We live in a world that is much more accepting of our LGBTQ community than ever before. I am glad to know that people growing up with non-traditional identity or attraction will, in many cases, experience less stigma and rejection than those that have gone before them.
It still comes up in my therapy office from time to time however, where a person says: “I can’t come out to my parents.” There are people who feel completely known and accepted by their friends, colleagues, and even other family members but cannot picture themselves telling one or both of their parents about this aspect of who they are.
As a Psychologist I always have to come down on the side of open, honest communication. When this issue comes up in therapy we talk it through and eventually find out what is holding the client back. Sometimes it is the parent’s religious beliefs keeping my client from disclosing their attraction or identity. Sometimes it’s the attitude of a parent who makes their lack of tolerance or hateful views clear over the years that holds my client back. There is often a fear of losing the parent completely.
Regardless of the reason for the silence I have found that clients tend to focus mostly on the fear of disclosure and the associated potential pain it may bring about and not so much on the destructiveness of keeping the secret. As the Psychologist, I want to help my client explore that destructiveness; on both the self-image of the client and, equally as important, on the relationship between that client and the parents.
After a while, unless there is a history or threat of physical abuse, we will eventually talk about what it might be like to simply tell the parents. Let’s make up a situation where the father of my client knows that my client is gay but the client knows that the mother will disown them if they were to tell her. This seems like a terrible dilemma to the client and the need to keep the secret, to them, seems obvious. But there is wisdom in telling the parent and this wisdom comes from a few angles.
- By not telling the mother, the client is forced to live a false life in front of that mother. The client might present their partner as a friend, or roommate. The client will have to field questions about why they don’t date – or hear about concerns that they might never get married. Think about this, by not telling the mother the client is, in a sense, sacrificing their own dignity to help preserve the mother’s intolerance. This is simply not good for the client.
- By not telling the mother, the client is giving the mother inaccurate information. As much as the client should feel they have a right to be known, the mother, likewise, has a right to know. With accurate information, the mother will ultimately be given the opportunity to be a more effective mother to the client, if she so chooses, once the mother knows exactly who their child really is.
That is not to say this should be expected to be easy. Coming out to a parent can call for more courage than almost any other point in a person’s life. The key to finding that courage might lie in keeping it relational.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
- If the person focuses on the immediate negative reaction they are expecting from their parent they will not be able to tell that parent.
- If the person focuses on the disclosure, speaking from the point of view that they are standing up for themselves, with the idea that their parent must accept them, the likelihood of difficult confrontation will increase.
- When coming out to a parent who is expected to show rejection, the most effective approach will be to keep it relational. After all, the ongoing relationship between parent and child is the reason this discussion will happen in the first place. That is why it is important to keep the focus on the personal importance of the relationship to all parties.
- Keep it calm. Work hard to take a conversational approach. If the approach is argumentative or allowed to get heated, it could quickly become impossible for the parties to hear each other.
Here are some ideas about how to approach this:
- Start by telling the parent(s) that you love them. That you value the relationship. That the last thing in the world you would ever want is to have anything ever come between you. Point out how you value them, and the relationship, so much that you always want be honest with them.
- Take your time with this step. No need to hurry, you are setting the pace of the conversation.
- Come out. Say what you need to say. Tell them who you are. Follow that up with telling them that you could no longer live a lie with them, that you didn’t feel right keeping it secret from them… that they have a right to know. Emphasize how you couldn’t stand the thought of being at a gathering and having them be some of the only one(s) who didn’t know.
- Show respect as you talk with them. Give them time to process as you talk, don’t bowl them over. Stay calm. Take care to maintain control of the conversation in this stage. There will be time for questions later. Be sure you say everything you believe you need to say to them.
- Finish by focusing on them. Show them you get how hard it must be for them to hear this. Say that you understand where they are coming from. Tell them you are not expecting anything from them, nothing at all, and that you accept them (and their views) for who they are. Let them know that your hope, however, is they will be able to love you and accept you as you are too. That your hope is they will be able to see your love for them in your desire to be honest with them — that they will see they matter so much to you that you couldn’t live in a lie to them anymore.
- This is where you show them you are not trying to hurt them or shock them, which can be common misconceptions. Take the time to tell them and show them that you have worked up the courage to talk to them out of respect for your relationship. They may not show that they appreciate your efforts in the moment but the message is likely to sink in over time.
There is no perfect way for a person to come out to intolerant parents. I always encourage clients to draw on the observations of others in their life; people who know both them and their parents. Talk with them to see what they think. Also, don’t hesitate to talk to a therapist about it. They can help you think through the event ahead of time. They will help you assess for any risk. The therapist can help you prepare for the conversation. Most importantly a therapist can help make sure you are internally strong enough to bring up the conversation and stay in the conversation. It can also be helpful to process everything with your therapist after it happens.
This conversation certainly can be one of the most difficult moments in a person’s life. But it is common to feel relief afterward. Even when it doesn’t go so well at first. Taking a relational approach and focusing on the relationship will take this from a discussion about ideas of what is right and what is wrong, and place it in the middle of the loving, caring, relationship you probably all hope you can have.