Estranged: How I Fell In Love With A Girl And Lost My Family

Prologue // Author’s Note:

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It has taken me five years to write this essay.

I didn’t realize how important writing our stories was until I started talking about my story — about being estranged from my family, about marriage, about disappointment. As queer people, we share all of the great and wonderful things that happen in our community. We also need to share the stories of what happens when things don’t pan out, when things are devastating, when things are difficult. There is so much power in sharing our stories. Because as the phrase goes, we are not alone, but sometimes we need to feel those words rather than be told them.

When I came out to my parents, the rejection hit me so badly I could barely get out of bed most mornings in college. I ended up going to an emergency therapist one day because I needed to talk to somebody. When I sat down in the therapist’s office, I sobbed the entire time, and the therapist, who had a tiny rainbow flag hanging in her office, told me softly that things would be okay, that I wasn’t the only person. There were others, she said, who came into her office with the same story. Her eyes were filled with tears.

November 2007, right after I came out to my parents.

When I went to the first A-Camp this past April, I shared a bit of my story in the Women of Color panel. I talked about my family and their reaction, their rejection. I talked about when I was afraid of anyone in my family knowing I was gay and being closeted. I talked about feeling unable to be myself when I was at home.

What happened next I never anticipated: People started coming up to me at A-Camp, telling me that they shared the same story too. Homophobic parents. Families who didn’t understand or try to understand. The fear of coming out. The hurt and devastation of being disowned or estranged. These were people with my story, too.

To anyone who is going through this today: You are brave. Braver than you will ever know. And you can make it through this. It seems unbearably insurmountable at first, I know. But fighting for yourself, for the freedom to love yourself and let others love you, is so incredibly difficult and important.

I made it through this and it was the most difficult thing I will ever do. And you will make it through, too.

Estranged.

It’s taken me five years to use the word.

Get up, brush my teeth, put on jeans. Go to work. Come home. Eat dinner. Estranged.

I am estranged from my family.

It sounds weird coming from my own mouth. I repeated it slowly, over and over again, the first time my partner, Jessie, said it. It was a week or two ago, when I was angry and frustrated about some little thing. Maybe it was about misplacing the DVDs I had to return to the library, or about something that happened at work, or about feeling conflicted about writing enough or too little.

It’s the sort of anger that saturates everything, jumping to and from every heartache and hurt I’ve ever felt in quick succession. It might jump onto how I was frustrated that I didn’t have the energy to make dinner for us tonight, or angry about the time at work a patron made me cry after insulting me to my face. Or resentment at my father for not telling me my grandfather was dying before my grandfather passed away four years ago. I relive it all in microscopic detail: The anger. The lack of control. The flailing feeling in me, even though my arms feel leaden, dead weight.

April 2008, me on the left, Jessie on the right.

I want to punch everything and stomp on it and set it on fire and stomp on it again. I want to have yelled at the patron who wouldn’t look me in the eye as she insulted me. I want to have known that my grandfather was dying so that I could have visited him one last time in New York instead of hearing the news over the phone, bewildered and overwhelmed. I want to have had the energy to make dinner and take care of everyone and wear an apron, smiling, spatula coated with oil, flipping over some kind of delicious thing to give to my partner. I want to do everything differently.

“You are in a lot of pain right now,” Jessie says, breaking through the haze of could-bes, the things I could have done right, the places I failed. She speaks slowly, as if talking to a small child. “You are dealing with being estranged from your family.”

My shoulders unclench. I feel the hunch of my back loosening. I haven’t looked at Jessie for a few hours, my anger getting on her, too; she has been difficult to look at. Maybe because my face could be reflected in hers: pained, painful, devastated.

I look at her. I hadn’t thought about it that way before. I had never used the word estranged in my head to explain my relationship with my parents. I didn’t use the word after I came out to my mother five years ago and she screamed at me and told me that she wouldn’t help me pay for my college tuition if I was gay. I told her I was straight so I could continue going to school.

June 2008, right before shaving my head in Maine.

I didn’t use the word after I told my mother and father I was moving to New York with Jessie after being closeted to them through college. They told me they wouldn’t support me and made me spend the last of my savings on college expenses they promised they would help me with. I moved, moneyless and jobless and unsupported, to upstate New York, where Jessie was going to graduate school.

I didn’t use the word six months ago, after I called my mom, my hand clenched tightly to Jessie’s, telling them I was getting married, and the only thing I could hear was silence on the other line, then my mom’s voice: You are making a horrible mistake. I called my father soon after to tell him the good news. He didn’t pick up. I left a message, telling him to call me back. He never did.

