The following information has been adapted with the kind permission of Terry Sanderson
AT LEAST ONE IN EVERY TEN IDENTIFIES AS LGBT. YOU ARE NOT ALONE
Coming out to parents, friends and family can be the most difficult area of all for lesbians/gays/bisexuals/trans people. But, failure to come out means that our homosexual/transgendered life will not progress very far, and staying in the closet will impede the development of our homosexual/transgendered self-esteem. If we don't acknowledge and integrate our sexuality/gender identity into our wider existence, we are denying ourselves the opportunity of a full and fulfilling emotional life. Coming out is the key that opens all the other doors to happiness and adjustment. It is also probably the most terrifying thing that many of us can imagine.
Assertiveness will not completely remove the trauma from the coming out experience, but it will significantly increase your chances of success. You will be able to retain your dignity in the face of what might be a gruelling family crisis and also help others to cope better with their feelings about this great event in your lives.
No two families are the same, and so there can be no hard and fast rules. All decisions have to be taken in the light of your own assessment of the situation and of people's receptiveness. You need to think of the time, the place and many other practical considerations. As all relationships are unique, only you can decide how best to approach this topic with your family. You will have to create your own scenario for using assertiveness to help you through the trying times ahead.
The first thing to remember, though, is that you are master/mistress of your own destiny. Remember the four golden rules of assertiveness:
- My feelings and needs are at least as important as anyone else's.
- My rights are sacrosanct and it is my first duty to protect and promote them - but not at the expense of other people's rights.
- I am not responsible for other people's feelings, and they are not responsible for mine.
- I do not have to explain my decisions or justify my feelings or actions unless I want to.
Apply the golden rules to this situation. If you have decided that the time has come to be open and honest with your parents, face the decision with courage and be prepared for the consequences. Reactions might be bad, but the likelihood is that they won't be. It is important not to catastrophise (the favourite occupation of those with low self-esteem). To catastrophise means a tendency to predict and anticipate the most horrendous consequences resulting from every risk taken. ("I couldn't possibly tell my parents, they'd drop dead immediately" or "No, my old friend Janet wouldn't understand if I told her. She'd never speak to me again.") Catastrophising can provide a great, if frequently spurious, motivation for doing nothing. If things are going to be so bad, why make them worse? But catastrophising is often based on self-delusion and pessimism. There is little - beyond death - that is totally irrecoverable. If we are strong we can recover from the blows that life delivers, and if we are imaginative and persistent we can make something of the setbacks that might befall us. Don't project the worst possible outcome on every decision you are faced with - think positively, and try to see the benefits of making changes.
WHAT'S YOUR MOTIVE?
Next, look carefully at your motivations. Why do you want to come out to your family? One of the answers, hopefully, is that you want to be free from the fear of discovery and so be liberated to live an honest and dignified life. Ideally you will want to take the plunge because you desire your relationships with your loved ones to be more open and less fraught. If these are your reasons, then you should go ahead and make a start.
If your reasons are less noble - for instance, you see your coming out as a means of "getting back" at your parents for some wrong you feel they have done you, then perhaps you had better give the matter some more thought. Using your homosexuality as a weapon to punish parents is not a good basis for making improvements in your life. You cannot come out assertively or with dignity if your principal purpose is to cause pain - such a tactic will surely backfire. If you are unhappy now, this kind of behaviour will simply make things worse. Remember, assertiveness is not about trampling over the feelings of others. It is about granting each other equality.
We must be careful, though, not to fall into the trap of staying in the closet in order to "spare" our parents distress. That is faulty logic, because it may well spare them from pain, but it prolongs your own suffering. If you face the situation with honesty and goodwill, you can all emerge from the other side stronger and closer. It was Margaret Adams who first wrote about the Compassion Trap and it is worth mentioning here. Compassion is, of course, a noble virtue and a facet of human life that makes it worthwhile, but only when it is a genuine expression of empathy with other people and not a means of enslaving yourself to their demands. Sympathising with the pain and suffering of others is quite distinct from allowing it to overwhelm and paralyse you emotionally. Reject the argument that you are behaving selfishly by telling your parents you are gay, and therefore causing them unnecessary grief. If you are doing it for the right reason, then the emotional turmoil which you might have to work through will be justified.
