Four years ago, I never would’ve expected to be writing this: a reflection on coming out – dappled with my amateur advice – for a primarily online readership. But it’s the four-year anniversary of coming out to my family, and that experience has been on my mind lately as two dear friends have been moving forward on their own “coming out” paths.
On “Coming Out”
No one is truly a professional at coming out to close family and friends. By definition, we usually do it only once, though not always at once. (Ada managed to become an exception to that rule.)
But before you hear how I came out to my small-town, evangelical, New England family, and before we discuss what it means to let queer folks tell their own stories, we should talk about the term “coming out.”
“Coming out” is a heavy term loaded with unhealthy expectation. It perpetuates the treacherous idea that LGBTQ identities should be or must be held in secret until a distinctive time. It misadvises us to assume that all humans are cisgender and straight until proven otherwise, which is ironically reminiscent of “innocent until proven guilty.” (An acquaintance of Ada’s works to instead assume that everyone they meet is queer until proven otherwise.)
Despite my hesitation to use the term “coming out,” I’m using it here because it’s embedded in our vernacular: when I came out is when I chose to live authentically as my queer self.
I came out to my family in the spring of my senior year of college. Ada and I were a few months beyond our discernment process and into dating. After two years of living in different states, we were making plans to move to the same town after my graduation.
There’s no magic formula for when to come out, but there is one common theme: LGBTQ folks deserve and own the right to come out when we are ready. This might (and often does) mean coming out to different people at different times. We own this right because we still live in a world dominated by cis- and heteronormativity. We own this right because despite societal advances, we still face increased mental health challenges, discrimination, and a higher likelihood of being murdered. We own the right to self-defense and preservation by controlling our own coming out processes.
My mom took this right from me.
A Story Begins
My mom took my right to come out in my own time when she beat the U.S. Postal Service to my grandparents’ door by a day. Nan and Gramp raised me while my mom’s addictions held and still hold her back from the duties and joys of parenthood. Nan and Gramp are, along with my brother and now Ada, who I consider my closest kin. They’re also conservative Christians who raised me to follow suit.
And so it was for this coming-out to Nan and Gramp that I’d prepared most. The last thing I wanted was to exacerbate their lifetimes of tremendous pain – the premature deaths of two children and two grandchildren, addictions of family and friends, recurring cancer, PTSD, and depression. Though I was certain of their love for me, I knew that this news would be challenging.
I made plans to come out to my family separately but within a few weeks. In my family – like in any stereotypical northern New England family – we aren’t much for talking about our feelings. I’m more comfortable expressing my own feelings with pen and paper. And so I decided to write my grandparents a letter. A letter would allow me to select my words intentionally and to fit in the details uninterrupted, including an abbreviated version of my newfound LGBTQ-affirming theology.
Folks often say that coming out is a crucial conversation that needs to happen in person. I disagree. Not everyone is equipped to respond well to unexpected discourse in the moment. In addition to having an easier time conveying my emotions through writing, I also have an easier time responding to the unexpected when I’m given time to process. I know that I’m not alone in this.
A few weeks before mailing Nan and Gramp, I sent a similar letter to my brother, Lee. Like the rest of the family, Lee was brought up in a conservative evangelical and rural Maine culture. But against all expectation, he responded to my news with authentic love and wholehearted support. I thought there was a chance that my grandparents could respond the same way.
But it didn’t because that letter didn’t reach them before Mom did.
A Story Stolen
On sick days as a kid, I got to watch TV with my mom in her bed. She could keep an eye on me that way, and we could both be entertained. I remember that she turned to me on one of those sick days and asked, “Do you ever think you might be gay?”
I shook my head.
“If you are, that’s okay. I’ll always love you.”
She said this again as I grew older, bringing it up in the car, in the kitchen. I guess I presented as a pretty queer kid: a tomboy with a natural gift for athletics and a self-employed lobstergirl. (Which reminds me, have you ever lent a thought to tomgirls? I recommend this short film featuring an exceptionally cute kid.) And although I didn’t realize I was queer until my early twenties, I believed my mom. She would love me. She would be okay.
