How can I best support a family member coming out?
October 17, 2013 10:42 PM   Subscribe

My wonderful nephew is thinking about coming out, but the rest of the family is very religious & conservative. How can I help? Avalanche inside.

Background: I grew up in a conservative Catholic family in the Midwest, the only girl with 4 brothers. My oldest brother married young, and he and his wife had their first baby while I was still in high school. I have always had a very close relationship with my nephew, T. We’ve just always clicked and stayed close though our lives.

Now I’m a mid-30’s, married, mom of 2 little girls, and we live in LA. T has grown up to be an awesome young man. He is 19 and attends a state university in the Midwest. We text almost daily and talk on the phone once or twice a week. His parents, as well as my parents, and most of my brothers and their families are still very conservative Catholics. I am very liberal- the token Democrat in the family, get lots of good-natured ribbing about politics, etc. I am also the only one of our siblings that does not practice the faith of our childhood in a serious and regular way.

One week ago T called me and I could tell he was very nervous. He finally said he had to tell me something. He blurted out “I’m going to tell you something and you probably won’t be surprised. I’m gay.” I was not surprised. We had a great conversation and I told him how much I love him and support him. I told him I was so happy that he was able to share this with me, it changed nothing in our relationship, etc. Very positive. He told me his friends at college are supportive, he has a boyfriend, he is in love…it was just a really emotional conversation and we were both crying – I think him from stress relief and me from how *happy* he sounded. I just love him, the same way I love my daughters.

He then told me that he is unsure about when/if to tell his parents. He wants to, but is very afraid. He said he is afraid they will cut him off financially if he tells them. This is what he focused on. I think he may be focused on the financial aspect because the idea of being rejected in any other way is too unbearable (just my take, he did not say this). I told him I do not think my brother and sister-in-law will reject him. They love him. They may be concerned, they may be shocked. I also told him that *if* he is cut off in any way, I am totally willing and able to cover his college expenses through graduation. He is still unsure about telling anyone else, and is going to think about it. He and his boyfriend want to come out this spring and stay w/ me and my family, which I would love.

My question(s): How do I support him through this? What are the things I (and my husband, who also loves him) can do? Is it OK to host him and his boyfriend, even if it means lying to the rest of family? What does he need from me right now? Please give me any thoughts and advice. He has always been so special to me, and I just want him to feel and know that, even from far away.
posted by aviatrix to Human Relations (19 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: For starters, keep telling him that you love him and value him just as he is. Send a care package in the mail. Ask for a picture of his bf. Don't make every conversation from here on out just about OMG GAY but don't sweep it under the rug and never talk about it again.

In an ideal world, being gay would be nothing to be ashamed of, and there would be no such thing as "outing" someone because it would just be another part of who they are, like their eye color. But that's not the world we currently live in. So be sure to emphasize that you won't, in any way, share or discuss this with anyone in the family unless you have his express consent. Coming out, especially to family and close friends, is usually a very awkward, anxiety-laden experience. Make sure he knows you have his support not just in doing so, but in deciding his own timeline.

Your financial support is huge, but you are probably right - he's focused on that because he doesn't want to think about even worse reactions from the family. If/when he does come out to them, if the reaction is anything but totally positive and supportive, make sure he knows that his family's feelings are an immediate reaction. They aren't set in stone, and once they have time to internalize and reflect their attitudes will probably change.

Perhaps you could offer to coordinate a visit back home to be there in person (or at least in town) for moral support when he comes out. I'm sure your brother and his wife know how close your relationship is, so it shouldn't come as a shock that he is leaning on you for support. You being there to support your brother will be important too. He (and the rest of the family) will probably benefit from your accepting and level-headed attitude as well.

In the meantime, there's nothing wrong with hosting him and his bf. You don't have to tell an actual lie to the family either - saying that T visited would be fine, and you'd still be telling the truth (without saying whether he was alone, or who his travel companion was, or the relationship they have).

Finally - you are serving in a role as confidant, which you willingly accepted. However, he needs to be aware that other family members, or close friends from back home, may not be as accepting or as willing to keep their own mouths shut. You should prepare him for the idea that if he decides to come out to people back home, it needs to be an all-or-nothing deal. Family will spill the beans because either they assume everyone knows, or they feel that their own need for support trumps the fact that it's not their thing to tell others. High school friends will gossip once they hear something. Not that this should deter T, just that he shouldn't come up with some elaborate plan of "tell mom and dad now and everyone else at xmas" because everyone will already know by xmas.
posted by trivia genius at 11:07 PM on October 17, 2013 [13 favorites]

I mean, you could offer to take this one day at a time with him and to love him unconditionally however the future unfolds. I have a second family and I can't tell you how good that alone feels. It established trust in a universe that is safe and caring.

