How Parents Can Foster a Safe Space for Coming Out
When Ellen DeGeneres came out, on the cover of Time Magazine in 1997, she set the tone for what coming out looks like. At the time, it seemed like a one-shot deal, come out big and stay out; once your truth has been said aloud. For the last fifteen years, I have worked with people who have their own coming out processes and journeys and I can assure you, Ellen’s simple (yet powerful) declaration is rarely the way that coming out occurs in “real life”.
Coming out, in whatever way one does, is typically a complex and non-linear process that loved ones can make much more bearable by responding with tenderness and love.
To begin, the words “coming out” have typically been associated with someone coming out as gay or lesbian. Because sexuality and gender expression, and the corresponding language associated with this range of identities, has broadened dramatically, people are coming out in all sorts of ways in an effort to best describe their internal experiences. Someone might come out as queer, transgender, non-binary, gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, or asexual. The ways in which we have come to understand identity have broadened significantly, making the possibility for self-expression that much more precise and authentic. We are still coming to understand the intricate intersection between gender and sexuality and the more fluidity is allowed around these identities, the more likely someone is to find the language and forms of expression that truly represent who they are.
Here are some solid ways you can support someone in your family, particularly a child, in their coming out process:
- Do not make it about you: It is not uncommon for parents to respond to a child’s effort to come out with their own fears and disappointment about the risks that their child might face. These concerns are real and often come from a truly loving place. But it is essential to remember that the person coming out is the most vulnerable person in the situation and their emotional process needs to be centered. The person who is coming out has been in dialogue, privately, with their own mind up until the moment that they are taking the risk of telling their story. As much space and flexibility as possible for that person’s story should be offered.
- No coming out process is linear: While it is vital to take someone’s coming out process quite seriously, it is also important to remember that coming out is a dynamic and nonlinear process. It’s possible that someone might have held a secret inside for over a decade and once is it shared, it becomes a lived and totally inhabitable truth. For others, just the terror of saying something out loud, to loved ones, can muddy the clarity around their own internal process. Sometimes people come out and they start to experience extreme uncertainty around who and what they are. Sometimes people are completely clear and feel utter relief upon revealing their identity. Neither of these processes makes someone’s identity any less real or worthy of being taken seriously. Holding things inside can create tremendous confusion and once someone starts talking and opening up, ideas and feelings can change. This does not mean that what someone came out as is not what or who they are. That precision and self-awareness takes time and so does every journey around sexuality and gender.
- Do not express fear about your loved one’s future: While it can be quite scary to observe someone’s coming out process, nothing is more dangerous than someone remaining in the proverbial closet. So, while there are risks associated with being out due to the ways in which the LGBTQ population is marginalized and discriminated against, the psychological danger of hiding one’s true self carries far more psychological risk. Being closeted is not compatible with strong mental health outcomes. It is always wiser to try and change and better the world around the person who came out than to ask that person to changes themselves to fit into something that doesn’t feel right or true.
- You can invite gender and sexuality into the conversation instead of waiting: Although it can feel counterintuitive, bringing up the possibility that someone is on the LGBTQ spectrum before they say so themselves, can provide tremendous relief. If discussing gender and sexuality is not a normalized part of a family dialogue, it can make it much more burdensome for someone to come out. Instead of assuming that anyone knows anyone else’s gender or sexuality, an offering can be made in the shape of a question or invitation. For example, a parent can say to a child, “if anything ever feels important to tell me about who you like and don’t like, you can let me know” or “if you are worried that there is something different inside of you, I am always open to hearing about it”. The questions don’t need to be direct or pointed. They are just simple, yet impactful, invitations that start to normalize the process of describing what someone’s internal world feels like.
- Ask for guidance around language: When a person comes out as LGBTQ, there needs to be clear consent and agreement around what language loved ones should use. A young girl might come out and say that she is only attracted to other girls. That does not automatically mean that she is a lesbian or that she is gay. Ask the person who is coming out what language feels most comfortable to them, tell them you assume that there might be changes ahead and you will want to know about those changes too. Loved ones want to be sure that they are honoring the pacing of the coming out process; getting clear on what words feel right is a way to do this.
- Remember that this is an honor: When a person comes out, they never forget what their first experiences were around telling their truth. Getting it right is important and not that hard. The more acceptance that is offered, the more openness that is present, the more curiosity that is demonstrated, the better the outcome; and the better the memories of the process. I don’t know anyone who has come out that doesn’t have some horror story about a particular person’s response. If someone’s true vulnerability is held and respected, and they are deferred to as the ultimate expert on their own experience, coming out can feel like a truly empowering and relieving moment in someone’s life journey.
DR. DANNA BODENHEIMER, LCSW Founder & Director Walnut Psychotherapy Center, Danna Bodenheimer, LCSW, DSW founded the Walnut Psychotherapy Center. Based on years of working in private practice in Philadelphia, Danna recognized the need for greater access to long-term, psychodynamic psychotherapy in a safe clinical environment. Danna is a writer and a consultant/speaker for several Philadelphia non-profit organizations. These organizations include Jewish Family and Children’s Services and the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Philadelphia. As a writer, she has published on topics related to love in psychotherapy, eating disorders, and the history of relational work. Danna just completed a book about getting started in the field of clinical social work, incorporating research done on over 100 social workers’ experiences.