“I have it all planned out,” says Gordon (name changed to protect the fabulous). We’re sitting in an ice cream shop in San Diego, discussing his holiday vacation. He’ll be flying back to his hometown, a small Southern locale. While he’s there he’ll be coming out to his family.
This is a daunting step for any member of the LGBTQ community. “It’s a lot,” Gordon says, “knowing that I have to say to these people who’ve known me my whole life, ‘Hey, so there’s this big, important part of my identity you know nothing about.'”
The average coming-out is hard enough. To compound that, Gordon’s parents are Christian. Not just Christian, but Southern Baptist. And not just any Southern Baptists — his father is a minister. They definitely DON’T approve of the gay lifestyle. “Funny enough, I think my dad will take it better than my mom,” he tells me. He speaks with a slight southern accent that gets more pronounced as his attitude gets sassier. “He’s at least used to talking to people about, quote unquote, ‘shameful’ aspects of their lives. My mom don’t want anything to do with that.”
Though he speaks about the situation casually, it’s clear that Gordon is nervous. He knows he’ll face judgment, and possibly even hostility. He’s pretty sure he’ll get a lecture about morals, plenty of denial, and possibly even threats of being disowned. These fears are what have caused Gordon to put off this conversation for years. Now he’s in his early thirties, and his family still doesn’t know.
“Well, I’m sure they KNOW,” he corrects. “They’ve been pestering me to start a family since I graduated high school, but I’ve never even had a girlfriend? I’m positive they suspect. They just don’t want to hear me say it. It’s a very Southern Baptist thing to do, taking the undesirable problems, locking them in a drawer, and never speaking of them.” He pauses, sipping his milkshake. “This is why we have shitty sex-ed programs.”
Gordon’s fears are similar to those of anyone coming out to their conservative, religious family. To be clear, coming out can be difficult for anyone, even those living with non-religious families in the most progressive areas in the country. After all, this is a deeply personal aspect of your life that you’re confessing to people you love, and even if you know they’ll accept you, there’s always that lingering fear of rejection. But when your family lives by religious views that pound home the point that homosexuality is a sin, and that people who “choose” that path are unlean, confessing the truth about your sexuality becomes a much more daunting task. Even if you’re not particularly close with your family, you still want them to accept you for who you are.
Despite the constant refrain from the religious right that homosexuality is a sin, the Holy Bible doesn’t seem to have much to say on the matter. Of twelve verses that specifically reference homosexuality*, nine of them are from the Old Testament — and therefore, many Christians would argue**, not binding since they were given to the nation of Israel before Jesus supposedly came to earth and died for everyone’s sins. Jesus himself said nothing at all about homosexuality, at least not that is recorded in the gospels. All New Testament verses concerning it came from the letters of the apostle Paul.
Yet still, many Christians claim that homosexuality goes against God’s will. But there are those who disagree. Evangelical pastor Mark Landry*** believes that Jesus would have welcomed the gay community with open arms. “The founder of [Christianity] traveled around the 1st century Judean outskirts rounding up everyone the religious elite had rejected,” he says. “If Jesus were here today, there would be lots of gay people in his entourage.” We all know that Jesus was infamous at the time for associating with outcasts. And if the water-to-wine incident was any indication, he certainly knew how to party as well. Would Jesus be the best friend of the LGBTQ community? Would he be out there with us, picketing for equality? Given how he shook up the ruling religious class at the time, he certainly seems like that kind of guy.
Jesus Accepts All of You
So if Jesus would accept you, sexuality and all, then your family should too, right? Of course they should. Will they? No one can say that for sure. One thing is certain: They love you, and it’s true that love can help to overcome many prejudices. The following are steps you can take to help your coming-out go as smoothly as possible:
1.) Have a plan
What are you going to say? How will you address questions that your family will surely have? What will you do if you’re met with hostility or, worst case scenario, they try to prevent you from leaving? While you can’t predict exactly what will happen or account for every scenario, it’s important to be as prepared as possible. Depending on what works best for you, this can include putting your speech in writing, as well as jotting down questions you think they’ll ask and the answers you would give.
If you are being supported financially by your family in any way, and if you think that their reaction may involve withdrawal of that support, do your best beforehand to establish independence in any way you can. For example, if you’re on their cell phone plan, switch to your own. If you live with them, make sure you’re able to move out or stay with a friend if need be. If you are a student and they are paying for your tuition or living expenses, it may be best to wait until after you graduate to come out, if you expect hostility.
2.) Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse
This isn’t a performance. This is your life. Nevertheless, it’s important to be rehearsed and know your lines. This will be an emotional time for everyone, so staying on track is important if you want to fully get your point across. You know how people in movies practice big speeches in front of a mirror? Do that — it works.
If you have a friend or loved one who you trust enough, try roleplaying with them acting as your family member. They may be able to anticipate reactions or questions that you may not think of beforehand. Sometimes a person who is outside the situation is able to see it from new and clearer angles. This insight can lead to valuable feedback.
If you’re nervous or worried you won’t remember everything you want to say, bring your notes with you. Reading a pre-prepared speech can also help to discourage interruptions.
