Despite being a financially independent adult, I am not out to my parents or anyone in my extended family. There are two reasons for this. The primary reason is that I already know exactly what they think of people like me, and the secondary reason is that I just have no reason to tell them or to want them to know that about me.
A lot of it, both the homophobia and my need to keep close ties to my family and my resultant silence, is probably a cultural thing. If you think the homophobia is bad here, it’s much worse where my family is from. (But you probably know that already; that country’s terrible LGBT rights record lands it on the news all the time.) I think my family is actually quite progressive compared to most people over there. A relative of mine told me once that she visited home and people there were surprised to hear that she “allows” her (adult!) daughter to be friends with a gay man. Friends. With a gay man. She said she had to leave the conversation because of the way it was going.
In our culture family trumps everything. Absolutely everything. Your family, including your extended family, will help you in any way they can–give you a couch to crash on when you’re in town, let you stay in a spare room without paying rent when you have nowhere else to go, lend you money, give you free childcare, listen to you talk about your problems, and, of course, cook you many, many meals. Of course many American families will do many of these things, to varying extents, but having been a part of both cultures, I can attest to the fact that there’s something different.
It’s not just that losing the support of my family could be dangerous, if not physically then mentally. It’s also that, despite all the things they don’t know about me, I feel close to them in a way I don’t feel to anyone else. I’m comfortable around them in a way that nobody else can make me comfortable. I can tell them things I can’t tell anyone, not any of my partners or closest friends. They are the only people I can talk to when I’m extremely upset, though I usually choose not to because I can cope by myself. I’m pretty sure they would never abandon me, not even if I came out, but that would make things tense and difficult and painful.
Of course, there are already tensions. I’m tired of having to justify so many of my decisions to my family, including my choice of career, my choice of relationship styles, my choice of partners (namely, non-Jewish), and even, sometimes, my choice of friends (namely, I’m not interested in being friends with some of the people they want me to be friends with.) It’s exhausting, but it’s manageable. Because at least they don’t hate the thought of any of these things; they just happen to disagree with my decisions.
Queerness would make it much, much harder.
Despite the difficulties I have with my family, my experience with them is overwhelmingly positive. More so than with many other people with whom I’m much more politically aligned and open, to be honest.
It is difficult for fellow progressives to understand my decision about not coming out to my family, especially when they’re straight (but well-meaning) and have never had to grapple with this themselves.
The first annoying thing that people do is that they assume this is just the first or second stage of some “process.” You know, like “denial is the first stage” and all that. They claim, explicitly or implicitly, that there will come a time when I will understand that I need to come out to my family in order to be “fulfilled.”
Part of it is probably those bullshit models of Gay Identity Development or whatever that have “coming out” as the apex stage. Until you come out, to everyone, you are not a self-actualized queer person according to these models.
Needless to say, that’s a complete sack of turds. I am comfortable with my queerness. I relish it. I am joyfully open about it with my friends and acquaintances, and sometimes even classmates. I easily came out to my interviewers in my last job interview (it was relevant), and I got the job, so, you know, whatever. My desire to maintain a good relationship with my family has nothing to do with how I feel about or process my own queer identity. The problem is with them, not me, and I’m quite aware of it.
Another part of it is the possibility that coming out will be unavoidable. “But what if you end up marrying a woman?” people say to me. Well, yes, then I would probably come out rather than elope. But, honestly, that’s not very likely for me at this point. I don’t prioritize marriage very highly. I don’t prioritize integrating a long-term, serious partner into my biological family unless everyone is super into the idea, and since my partners are rarely Jewish, my biological family is rarely super into the idea. I do prioritize remaining close with and comfortable with my biological family, however, and I have always known that marrying a woman and/or coming out will probably destroy that forever.
Is marriage worth that? For many people, yeah, but not for me.
The second annoying thing people do is related to the first one, and it’s that they assume that my relationship with my family is suffering because of my decision not to come out to them, and that I am suffering too, because they don’t know Who I Really Am.
“How could you keep something so big from them?” they ask. “Don’t you want them to know who you really are?”
No, not really. There are plenty of things about me, important things, that my family does not know and hopefully never will. There are entire huge swaths of my life that are just blank spaces in their minds, unless they’ve filled them in with their imaginations. And that’s how I like it.
But also, it’s curious that people seem to universally assume that which types of people I happen to be attracted to is such an essential part of Who I Really Am, so much so that it would actually pain me not to be out to my family. Truthfully, the only reason I think about my sexual orientation at all is probably because this society forces me to, all the time. I adopt the label “queer” and I come out to most people I know (except my family) in order to intentionally push back against a structure that says that queerness is disgusting, bad, and morally suspect. In the absence of homophobia and heterocentricity, which is an absence that’s nearly impossible to imagine, I would probably have no need or reason to label my sexual attractions at all.
So, yes, it’s a part of who I am, but at the same time, it’s…not. It feels weird when my parents don’t know what I write about or what I love to do in my spare time, but it doesn’t feel weird that they don’t know I’m queer. Maybe that’s a self-defense mechanism I’ve cultivated, maybe not, but regardless, I have no burning desire to reveal My True Self to them in that way, and it’s condescending to assume otherwise.
The third annoying thing that people do is they concern-troll me about What Will Happen If I Get Outed. Yes, believe it or not, I have actually considered that possibility a lot, because, believe it or not, queers think about these things.
First of all, whenever I have friends or partners who are going to meet my family, I ask them beforehand, awkward and hopefully unnecessarily as it is, to make sure not to mention anything about me being queer or anything about my non-male partners to my family. So that takes care of accidental outing by friendly agents.
As for non-accidental outing by non-friendly agents, that’s even assuming that these hypothetical people are able to find my parents, and assuming that my parents believe some spiteful tattling rando they’ve never heard of. This seems highly unlikely. But if it happens, my response will be, “I think it’s pretty creepy that this person seems so obsessed with my private life,” and leave it at that.
And if my parents somehow stumble upon the information themselves, well, I know them well enough to know that they’d be too embarrassed and disturbed to bring it up with me, and it would probably never be mentioned at all. Sometimes I idly wonder if this has actually already happened.
Regardless, if asked directly, I will be honest. I don’t like to lie. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to open the can of worms myself.
The final annoying thing that people do is “YEAH WELL IF THEY WON’T ACCEPT YOU FOR WHO YOU REALLY ARE THEN FUCK ‘EM YOU DON’T NEED THAT IN YOUR LIFE.”
I don’t want to even dignify this ignorance with a response, but I will, just to say this: yes, I need them in my life. No, I don’t need to justify or defend that to anyone.
So yeah, you know, it’s annoying to hear my parents say things like “Do you have a boyfriend?” or “You should _____ if you want guys to like you” (the second is annoying for a multitude of reasons), but they’d do that even if I came out. Because most likely, they’d just refuse to believe me and then ignore the new information as though I never told it to them. Or they’d just start including little stinging microaggressions in every statement (“We’ll pass those clothes down to you when you have children…assuming you even can…“). Or they’ll never speak to me in any sort of normal parent-to-adult-child way ever again.
What’s the point?
If there’s anything I would want people to take from this, especially straight people, it’s that we should recognize the fact that there are uncountably many different queer experiences and not all of them are centered on the idea of coming out, and not all of them are “unfulfilled” or “full of shame” or “sad” just because they include neither that Ultimate Hallmark Family Coming Out Moment nor the Brave Self-Actualized Cutting Off Of Family Ties that sometimes follows coming out.
I don’t want or need either of those in my life. I wish I could come out, but only because I wish my family were not homophobic. Given that they are, this is the right decision for me.