That was why her betrayal came out of the blue and hurt like hell.
After coming out to Lee, I moved on to telling my youngest brother, Jon. Jon is a softy, and he was in high school at the time. Because he still lived with Mom, I opted to email him. I figured it would go over well. But he did what youngest siblings sometimes do: he went immediately to our parent for help.
An hour after I emailed Jon, Mom called me.
She was furious, and she left little space for response. “How could you do this to us?”/”How could you put this weight on your little brother?”/”Nan and Gramp are going to be heartbroken! Have you told them yet?”
“I mailed them a letter, and it should get there any day now. I really wanted to tell you first, Mom, but I was worried you would tell them.” I wanted to tell Nan and Gramp myself.
“You mailed them a letter? That is so cowardly, Zora. You need to come here right now and tell them in person.”
But I was living in Massachusetts at the time – hundreds of miles away – and moreover, I was bewildered by her response. “I thought you said it would be okay if I was gay.”
“I’m going over to your grandparents’ right now.”
“Mom, please –”
Half an hour later, I was on the phone with my grandmother. Gramp was twenty miles offshore at our family’s lobstering berth. As I talked with Nan, I heard my mother’s disapproval in the background. Nan was upset, but she still managed to listen. She said she’d read my letter once it arrived. She reminded me that she loved me and always would. She said we’d talk more later. My letter arrived the next day.
A Story Reclaimed
Things worked out with my grandparents, and eventually with Mom too. Though I’m sure my grandparents still have their theological struggles with how I can be unabashedly queer and a follower of Christ, they listen and love.
And they let me tell my own story. Nan was the one who encouraged me to talk with Irene about my sexuality. It took me a while to work up the courage, but Nan was patient. When I finally went through the coming out process with Irene, our relationship stalled with misunderstanding. But I’m glad that I was authentic with her, and I’m grateful that Nan allowed me to be just that. I got to tell my own story.
Why my mom reacted the way she did is an explanation beyond the scope of Queering the Kindom; I think she felt one step removed from her daughter – from mothering her daughter (although she hadn’t done that for some time). And like all of us do, she may have had unexamined biases about LGBTQ folks that made her actual reaction different from the one she had idealized when we were younger.
It’s hard to gauge how a close friend or loved one will react to queer kin living and speaking as their authentic selves. If you’re part of the LGBTQ family, know that it’s valid to feel afraid or nervous about coming out to loved ones. Until this world is a queerer kindom and because your thriving is a form of resistance against cis- and heteronormativity, self-preservation is a justified motive.
If you’re an ally to queer folks, trust that our fears are valid, and trust that we still love you even if we’re afraid. Ours is a world fraught with mismatched expectations and reactions, where bewildered family and friends sometimes underestimate their internal biases, and where advocates can be found in unexpected places.
For that reason, it is violating and dangerous to “out” someone who is not yet out, or to out someone who is cautiously but intentionally coming out in their various communities. Believe that our slowness to speak about our deepest selves and our hesitation about sharing in one fell swoop may have more to do with the world we experience than our relationship with you.
The stories of all our lives – yours and mine – are our own to tell. Those stories – those pieces of us – are especially intimate. They are powerful because they can challenge, stretch, build, and break relationships. They are our witness. Even while allies and LGBTQ loved ones walk together in encouragement, the best allies are the ones that let us do our own talking.
But the way ahead is dense and overgrown. For our queer siblings who have yet to “come out” to their close friends and family, we can pave the way by consistently being compassionate and Christ-like in our support for marginalized populations, including the LGBTQ community.
We can work to make a way for those who are still journeying toward freedom by boldly proclaiming how beloved they are. On a path of small lights already burning, our job is to run to the end and place our candles on the edges, where the light meets the darkness yet to be lit.
Unfortunately, this is a photo of Mandy Moore from snakkle.com, not a photo of me, but we had a similar aesthetic.