I think it sounds like his parents want to see him grow up and practice self-care and be happy and financially independent. I think this stuff wins out at the end. Of course they are parents so they are bound to freak out over anything. But there's so much more to life than sexual orientation.

The parents haven't cut him off; they haven't expressed shock and concern. That being said, he doesn't have to lead with the chin. Maybe you could talk to him about figuring out the best time and way to break the news, and maybe instead of calling it "lying to the family," what you're doing is giving your nephew a chance to steady himself and take ownership of his sexuality and think about how to deal with his parents like an adult. And give him your best tips on how to do that.

I haven't dealt with this specific type of situation personally, and don't know his parents personally, so perhaps my advice is just out of touch with reality, I'll concede that. But a lot of children end up being or doing something their parents don't approve of. And being someone that can provide real unconditional love, not success-based love, and listen and not judge, and work out the best possibilities, is just the most awesome gift. I guess parents sometimes have to judge to teach lessons, or just don't get this because they're afraid of the unknown.

I heard someone say forgiveness is accepting that everything in this world is exactly the way it is supposed to be. And if his Catholic parents really believe in God, I would venture to say that they believe that nothing in His world happens by mistake. If shit one day hits the fan with them, maybe they need to be gently reminded of that.
posted by phaedon at 11:35 PM on October 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Everything trivia genius said. Also, tell him he can come to your place for every holiday and make sure that happens. Mostly, I would want to know I had a family to go home to no matter what.
posted by blnkfrnk at 11:35 PM on October 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

You are doing a great job. Just support whatever decision he comes to about when/if he comes out to the rest of the family. Make sure he knows he has safe harbor at your place if things really turn to shit for him at home as well.

As to what to tell the rest of the family when he and his boyfriend come out to visit - there's no lying involved if he just tells the rest of the family that he and a friend are visiting you. If you're quizzed at all about sleeping arrangements by his parents (because really they may see the writing on the wall here) then just say they are staying in guest quarters.

As to things you can do right now - just keep in touch with him, let him know you're there and beyond that if you're feeling nice maybe send some gift cards for date type/extracurricular stuff? Movie theater gift cards or whatever date type stuff they do together. I would have found those types of gifts to be completely awesome when I was in college and didn't have a bunch of cash available for fun stuff.

NOW, this next suggestion might be pushing it but consider sending him a condom sampler and a lube sampler or other sex positive stuff. And at some point stress to him the importance of regular STI testing. (That is important for everyone not just the lgbtq population.)
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 11:56 PM on October 17, 2013

Best answer: With the holidays coming up, do you have plans to spend that time with your siblings and their families? Or were you sticking around home? If you do make the offer to be the home your nephew can go to if his family react negatively, you need to be prepared for that to have to happen, potentially in conflict with plans you already have (plane tickets, hotel bookings, etc).

Also be prepared for a delayed reaction that potentially puts you at odds with your siblings, and not in a good natured "lol pinko commie Democrat" sort of way. One of my closest friends is an unfortunately textbook example of how this sort of thing can go horribly wrong with deeply religious families, with her parents going from being disapproving-but-superficially-tolerant when she came out in high school to writing vaguely threatening emails warning extended family not to attend her sinful sinful wedding. It is a wonderful, wonderful thing, the support and love you are offering to your nephew, but if you offer this you need to be 100% sure that no matter what happens when he comes out to his parents, and how it may change over the years (and it may, in either direction), that you are in fact on his side no matter the impact to your relationship with your siblings. It is awesome that he is trusting you, but you need to understand what that trust may mean for you.

That said, there is every chance that his parents will be the wonderful, understanding people he needs, and I dearly hope that's the case! Good luck to your nephew, and well done you for being there for him.
posted by olinerd at 12:29 AM on October 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: He said he is afraid they will cut him off financially if he tells them. This is what he focused on. I think he may be focused on the financial aspect because the idea of being rejected in any other way is too unbearable (just my take, he did not say this). I told him I do not think my brother and sister-in-law will reject him. They love him. They may be concerned, they may be shocked. I also told him that *if* he is cut off in any way, I am totally willing and able to cover his college expenses through graduation.

coupled with:

How do I support him through this? What are the things I (and my husband, who also loves him) can do?

