Twice in my life, I had a conversation with my father that I worried might end in my ostracism. In one case, I spent an entire meal beating around the bush, but ultimately lost my nerve. The meal ended without the big reveal. Hours after I’d gotten home, my spouse convinced me to just call him and get it over with, which I did.
The second one went smoother, but I still struggled. I still worried that he would kick me out of his life for being me. There was still an awkward conversation, a time where he was making it all about him and his failures as a father.
On the LGBTQIA portions of social media and the internet, I see plenty of discussion about how to come out to one’s family. This time of year, in particular, people are wondering how, or if, it’s time to have the Conversation.
There is a lot of fear out there. Parents have been known to cut off support, to disown their own children, to inundate LGBTQIA children with religious lectures, to dismiss the validity of identities, and to otherwise make us feel Less Than.
This essay isn’t directed to my LGBTQIA siblings, struggling with how to tell their families about their identities. This is directed to those families.
First of all, remember: the Conversation isn’t about you. Your child, your nibling, your grandchild… they aren’t telling you this to turn your world upside down. They’re telling you this because they need you to know who they really are.
With more and more celebrities making their gender identities and sexual orientations public, it might seem like it’s easy, or that it’s the way the world is now. But if you’re cisgender and heterosexual, things are still very much in your favor. LGBTQIA folks are still getting assaulted, bullied, fired, and even killed simply for being who they are.
If a relative is telling you who they are, they’re putting their need to live authentically as themselves above the safety and security offered by living a lie within the cultural defaults. They’re trusting you enough to hope that you don’t reject them for that.
Maybe you don’t understand. Maybe you’re a parent who wanted “natural” grandchildren and this revelation takes that off the table. Maybe you’re used to seeing your nibling as a niece, and now he wants you to call him by a boy’s name. Maybe you think this is all a phase and your grandchild will move on from it before next Christmas.
Again, they’re trusting you. This is who they are, now, in this moment, and you can choose to accept that or not, but realize the potential cost of rejecting that.
This year in particular has catapulted the issue of gender neutral pronouns and non-binary identities into the public eye. Merrian-Webster has declared the gender neutral singular “they” as the word of the year. Celebrities like Brigette Lundy-Paine and Jonathan Van Ness joined a growing list of celebrities who are something other than “male” or “female.” Indya Moore was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2019. Even Billy Dee Williams, who is a man, admitted he’s okay with whatever pronouns people use with him.
If you’re not used to conversations about these topics, it’s easy to see how you’d be confused and overwhelmed. But as confused as you might feel, imagine being gender non-conforming, living in a society which insists on identifying everyone as either a man or a woman, a boy or a girl. Try going shopping for clothes without a fixed idea of what “gender” you’re in the mood to dress as. Even the thematic party aisle at Party City is separated into “Girls” and “Boys.”
Being gender-fluid means having a gender identity that can change: Sometimes between genders, sometimes as degrees of a single gender. When our gender so often dictates how we dress, it’s a struggle.
Being non-binary means having a gender identity not firmly attached to “male” or “female”: Sometimes it’s somewhere in the middle, and sometimes it’s not even on the scale. When even our pronouns demand us to be “he” or “she,” it’s a struggle.
When simply being oneself is a struggle, asking for respect from loved ones is both crucial and terrifying.
The Conversation isn’t about you: That explains not just why your family member is telling you now, but also why they didn’t tell you before, and why they sat through five conversations with you before, staring at their peas and avoiding talking about anything of substance.
As someone who has “come out” three times about various identities in my life, and who is still coy about certain details (often to my own frustration), I can assure you it’s a major challenge. It’s terrifying to be different. The risk is suffocating.
If you want to ask, “Why didn’t you just tell me?”, try to remember: It’s just not that easy.
The advice that I often see for people considering coming out to their families is: Show empathy and compassion. Understand that they’re not coming from the same place that you are.
I offer the same advice to you, as a family member comes out to you: Show empathy and compassion. Someone has just risked that you might never talk to them again. Even if you personally find that fear laughable and even insulting, it’s not about you.
I have heard some wonderful “coming out” stories, people wondering why they’d waited so long. I have heard some tragic “coming out” stories, people wondering whose couch they can sleep on now that they’ve been thrown out.
And it is okay, by the way, to be confused and overwhelmed. The language around these issues is constantly in flux. When I was a teen, the main discussion was about whether you liked men, women, or both, and whether you were a man or a woman. Now discussion of gender alone has at least three distinct levels to it: What gender you feel yourself to be (identity), what gender you present yourself as (presentation/”read”), and your body parts (anatomy). The concepts are not new, but the visibility of the discussions are.
What I hope you do in response to that confusion, though, is to educate yourself with respect and love for the person in your life. There are plenty of resources online. PFLAG, HRC, and GLSEN are three great places to start. You can also reach out to me, and I’ll answer what I can.
What I hope you absolutely don’t do is reject this person from your life. They’re the same person they were before they showed themselves to you; they’re just being authentic with you now. That’s a compliment. Let it be one.
Previously published on The Good Men Project.