Silence is Not Support: On Coming Out to Family

We all know the story. After months or years of living in heart-wrenching, gut-twisting, mind-numbing dread, of living with this dread that even when buried down will reappear time and time again, each and every time you are confronted with the idea… after months or years (or even weeks, or days – it is a dread as deep as your bones and as long as your limbs, not as long the time you live with it), you finally wrangle up the courage to Come Out. To your parents.

No, I haven’t yet. Not quite. I’m getting there (I think). But we know the story.

You finally stutter out, standing in the kitchen clutching your fear into your heart, or scrawl in a trembling hand across the paper that has become that fear, your story, your truth. Mom, Dad, Aunt, Gran… I’m gay. I’m bi. I’m trans. I’m poly, ace, non-binary… And they say “I know.”

They dare to say, to your face, to you, “Yes, I know. I have known. I have always suspected. I was waiting for you.”

They. Fucking. Dare.

For some people, it is perhaps not as enraging, not as infuriating, not as much of a betrayal. For some people, their parents/guardians WERE explicit, to some degree, in acknowledging support for those who are not of typical sexuality or gender experience. All it takes is even one sentence, one comment of “Oh, I’m glad the government has supported [sexuality or gender rights issue here].”

This is not about that. This is about those whose parents, like mine, have never given a single fucking hint, not a single damn clue, that they could be supportive. That they could be not homophobic. They have kept their silence, maybe thinking that silence is better than explicit hate.

Maybe it is better.

But in a society that is heterosexist, that is not good enough. As with any other axis of oppression or discrimination (sexism, racism, classism, cissexism, insert -ism here), the onus is on them, is on everyone to prove that they are not. To prove that they are not heterosexist, or not homophobic, or are at the very damn least working towards the point of not being so.

Silence is not support. Silence is not encouraging. Silence is not hopeful, or gentle, or reassuring.

Silence is fear.

Silence is fear. Silence is suspicion. Silence is paranoia, distrust, anxiety, and stress.

Silence is seven damn years of watching and observing and weighing all possible actions that your parents or family take, all the statements they say, all the hints you have about what beliefs they hold dear and what those might mean for you, of weighing all that and then balancing it against society. Against society and its heterosexism. It is seven long years of making those calculations and always coming up negative. no, not safe, no indicators of positive, lack of support, lack of hope, silence

That is the calculation I have made. That is what has guided my decisions. In high school, it is true, I made the choice to not hide from my peers. But I still hid from my parents (lied about where I was when attending GSA meetings, begged reassurance from a teacher who knew my sexuality that he wouldn’t tell my mother on parent-teacher night).

In my first year of university, it is true, I made the decision to accept nomination to a position of public authority in connection with an LGBTQ+ organization. Amidst the furor of a peer of mine being outed to his parents as trans via national TV, I made the decision that if my parents, somehow, found out from a news source or a public source, a province away… well, I’d deal with it. I accepted that risk.

Perhaps there were opportunities. Perhaps they tried, over the years, to provide an opening for me to begin the conversation. Perhaps that night after AAA awards, when they asked “what’s GSA?” and I muttered, mouth dry and heart pounding, half-paralyzed with fear, “Gay-straight alliance”, maybe their silence afterwards was meant to encourage me to speak – if I was ready. Perhaps when I was home, winter holidays in my first year of university, the comment about “so-and-so said they saw you on TV, at a rally”, the lightly joshing comment that followed “being a rebel are you?”, perhaps that was supposed to encourage. Perhaps the silence was meant to “allow” for me to “open up” when “I was ready”.

Bull-fucking-shit. I have “been ready”, I have accepted myself for around six damn years. I have been out to my friends since junior high. It is not a matter of being ready. It is a matter of finding the will to risk who knows what. Quite possibly, very easily, absolutely everything. In some cases (not mine, thank God) your very life.

Silence is not encouraging. Silence is terrifying.

Every little thing – my mother’s increasing religiosity (yes, I am religious myself, and yes I know that there are liberal-minded or accepting Catholics, but how do I know that she is? how do I know that her traditionalism isn’t extending to that?), my father’s awkward (scoffing?) laugh of “we don’t need to see that on television” to Jack and Ianto of Torchwood kissing… every little thing I noticed, it got weighed. And none of it has been encouraging. Not my mother’s blatantly awkward (uncomfortable?) tittering laughter in the midst of a conversation at a family gathering where ‘lesbian’ was mentioned (the first time, incidentally, I ever heard a family member mention the word, or show any sign of acknowledging the existence of not-straight people).

All of that, and more. And silence.

Silence is not support.

Know what I found out today? From my best friend of 14-odd years? From the first person I ever came out to? Via, of all things, Twitter?

(For context: my best friend’s mom was my music teacher in our small, private elementary school for 4 years. She is also good friends with my mom.)

