Wednesday Words: Coming out to a religious family

Each Wednesday, I answer one of your burning questions on the blog. This week Sex’s Kid Sister asks:

First, I just really want to thank you guys for all the advice and tips you give on your show.

Conner Habib was amazing. I love him so much. I believe we are long lost twins.

I would really like some advice on the topic of coming out to an extremely religious family. By extremely religious family I mean, my father is a pastor. I’ve been thinking lately that it would just be better to come out on graduation day because I would be 18 and legally allowed to leave my chaotic semi-homophobic household.

My sister, who lives with her mom, believes it would be better to never come out at all or to only bring guys around because I am bisexual. The problem with this is I’ve tried to hide and it becomes more and more difficult each day.

Tell me what you think…


-sex’s kid sister

What a challenging place to be, SKS. Coming out in any capacity can be anxiety-inducing, but coming out to a family that is super religious can be even more so.

The first thing I want to say is you are not alone. Lots of folks have navigated a situation just like yours and come out the other side feeling happy, loved, and supported. But that’s not to say this will be easy. Nor will it likely be very fast – change like this can take years to fully move through.

So, what are all of the things you should consider before coming out to your family?

First and foremost, take an objective look at your situation.

Turning 18 does grant you some legal rights that can be helpful, like being able to rent an apartment and get a credit card, but it’s not a cure-all, either. Being a legal adult doesn’t mean life gets easier. Each new option that becomes available to you on your 18th birthday also comes with a ton of responsibility.

Let’s start with money.

What kind of financial support does your family currently offer you? Do you have a job or a school scholarship lined up? Do you have money in your savings account that you could live off of for many months, if need be?

If your family cuts you off completely, what kind of money would it take to live safely for a year or two or more?

What are some living options that are available to you? Crashing on friends couches is great for a temporary solution, but what about if you need a new living situation for a few months or a few years?

Even more important than money is evaluating your support network.

Coming out can be an exhausting process for all involved. Who are family members and friends who have your back, no matter what? If things go poorly with your parents, who can you turn to in an emergency for help?

And…how will you take care of yourself? How will you make sure you’re getting all of your needs met, including emotional ones, if things with your folks suck? If they say cruel things, how will you nurture yourself through that?

Create a post-coming out support plan that includes immediate support, short term support, and longer term support.

It’s not all bad news, though. We want to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. If you have a plan in place for the very worst scenario, then you can start putting things into action that help you cultivate a best case scenario.

Parents and loved ones often surprise us.

I know mine certainly did when I came out as lesbian in my early twenties, and then again when I partnered with a trans person. Hell, my grandma shocked me with how totally open she was to my trans partner, despite all my best efforts to hide it from her.

There are definitely things you can do to help set yourself up for success with your religious family members, and while it will take a little research on your end, it can make a big difference in the long run to get these things together before you come out.

So, let’s explore what the reaction may be and then take a look at what you can offer to your parents after you come out.

Coming out can often be dramatic because parents can feel blindsided. You have spent much of your life getting to know yourself and exploring your sexuality. You’ve had lots of time to sit with it, think it over, experience it, and come to terms with what it means to be bisexual in your body.

Your parents haven’t had that time. When you come out, you will be putting huge news in their lap and there is a chance they’ll feel surprised, hurt, worried, and defensive.

As a pastor, your father probably also has a lot of pride in the work he does and the way he is seen by his congregation and community. Being a leader in a religious community comes with a lot of power and responsibility.

If his congregation is not welcoming to homosexuality or queerness, then finding out his child is bisexual may feel like an attack on his livelihood – regardless of his personal feelings about you, one of his main concerns will probably be what will happen to his reputation, his church, his role as a leader.

If your parents believe that homosexuality is a sin, then they may also be genuinely worried about you and what being bisexual means in the context of their religious beliefs. Fear often presents as anger, so if they’re truly scared for you, expect a lot of anger to get directed your way.

As a bisexual, another thing that may happen is your family may try to convince you you’re just confused. Bi-invisibility is a thing and it often means that people think you’re choosing this. You’re choosing to hurt them. You’re choosing to be different. You can just do the straight thing and no one has to know. It’s just a phase (this is especially common for youngsters). So, be prepared to hold space for that, too.

But here’s the thing – you are not responsible for their feelings. You cannot control their reaction. You cannot read their minds or know how they’ll respond to the news.

What you can do when you’re a teenager getting ready to come out is make sure you have a plan in place for staying safe and healthy, gather resources together that might help them process the news, and then surrender to the fact that things with your family might be really tense for a long time.

