You Need Help: How Do I Get Through Living With My Homophobic Parents?

Q:

I’m a half Brazilian sixteen year old cis lesbian who’s living out in the boonies of Alaska. I CAN’T STAND IT. I love this place, but I feel so tremendously isolated, and I don’t have any friends, it’s flooded with small minded white conservatives. I wouldn’t say I’m suffering, I have a decent family, a roof above my head, clean water and clean air. I pass as white. (Though I wish that didn’t have to be a privilege.) But I’m lonely. I’ve hardly even kissed a girl. I survive on cinema, and literature and decent television.

Thankfully I have a good imagination. Writing helps. (I want to be a screenwriter and a director someday.) My parents aren’t religious extremists, or even Republicans for that matter, but my Dad feels uncomfortable talking about those sorts of things and my Mamãe has a whole bunch of internalized homophobia because her mother used to call her a dyke when she was little. (Even though she wasn’t.) My Mamãe has said a lot of bitter things about queer people. And they hurt. But I can’t say anything. I don’t know how to say anything because she’ll say I’m not even like that. She always says that “People are lovable” But that she doesn’t “Believe in the gay.” WHAT THE HELL IS THAT EVEN SUPPOSED TO MEAN?

I guess in short my real question is how do I not explode? How do I approach all this? How the hell do I make it till I’m in film school over at San Fran?


A:

I am sorry you feel so isolated and lonely, and I am sorry your parents have created an environment in which it does not feel like you can be your most authentic self. You deserve to have a fulfilling and happy life outside of your imagination — though I do think it’s a good thing you’ve figured out writing and art are effective coping mechanisms. Before I get into some of the harsh realities of your situation, I want to address something that really stands out in your letter and gently push back on it. You do not need to diminish your own pain.

Much of your letter includes reasons you’re lucky. You make a point to say you’re not suffering and your parents are not “religious extremists.” I do think the language we use to describe pain and harm should be specific and up to the individual. But I also think your impulse to insist you’re not suffering stems from insecurity and guilt. You do not need to feel guilty about the ways you’re hurting. Homophobia does not need to be overt or obvious or extreme in order to be harmful. I grew up with lots of mostly well meaning liberal family members who still managed to say things that kept me in the closet around them for years. It’s clear your parents’ words have affected you, and you do not need to couch those feelings at all. They are valid! You are valid.

I say all this because I think it’s important to grant yourself some kindness as you tackle the difficult decision of how to interact with your family before you’re able to leave for school. Please do not feel like you need to undercut your own feelings. In fact, it’s time to really, really listen to yourself. The bitter things your mother has said about queer people are not a reflection of you, but they’re obviously words that will hurt you. And you feel like you can’t say anything, and that’s a very, very tough position to be in.

You could try setting a boundary with your mother without outing yourself by responding to her homophobic statements with something like “I don’t appreciate when you talk that way about people.” But I also understand that might get tricky and could lead to her asking invasive questions about yourself. It sounds like you want to navigate all this without outing yourself, and I just want to say emphatically that that is absolutely okay. Coming out is not always the solution to these situations. Coming out won’t necessarily change how you feel around your parents. I am not trying to be cynical or dissuade you from making other choices, but I just do feel like the option of not coming out when it comes to homophobic family members does not get as much attention as coming out does. I often think about this sentiment from an Autostraddle essay from a few years back: “I’d heard about the relief that came with coming out from everybody. If TV was to be believed, I would feel free even as my parents stopped looking me in the eye.” Film/TV does often peddle the message that coming out is always a relief, is always an it-gets-better situation. But that’s not always true, and I think that message can sometimes be actively harmful. Your current situation is hurting you, and coming out won’t necessarily “fix” it.

I also highly recommend this previous You Need Help.

If you do decide you want to tell your parents, some of the most widely applicable coming out advice is to set clear boundaries, keep your expectations as realistic as possible, and prepare for any extreme scenarios. But all that widely applicable advice is kind of abstract and also, if we’re being realistic, harder to enact as a minor.

