There are 3 little words that many people dread saying. No – behave yourself! – not “I love you”; that slips off most tongues easier than an oyster slides down Tara Whatsit Thingie’s throat. I mean “Dad, I’m gay”. Judging from the letters I receive, coming out is rarely easy and rarely early.
Most gay men and women keep schtum about their sexuality for years after realising their own feelings. But sooner or later the stress of keeping it secret, the pain of living a lie and the sheer hassle of fending off the inevitable “And when are you going to bring home a nice girl/boy?” gets too much. Coming out to friends and colleagues may be hard enough but the people you most want to tell, and most dread facing, are always your family.
Late teens seems a common time to come clean, when parents and other relatives start making comments and asking questions. But fears and anxieties about what may result from disclosure often mean people keep quiet into their twenties and thirties or even longer. If asked why they remain silent, most explain is as harm reduction; if I came out, they would kill me, or it would kill them.
Some carry the secret into marriage, though parenthood and even into grandparenthood. While adolescence is a peak time for coming out, your own children’s adolescence is another. Not just because their emerging sexuality forces you to confront your own but because this life event often coincides with another; your own parents’ deaths. Once you no longer have to confess to Mum and Dad, quite a few people find the strength to be true to themselves.
It would be a pity to leave it that long. The main drawback of not coming out is what you all lose. You deprive your family of the chance to know the real you. You deprive yourself of the chance to be the real you, in and outside your family. And you rob them of the opportunity to rise to a challenge by assuming, without trying, that they’d fail the test. Parents are often shocked when a son or daughter comes out to them, but they are frequently not surprised. Just as most people know they are gay from an early age, their nearest and dearest usually realise it, too.
The key to coming out with maximum support and minimum pain is down to timing and how you do it. After all, if you want respect, you have to give it. If you want your parents to accept and love you for who you are, you need to tell them about your sexuality because you want to share yourself and be yourself, not as an act of revenge or spite. They may have done plenty to provoke your anger and bitterness, but the way round that is to show them how to behave by not attacking.
Talk first to someone you know will help, such as a counsellor on Lesbian and Gay Switchboard (www.llgs.org.uk). Practise with them how to come out to someone close to you, such as a friend, who can be your safety net.
Before you tackle your parents, put yourself in their shoes. What might your coming out mean to them? For many people, it raises terrible anxieties about their own sexuality. Parents may mourn the loss, as they see it, of their future, imagining this will mean no grandchildren from you. It might lead to resentful feelings from siblings, with the burden of providing grandchildren all on their shoulders. But what most parents fear when a child comes out is blame. They wonder “What have I done wrong that my child is gay?” or, more realistically, “How did I fail you, leaving you to cope with this on your own?”
It’s fear that makes people hit out. If you understand that, you can at least forgive and give them the chance to get over it. What you want and need from your family is their approval, acceptance and unconditional love. The best way of getting it is to offer it. However hostile, tearful, scared they may be, first reactions are not the last. Parents who scream, cry and act as if you’ve disclosed a terminal illness may turn out to be the ones who end up shrugging, killing the fatted calf for your partner’s visit and attending Mardi Gras.
As an agony aunt I have plenty of reason to be deeply sceptical about human behaviour; I’d never underestimate people’s capacity for vicious, mean-spirited bigotry, hypocrisy and prejudice. But I’d also never underestimate the ability to learn, to grow, to love. It’s surprising how often they start off pontificating against “them”, rethink when it’s “Our Charlie” and end up realising their fears were nonsense.
In the end, the consensus seems to be that telling is worth the pain and the hassle. Your family and friends may turn out to be ones to let themselves down by not rising to the occasion. They may descend into fruitless recrimination and reject you. If they do, it’s their loss, their problem and their responsibility, not yours. But if that’s the worst scenario of telling, consider the fact that the worst scenario of not telling is almost as bad; having to spend the rest of your life lying, deceiving and being ashamed of simply being yourself. It’s simply not worth it.