Tweet @ me, 8:33 AM: My mom has always told me that based on her conversations with your mom, your mom isn’t homophobic at all. :)

Tweet @ me, 9:50 AM: there have always been questions regarding you :P and our mothers have discussed them

Tweet @ me, 10:03 AM: she probably wanted you to talk to her about it :P

If I had heard this even a few months earlier, I would have been alternately furious and over-the-moon. Fuck. Yes. It is the sort of confirmation, yes, vaguaries of this sort, especially from a source as absolutely trusted as this one, in this sort of situation, are exactly the confirmation, the information I have wanted for fucking years.

Sometime since the winter holidays this year, (with a moment of panic, of the dread resurfacing, only a month or so before the holidays where I gleaned reassurance from my sister and another best friend that they would help smuggle my stuff out of my parent’s house if I came out and wasn’t allowed back)… Sometime since the holidays, I wore out. I gave up. I said, weary and exhausted from years of bone-deep dread, “fuck it”.

I made some small steps. I put my preferred name (as fond as I am of my shortened birth name, the other one IS still a preference) as my nickname on Facebook. I started letting myself post or re-post stuff relating to gender, stuff relating to sexuality, on my Facebook – where I have some RL people I would previously have hidden from for fear of word getting back to my parents. It isn’t – wasn’t – much. Just a bare lengthening of the steps and choices made a year ago when I was elected an executive member.

And I have, bitterly, made the odd fairly private reference to just not telling them until I show up at a Thanksgiving dinner with a girl on my arm. (I don’t know if I could be that brave.)

And then last night, for the first time ever, I made direct mention of a non-heterosexual sexuality to my mother in an email. I haven’t checked my email since and am, quite likely, still awaiting a response. I will wait until I’m home, too, even though I could check right now. But she doesn’t check her email daily, not necessarily that email anyhow… or so I tell myself, so I tell myself, excusing and pushing down and avoiding the giddy remnants of the old familiar fear.

Not much, perhaps. It wasn’t even in reference to myself. It wasn’t me coming out, saying “by the way, Mom, I’m bisexual” (and oh, how I have longed to say that very sentence, so many times in the past, but never dared!). It is courage born of apathy, of giving up. Of some final bit of self-reliance sinking in and finally counter-balancing the equation. So when I got those tweets I was exasperated, shocked, and startled, and little twinges of grim relief spiced it all. But rather than the raw wound of fresh anger, it has simply simmered all day, a gnawing, slowly growing anger, frustration that has spoiled like a bad fruit.

I have not lived, at my parent’s house, with angry, explicit hatred. This I am grateful for. But in the depths of fear of the unknown, I have told myself, bitter and resentful, that it would be better to at least know what I was facing. I don’t even ask for understanding. I can educate, I can explain. Do I want to educate everyone? No. Do I mind educating my own parents? Not overly. And if they make their own efforts to educate themselves, but struggle over something, I would be more than happy to explain.

But when all they ever needed to say was a comment like “oh, look, same-sex marriage is legal” in a positive manner… it is no wonder that I felt (feel) such resentment as above. (When that was the news, when that debate raged, I didn’t hear a single thing from my parents. Not. A. Word.) When a simple, positive comment about gay couples adopting, or even, in response to my response to “What’s GSA?” a simple “Ah, I see, that’s nice/that sounds good.” or just something, just anything to break the silence.

Silence is not support. If you are silent, if they are silent, because they think “oh, well, it’s better than hatred, better than explicit bigotry”… they are not being supportive. They have no damn right, have no damn place, to be standing by, waiting for their child to brew up enough raw courage, enough defiant, lonely spirit, to tell them. And when they tell them to then say: “Oh. I always knew.”

You? You always knew? You always suspected? Then why didn’t you give the SLIGHTEST DAMN HINT that you might not be heterosexist? That you wouldn’t kick us out of the house, disown us, mock us, taunt us, punish us, kill us? Why did you stay silent? We have no reason to trust you, we have no reason to believe otherwise, until you give us one.

by me, C/J, originally posted on my Tumblr

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About C/J

I'm a queer university student in Atlantic Canada, studying the liberal arts with a particular interest in history, linguistics, and (physical) anthropology, as well as any language I can get my hands on and anything else that strikes my fancy. I live my life by two words: question everything. (Including that notion itself.)

Posted on February 17, 2012, in Coming out and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. A good message to parents.

    My message to you is that you could ask: say, for example, “Gay marriage is a good thing because it makes a lot of people very happy and does not harm anyone at all”. How do they respond?

    Mine was watching the TV. I said, “Oh look, a man in a dress. What do you think of that?” And my sister said, “I can’t think of anything more disgusting. That turns me right off, that does.” And now, she is reasonably supportive.

    • I should edit with the date on that – it was written a couple days ago. I’m still waiting for an email response. And yeah, finding a way to try and break the silence is… useful. But terrifyingly difficult, much of the time. Especially for fear of reactions like your sisters! Good to hear that she is reasonably supportive now. :) Thanks for reading!

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