confusion, denial, or maybe you tried to negotiate with God or yourself in the hopes you could change before you started to accept yourself for the beautiful person you are.
The people you come out to will likely also go through similar phases. After you come out to parents or family, those people then need to go through their own coming out process. They have to decide when to come out to the world as a parent or spouse of an LGBTQ person.
Most relationships return to the same level of closeness or distance as before coming out.
If you were close to your parents before coming out to them, you will probably end up having a close relationship after they take in the news and find acceptance.
The same thing happens to married spouses and children. If you were good friends and close before you came out, then you will likely return to having a close friendship.
On the other hand, if the relationship has always been distant or rocky, the relationship will often stay that way after coming out.
2. Complete rejection is much less common than it was in the past.
Blatant rejection can include getting kicked out of the house, physical or verbal aggression, blaming, or very hurtful statements of disgust, condemnation, or outright rejection.
These scenarios are what most people worry about the most before they come out, but that sort of reaction is becoming increasingly rare.
These days, I tend to see two immediate responses from family when coming out.
In an increasing number of cases, there is acceptance and support from the start. This scenario is more likely when coming out to parents or children than to spouses. When this happens, you'll feel a giant relief and may wonder why you waited so long.
Sometimes, parents or spouses become briefly upset and angry at the news. Your coming out can be shocking to them, and it can leave family members unsure of what to do. This angry response doesn't always last, though.
If you get an initially angry response, don't give up hope. It may pass after a few hours or days. Remember, you might have gone through a difficult process in learning to accept your own sexual orientation or gender identity, so give loved ones a bit of space to have similar reactions.
3. Your parents or family might already know or suspect that you're LGBT
Growing up, I thought I did a great job of hiding my gayness. But, when I came out to my parents, they said they had always suspected and worried that day would come. I came out 30 years ago to a conservative family, so while I was not surprised that they were upset, I was surprised that they had been picking up on clues over the years.
When I work with parents of LGBTQ children, I also hear from them that they started to realize their child was gay or lesbian early in their child's life.
Spouses of LGBT people also report similar observations. Your wife notices when a man catches your eye, even if she doesn't say anything about it. Many married clients report that their spouse has asked them at least once if they are gay.
It can be helpful to recognize that in many cases (but certainly not all), your family may already suspect and they still love you.
4. It helps if you have friends or other sources of support during the process.
When going through the coming out process, it helps to have a support network in place. This network can include friends, family members who already know, a romantic partner, and/or a supportive, affirming therapist.
You'll need a place where you can openly process what happened when you came out and a place where you can feel safe and supported as your family members go through their different reactions. If things go well, you'll probably even want to share that wonderful experience with others.
For over 30 years, I've been helping people come out to family. I've heard a million different stories, but the observations I'm sharing here have happened over and over during that time.
My own coming out followed a similar trajectory, too.
If you need some help and support negotiating your own coming out process, then I hope you'll give me a call. I'm happy to be a source of experience and support.
The fact is a parent's reaction to a child's coming out can have a massive impact on their lifelong well being.
(Not coming out can impact mental health, too. It's hard work to maintain the deception and worry all the time about what parents know or might find out.)
If Parents Are Supportive And Accepting, You Will . . .
Be more accepting of himself or herself
Be less self-critical and less likely to self-harm
Have healthier friendships and more of them
Be more resilient when he or she faces difficulties or discrimination
Experience improved mental health
Be healthier physically
- Engage in healthier relationships and behaviors
If Parents Are Rejecting Or Unaccepting, You Are More Likely To. . .
Experience anxiety and depression
Consider or attempt suicide
Use illegal drugs
Engage in risky sexual behavior
Make bad relationship decisions
Experience social and work difficulties
Rejection Can Take Different Forms
- Blatant rejection can include getting kicked out of the house, physical or verbal aggression, blaming, or very hurtful statements of disgust, condemnation, or outright rejection.
This what most people worry about the most before they come out.
- Subtle rejection can look like withdrawal or attempts to ignore the subject. Parents might blame you for causing them sorrow, distress, or pain.
It's not a "get out of my face" kind of rejection, but these kind of responses are clearly stressful and likely made you feel bad if you experienced them.
If You Had A Bad Coming Out Experience, There Are Ways To Cope
The fact is, you don't know for sure how your parents will react when you come out. Many LGBT people are surprised by how supportive Mom and Dad are, while others thought it would be a non-event, but their predictions were wrong, too, unfortunately.
In the event coming out didn't go well, there ways to be resilient and cope. You can avoid the negative items listed above.
- Develop social support. There are people in your community who will support you and who can be there when things get tough. It is always good to have someone to talk with or a good listener in your life.
- Interact with the LGBT community. Engaging with other LGBT people will remind you that you are normal and that other people have experienced what you've been through. You're not alone and other people have been through this.
- Work on Self-Acceptance. The first two items help you learn to be self-accepting, but you may also need the help of a therapist or spiritual guide who is accepting and trained in LGBT issues.