Coming out to family. It’s never simple, is it?
But whether you’re a teen coming out to parents, a parent coming out to children, or a young adult coming out to your little brother, sister or elderly relative, ‘knowing your audience’ is key.
That’s according to Professor Janet Reibstein of the University of Exeter, pictured above, whose clinical work focuses on couples and families.
We caught up with Janet through Pink Lady®’s ‘Makes It Possible’ campaign, which seeks to help people take time out from the stresses and pressures of modern life.
A private life coaching session with Janet is being given away through the campaign, as part of a two-night break at Yorkshire’s Titanic Spa. There are also two other prizes to be won – to enter, click here.
But first, we chat to Janet about her general pointers on disclosing one’s sexuality to relatives, from accessing risks to, of course, remembering it’s a process…
What are your top pieces of advice to someone looking to come out to a relative?
The first thing is to ask yourself ‘What do I hope to achieve?’ If you’re really honest with yourself about that, you can make yourself be prepared for potential disappointment. If you’re looking for total understanding and acceptance, that may not happen.
But depending on the situation, you may be absolutely right to expect that. That brings us to the question of who you’re coming out to. Knowing your audience, as it were, is critical to the process. Knowing what their context is, what their biases are, what their expectations for you are, and their knowledge base. A lot of people will have absolutely no understanding of what sexuality’s about.
They might have very arcane ideas about it: ‘Oh, this means we’ll never have grandchildren’, or ‘You might catch AIDS’. These things might really be about a lack of knowledge. If you’re honest with yourself beforehand about your expectations, as well as who you think your audience is going to be – and what those limitations might be – that’ll help you.
The other thing is to think of it as a process. You may be doing something very gradual. Maybe saying something like: ‘I want to tell you something, but I want us to have an open conversation about what you think about it. I’m open to hearing that, and I hope you’re open to hearing what I have to say. Invite people into a conversation, rather than making an announcement, which can often be disheartening, and the reception not what you expect. You invite people into the process rather than ram the process on them.
At Christmastime, in a moving vehicle – what are the scenarios to avoid?
I think you’ve caught it right there. As everyone will know, this is not a mild conversation to have. Even with people you think probably are prepared for it in some way, for whom you don’t think it’ll be a blindingly new piece of information. It’s still something, for parents in particular, but also grandparents, siblings. Even a clarifying piece of information: ‘By the way, I think you know, but it’s still important to say it…’ still carries with it an emotional content. Anything that has that needs space – a time and a place – to do it.
It implies an emotional processing. You can certainly think, I don’t want to be in a trapped car, or any other situation when faculties are called upon, like making a decision about a traffic light. Or anything else your attention might be called upon. You don’t want to do it when there are screaming children around. You need to give space for emotional containment on both sides.
Some people choose not to come out their grandparents, sometimes not even because they fear the reaction, but because they don’t think it’s necessary. Do you think it’s important to come out to as many people as possible?
Again, it depends what you’re hoping to achieve. It depends on the quality of the relationship you have, and the relationship you want to keep having. I think the reasons people may be excluding elderly relatives is because of my second point: Who’s your audience? What is their knowledge base? What are they bringing to that information? What can they not move away from, what can they not take on?
The past relationship is the best predictor. If you know your relative is likely not to take on a whole new way of thinking about life, or if you don’t want to increase that level of intimacy and knowledge in your relationship, fine. You’ve made that decision.
But if you think that person has the capacity to grow, and to change… I could give an example. I worked with a person when I was doing psychotherapy – this was years ago. I did family therapy with the family and I knew exactly what this kid meant when I saw him a few years later on his own. ‘I could never tell my father, you know that.’ But he in fact wanted a better relationship with his father, and didn’t want to stunt it. We worked together and actually his stepmother, who was the key to this whole thing, helped in that process.
The kid is now married and in his 40s. He now has a completely different relationship with his father. The kind he wished to have. And I know his father’s worldview has changed completely, partly through this. So it is possible. He found ways to help his father take this on board. Using his stepmother, and using language that invited his father into his experience.
Do you think it’s best to seek a parent’s permission before coming out to a child sibling?
Again, it’s about the dynamic of that family, and your relationships. Sometimes I think it really depends on the age of the child, and the level of understanding the child has. Often, the sibling will know before the parent! In a way, they invite the revelation. It’s almost like saying if the child is leading you to it and you don’t say ‘Yes, this is true’, it’s denying the child’s sense of reality.
That more applies to teenagers, where you know the capacity for understanding is much greater than, say, a nine-year-old. When you have a much younger child – and yes, the age of the child is critical – it could lead to a parent saying ‘You’ve overstepped your mark.’ You’ve put a parent in a non-parental position by doing that. The age of the child, the quality of your relationship with the sibling, is key.
Also, what would your advice be to a young person financially dependent on their parents fearing a bad reaction?
When there’s a risk of the parents cutting them off because they don’t approve? When there’s a risk, that’s an individual decision to make. Can you live with the risk? Can you risk being honest? What are you hoping to achieve – a better relationship? An honest relationship? If you can take steps to create that, you’re at less risk.
Again, there are steps to take, like the example I gave; you could invite people into a different experience, test the waters. You have to access the risks. I suppose if someone feels ‘There is no payoff. I have a limited relationship with that parent, and I’m willing to not shake my world, and their world to this extent,’ that’s an ethical decision we can’t impose on people. But those are the ethics and risks around it.
What are the best qualities to look for when choosing who to come out to first?
If you’re wanting to come out, what are the conditions you’d like to have around the relationship with that person. You would wish to use language, and explain things, in terms of creating an empathic connection. What is the other person’s likely reception and understanding going to be? You want to create an understanding, a sense of non-threat.
For instance, if it’s the case what you know is that your grandparent will think you’ll never have children, or that you’ll be lonely the rest of your life, you want to take that on board so you can allay that risk.
Or if your father is going to think ‘you’re promiscuous and going to get AIDS’ – you want to take that on board, and have to have empathy for that, and allay that risk. Take that context in so you achieve an understanding.
That achieves a sense of how we go forward in a relationship. I would think that’s the reason you’d want to be honest, and create honesty between you, so people enter into your world so they understand you better, and you understand them better.
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