I don’t know why I didn’t use the word, that “e” word. I think it’s because I believed somewhere in my heart that everything was actually okay, and that they did love me, and that maybe they would come around, as many optimistic people have told me over the years. “When they see you happy, they’ll accept it,” someone told me once at a tarot-reading party where I ended up crying after someone read my cards, vague as can be, but somehow cutting straight through my heart: a deer, antlers heavy, a message, breaking with something.

When there are tears about something unchangeable, people can only be optimistic. It’s the only thing that is left. “When you tell them you’re getting married, it will get better,” someone told me that day, with tears in her eyes.

I’ve been seeing college acquaintances get married on Facebook. There are always white dresses, green lawns, blue skies. There is champagne, cake, dancing. There are flowers, an endless sea of white folding chairs, elaborate receptions and slow dances and kisses in front of the cake. There are loved ones smiling, teeth bleached out in the flash of the camera. There are brides walking down the aisle on the arm of their smiling fathers. There are candid, loving kisses from mothers.

Sometimes I get angry about weddings. It’s that same kind of anger — explosive, saturating — that gets all over everything. I feel angry that straight couples can get married without fighting as hard as I have. I feel angry that people my age, barely out of college, can spend so much money on a resort wedding because their parents have helped them foot the bill. I feel furious that couples can spend so much money on a honeymoon to Europe when I can’t even begin to think about setting aside a few thousand dollars for my own wedding, let alone a trip after.

I breathe.

My wedding will be in my backyard. There will be a rag-tag assortment of lawn chairs we get friends to bring, and I’ll help arrange them in rows. Jessie will make her own dress, and maybe she will tailor my shirt and vest. We’ll drink beer from a cooler filled with ice that sits on the back step. We will say our vows under a giant fir tree. Friends and family will sleep on the couch of the house we live in now. I will make everyone breakfast in the morning. Scrambled eggs from the farmer’s market. French toast.

July 2011, three months before Jessie and I got engaged.

Jessie’s parents will be there. They will be smiling, her father with his long white hair in a ponytail, her mother who looks almost exactly like her, her brother in baggy shorts and shirts that skim his torso. Our close friends will be there, from Michigan, Connecticut, New York, Oregon. There will be handkerchiefs embroidered with anchors for party favors. There might be dancing to the song “Rock Lobster.” There will be talking and shouting and laughing and standing out in the grass without shoes, drinking and hugging.

There will be four empty chairs reserved for my family. My mother, my father, and my two brothers.

This is what I imagine from time to time, when I am sitting on the couch or in bed or at work: I’m driving home from the airport in October. My brothers, one 20, the other 16, sit in the back of the car, hugging backpacks decked with flight tags. I will be sitting in the passenger seat because my eyes are tearing up so badly I can’t see the road. I turn my neck to look at them, both jet-lagged and tired, in the back seat. I tell them, over and over: “I can’t believe you came. I am so glad you are here for my wedding.”

One brother is in college, and he has told me that he will be here no matter what. The other lives at home with my parents, and I’m not sure how I will get him here because he is a minor and I don’t know if my parents will let him travel to see me for the wedding. In my mind he flickers to and from view: Sometimes he’s sitting in the back seat, sometimes he isn’t. Sometimes I imagine myself turning around to the back of the car and seeing Timothy, the middle brother, sitting alone. I tell him that I am happy he is here, aware of the empty seat next to him.

Of the four chairs, two will be empty: My mother’s and father’s. I am not sure if three will be.

Last month I called my mom to tell her the final date of our wedding. When there was silence on the line I told her, firmly, “I really want you to be there. It would mean a lot to me. You could say something at the wedding, maybe. You don’t have to. It’s important that you come.”

Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” column exists for individual queer people to tell their own personal stories and share compelling experiences. These personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.

Whitney is a lover of food, books, comic books and journals made for left-handed people. They are a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University, where their research focuses on queer video games and new media. They are also a graphic designer, writer and editor who has worked for places like Opium Magazine, Literary Death Match, Publishers Weekly and The Feminist Press. Check out their website at whitneypow.com and follow them on Twitter @whitneypow.

Whitney has written 53 articles for us.

