What do you think of when you hear the phrase “coming out”? If you’re not part of the “debutante” community, you probably think of someone coming out as LGBTQ+. The story that we’re often told in the media is one of extremes; it’s either a tale of love and acceptance, or of rejection. But the reality is often a gray area.
The process of coming out can be difficult regardless of how accepting your community is, and it never ends. If you come out in high school, you have to do it again in college, and again when you graduate, and then when you move, and every time you meet someone new you might feel that familiar anxiety in your gut, wondering when the topic will come up, and wondering what sort of reaction you’ll face.
Of course, if you’re lucky, you’ll have a support system, and if you’re really lucky, your family will stand behind you. Even if this is the case, there are still questions and awkward conversations and silences at dinner. So what happens when coming out isn’t the “happily ever after” that it’s sometimes made out to be?
Before I was fully open about my queer identity, I imagined the world “outside of the closet” as a world of absolute freedom. I don’t come from a particularly homophobic family; they’re all pretty liberal save a few conservative outliers. Since I generally only see my immediate family, I thought that coming out would make me more at ease and more comfortable in my family spaces. I would finally be normal! I would be treated the same! I could bring women home and enjoy all the awkward rom-com moments I so desperately wanted! And for the most part, it was a positive transition. No one disowned me, no one outwardly rejected me, I didn’t have religion thrown in my face, and no one tried to “fix me.” I told them, and life went on.
But there’s a middle ground between aggressive homophobia and complete acceptance that no one talks about: the realm of passivity. This is the world of blissful ignorance, of unasked questions, of treading carefully around a subject that for some reason is treated as taboo. We see stories about coming out portrayed in TV and movies, but they're often about the struggle and not about what happens next. Passive homophobia isn’t what we see addressed in media, but it’s real and it’s insidious.
This is especially relevant when we interact with our families; and for college students, that comes up whenever we go home.
As a university student, I spend most of my time with friends, especially those in my sorority. None of those women have ever shown me anything but love and a sense of true acceptance when it comes to my sexuality (although the issues between the Greek system and queerness are numerous enough to write several more articles). In fact, we joke about it, and that makes me feel even more included because of the light-heartedness attached to those jokes.
But I do go home now and again, and this past winter I saw a combination of two sets of grandparents, four cousins, several aunts and uncles, as well as my immediate family: my sister, mother, and father. Ostensibly, all of these folks know that I’m queer (I do a lot of related activism and talk about it openly on Facebook), but I’ve never heard a word about it. My family also likes to tease me a lot about different parts of my identity, from my increased liberalism since being at UC Berkeley to my affinity for fantasy video games. The fact that they’ve never once touched this topic demonstrates their feelings toward it.
A few days after I had gotten there, we picked up my cousin from the airport and one of the first questions my family asked her concerned “that boy in all your photos” and what their status was.
I’ve been in a relationship with a woman for 9 months; we’re not “Facebook official” (is that still a thing?), but I post a lot of photos with her accompanied by loving captions. No one in my extended family has ever asked who she is, as I’m sure they would if I were with a man.
While I was home, I also had multiple family members (who know better) refer to my partner as my “friend.” There is a silence surrounding my relationships, a reluctance to address the “issue” of my queerness, a tension attached to anything I might do or say that would make them uncomfortable. Talking about my relationship would force them to acknowledge my sexuality, something that they are still unsure how to handle.
Coming home presents a host of other challenges, especially for folks in college, but it would make it a lot easier if I weren’t so afraid to be myself. I know that my family loves me, but this fear we all seem to have makes me second-guess that sometimes. As if by me coming out, by me having a girlfriend or by talking about her, that somehow makes it more real.
The problem is that it’s already real. I’m in a stable, healthy relationship, and I want to be able to share that with my family without worrying about how it will affect their behavior towards me. I want to be able to bring the woman I love home, to show her where I come from, to let my family know how important she is to me.
To all of you who have family members who are LGBTQ+: sexuality does not go away if you ignore it. It does not cease to exist when you don’t ask questions, and it may seem like it makes your time together easier if you don’t have to talk about it over large family dinners, but in the long run it’s making your LGBTQ+ family member feel like they don’t belong.
It is not up to them to pretend to be something they’re not in order to make you feel more comfortable. It is up to you to treat them normally, to ask those questions we’ve come to expect from grandparents and aunts, to love them like I already know you do. They haven’t changed. But you might need to.