Regardless of what she knows or doesn’t know about you, you can’t really control the way your mother thinks or talks about gay people. All you can do is try to protect yourself as much as possible from it. You can leave the room if they start saying hurtful things—an imperfect and short-term solution but still something that can help mentally in the moment. Your mother has said she doesn’t “believe in the gay,” and I think you were being rhetorical by asking what it means, but I do hope you don’t dwell too much on the meaning of that sentiment and instead focus on the fact that you know who you are even if your parents don’t. You can keep turning to TV and film and your own writing. There’s a very long tradition of queer folks relying on art to escape homophobia and seize control of our lives/selves (I did it for many years!). I know you don’t feel like you have friends where you live, but you can try to find community online. I also did that—I was out on Tumblr way before I was out in “real life,” and I connecting with those long-distance friends had a profound impact on my life. Having other people to talk to can help so much. Exploring online queer spaces—and/or online film spaces—can help your world feel more expansive.

In the meantime, don’t be hard on yourself for struggling with any of this. Your queerness is valid, and your feelings are valid.

Before you go! It takes funding to keep this publication by and for queer women and trans people of all genders running every day. And A+ members keep the majority of our site free for everyone. Still, 99.9% of our readers are not members. A+ membership starts at just $4/month. If you're able to, will you join A+ and keep Autostraddle here and working for everyone?

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Miami. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 299 articles for us.

11 Comments

    • Hi there! Just sending you so much love and support. You never have to come out to your family if you’re afraid of violence or retribution, and especially not when you’re still living at home and dependent on them. Take your time and believe in yourself and your worth. You’re valid no matter what <3

        • Reading your question reminded me of some of my own experience at 16. I went to a really conservative religious high school, and wasn’t out to anyone in person for fear of getting kicked out of my school. I so agree with Kayla about the importance of acknowledging your pain. What you’re experiencing is fucking hard and lonely. I relied on Tumblr and queer TV shows and books. I found this website around when I was your age. It was a lifeline for me. I’m 26 now. Over the past ten years, I’ve found queer community. I’m grateful to have been able to move to a liberal city. All my friends are queer. I live with 2 other queer people and my partner. And I say all of that to say- all of your dreams of film school and moving to San Fran- they’re within your reach. You’re going to find your people, who might have had experiences just like you. I hope one day, you find people who see you and cherish for exactly who you are. You so deserve it.

          • Thank you for kind words. I’m glad you’re where you are right now, and I can definitely agree that Autostraddle has been a savor. It’s comforting to know that I’m not the only one in the depths of ‘The well of loneliness.’ (I’m sorry, I know it’s kind of a crappy pun.) But honestly, looking at our community, it’s so evident that loneliness is a part of our experience, even if we are living in a big city, or in an accepting family, or we’re in a decent mental state. There’s still that part of us that is aware that a good segment of the world considers us as something ‘Other.’ And that sucks, but we can’t help it so we might as well embrace it.
            I love my parents. I’m not sure if I’m going to tell them before I leave, I kind of don’t want to but I probably will one day. I’m not sure if my Mother will ever really get it. But I know that they’ll always care about me, and that at least is comforting.
            I love that I’m queer though. Even if it does mean a thousand other things. But yeah, I’m gay. And I also love that. Almost as much as I love my family.
            Tell your partner I said hi. I want to thank Kayla and all the rest of you for spending a little time on my own concerns.
            I was home alone today, and I literally stood on top of the table that I do not need to diminish my own pain.
            That made me smile a little.
            I love you all.
            And screw being anonymous. My name is Nova Denali Martinez.

  1. What a wonderful response to this heartfelt letter! I really empathize with feeling like you’re too lucky or privileged or whatever to own up to how much you hurt and the validity of your own pain.

    That was especially true for me before I came out. I knew other people had it so much worse, and here I was in a secular liberal family that gave me some space, so I didn’t understand why it was so hard. But it really really was. I echo Kayla here: Your feelings are valid. You can honor that even when the rest of the world does not.

    Also, I extremely support the point that not coming out can be an extremely excellent choice, especially when you have a mental end point, and know that you’ll be able to create the life you want once you get to college or after you graduate or whenever makes sense for you.