125 Comments

  1. When I saw the title of this post, I avoided it because confronting that part of my reality has always been so difficult. I am currently visiting my parents, one of whom actively tries to understand and support me, the other who tries to ignore every inkling of my non-heteronormative identity. And I let him. This post made me teary, and then scrolling down to take in the comments of love and support; I never quite understood the concept of `family`really, until I was embraced by the queer community, and that feeling, that we can all just know one another, and love one another. I am truly happy for you, and admire your strength. Love to all the queers in our family

  2. Sorry to have read this so late, but I wanted to say that this is so beautiful and amazing and inspiring. I was in public while I read it, and had to fight so hard to not break down sobbing. Thank you so much for sharing.

  3. When I invited my dad to my wedding (next year probably), he said he’d be happy to give me away. A week later he declared that my love was an abomination and that he wouldn’t even show up unless it was a straight wedding. A month later he disowned me. It’s been over 3 months and we still aren’t talking except when I call to demand that he send my stuff (a part of my hunting gun he lied about not having) to my mom’s house. My Mom’s side still intends to attend my wedding, but they assume that it will somehow be straight despite that I’m a MtF Transsexual and we’re having a Lesbian wedding. My Big bro says that unless I like guys that I’m not a real girl. He says I’m just pretending, but I’m not. My mom and her husband treat me like I’m a crazy, immoral, and defective. They got a book about raising those with mental retardation and are trying to force me to conform to the book’s theory of success in life. They make me sleep on a separate floor from the rest of the family, wash my clothes separately, and are always insulting me.

  4. I was temporarily disowned from my mother and brother when I came out in 2009. They wouldn’t let me come home for Thanksgiving, and when I spoke to my mother on the phone, she threatened to hit me with a restraining order because she really did not want to talk to me.

    They allowed me to visit for Christmas that year, but it was cold and tense.

    In 2010, I was unemployed and my relationship with my mother was on the mend. My brother was overseas. My mother let me stay with her rent-free during the summer, when I was off school, but kicked me out of the house because I was “fat, lazy” and “good for nothing”. She e-mailed me from work and gave me two hours to pack up my belongings and leave before she returned from work that day. I stayed with friends and then moved to another city to be homeless and then was assaulted. I found housing after about two months.

    My lease was up in summer of 2011; after a botched dyke affair with my “future room mate” I ended up homeless again. I was homeless from May to October that year. My grandmother died and because I wasn’t able to access the e-mail from the shelter I didn’t find out the exact day she died. I think I found out about her death six days after it happened. Nobody told me. I went to the funeral and then went back to the shelter. I got a bad case of bronchitis, bad enough that I could have gotten pneumonia and died, and at that point, my mother let me live with her again.

    It was awful. My brother was back from the war by then, and he was so abusive to me that at times I feared for my life. He was physically violent towards me, putting me in a chokehold at one point, yelling at me for long periods of time for mistakes such as using my own spending money on postage stamps and for fixing the family computer. I was rarely allowed to leave the house because my brother didn’t approve of my friends (the majority of my friends are queer).

    At one point, my brother and I got into a shouting match over my mother’s alcoholism (she blamed the alcoholism on me, btw; my identity is what caused her drinking according to her). He chased me up the stairs and said if I thought she was an alcoholic that I could jump out of the window. He said my room was messy and that if I didn’t clean my room, he would personally come in, throw all my belongings in a dumpster, and light the dumpster on fire.

    I left that night, crashed on couches, and a few days later I used some of my inheritance money to buy a bus ticket and leave.

    I haven’t been back since. I know this is a really long comment – but I had to say something. I guess in a way I’m estranged from my family too. I still talk to my mother and some of the aunts, but it’s all very shallow. Sometimes my mother gives me money. I don’t think I will ever visit again – I wouldn’t feel safe – but I can’t explain this to the aunts. I got a Facebook message from a cousin asking if I would visit for Christmas this year and it’s brought up all this extra emotion about everything. If it weren’t for my boyfriend I don’t think I’d have any holiday plans at all.

    I think most people don’t understand – they assume that family is there to forgive you and to be kind to you and accept you as you are. It’s not the case, not with everybody’s family. The whole “it gets better” thing is especially grating because for me, it hasn’t gotten better.

    Anyway, thanks for posting, and thanks to anyone who has read this far.

  5. Your wedding will be amazing. Backyard weddings are so beautiful.

    I love that picture from 2011, you guys are gorgeous because the love in that photo is so apparent.

    I think setting out chairs for your family is an incredible gesture of goodwill and faith and hope. I really hope they come through for you, but if they don’t, I hope you feel sustained by the love of your community.