The argument then goes that if you leave things as they are, unspoken and unexplored and dishonest, then everyone can carry on as normal and all this upheaval can be avoided. Although this may be satisfactory from your parents point of view, it's far from satisfactory from yours. Inflicting upon yourself the burden of lies that goes with staying in the closet can have terrible consequences. Acting assertively, you know that your feelings and opinions are as important as anyone else's - and that includes your parents, brothers, sisters and friends. So, coming out to them with the best of loving intentions is far better than either staying in the closet and harming yourself or coming out with the primary intention of settling some kind of score.
They might be upset at first, but most people get over it and then get on with life. Keeping in mind your right to choose a full life of your own direction, you should ride out any crisis, maintaining your dignity while giving your parents, family or friends the reassurance and support that they might need. Remember, the discomfort and upset that will probably follow the revelation is a necessary passage to a newer and more mature relationship.
So, how do you actually come out assertively?
Much will depend on the circumstances of your life: your age, the kind of relationship which already exists between you and your family and whether you still live with them at their home. If you decide to go ahead, you might find that parents will resist the news at first. What follows are some of the arguments that other gay people have faced from their parents after they came out, and then some of the counter arguments.
- You're only doing this to hurt us.
- It's just a phase, you'll get over it when you meet the right boy.
- Where did we go wrong, it must be our fault that you're like this.
- It's against God's law. You ought to pray for forgiveness.
- We can't understand it, we can't accept it.
This may well be the way they feel at the time but, as we've already discussed, telling the truth for the right reasons is not meant to hurt but to heal. If you can reassure them that you have done this because you love them and want to be honest with them, most parents will understand, given time. Try to ensure they appreciate the pain you've had to suffer through being dishonest with then, and how your decision to tell will lead to a better relationship. It may take some time for them to accept this reasoning.
This argument is often employed by parents as a defence mechanism, a way of pushing aside what is painful. If you are in no doubt about your sexuality then ensure they understand from the start that you don't consider it to be in any way temporary. By calmly but firmly insisting that you don't accept the 'phase' interpretation of events, then you can encourage your parents to face up to the truth much sooner.
Guilt is a frequent reaction to the news that a child is gay. Trying to assume responsibility for your orientation is one way that parents can begin to understand. When they first discover the truth they will be thrashing around for 'reasons' to explain your sexuality. They want an explanation for something which is a mystery. They have probably also heard the theory that homosexuality is "caused" by a domineering mother or an absent father. This theory originated in the 1960s from a study conducted by Professor Irving Bieber. His study has been repeatedly discredited, and more and more evidence is accumulating which seems to suggest that there is some physical explanation for homosexuality - that there may be a genetic or hormonal element in the way we develop. Nothing is certain, though, and so parents cannot blame themselves for 'causing' you to be gay.
If you come from a background of strict religious belief, there are extra problems, some of which might be insurmountable. Assertiveness can help you rationalise the situations and resist emotional manipulation. Religion, on the other hand, puts such thinking entirely into reverse, depending as it does on an unquestioning belief in the unseen and the unknown. It means allowing someone else to make your important decisions for you. Strict and dogmatic religious communities can be extremely cruel to those of their members who do not fit into the "pre-ordained" mould.
If religion is important to you, then remember there are choices, even in that area. The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement has another way of looking at the Bible and there are Jewish lesbian and gay groups, too, which can help.
However, if you want to come out to parents who subscribe to a philosophy of religious fundamentalism (the literal interpretation of the Bible) it is highly unlikely that they will take the news of your homosexuality with equanimity. One person who has survived such an experience is Jeanette Winterson, the lesbian author of "Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit." In an interview she described her feelings when, in early life, she reached a turning point that would oblige her to make the choice between her religious upbringing and her burgeoning sexuality: "Everyone reaches a moment when they come to a cross-roads - whether to go on with the life you know, which is safe and comfortable, or move on to another, which is more dangerous and, maybe in the end, unsatisfying. You have to cross over and take the risk or move back and make compromises. In my case it was not possible to belong to an evangelical church and love a woman. And I was also going to a world that really was not acceptable to many people, or safe." In these circumstances the choice may be as stark as that: move on and take risks or go back and suppress your needs in order to remain true to your religious principles.