Just make sure you can back up your promises. That was a HUGE one. He doesn't seem to be worried about other aspects of it because it just may not matter to him.

So honestly, as long as you TOTALLY keep your word, you are doing right by him.

posted by hal_c_on at 12:57 AM on October 18, 2013 [13 favorites]

You are a wonderful person.

To be a bit pragmatic for a second: the financial consideration is not necessarily just a deflection. I have worked with dozens of college students whose parents have withdrawn their support once they came out. This can have huge impacts on the college financial aid process, and depending on the school, a student in his position would not necessarily be able to appeal for independent status for financial aid.

I'm not sure if I have a great answer for that, but I should just point out that it is a real and ongoing concern for gay college kids from conservative families - many of them are forced to leave school.

So I hope you are serious about your offer to cover his college expenses (like really serious, like, you will have to pay tens of thousands or cosign a ton of loans for him). If you are, well, even for a lapsed Catholic you should be inline for a sainthood.
posted by Think_Long at 5:54 AM on October 18, 2013 [11 favorites]

Put him in touch with PFLAG, also the lgbtq center on his campus should have resources.
posted by brujita at 6:01 AM on October 18, 2013

Best answer: It warms my heart to read your question, because, no matter how this plays out for your nephew, he will have a wonderful, thoughtful, loving ally in you. That is a treasure. Stick by him even if it gets rough (I'm sure you will). You can do so much good, in the position you are in.

OK. So it's not going to be easy for your nephew even if his parents don't cut him off financially or disown him or anything. Anything short of the kind of response you gave can hurt, be disappointing, etc. I came out to my Mom right before I left for University, and she didn't get mad, she didn't threaten me or disown me — but she did get very sad and disbelieving (because gay people are like x, and my wonderful son is like y, so my wonderful son can't be gay). It was like I'd told her I had some hopeless terminal disease, or that I tortured kittens in the basement. Making your Mom cry and being unable to stop it, because that would mean lying to her when the entire point is to live openly from that moment on . . . ! Ugh. It's awful.

When you come out, you are putting yourself in a very vulnerable place. You are taking a scary leap of faith and asking your loved ones to catch you. When your nephew took that flying leap with you, you caught him expertly. His parents, even if they take the news relatively well, will probably not catch him, or not catch him very well, because they will have their own shit weighing them down.

Would it be appropriate or helpful for you to be nearby when he has that difficult conversation with his parents? Maybe not in the room, but close enough (say, in town for the weekend, or whatever?) But even if you're not physically present, make sure he calls you in private very soon after the conversation to tell you how it went. Then you can either celebrate with him or swoop into supportive action—or, if his experience is like mine, console his own bruised feelings when his usually-supportive parents don't immediately rise to the occasion.

And be prepared to take his side against your siblings and siblings-in-law. Depending on how your nephew's scary conversation goes, he might bring you up as a positive example of someone of their generation (or close enough), an adult who is cool and enlightened about this, so why can't you be that way too, Mom and Dad? Because arguing about the liberal black sheep in the family is less world-changing than dealing with your son's gayness, his parents might pursue that. They might look for people to "blame." You might get an angry phone-call. Don't back down. Have some information and resources ready for them. Be ready to correct any preconceptions they might have about homosexuality, in a way that doesn't other them or insult them for having those preconceptions.

I hope this all works out very well for your family. Adjusting to the gayness of an awesome and well-loved friend or relative is often what turns traditional/conservative anti-gay-rights folks into "gay people are people and they deserve the same rights" folks. Ten years after my difficult conversation with my Mom, I got married to my husband, and she happily danced with him at my wedding, and signs his name next to mine on cards from our family, and asks how he's doing during our phone conversations, and hugs him tight when we visit, and so on. In the long run, your nephew is almost certainly doing the very best thing by coming out.

Very good luck to all of you.
posted by erlking at 6:48 AM on October 18, 2013 [4 favorites]

You haven't provided any information to indicate his parents are going to do anything such as cutting him off. Midwest Catholic family does not equal rejection.

It may be very tempting to support your nephew right now - but it would be better if you first offer him advice about an approach that doesn't confirm the world will come crashing down on him once his parents find out. Don't enable his fears. They are still his parents - If you make promises of financial support right now, you may play a heavy hand. Instead, provide more measured support until you know what the reality is.
posted by Kruger5 at 6:49 AM on October 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Honestly, if his parents are supporting him and paying for his education right now, the financial aspect probably really is one of his main concerns--and that's okay!

