Q: When I came out to my mom as bi earlier this year she said that I’d gained a lot of weight and she thought I was just interested in women because I couldn’t get a man now. She also spent the entire day telling me she wanted grandkids and condescendingly asking if i wanted to “end up like” every queer person she knows (all of whom are happily married). As you can probably guess, my parents can be pretty toxic. I’ve been angry and avoiding the subject since and I never told my dad at all (I expected him to be worse, he almost voted for Trump). I have an amazing girlfriend now and all of my friends and many coworkers know. I feel like I’m lying to my my parents, hiding part of myself, and disrespecting my girlfriend by constantly avoiding mentioning her or referring to her as my friend when my parents ask what’s going on in my life. I live in another state (thankfully), so it’s not like I see them often but they do call and my mom is pretty nosy. I don’t want to hide anymore, but I know it’s going to be ugly (I still weigh the same). I’ve been thinking of talking to them after the holidays so I don’t need to see them again until next Christmas if it goes badly. Of course, I know coming out can be difficult in general, but I’m wondering if you have any advice for coming out in the context of a toxic family relationship? How can I best protect myself from the inevitable insults, yelling, and criticism while still being honest? This closet is getting old.
A: You’re right, coming out is often difficult in general; you’re also right that it gets especially complicated when queer stuff is suddenly in the sights of an already dysfunctional dynamic. Your mom sounds like a lot! Your dad also sounds like a lot! As I think you are aware, it sounds like your mom is less actually interested in how happy you are or how you “end up” and more interested in preserving her mental construct of who she thinks her kid is, and whatever she has invested or projected onto that construct. The good news is that it sounds like you have really realistic expectations for and understanding of your family; some people go their whole lives struggling with that! Also congrats on your amazing girlfriend! You’re doing great.
It sounds like you’ve managed the hell out of your expectations for how your family will react — “inevitable insults, yelling and criticism” — and you’re off to a solid (if disheartening) start as far as knowing that you can’t control how they act in this situation. I think the next step for you would be thinking about expectations for yourself as far as what you’re hoping to get out of it. How are you hoping to feel after? What are your worst fears about how you might react or how you might feel? You mention feeling like you’re “lying,” “hiding parts of yourself,” and “disrespecting your girlfriend” (which, for the record, I don’t think you’re doing at all!). The first two things might mean that personal integrity or openness are important to you in general as a person, or that as imperfect as your relationship with your parents might be you want to know that it’s based on who you really are, not who you’re letting them think you are. You can’t control how your parents perceive you, but you can take control of how you navigate your own authenticity within your family dynamic. I’m not sure, unfortunately, how much you can protect yourself from your family’s reactions; maybe a different way of asking the question is “how can I go about this conversation in a way that honors my values, and prioritizes the outcome I want to feel personally in all this?”
It’s also worth thinking about what this means in the context of your relationship, especially since it seems like you’re concerned about how this is affecting her. If you haven’t already, you can talk to her about what’s important to both of you in terms of out-ness in general and in family dynamics. Family is so fraught and we carry so much expectation and anxiety around it — it’s possible that your anxieties about how she’s feeling are totally different from what’s actually going on with her, and that she’s carrying around some whole other set of concerns that you had no idea about. Love is a beautiful journey, etc. The decision about coming out to your family in regards to your girlfriend specifically — because it sounds like you’ve already come out to your mom to a degree, and she just doesn’t know about this specific relationship yet — might also be tied up in your feelings about your family in general. Family, especially when it’s dysfunctional, is such a difficult thing to share with someone; it’s literally where we came from! It’s a part of who we are, or at least part of how we became who we are, that we can’t edit or control. I don’t think you’re disrespecting your girlfriend by not letting your family know about her specifically, but I think in some ways you might be letting yourself imagine that your dynamic with her and your dynamic with your family can exist in isolation from each other, and telling your family about her will collapse that fantasy. That isn’t good or bad; it’s just true, and something to think about for yourself and to talk to her about.
In general, a lot of logistical advice about coming out applies here. Keep expectations realistic (you’re already doing that, congrats!). Have a sense of what boundaries you want to maintain and how you’re going to enforce them — do you need your mother to stop bringing up your body or the concept of grandchildren every time you mention your girlfriend? How will you respond when she inevitably tries to do so anyway — leaving the room or hanging up the phone until she gets the message? Ignoring her? Have a plan for the worst-case scenario outcome, whatever that would mean to you in this context. What’s the worst way you can imagine your family reacting, and what would you do if that actually happened?
At the end of the day, though, there’s only so far logistics can carry you here. The core of what your’e talking about here is the project of trying to exist as your full, complicated self in a family that isn’t comfortable with that, in a way that I suspect goes beyond sexual orientation, and to assert your right to do so within a toxic dynamic. It’s a lifelong effort, and you’ll feel like you’re being forced to take steps backward probably at least as often as you feel like some progress has been made. But again, in terms of what you can actually control, it sounds like your motivations and intentions in pursuing this are coming from a really healthy place. As long as that’s the case you have the opportunity to get something positive out of this endeavor no matter how your family chooses to react. Good luck out there, friend!
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