It is possible that your family will surprise you and be more accepting than you could have imagined, but the community they live in is unlikely to be as understanding.
The cry that heterosexuals "can't understand" homosexuality is a frequent one. Often they will go as far as to say that they find us repulsive. This might be true but it is not your responsibility that they feel this way. They are being homophobic. You have not created this, you are simply the victim of it. Consequently, you cannot be made to assume responsibility for its existence.
Similarly, parents may not understand your feelings simply because they don't share them. But that doesn't mean they can't accept them. Truly mature individuals allow other people to feel differently without getting upset. If your parents become agitated because they "can't understand", try to make them see that they don't have to understand, they just need to accept. If the thought of physical expression of homosexuality "makes them sick", then they simply don't need to think about it. The physical expression of your sexuality is really a personal thing, and it's unlikely that they'll be required to witness it. If you have heterosexual brothers or sisters who are married or in some other sexual relationship, it is likely that your parents don't really like to think of them in their intimate moments, either. They cope by simply not thinking about it, they just accept that it happens. They should extend the same privilege to you.
Parents - and other people who claim not to understand - simply have to grow up and come to terms with the fact that not everyone in the world feels the same way that they do. Those who are incapable of this leap of imagination and empathy usually end up as bigots - and very unhappy and bitter individuals to boot. Their bigotry is a sad problem, a sign of a pathetic immaturity, and they have to sort it out for themselves. It is your problem only in so far as its effects spill into your life from time to time.
As for their not being able to "accept" you being lesbian or gay - what does that mean? Of course they could accept it, what is to stop them but their own fear? Some parents have very little problem adjusting to their child's homosexuality; they may not be over the moon about it, and they may have to revise their expectations, but they have accepted. So can your parents. It is no use their saying that because they had a strict and disapproving upbringing they are bound by this. Remind them that they are not responsible for their parents' feelings, and they are allowed to think and feel differently. They are permitted to move on. It is not carved in tablets of stone that every generation must hold the same opinion as the one before. If that were true the world would never progress and we'd still be living in caves.
You might be one of the lucky ones who have reasonable, informed and liberal-minded parents. Then again, you may have parents who have inherited and embraced attitudes which make the acceptance of a gay daughter or son very difficult. During all this ferment, assertiveness will be useful. It won't make you totally immune to bad feelings, but it will help you cope with them. It won't totally prevent pangs of guilt penetrating but it will help you identify them.
For instance, if your parents are trying to blame you for the way they feel ("Why did you have to tell us? If you'd kept quiet we could have carried on as normal and needn't have had all this upset"), then you may well accept their analysis and take on the mantle of guilt they have laid at your door. This will lead to depression and regret. It will undermine your self-esteem and have the opposite effect to the one you had intended. Once you have analysed and rationalised the source of your depression ("They are blaming me for feelings which they themselves have created") you can relieve yourself of the responsibility with a clear conscience. After a lifetime of such guilt trips, you might not find it easy to resist, but you must try. It may be that your parents don't realise precisely what they are doing by off-loading their own guilt and bad feelings onto you.
Prepare well for what might be an extremely uncomfortable time. Remember:
- Keep clam. Try to keep anxiety under control by applying relaxation methods.
- However badly your parents react, don't join in their emotional explosion. If they shout, don't shout back. If they cry, try to stay dry-eyed. Keep your voice quiet, reassuring but confident. Don't be afraid to say how you feel - "I am nervous about your reactions", "I feel sorry that you are having such a bad time," "This isn't easy for me either", "I'm so happy that you are taking it so well" etc. - and listen carefully to what they are saying to you. Constantly remind them why you are coming out and why it is so important to you and to them. If things seem to be getting out of control, ask if you can take some time out - go for a walk, listen to relaxing music, meditate, try your best to relax. Your mind will then be in a better position to weigh the facts and reach a decision about your next move. Creative decisions are much harder to make when you're agitated.
