Nearly two years ago, I came out as gay. My coming out was incredibly late by most standards as at the time I was 39 and in a heterosexual marriage with two children. Though it’s been two years, there is still an entire branch of my family tree I haven’t come out to or even spoken to about my divorce. I’m public about it since, as someone who writes personal essays as a living, it’s kind of impossible not to be, but I haven’t sent any texts or emails, haven’t made any phone calls, haven’t invited anyone for coffee to discuss my gayness.
And I’ve been feeling guilty about it. Some of these people I grew up with, some I babysat, some babysat me. When I was a kid, we would gather regularly on Sundays after church at the house of the reigning matriarch — my grandmother for many years, and later, when the large groups of people became too much for my grandmother to entertain, my aunt. I spent long hours sharing secrets with my cousins and peeling eggs for deviling or stirring gravy alongside my aunts. We were a tight-knit family.
Over the years, we scattered. Many of us remain in-state, but not close enough to gather on a regular basis. Still, for years we would get together every six months or so at one cousin’s house or another. These family members are kind, caring humans. Whenever we spend time together, we laugh until our cheeks hurt. We reminisce, sipping light wine as we watch the children play as we did when we were their age. We always say we wish we could do this more often.
But not for the last two years. I was recently invited to an anniversary party that got cancelled because of the pandemic, and every time I thought of it, my heart would nearly stampede itself right out of my chest. I could guess how my gayness would go over — probably the same as when my cousin came out as gay. Everyone pretended his gayness didn’t exist and referred to his boyfriend as his “friend.”
I think my family would tell me they love me no matter what and will always be here for me. I also think some of them believe with all their hearts that being gay is a sin.
And so I haven’t come out to any of them directly because honestly, if they were to love me in spite of who I am, it would be almost as painful as being rejected altogether. Listen, I love you no matter what, but you are definitely going to burn in hell for all eternity.
To be fair, these are only guesses. I’m not really sure what my family’s reaction would be to my coming out, as I have avoided facing it and they have not reached out. When I did come out, I told only my husband of the time and three close friends. Months later, when I finally began to widen the circle of who I came out to, I did so strategically, deliberately choosing people I believed would support me.
Before I go on, for the straight readers, I need you to know what it feels like to come out when you don’t know what to expect. Think back to a moment in your life when you accidentally damaged something expensive and had to confess, and you were worried about the reaction. Remember how your face and neck heated, how your heart pounded, your palms dampened, your voice shook. Remember how, after you confessed your mistake, your body was overtaken by a wild rushing sensation, a tingling warmth all through your limbs that was a mix of relief at having gotten the secret off your shoulders and a fearful anticipation of what happens next. That’s how coming out sometimes feels.
Obviously I don’t speak for every gay person. I’m sure for some, coming out can be a purely joy-filled experience. That’s pretty impossible, though, when you’re 39 years old and married with kids. For me, even in the best of circumstances, even in situations where I’m fairly certain I’ll be accepted and supported, coming out often still feels like letting people down. It feels like confessing I have broken something expensive, like I have done something for which I must apologize.
At this point, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve come out, and yet I have not come out to this big branch of my family tree because I don’t know how they’ll react. I can’t be sure they will accept me. Everyone says “If they can’t accept you, fuck them!” but it’s not that easy. If they don’t accept me, it will feel like all the love of my childhood was a lie — that it was conditional. The potential pain of rejection prevents me from reaching out. It’s easier not to know.
And so here is what I want everyone — and by “everyone,” I mean, straight people — to learn from my situation: Be loud about your support of the gay community. Be clear that you love and support the gay community, and that your love and support is unconditional, with no addendums attached like “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Show your support by sharing queer-positive articles on social media, shutting down homophobes when the opportunity arises, and voting for representatives who support the LGBTQ+ community. If a loved one comes out, send them a quick message to let them know you love and support them. It doesn’t have to be anything big. Just “Hey, I heard you came out. I love and support you.” That’s it. Just make sure they know. Don’t leave it up to them to “confess” their gayness to you.
I have no idea how my extended family feels about my gayness, but the silence has hurt me.
I was feeling guilty about not having reached out to them, but the more I think about it, the more I realize… this burden isn’t on me. I know they know. If they haven’t reached out to me, not a text, nothing, they have effectively withheld their support — even if that was not their intent.
It is hard enough to come out over and over and over again on a regular basis (another thing no one tells you — coming out never ends). I shouldn’t have to add to that meekly approaching people who are supposed to love me unconditionally, confessing my gayness, and hoping they won’t withdraw their love from me. And neither should any other person in the queer community.
Do you love the friend or family member who has just done one of the most terrifying things a person can do — come out? If the answer is yes, it is your responsibility to reach out and voice your unconditional love and support. I promise you, your family member’s emotional plate is full to overflowing, and they don’t need the additional burden of wondering whether or not you’ll reject them.