    Loved this: “Homophobia does not need to be overt or obvious or extreme in order to be harmful. I grew up with lots of mostly well meaning liberal family members who still managed to say things that kept me in the closet around them for years.” Also loved calling out how the message that coming out is always a relief can be actively harmful.

    I struggled a lot with the idea that homophobia was overt and large and affiliated with right-wing religious types, which made it hard for me to articulate or see how my liberal, diehard Democrat family hurt me with their silences and assumptions and quiet diminishment.

    Without taking anything away from queer people who come from conservative religious backgrounds—an intense experience I can’t speak to—I do feel like a lot of pop culture about queer people v. religion conservatives is created by secular liberals like my family to make them feel superior to the latter, and a way of never having to confront their own allocishet privileges and microagressions and the real harm they do.

  2. Great response to this letter. This letter and response resonated with me as well. Thoughtful response.

    Your feelings of duality about your family resonated with me in particular. My family is very homophobic (religious variety) but they’re also lovely in other ways. Something my girlfriend tells me that I find helpful is to “take what you need from the relationship, and leave what you don’t. Don’t look for approval where you will find none.”

    In the past, the relationship with them became contentious when anything Queer or religious came up I used to take that bait, add two cents, or try to reason with them. Things would spiral and I’d feel worse.

    Now I try to take a deep breath, change the subject, focus on common ground, and if I’m doing really well, make a joke about something. If it seemed like there was truly opportunity for growth then it might be worth the discussion, but sometimes, it’s healthier to just put up those emotional boundaries for yourself.

    It’s easier said than done, but compartmentalizing sometimes helps.

    It doesn’t mean those things don’t hurt and aren’t worthy of grief but trying to get approval from someone who just won’t give it to you is going to drive you mad and just hurt like hell.

    Breath through those comments from your parents or store them away to unpack later safely with a friend, therapist, or with folks online (or yourself in writing) who can affirm you.

    Parents/family can simultaneously be great in some areas and love you/you love them while also being wrong, hurtful, and damaging in other ways. And they may never change. It’s ok to hate this about them, feel betrayed, grieve that loss, and feel this is an injustice.

    I waited a long time to come out to my parents because I knew they wouldn’t accept it, so I wanted to be in a place where I could handle that response and also take space from them after I delivered my message.

    Unto you can have the space and company you crave, are there ways in which you can nurture the parts of the relationship with your family that are working in order to feel less isolated? Can you minimize interactions where there are tensions?

  3. I know two years til you can leave feels like millennia when you’re sixteen, but it’ll pass before you know it. Life is coming!!! Buckle in and find joy where you can and be patient. Remember this is not forever.

  4. Oh my heart! I’m also a queer person (in my late 20’s) who grew up in a small town in Alaska, and I have so much empathy for this letter writer! I also love this place and it has been hard to reconcile all of the beauty here with the widespread prejudice and isolation. I’m grateful to be in Alaska still, but I’m thankful I was able to leave the state at 18, explore my identity more freely away from my evangelical family, and return with a greater sense of safety and love for myself. None of which is easy, but I’m thankful it was possible and I try not to take that for granted.

    I don’t know if the letter writer will look at the comments or if someone else in Alaska will, but I wanted to share that there are some meaningful initiatives and resources in AK for LGBTQ+ youth and I figured it couldn’t hurt to offer one. In particular, I know the organization “Identity” provides services and support groups for teens across the state: https://identityalaska.org/

    I don’t know what’s happening currently because of the pandemic, but I’ve helped chaperone two of their (free, statewide) youth leadership retreats in the past and, in my experience, those spaces have been affirming, transformative, and connective for teens who participated. As an adult supporting those spaces, I’ve been so grateful to witness the brilliance and care and bravery of the young queer people making their communities better across Alaska. :) I know a lot of teens who have met (even online) through Identity and found community while living in different parts of Alaska…I know it’s not the same as being in-person, but maybe there’s something here that would be helpful. Wishing the best to the writer, and anyone who reads this

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