3.) Have an ally
Because this is a big and potentially life-changing step, it’s important to have a support system in place. Whether it’s a friend or a group of friends, having someone to talk to about the situation will be valuable both before and after you come out to your family. If you don’t have a friend who you trust to act in this role, many local colleges or universities have LGBTQ alliances or support groups you can reach out to.
Let those who support you know when and where your coming out will be taking place. Arrange a time for a phone conversation or in-person meeting afterward if you need emotional support.
If you think your family may react in a hostile or violent way, arrange for your support person to call you at an appointed time or, worst case scenario, contact authorities.
4.) Choose a convenient time
This isn’t a conversation to have right before you have to leave for work, or at a cousin’s birthday party. Be sure to select a time that is ideal for everyone. You might choose a weekend or evening when more people tend to be relaxing. If you’re worried about schedules clashing, reach out to the family members involved and schedule a time for dinner or “catching up,” and make it clear that this is important to you.
If you worry about outbursts or violence, you might consider a public venue for your coming out. A restaurant or a park, where you can sit down and relax with people nearby, may be ideal. You know your family best, so choose what you think would be the safest and most comfortable option.
5.) Approach the subject carefully
Don’t dance around the subject, but don’t be flippant about it either. Some people tend to deal with intense emotions by joking or using humor to defuse a situation. Understand that this is probably a sensitive subject for your family, so approaching it with humor may not be the best option — you don’t want them to treat it as a joke, so you shouldn’t either.
You’ll want to make your point clearly, early on in the conversation. You might use a line such as, “I want to let you know that I’m gay,” or “I love you, and I want to share this aspect of my life with you — I’m gay.” Ultimately, you should choose words that reflect your personality and your feelings — after all, you’re doing this because you want the ability to be yourself around your family.
6.) Answer questions honestly
Your family will most likely have questions for you. Some of them may be hurtful or offensive. It’s important to be honest and open about your feelings so that your family can see that, yes, this is genuinely a part of you, and these are your true feelings. But remember that you do have the right to refuse to answer anything that makes you uncomfortable. If you do feel uncomfortable, tell them so.
Additionally, remember to listen. Some of their feelings may be based on aspects of your sexuality that they don’t understand. Keep an open ear and an open mind to their concerns, and address them where you can.
7.) Remain calm, but don’t take any abuse
There is no doubt that you will be emotional. You may cry, and you may feel hurt by their reaction. However, it’s important not to react with anger or passive-aggression. If they become angry or abusive, do not sink to that level. Responding angrily to someone’s anger can result in you being seen as the aggressor. Deep breathing, taking time to choose your words, and using “I” statements (such as “I feel hurt by that kind of language” instead of “You’re being really hurtful”) can all help in maintaining your composure and keeping control of the situation.
Remember that this conversation is on your terms. If at any point you feel that the conversation has become abusive and can no longer lead to a positive conclusion, you have the power to end it. Tell your family that you understand they are emotional, but you would prefer to continue talking with them at a time when they are more calm. If you do choose to end the conversation, follow through with your statement and leave.
8.) Give them time
Your coming out may be shocking to your parents, and they may react negatively in the moment before they have time to think. Remember that, just because they don’t accept your sexuality now, it doesn’t mean that they never will. Some people need to go through the stages of reaction before they can reach a place of acceptance — and this may include anger, denial and grief. You may want to direct them to resources, such as PFLAG which provides information and support for family members of LGBTQ individuals. However the conversation ends, be sure to let them know that you’re open to future talks.
If your family was verbally abusive, and especially if you think they will continue to be so, remember that no one has the right to make you feel bad about your identity. You have made the effort to include them in your life, and if you feel that they will continue to be toxic and abusive, then you have the right to cut off contact. It’s up to you to decide how much effort to put into convincing them to accept you.
Back at the ice cream parlor, Gordon outlines his plan for me. He’ll be staying in his hometown until after New Year’s. He plans to tell everyone after all the holiday celebrations are over — he doesn’t want to ruin anyone’s good time. Typically he would stay at his parents’ house in his old room. This time, though, he’s booked a room at a motel a few miles away. “I just want to have a place to go in case it’s bad,” he says. He’ll have a rental car, too, even though his mother’s car is usually available for him to drive. When he breaks the news, his luggage will be packed and waiting in the trunk of the rental, just in case.
“I honestly wouldn’t put it past them to try to keep me there.” His laugh sounds a little anxious. “They already think California is a bad influence on me. There’s a good chance they’ll blame this on the evil of the West Coast and try to reverse the brainwashing I’ve been exposed to out here.” Then he goes in for a bit of bitter sarcasm. “Since, you know, this was a conscious decision and not a part of my identity or anything.”
When we part, Gordon says he’ll message me after the big reveal to let me know how it went. After New Year’s, I wait to hear from him, but a week goes by and there’s no word. I ask a mutual friend who’s closer to him to reach out and make sure he’s okay. He messages me back almost immediately. Gordon is fine, our friend says. He never came out to his family, though. The timing just never seemed quite right.
Gordon may not have gone through with his plans this time, but up to the point where he decided not to have the conversation, he did all the right things: He had a plan, a means to get away if needed, and a support system of friends. Had he decided to go through with it, he couldn’t have been more prepared. But uncertainty and fear of rejection are some of the most powerful deterrents for any person. Only you can decide when it’s the right time to come out to your religious family.