How to Come out of the Closet—and How to Respond—During the Holidays

With the family gathered around the table, LGBT family members may see an opportunity to come out of the closet, face-to-face. Here are some tips for doing it safely.

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Solvej Schou writes regularly for TakePart, and has also contributed to the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, BBC.com, and Entertainment Weekly.

The holiday season comes with a high degree of built-in stress: traveling mayhem, cranky family members, crowded households, and all those fraught, high-calorie decisions that come with being around way too much food.

For closeted gay people who are thinking of coming out to family during this time of togetherness, the holiday can feel even more stressful.

Experts don't recommend making personal disclosures around this potentially tense time, but most closeted people want to have that kind of conversation in person, and the holidays offer a rare opportunity for family gatherings. If the need is pressing, here are ways to come out safely during the holidays.

For starters, the person coming out should take their parents aside for a conversation, says Ronni Sanlo, director emeritus of the University of California, Los Angeles' Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Campus Resource Center. 

"I don’t think it should be done at the dinner table, when everyone’s there, when people may be shocked and surprised,” Sanlo said. 

Especially, Sanlo continued, if the closeted person has "a sense the parents are going to react negatively, it’s more important they tell them in a private setting, not where all the aunts and uncles are."

She suggests talking to individual family members early Thanksgiving morning, late that night, or after the Thanksgiving meal.

“There’s a saying in 12-step programs: ‘What’s safe for me and respectful of my family.’ Don’t put yourself in harm’s way emotionally or physically."

Sanlo came out to her own parents 40 years ago. Her dad was supportive immediately. Her mom didn’t speak to Sanlo for two weeks, consulted her rabbi, and then was fine. Sanlo now has grown children—one, a gay son—and two grandchildren who identify as bisexual.

Seth Meyers, a clinical psychologist with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health who works with children and families, is adamant about discussions being in a calm environment.

Those in the closet often have a fairly good sense of what the reactions may be to their coming out—experts say they shouldn't ignore those instincts. If a home feels too fraught with conflict, plan to meet separately with parents or siblings for dinner somewhere else or while out shopping.

“The goal is to create the least dramatic possible context,” he says. “Plan a social outing for a few hours. During that time period, the family or friend may set off on a roller coaster. They may feel angry and sad. You need to give that person time to process those emotions. Many times the person coming out ends up comforting everyone else, when they should be the one being comforted.”

Most important, have a safety plan in place. Make sure a family member who may react negatively or violently isn’t driving you, Meyers says, and that you won’t be physically or emotionally stranded.

“Have a stock sentence prepared, and keep repeating it in a slow and warm tone until they get it: ‘I’m sorry you feel that way. Maybe we should talk more about this in the future,’ ” says Meyers. “You give them a brick wall, and it stops you from engaging emotionally.”

Jen Durham, a clinical supervisor who works with LGBT youths at the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, also recommends having a supportive mentor to call or a backup place to stay if things go badly. If families need reassurance or help understanding, they can watch reference videos through the research and education initiative, the Family Acceptance Project

Family members hearing the news should ideally first thank the person coming out for his or her honesty and reiterate their love.

One option is to say, “I don’t get it yet, but I love and am here for you,” says Sanlo.

Another helpful hint for family members who are being told a relative is gay may be counterintuitive, says Meyers.

“The goal is to be supportive but not overly enthusiastic,” he says. “Don’t start putting gay-themed books on the coffee table or play ‘It’s Raining Men’ from the stereo. You don’t need to instantly prove that you accept him or her. You’ll have plenty of time to show your support over time.”

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