A lot of gay people with conservative families experience really negative reactions from the start. Their families may not want to speak to them, or cut financial support, or berate them about being gay, etc. at the beginning... but then that same family can, with time, come to accept their gay relative and rebuild a good relationship. If the person coming out is financially independent, it's possible to get through that rough period well. It still wouldn't be easy, and that person would need a lot of support from friends and other family, but it could all work out.

However, if the person coming out is not financially independent, a negative reaction that could otherwise have been short term and worked out well would have more lasting consequences. Being financially stranded in the middle of college would be a life-changing situation--one might never finish their education, or at the least would likely have to delay it. Your nephew is probably worried about what his ability to finish college means for his future; and also worried about paying for rent and food. Does he have a job? Has he ever had a job? Being cut off financially is really scary for a parent-supported college kid.

So if you're really willing to step up if he winds up in that situation (I agree that'd make you a candidate for sainthood!), that's great, but make sure you really think it through and keep any promises you make. If you're NOT really able to support him (and that's fine!), don't necessarily encourage him to come out right now. Would it be better for him to wait until he's finished college, and then come out when the risk is lower? When they suspect it will go badly, many people wait until after college to come out. It's a tough decision, but a good one. So keep that in mind. If he decides not to come out yet, you could support him in that decision by continuing to be his confidante, and also by not pushing him to tell his parents until he feels ready and feels it's safe to do so.

Personally, I didn't fear losing my family (or my parents' support of my college education) when I came out, but it still took me a few years to feel ready to tell my parents. Help him not to feel rushed into it, no matter what.
posted by snorkmaiden at 6:57 AM on October 18, 2013 [4 favorites]

The financial aspect is a serious one. There's no hurry for him to tell his family, necessarily. If he's really worried that he'll be cut off, it might be prudent to wait until he's done with college to come out to his parents. That would be a very reasonable decision. In the meantime, he can come out to other people in his life and focus on living his life and figuring out all the other things there are to figure out in college.
posted by megancita at 7:35 AM on October 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

You sound like the BEST AUNTIE in the world. Seriously, you sound awesome.
It might be worth checking out some Dan Savage advice in this case. I don't always agree with his opinions but in terms of "coming out" he generally has excellent advice.

If your nephew is afraid he will get cut off from his family financially, I agree with Megancita in that he might as well just wait until after college before telling the family. He can deal with the fallout (if there is any) then and he won't be worried about potentially large financial implications.
posted by JenThePro at 7:49 AM on October 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

How wonderful that he has you!

The main thing to do, which you are already doing, is just being in regular, loving contact with him. You're saying to him, with your actions, "I am here for you", and he sees that, and that's why he felt safe coming out to you. So awesome! Keep doing that. Be loving, supportive, welcoming family to him, which he may need a lot of when he decides to tell his parents.

I think it's wonderful that you're willing to also offer financial support and to host him in your home when he comes to visit. If I were you, for general family dynamics and also as a model to him, I would probably avoid participating in any lies about it. You can say to his parents that you don't want to discuss it in detail, and you shouldn't discuss it in detail with them anyway, but if I were you I'd be up front about your support. You're also modeling good behavior to them. (On the other hand, there are some families where lying would be the only safe and sane option.)

In conclusion, you are fantastic.

- A Gay Person
posted by latkes at 8:37 AM on October 18, 2013

NOW, this next suggestion might be pushing it but consider sending him a condom sampler and a lube sampler or other sex positive stuff. And at some point stress to him the importance of regular STI testing. (That is important for everyone not just the lgbtq population.)

WHAT??? Do not do this. Inappropriate, and beyond patronizing. He is not asking for sex advice and this has nothing to do with the question at hand.

You are an awesome aunt! That he chose you as the first family member to tell says a lot about you and your relationship with him, and I think just knowing that he's got your support will make it all a whole lot easier for him going forward, however he decides to proceed with the rest of his family.
posted by wats at 10:23 AM on October 18, 2013

Tell him he should go and talk to financial services at his college. They may have resources available to him, for cases like his (or families that otherwise loose the ability to pay.) He doesn't have to tell them his sexual orientation, just say that he may face losing all support from his family and will have to figure out how to pay for college independent of them. There may be grants and scholarships that they can help him apply for, work-study programs, etc.
wife of 445supermag
posted by 445supermag at 11:11 AM on October 18, 2013

I have a bunch of gay male friends from conservative religious families. I know some in their 30's who have never fully come out even to parents and most siblings (and the fear of rejection is real enough that the handful of family members that do know have kept quiet), I know some who have only told parents who agreed that extended family did not need to know now if ever (and extended family does not know), and some who came out to everyone with varying results - parents accepting along extended family being unable to accept it and praying for redemption. Which is to say, results may vary and everyone is entitled to their own choices and should go at their own pace when they're ready.

