For most people who are struggling to come out, way up at the top of “Life’s Most Dreaded Moments” is uttering, “Mom, Dad, I have something to tell you: I’m gay.” For many parents, it’s not exactly the moment they’ve always dreamed about, either. Reactions from parents can range from, “Not if you want to continue being my son, you’re not,” to, “Duh, we’ve known since you were 6 and could sing ‘Over the Rainbow’ from start to finish.”
If you’re heading home for Thanksgiving dinner with the family and thinking this might be the right time to come out to your parents, here are 10 tips to consider as you plan what to say.
1. Consider the timing. If you’re going to spill the beans at Thanksgiving, do it after dinner, not before or while you’re passing the cranberry sauce. Someone’s gone to a lot of trouble to cook this meal, so first enjoy the turkey, and then raise the topic at the appropriate time.
2. Determine whether this is the right time. Do you still live under your parents’ roof or rely on them to cover expenses such as your education, clothes, car payments, gas money or insurance? If you think they’ll be reasonable in their reaction to the news, then go for it, but if you think they might try to use this in some way as leverage against you (for example, restricting who you can see or even perhaps cutting you off financially), then waiting until you’re no longer dependent on your parents might be a better time to come out to them.
3. Be in a good place in your life. Be comfortable and confident with who you are. I came out to my parents after I had learned that my boyfriend of 18 months was cheating on me with another friend of mine. I was heartbroken and tired of living a lie, so I made the mistake of choosing that moment to come clean. Do not spill your guts when they are already tied up in knots. Showing your parents how miserable you feel at the moment is only going to reinforce their imagined fears that you’ll end up living a sad and lonely life.
4. Be realistic and anticipate what their reactions will be. Parents can sometimes surprise you and may not have any issues at all. They may even embrace you for being honest with them. But if they are socially conservative and proud members of Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, don’t expect them to trade in their membership card for a PFLAG T-shirt anytime soon. Be prepared with what you’re going to say and how you’re going to respond to their reactions.
5. Arm yourself with answers ahead of time. There isn’t a concern that your parents could voice that hasn’t already been discussed in dozens of articles and blogs online. You’ll find some great suggestions on how to phrase your answers that will make you sound like Einstein. You know your parents better than almost anyone else, and if you anticipate their concerns, you can be ready with some answers that will be hard for them to dispute.
6. Be ready for the “hellfire and damnation” argument. If your parents are nonreligious, skip to #7. But if they’re anything like my parents were, read on. You probably aren’t going to win this argument in the first conversation, but you can avoid losing it. Educate yourself with some basic answers to what you know will be their main arguments. They may not comprehend what you’re saying or even agree with you if they do, but at least they’ll know you have given this a lot of thought, and you’ll know how to respond to them in later conversations.
7. Stay calm, even if your parents aren’t. You might have someone like Sally Field for a mother — her reaction to her son being gay was, “So the f*#% what?!” — but if your parents are more like mine, be ready for them to get angry, melodramatic and downright cruel. Don’t join in. Keep your cool and be the rational adult in this encounter.
8. Their approval or permission is not required. Don’t expect too much from your parents right away. It’s taken them a lifetime to believe what they believe, and that’s not going to change in one conversation, and maybe not even in 100 conversations, so try not to measure the success or failure of your first coming out conversation by their initial response. If it’s not what you had hoped for, don’t despair and don’t give up. Give them time, but do not give them the impression that you’re asking for their approval or permission. This isn’t about them. It’s about you and who you truly are. Show them that you are the same person they’ve always loved, just more honest now.
9. Know when and how to make your exit. When I came out to my parents, there was a lot of anger and drama, and I was hurt that they weren’t welcoming this news with open arms. So I took the old “frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” approach and stormed out. Thought it felt pretty good, it wasn’t very effective. You might consider a less dramatic exit line. It’s important to be sensitive to what they may be feeling and put yourself in their shoes. Their concerns may be all over the map, from, “Will we ever have grandchildren?” to, “Please, God, don’t let my son get AIDS.” Whatever happens, try to leave the door open, even if you or your parents feel like shutting it.
10. In the end, know that they love you. My parents are both gone now. One of the last moments I remember before my mother died was when I came home to find my husband, Joe, sitting by the phone with his eyes filled with tears. Mom’s health was failing fast, but she had an important phone call to make. She wanted Joe to know that she loved him as if he were her own son, and she told him how grateful she was that we had each other to love. She passed away a few months later. In the end she realized that the most a parent can hope for is that their children are happy and loved, and that’s really all that matters. It didn’t take my father long to come to the same conclusion. Yours will, too. Just give them time. If they don’t come around, at least you were honest with them and with yourself, and the charade is finally over.