Coming Out as LGBTQ+: Balancing Self Love and Empathy

Being honest with your family and friends about who you are can be a source of incredible personal power and freedom, but the experience of coming out as LGBTQ+ can be difficult and even painful when someone you love doesn’t accept or understand what you’re telling them. In this blog we'll talk about coming out to your family when they don’t understand

Coming Out to Those You Love

While some people in your life may never be able to move past their first reaction, others may be persuaded over time. Many people who change their perceptions of LGBTQ+ life do so in response to finding out a close friend or family member is part of the community. As hard as it is to experience misunderstanding or even initial rejection from people you love, you are also giving them the opportunity to change. They may not take that for granted, and after a period of reflection may appreciate your honesty. 

Still, it is not your job to change their minds or educate them. A lot of this work falls on them to do - you’ve told them something significant about yourself, and they will need time to process it. If you want to maintain your relationship with family or friends who have a hard time accepting your LGBTQ+ identity, meeting them where they are and responding to their potential worry or confusion with empathy can smooth the way forward. 

It’s equally important to be clear about your needs and expectations, and to stay grounded in yourself. If they truly can’t understand or accept you for who you are, there is no reason to put yourself in emotional pain or physical endangerment on their behalf. If you need an extended separation from a friend or family member based on their reaction to your coming out, take it. Distance could be good for both of you.

Understanding and Responding to Negative Reactions

Here are a few suggestions on how to respond to some common negative reactions to coming out. You know your relationships best and should use any words you wish, but balancing empathy and self love can be tricky in the heat of the moment. Having a few scripts in mind can be helpful as you navigate this vulnerable moment, even if you don’t use them. 

Example 1: “This is a phase. You’re confused. You’re just experimenting. You will change your mind when you get older.”

What this could mean: 

  • Straightforward wishful thinking; they would rather this wasn’t true and hope that you will “snap out of it”
  • Perception that people experiment with LGBTQ+ relationships because they are too “immature” for a “real” heterosexual relationship
  • Perception that being LGBTQ+ is “trendy” due to increased media coverage, and that young people can be pressured/groomed into claiming this identity, or into accepting it as “normal”

What to keep in mind:

  • Acting on your orientation and gender identity may start as an experiment as many things do - “I feel this way, what happens if I act on it?” Your loved one’s misconception is that this experiment has an inevitable conclusion - acceptance of a heteronormative lifestyle. Remember that truly rigorous science is open to the disproving of a hypothesis, and trust your data - aka what you’ve learned from your own experiences. 
  • Queer people have existed since long before we even had words to describe them - being LGBTQ+ is not a trend, we’re just currently more accepting of a long-denied reality. Saying that being queer is trendy trivializes the struggles of LGBTQ+ people even during this relatively accepting time. Coming out can still expose you to personal, professional, and political discrimination, and it strains belief that anyone would choose that on a whim. People decide to come out despite the possible consequences because they want to live with integrity. What you’re doing is an act of bravery that should be celebrated rather than dismissed as attention-seeking or trendy.

Suggested responses:

  • "I understand that this comes as a shock to you. I’ve had some time to consider and accept this part of myself, and I know that you haven’t. "
  • "This isn’t a phase - this is who I am. I care about you and I want you in my life, and I want you to accept it as well. "

Example 2: “I’m worried you won’t have a happy life.” 

What this could mean: 

  • Fears about the acceptability and sustainability of queer relationships based on common misconceptions of queer lifestyle as “deviant” or “antisocial”
  • Assumption that what is familiar to them is inherently safer, more stable, and more acceptable than what is unfamiliar to them
  • Negative experiences in their past associated with LGBTQ+ people or lifestyles; for example, an LGBTQ+ friend, family member, or acquaintance who has experienced difficulty and/or discrimination

What to keep in mind:

  • In 1952 the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual listed homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disturbance.” The entry wasn’t removed until 1973, and it wasn’t until 2012 that the Democratic Party became the first major national political organization to publically promote same-sex marriage rights. 
  • Mainstream acceptance of LGBTQ+ life and identity is a fairly recent development, and perceptions and anxieties of the past can linger for a long time. People in your life from a previous generation grew up in a time when you could lose your job, be institutionalized, or go to jail for being queer. They remember the AIDS crisis and the public figures who ascribed the disease to divine punishment, or to the inherent vice of LGBTQ+ life. 
  • Regardless of their love for you, for some family members and friends these associations are still very fresh, and it takes a long time for some people to let go of them. Living your healthy and purposeful life despite their fears is likely the only thing that will truly lift their worry for you. 

Suggested responses:

  • "I understand that you might be worried about me. I know that you love me and want the best for me. I want the best for me too."
  • Let them know how you’re doing. Things don’t have to be perfect for you to prove that being LGBTQ+ can be part of a happy life. Just let them know the positive things that have entered your life since you started coming out: "Being honest about who I am and who I love makes me stronger, and lets me form rewarding relationships. I don’t want to hide this from you because there’s nothing to hide. I hope you’ll see how well I’m doing and come to accept that this is a positive thing for me."

Example 3: If you’re letting them know you’re dating or with a partner, “I can’t accept this as a normal relationship. This person is a bad influence on you."