- Watch out for manipulation. If you've decided to come out to your whole family, don't let your parents persuade you to be selective about who you tell. "Let's just keep it between the three of us" is a familiar tune played by parents to children who have come out. Such a request is seen as a damage limitation exercise, but for you it means keeping the closet door firmly closed in some situations. Explain to them why you can't accept and why you are determined to be out with everyone in the family. Do this calmly, too, refusing to be drawn into the web of guilt your parents might have constructed ("But we are so ashamed, why are you trying to humiliate us in front of the whole family?") An assertive person would see straight through that one. You aren't trying to do anything of the kind to them, you are trying to make things better between you and your family. Their feelings are important, of course, but in the end you have to be true to yourself. Humiliation can only happen if you allow it to happen - they can make the choice to face the family bravely and with head held high. Humiliation would be very difficult in those circumstances.
- Be prepared to explain. This might seem like a contradiction of what we've said before about not having to justify anything you do, and while no-one has an automatic right to an explanation of your actions, in the case of coming out to loved ones, I think it is a good idea to tell them as much as you can about the way things are in your life.
- If you need back up, enlist the help of someone your parents can respect. If you are already out to a sympathetic member of the family make sure they will be around to provide a role model for your parents. They can demonstrate best of all that acceptance is a real option. It is amazing what pressure from a sister or brother or uncle or aunt can do to make your parents calm down and reconsider their position. If you haven't come out to anyone in the family, then you could consider getting someone from a gay help line to talk to them, or best of all a member of a parents-of-gays support group.
But, you might say, isn't the rule of assertiveness that other people's feelings must be respected and not trampled under foot? Yes, of course, but let's be clear exactly whose feelings are being trampled here. In this case I believe it is the parents who are running roughshod over the needs and dignity of their gay child. Your parents are not responsible for your feelings, just as you are not responsible for theirs. They don't have to feel ashamed and disappointed, they could just as well choose to feel proud of you. Make sure they realise that they have a choice - rejection is not the only option.
They might react to your news by demanding that you have "treatment" for your homosexuality, or that you see a priest for "forgiveness". If the relationship with your parents is important to you and you want it to continue, you have to be prepared to resist all this with rational and informed argument. Each anti-gay myth to which your parents subscribe will have to be patiently dismantled with logic, each attempt to manipulate you with guilt must be recognised and exposed for what it is.
You will have realised by now that the by-word for the assertive person is choice. You always have the option to do something or not to do it, to make a decision or to put it off. Every decision you make will, hopefully, propel you forward towards your goal in life of happiness and fulfilment. Naturally, you can choose to come out or stay in the closet. Sometimes, and in some circumstances, it is right to be circumspect and to make use of the ability to "pass for straight" in order to reserve life and limb. But keeping from those you love the truth about your essential self is a dangerous decision. The cost of avoiding the truth in order to save your 'significant others' from feeling discomfort is a lifetime of denial - and probable psychological damage - for you. The surface waters may remain calm by using the "hiding" choice, but the inner depths will continue to churn.
Your parents will have their own "coming out" to face. They will have to decide whom - if anybody - they are going to tell that they are the parents of a lesbian daughter or gay son. They fear that they will lose prestige in the eyes of their friends, neighbours and work colleagues. They may be afraid that their position in the community will be undermined if it is thought by their friends that they have a "defective" child. However insulted we may be by such a concept, we have to acknowledge that they are real fears for some people, and we have to allow them the time, sometimes years, to sort them out. Parents can't be expected to accept such a fundamental change in their child overnight. They have to reassess a whole swathe of expectations and hopes for the future. They have to deal with a lot of fear and misunderstanding. They need to be educated themselves about homosexuality, and what it means for them and you in the years to come. That's a tall order for anyone.
Don't be too impatient and don't be too hard on them. We have to let them experience their feelings. Although we may consider them to be an over-reaction, they are, nonetheless, very real for the people experiencing them. You can allow this adjustment time without having to compromise your own needs.