    Wishing you all the best xx

  6. Whitney,

    thanks for sharing your incredible story of hope and love. I was feeling sad and did a search about being estranged from one’s family and your blog came up.

    It’s helped me to feel stronger again.

    I do feel love for my family, but it seems they feel better as a group when I’m not there. The stronger I feel about all of me, the less invites I get to family occasions and the more my invites to them are sidestepped if not openly rejected.

    It hurts, but I love myself more than I did when I was dancing to their tune and not being my true self. I know we all have multiple identities (we choose to share different bits of ourselves with different people depending on the situation) and that’s all well and good.
    My siblings were the ones I thought would always be there for me as I have tried to be for them. Despite the two way disappointment I am glad to say that when I am aware of familial slights towards me the pain last less long than it used to: it still smarts a lot, but I have more to be happy about now that I am being truer to myself.
    When there is a LGBTI member of the family there always appears to be a ‘stranger’ in the midst: at first the LGBTI person may be a ‘stranger’ to themselves, then they somehow become strange to the people they have grown up with. (How strange that one factor of love can move one from the familiar to the unknown in the eyes of those close to them. It’s hard to understand how love can be such an alien concept to families.)
    So from being a stranger within yourself, you come out as all of you and sometimes, sadly, you become e-strange-d from your family.
    I feel anger, disappointment, frustration and confusion at times like this but I have to accept that some families just cannot begin to understand the simple direct fact that is love.
    My advice to anyone is to love your family (if you can) but make sure you love and honour yourself at all costs. You have to be true to you.

    Best always to you and Jessie.

    Here is a letter I wrote to my siblings … nobody replied.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/jun/23/letter-to-siblings-gay-christian-family

    Marjorie x

  7. I’m sitting in my office at work with tears all over my face. I’m so sorry for what your parents did. I’m going through a similar situation with my parents right now, so this really hits me hard. I hope that things will get easier for the both of us.

  8. It’s good to know I’m not alone and I’m not the only one who’s going through this.
    I came out to my beloved mother last December and… :) the struggle is real but I’ve never been more grateful… I will probably lose my family when the time comes (marrying my gf)…

    Some friends ask me… “Is it worth it? Is it worth losing your family who took care of you for so many years?”

    It’s painful to say… and people might think I’m such a selfish daughter.. but yes… it is worth it.

  9. This was so, so real for me, especially near the end when you talk about your siblings and your differing vision of whether and which of them might make it to your wedding. I have five younger brothers and sisters, and the issue of whether they’re coming, and who, and how to sneak the minors out (neither of my parents has any intention of being there) has been keeping me up at night. Also, the matter of paying for the event – I’m the eldest grandchild on both sides, and all my grandparents (who, to be honest, tend to express their affection through money) have told me my entire life that my wedding would be paid for. Of course, now that my fiancee is trans AND white, that’s not going to happen.

    It hurts so much that it makes me angry, and it’s hard not to take it out on other people. You are not alone.

  10. Beautiful piece. I am glad you had the courage to marry your partner anyway. My partner broke off our 14-month engagement last week (we were planning to get married in 2017 and have been together more than 5 years) because she finally told her sister we were getting married and her sister flipped out–and that was even with her sister knowing and liking me. My partner’s parents don’t even know about me and she is not ever going to tell them. I am so completely devastated. I haven’t told my own family yet about the broken engagement (they know and love my partner and support us 100 percent). I don’t know how to move forward. My partner and her sister grew up in a religiously and governmentally oppressive country, and I can understand where she is coming from but I simply don’t know how I am going to get past this. How I can remain with someone who is the love of my life (and I, hers I think) when I don’t feel like I come first to her. She is a wonderful, amazing person but this feels really wrong. I am so very sad.

    • Hey Alice

      Just wanted to say I’m also in a similar boat. My partner broke up with me after a three year relationship and she’s also in a very oppressed country where they are against other races and religions even, not to mention same sex couples! I’m trying to heal myself and maintain contact with my ex as I know she’s now pushed to the walls by her family and environment, and is unable to see past them like she used to. She has even told me to find someone else. But I guess we both still love our partners or ex partners and are still hoping.

  11. I’m so sorry that they continue to react like this. The thing is that if they can’t accept you and don’t want you to live the life that makes you happy then they don’t deserve you. I know that doesn’t stop it hurting and I’m so sorry you’re going through this.

  12. I can relate so much to your story. I am having a hard time finding resources to support us in our family rejection issues. I loved reading your story as it made me feel not so alone.

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