What this could mean:

  • Perception that only heteronormative relationships are “real” or “legitimate” 
  • Assumption that you are coming out because someone else pressured you into it, and perception of that influence as negative since it’s associated with this unexpected behavior from you

What to keep in mind:

  • When you’re coming out to someone, the conversation is about you, not anyone you’re hanging out with or dating. If the person you’re coming out to tries to bring in other people (“you’ve been different since you started spending time with so-and-so”) gently redirect the conversation back towards yourself.
  • This can be tough because having so much focus on yourself at this time is stressful, and shifting the conversation to someone else can feel like a relief. The person you’re coming out to may feel the same way - they can’t process what you’ve told them about yourself, so they’re shifting focus to someone else. It’s important to keep the focus where it belongs - on you, and what you’re sharing.
  • Over time, if you’re in a committed relationship with someone and the person you’re coming out to doesn’t accept it as legitimate, you should feel empowered to talk about your partner as much or as little as you want. Share the good things they bring into your life. What you say may or may not change the mind of the person you’re talking to, but talking about someone you love and affirming that your relationship is important can make you feel stronger. You may also wish to make it clear that you don’t appreciate negative comments someone may have about your partner - it’s important to draw that boundary now.

Suggested responses:

  • "Regardless of what you think of so-and-so, I needed to come out. I would have eventually with or without them."
  • "I can’t quantify the way I feel about my partner. All I can tell you is that I feel loved and supported by them, and they are incredibly important to me. Living as my true self with someone I really care about makes me so happy, and I hope you’ll realize soon that this person is really wonderful for me."

Example 4: From a family member: “I don’t mind what you do in private, but please don’t tell anyone in the family.” From a friend, “If that’s how you want to live I don’t have a problem with it, I just wish you’d keep it to yourself.”

What this could mean:

  • Assumption that queer life is only about sexuality, and that sexuality should be kept private
  • Assumption that you will be able to hide, or will be comfortable with hiding, who you are from people you care about
  • Genuine fear or concern based on their expectation of other peoples’ reception of this news

What to keep in mind:

  • Being LGBTQ+ can relate to sexual attraction, but it can also relate to how you present yourself, how you like to be treated, and how you want to have a family. There’s nothing wrong with sharing this important information about yourself with other people, especially people you love. Whether to disclose this to them or not is your choice, and no one has the right to tell you not to make it.
  • To someone who isn’t LGBTQ+, hiding who you are could seem like a reasonable way to continue relationships with people who aren’t accepting of your identity. They don’t understand that denying or concealing who you are is damaging. If you’re closeted, you may be able to carry it off for a short social gathering, but constantly policing yourself while you’re spending quality time with people who are important to you is exhausting. You deserve to be free of that burden, and to live an emotionally healthy and authentic life. You also deserve to be surrounded by people who will protect your interests, take your concerns seriously, and validate your lifestyle. Coming out can let you know if people who are close to you will be able to support you in this way.
  • If the other person is genuinely worried that telling people in your family or friend circle will hurt you, it might be worthwhile to discuss their concerns. They could be an ally who wants to help, and you could provide them the confidence and information they need to stand by you. If they seem more worried that telling others will ruffle feathers, hurt feelings, or embarrass anyone, you can still give them room to share how they feel. Just be mindful that you are not required to put your happiness or well being last in order to be a good child, relative, or friend.

Suggested Responses:

  • "I understand why you might feel this way, but I’m not coming out to share the details of my sex life - I’m coming out because I want to be honest about who my partner is, and how I feel about certain things. I think you also deserve to know where I’m coming from."
  • "I’m not trying to upset anyone, I’m trying to clear the air. I want to feel close to you and other people I love, so I don’t want to hide this part of myself." 
  • "I have to spend my time with people who validate me for who I am, and I deserve to know who in our family/friend group is willing to support me so I can decide how much time I want to spend with them. I don’t want to cut you off - this is me trying to let you in."
  • "I appreciate that you care about me and everyone else in our family/friend group, but keeping this hidden or refusing to talk about it won’t solve anything - it will only make me feel separated from you, and make it difficult for us to spend time together. I really value our relationship and your advice, and I will always listen to you. I just need you to understand that this is my life and I have to see it through as authentically as possible. If you’re able to support me in that, it would mean the world to me."

Finding Strength and Embracing Authenticity

If you’re deciding to come out, you’ve likely had time to process and accept your LGBTQ+ identity - your loved ones have not. Their first responses may be a gut reaction based on judgment without experience, or fear due to a lack of understanding. The most hurtful things they say may be motivated by the deepest love and concern for you. They may worry you will face discrimination, or struggle with beliefs that being LGBTQ+ is morally wrong or even dangerous. The juxtaposition of extreme misunderstanding with the best intentions can feel like whiplash, and the more you love the person you’ve come out to, the more painful that whiplash can be. 

While the templates above assume a safe, sane, and honest conversation about this topic is possible, sometimes communication can break down due to hurt feelings and misunderstanding. It’s ok if this happens. In each case, you can close the conversation if you want, but leave the door open for future discussion: “I appreciate the space you’re giving me to talk about this. If you ever want to talk about it again, I’m here.” Space and time can be healing for both of you, and when you come back to the table to have the conversation again, you may both be coming from a different place. 

While it’s hard to accept, some people truly do not have it in them to hear what you’re saying and accept it. Everything else in their head and heart is too loud. If there’s a possibility that someone you’re coming out to will physically harm you, or endanger your livelihood or living situation, protect yourself first. Do your best to build a network of support ahead of time. Make sure you have a place to stay and people you trust to connect with before and after the conversation. 

If this person has been very close to you, or at least very important to you, this entire process could be extremely painful, even traumatic. You both may feel like you’re losing the other, as if one or the other has died. Both of you may feel an emptiness where a close bond you never questioned used to be. Confiding in someone close to you, or speaking with a therapist, can provide helpful support as you heal and recover from this rift with your loved one. Give yourself the grace and space to feel all the feelings, and invest as heavily as you can in the things that bring you joy, whether that’s vegging out on the couch or embarking on a backpacking adventure. Right now it might feel like there’s not much outside of the pain you’re feeling, but there really is, and it’s so much bigger than your life in the closet. Good luck!