I think you support him by letting him do what he is comfortable with as he is comfortable with it, and letting him talk through it with you. His friends at college don't know his family members, you do. You can't guarantee how your family will respond, even if you know them well, but you can let him talk about the worst case scenarios (and less than worst case but still sad), and the costs and benefits of telling certain people. He may not even want to tell everyone, sometimes the trickle-down effect is better than having to announce things and steel yourself for the array of responses. I know people who have had their moms tell their fathers, etc., and it's actually gone better than having the dual parent sit down. Right now he's lucky to live in a place where he is getting support, and where he can mostly privately explore a part of his life that he previously hasn't been able to - coming out is a lot more than telling people.

I do think it is really nice if part of this is you meeting his significant other, because you're family and it's emotionally validating to be able to introduce your significant other to family members and have it not be uncomfortable or anything less than ordinary. You're part of his process, he picked you (probably because you're already doing things right that you didn't realize). I don't think you should lie to family members, but you can either omit the details or just say that he came out to visit you with a friend from college and it was nice to meet them.

You also may want to dip back into Catholicism and find out what the more liberal branches are saying about acceptance these days -- not necessarily to inform your nephew (unless he's asking for help and having a crisis of faith), but for the benefit of having informed conversations with a family who values religion when he does come out or the issue comes up. The current Pope is shaking things up a tiny little bit.
posted by skermunkil at 12:49 PM on October 18, 2013

To crib from Dan Savage a little more, when your nephew does decide to come out to his bigoted family he should not let them dictate the framing. He's not a disappointment, or an embarrassment or mentally sick; to the contrary, he is a healthy adult who is doing everything he can to be honest with himself and the people he loves about who he is, something that takes impressive courage and strength of character on his part under the circumstances.

His family, on the other hand, is a (potentially) different story. Reacting to your own child's totally normal and socially accepted homosexuality by flipping out, cutting off contact, cutting off financial support? Parents disowning their own son because their love for him is trumped by their attachment to some outmoded religious doctrine that has no place in the modern world? What could be more disappointing than that? Forcing him to explain to his partners that he can never introduce them to his parents because they're bigots who would be bothered by the partner's gender? What an embarrassing situation to put him in!

As Savage points out, your nephew is the one holding all the cards in this negotiation (given that with your wonderful assistance he doesn't need to depend on them for material support.) If they're so twisted up that they're going to react punitively to their child's honesty, he should feel completely within his rights to be the one to disown them, at least for as long as they refuse to relate to him as the person he is. Thanks to the difficult work and courage of gay people before him, society is on his side in this. He can go about his business in the world as a regular ordinary out gay person, let them have their little fit for a month or a couple years or whatever it takes, and when they finally opt to crawl out of their bigot hole and join the grownups he can decide whether or not he wants to be magnanimous and forgive them for their disappointing, embarrassing behavior. He gets to determine whether and under what circumstances they are allowed to see him, not the other way around, because they are the ones with the problem.

If you're "very liberal" and they haven't disowned you just for that, chances are pretty good that they'll be able to see past their dogma when confronted with the truth about their own child, even if it takes them a little while to get it figured out. I hope it goes well, that they're not as bad as he fears and the above advice isn't really applicable, but if they do try to pull some scandalized bullshit he has every right to be scandalized right back at them, because it's 2013 and they should grow up already.
posted by contraption at 12:42 PM on October 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for their responses. I really could have marked them all as best.

Just to clarify- I am very serious about the financial support I offered to him. He has a partial scholarship, and when he was accepted this university my brother and sister-in-law were still unsure if they could pay the balance. At that time my husband and I offered to pay for it. Our offer was not accepted, and they came up with the money, but things are a bit financially precarious in their family, so it has kind of been in the back of our minds that we might at some point end up covering room & board/portion of tuition that the scholarship does not cover. So we’re prepared to do it.

I spoke with my nephew today and he is still mulling over the when and how of coming out to his parents and the rest of the family. Someone on here gave the great suggestion of offering to be in town when it happened, and I floated that idea by him. He appreciated it. He seemed more comfortable today in knowing that he can do this on his timeline, whenever he is ready.

But it is settled that he and his boyfriend are coming out to LA for their spring break and staying with me and my family. My girls are over the moon, it’s very sweet.
posted by aviatrix at 6:19 PM on October 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

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