So, what are those resources I keep mentioning? Let’s take a look.

First, pop over to the PFLAG website and see what kinds of resources or groups they have in your area.

Second, find out if any churches in your community or nearby cities are inclusive of gay/queer/trans folks. Find out the names of the church leaders at those churches. Check out the nearest gay pride parade and see if any churches marched in the parade or had booths at the festival. As a religious leader, it may be really helpful for your father to reach out to other religious leaders who ARE inclusive, to have some conversations about reconciling his faith with his fear.

Third, have some links ready about being a Christian parent of a gay/queer kid. This article on Believe Out Loud was actually pretty decent. There are also a TON of Bible verses on this page and what they really mean, along with some bible-based rebuttals of common arguments against homosexuality.

Fourth, practice gentle ways to have the conversation. Coming out often means multiple conversations over the course of many days/weeks/months as family members process and move through various emotions and fears. Just remember that no matter what gets said by your family, it is not a reflection of you. It is a reflection of their own fears and biases.

Non-violent communication can be super helpful here. Reid Mihalko’s difficult conversation formula is beautiful, too.

Find a time when everyone can show up without being rushed. Remain calm and assertive.

Most importantly, present this news as something you’re happy about and excited about AND make it clear what you need from them.

People so often miss this and it’s cause for so much turmoil.

Don’t just say “I’m bisexual.”

Let them know this is good news. This is you being you, which is a beautiful thing. And, invite them to support you by being very specific about why you’re telling them and what you hope will happen as a result.

Something like, “You raised me to be the kind of person who is honest and brave. And so this is me being brave. I realized I was hiding something from you, but it’s something I am actually really excited to explore. I love that I have this amazing capacity to love. I adore that I am brave enough to give myself this permission. It is something I’ve thought about thoroughly and carefully, and now I feel so excited to just be me. What I really want is to know you still love me, that you’ll take some time to think about this and circle back with questions, and that you’ll support me. I don’t want this to be something we fight endlessly about. I don’t want to be insulted or judged. It’s OK if you feel confused or worried. It’s OK if you don’t understand. Just know I don’t need your understanding, but I do need your love.”

When you’re super specific about what you do and don’t want, it makes it easier for them to decide if they can do that or not. Now, instead of scrambling to figure out what the hell to do next, they can feel their feelings AND decide if they can offer you that support.

Also know that these things can take time. Don’t expect a miracle. If someone you loved shocked you with some huge news, something that fundamentally changed how you saw them, it might take you a little time to let go and grieve who you thought they were and start relating to them in this new way.

That’s all normal.

It’s OK for them to have big, scary feelings. You don’t need to take that on as your own.

What isn’t OK is for them to threaten you, harass you, insult or disrespect you, or to try and change you. If that happens, calmly let them know it’s unacceptable and you’ll be leaving so they can have some time to cool down.

The bottom line is that coming out is an important thing. The more all of us come out, the more we influence the people in our lives who think they don’t know any gay people or kinky people or asexual people. That influence bleeds into the world in the form of more tolerance, even though sometimes it takes a long time.

But your personal safety comes first.

You don’t have to come out right now. As hard as it may be to stay in the closet, if you aren’t ready financially or emotionally, or if your personal safety is at risk, then give yourself permission to take a little more time before you come out.

I have a friend who decided to never come out to his parents. It’s been 20+ years, both of them just passed away, and they never knew he was gay. But his parents were older, ultra religious, and he was an adult with a lot of autonomy away from his family, so that felt aligned for him.

We each have our own paths and journeys. Not telling your parents in no way invalidates your bisexuality. It may limit who you can bring around the house as a partner for a while, but you still get to fall in love and have sex and enjoy the people who tickle your fancy – out or not.

If you’ve never seen this TED talk on coming out of our closets by Ash Beckham, I really adore it. It may offer you some courage and comfort.

As you prepare for what’s next, make sure you join some support groups online, find a local teen health center that offers LGBT support and meet ups, and surround yourself with friends who adore you for you.

The more support you have in your life from other sources, the easier it will be when you do decide to come out to your folks.

You’re amazing. You deserve love and respect. Take care of you and good luck.

Well, readers – what are your thoughts? Have you had to come out to a really religious family member as gay, bi, queer, trans, kinky, or poly? What are some tips you have for SKS? Comment below and let us know.

Have your own question about sex, relationships, kink, or your body? Send it my way (there’s an anonymous option) and I may answer your inquiry on the podcast or in the weekly advice column, Wednesday Words.

  • Dawn
  • August 24, 2016

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