As Thanksgiving approaches, many parents are preparing to once again have their children back home under their roofs. Beyond excitement over what’s for dinner, there’s undoubtedly excitement on the part of parents who will see how their children have grown and changed while being away.
But there’s one bit of news that some young people returning home may worry about sharing. For many gays and lesbians, that surprise revelation for family and friends is about their sexual orientation.
The topic comes up for many because the weight of hiding who they really are becomes too much to bear.
For Alisha Laws, 22, college was the time when she finally grew comfortable enough to tell her family and friends that she is a lesbian.
“I just recently told my mother and sister, as well as a few of my close friends about my preference,” she said.
Laws says she only recently revealed this part of her identity, not because she didn’t know that she was gay, but because of fear of how she would be treated.
“I always thought if my preference was out in the open, people wouldn’t be accepting of me,” Laws said.
Researchers say concern over possible mistreatment is what makes coming home, and coming out such a complicated process.
Why now, why during a holiday? Some feel that if they bring the topic up now, they’re home long enough to discuss the topic. And if the reaction is bad, they will be able to escape.
Dr. Michael LaSala, author of the book Coming Out, Coming Home: Helping Families Adjust to a Gay or Lesbian Child says deciding when and how to come out can create a seesaw of thoughts and emotions for a young person.
He adds that many people only come out when there is pressure, or because they need help dealing with something which has happened to them such as a breakup or failed friendship, and they want to work through the situation. Sometimes they come out if they are confronted by a family member or friend.
Still, in the most ideal situation, the breakthrough happens, he believes, when a young man or woman decides that, “To be a good gay person, to really develop myself, and my identity as a gay person, I need to let everybody know including my parents.”
In high school when her parents asked her about her sexual orientation, Mina Monsha says she told them she was bisexual because she thought that would make life easier. She wasn’t ready to be completely honest then because she didn’t believe her family was prepared to deal with the truth.
She says in the wake of the recent suicides by young gay men, she came out on Facebook to show solidarity with those who ultimately took their own lives. Until then, many in her family did not know that she was gay, and in a committed relationship with another woman.
Brian Alston, a 21-year-old Atlanta-area college student, says the circumstances surrounding his coming out were also less than perfect. He came out to his family three years ago but only after being questioned by his mother.
“She didn’t understand. It was a little shocking to her,” he said of his mother’s reaction to his confirming her suspicions.
Alston believes growing up in South Carolina around people that were both culturally conservative and very religious made his homosexuality more of a burden.
He also knows that for his family and others whose connections in the church run deep, to support a lifestyle, which they felt, was wrong was incredibly difficult.
In his mind there’s no doubt that for those in his southern community acknowledging a homosexual relative or friend was seen as dangerous, “In the South that’s social suicide.”Donna Payne Associate Director of Diversity for the Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights group which works to gain equality and fair treatment for members LGBT community, agrees that religion often plays a role in how people even family members respond to LGBT persons.
Payne should know. She grew up the daughter of a Methodist minister, and her own coming out process also took some time because she was conflicted with how to rectify her sexual orientation with her faith.
Durryle Brooks was in a similar predicament. Deeply spiritual, he worried that his coming out might lead to abandonment by the church. He says growing up he had a pastor who was very traditional and who often preached of the immorality of homosexuality.
“There would always be a message about sexuality, homosexuality and how it’s wrong,” he said. “I thought I would stay silent to keep my family and my church family.”
He says things would have been, “A lot easier for me psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually if someone from the church could have those conversations with me,” referring to conversations on sex and sexuality.
In college he studied religious studies, and in graduate school pursued a master’s degree in sexuality studies, to gain a better understanding of the relationship between religion and sexuality.
“You don’t have to lose your relationship with a higher power, just because of your sexual orientation,” he now counsels young people.
Mosha, for her part, makes people aware that, “The relationship between me and God is my business.”
For those African-Americans who are struggling with what to do and what to say when they want to come out, the Human Rights Campaign, offers the Resource Guide to Coming Out for African Americans.
Those who have had the experience coming out said they sometimes turned to the Internet for help coming up with what to say to family and friends, especially if nobody around them identified as LGBT.
“It’s never going to be the right time, but make sure you’re comfortable,” Monsha said.
Being comfortable means having as much information as possible about the possible repercussions of revealing to family and friends their sexual orientation.
Payne says it’s her hope that the guide offers hopeful and helpful information, which leads African-Americans to see they aren’t alone.
For parents who don’t know how to respond, LaSala says it’s important for them to have support so that they can support their children.
Alisha, Brian, Mina, and Durryle say they received varying levels of support from their family. Each of them says their relationships are still a work in progress. Their families are giving thought to how to offer the right type of support, and to keep open the lines of communication.
LaSala suggests parents who need help digesting the news, and adjusting to unexpected changes seek out a support system.
PFLAG: Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays is one such organization which has local chapters and offers information and support services for those who might need to do more work in order to support their loved ones.
Not surprisingly, each of them has committed to being a role model and helping others on their journey.
Alisha is pursuing her master’s degree in social work. Brian openly shares his story. Mina has a YouTube channel which chronicles other people’s “coming out” stories. Durryle works for a D.C. based non-profit supports LGBT teens.
None of them believes coming home to come out is easy, but it is just the beginning of a journey for many.
LaSala says, given his experiences, he thinks if parents and kids commit to being honest and open with one another, and constantly work at understanding each other’s perspectives, their relationships can continue to develop positively.
“So, in fact, this can ultimately be something that can enrich your life, and your families life if you grow with it,” he said.