Coming Out to Family and Friends
Richard Niolon, Ph.D.
How to Come out to Parents

Coming Out to parents and family is a very difficult process. In part, it is about you. You are sharing something very personal with people you love. This makes it a time when you could become closer and more attached, but it also carries the risk of rejection and pain. Coming Out is also about others. This is a time when family who may have "seen the signs" but ignored them must admit this to themselves.

Below are some tips that may help make it easier.

Pick a Good Time

Don't Come Out in an argument, or at a time when you feel angry or resentful. The message will be delivered to family in a time of bad feelings and will convey those bad feelings, making the process more difficult for you and your family in the long run.

Give them time to get used to it before you introduce them to your boyfriend or girlfriend. They may be willing to accept your "friend" more readily and more easily if the sexual nature of your relationship is not so quickly and constantly apparent. Let them see that your "friend" cares about you, knows you well, treats you well, and wants you to be happy just like your parents do. That is what you ultimately want them to know about your partner, not that they are sexually active.

It Takes Time
Understand that it takes time for them to accept this about you, just like it did for you. Your family will go through periods of rejection, acceptance, and then rejection again before they come to accept you for who you are and understand something of what it means to be gay or lesbian. If you are Coming Out to them, you've had more time to deal with this than they have.
Encourage Your Parents to Come Out
Suggest that they share this with a friend; you needed to come out to others for support, and they will need to do this too. Having a list of phone numbers, such as one for PFLAG (Parents and friends of Lesbians And Gays) could help too.

Consider having a "family contact" person. Sometimes a parent will be hurt that they were not the first to know. However, both you and your parents may benefit from having someone in the family to talk to about the issue, how the "Coming Out" went, and how things are going after. An aunt or uncle, sibling, or grandparent may help out tremendously.

Be Prepared and Patient
Be prepared for negative responses, religious fears, and suggestions for therapy. Often, when faced with some stressor we can't handle easily, we wish that it would just change. This is something you may have gone through as well; you may have just "wished" to be straight. It is natural that when faced with the loss of the child they thought they had, the likelihood of grandchildren they dreamed of, and other fantasies your parents had for you, that they too will experience some shock and wish things would simply change and go back to "how they used to be."

Consider how the "Worst Case Scenario" might go. Coming Out is hard enough as is; if you need your parents' financial and emotional support and are really scared they would "cut you off" if you came out, then wait until you can tell them with less fear and anxiety. This may sound like "hiding," but it's not.

There's no reason why you can't build up a network of friends and other family who will be supportive of you and provide some "emotional backup" to get ready for and recover from a difficult Coming Out to family.

Be Ready to Teach
Explain that your sexual orientation is a biologically based thing, and you can't control it any more than they can control their own sexual orientation. Being gay or lesbian isn't their "fault" and does not result from something they did "wrong."

Some parents suggest therapy. There are many who claim to do "reparative therapy," and even some crackpots in the media, like the infamous "Dr. Laura," who claim that such therapy is effective and necessary for happiness. It is not effective, and no sound scientific data has ever been gathered and confirmed to support this kind of "treatment." The American Psychological Association has published a statement indicating that offering therapy to "correct" someone's sexual orientation against their will is unethical. Often these groups of "recovered" gays and lesbians are simply made to feel very, very guilty about their sexual and intimacy needs. They simply focus on trying to deny all sexual aspects of their being, try to conform to heterosexual lifestyles and expectations, and avoid "relapse" through weekly religious "support groups" where a lot of hush-hush sexual activity goes on after hours.

When your parents read about how to talk to you about difficult issues, including potty training, sex, and marriage, they were told to use the same language they wanted you to use. Be patient as your parents learn to use the language you teach them. Explain the terms "gay" and "lesbian" as opposed to "homosexual" and "queer." Allow them to refer to your partner as a "friend" for a while until they grow comfortable with "boyfriend" or "girlfriend."

Be ready to talk about AIDS. While your parents may not be ready for any real details, and they may not ask for fear of finding out information they don't think they can handle, they do need to be assured that you are safe and have tested negative. Of course, if you are positive, lying to your family at the outset may not be recommended. Be ready to discuss the issue as much or as little as your family wants.

Some people have a book or something for reading materials ready to give parents. It's a nice way for them to be reminded gently about something they must learn about, and allow them to read and think about it at their convenience.

Explain Why You Are Coming Out
Explain that you are telling them this because you love them and don't want to be dishonest with them. Tell them to that you are not alone, and that you have gay and lesbian friends for support too. Sometimes parents react with worry about their children; they know it is an unfair world out there. Assure them that while you know there is discrimination, you stick up for yourself and can handle what comes to you as a result of your decision to be what you are.

Sometimes helping parents understand the burden of being closeted, the stress it creates, and the ultimate separation from family that many gays and lesbians accept or suffer with helps. Urvashi Vaid, a spokeswoman for gay and lesbian rights, once said that her mother asked her why she had to be so open about her sexuality, and why it couldn't just be a private thing. She explained that Coming Out was as much a political act as a personal one.

Coming Out lets others know that gays and lesbians exist around them; we are to a large extent an "invisible minority." Coming Out makes us visible, and gives others the chance to be aware of and work through their own biases, to see the discrimination in the world, and to consider these issues on their own before being confronted with them somewhere else by someone else in a less understanding fashion.

Finally, some cautions should be offered on Coming Out. While it is in many ways a liberating process to acknowledge who you are to others and receive some support and validation for just being you, there are a lot of prejudiced people in the world. Some would hurt you, insult you, and generally go out of their way to make you unhappy if they know you are gay or lesbian.

Why do they do this? Lots of reasons.

Personal discomfort is likely the top reason. People who feel bad about themselves often need an "Us" and a "Them" to organize their world. The "Us"'s are invariably good, moral, smart, wise, good looking, and generally the backbone of the society. The "Them"'s are bad, immoral, ugly, stupid, and the downfall of society. Simply put, being so sure that you are "sick" and immoral makes me feel healthy and righteous.

This can lead to violence, or "Fag Bashing." Some people feel very threatened by their emotional and possibly sexually-tinged attachment to others of their own sex. Seeing you appear so comfortable expressing those feelings often makes them suddenly aware of feelings they would not like to admit to having. "Silencing" you silences the thoughts they don't want to consider.

Overall, Coming Out is a normal process that is crucial to accepting who you are and feeling good about yourself. You can be more "Out" in some settings than in others, Come Out in different ways to different people, and expect it sometimes to go well and sometimes to go badly. It is a significant part of the process of identifying and becoming closer to your friends and loved ones.