How to come out to your parents

Recently I received an email from a reader asking me the following question: What’s the best way to come out to my parents? I’ve been thinking about this for several days, and here is my advice.

1. Think about your parents.

Ask yourself: Are your parents supportive of gay people in general?

If yes, that’s great! That means they're more likely to be OK with the fact that you’re gay.

I say “more likely” because there is always the possibility that while they’re OK with other people being gay, they might still feel a little weird about their kid being gay. However, you have to remember that they probably had all sorts of expectations about you from before you were born — ideas about what kind of person you’d be when you grew up, including who you would marry and whether you’d have any kids of your own. When you tell them that you’re gay, that means they have to readjust their expectations for you. Sometimes that can be really hard for parents to do, because they’re just used to thinking of you one particular way. So if they don’t fully support you right away, be a little patient with them. They might just need some time to get used to it. That doesn’t mean they don’t love you; that just means they’re human, and they need time to adjust.

If no, think very carefully about whether or not this is the right time to tell them.

Are you financially dependent on your parents right now? If so, and you think that coming out to them will jeopardize your safety (meaning: they might kick you out of the house, or they might become physically violent toward you), I would suggest you not come out to them yet. You can still come out to other people you trust — your friends or responsible adults who understand they should not out you to anyone else — but maybe you should reserve coming out to your parents until a time when you’re more financially independent.

If you’re financially independent from your parents and you want to come out to them even though you know they don’t support gay people, that’s absolutely your right. You might want to make sure you have emotional support from friends or your significant other (if you have one) when you come out to them, just in case it doesn’t go well. That said, parents can be very surprising. Even the most conservative, anti-gay father might see the light when his child comes out to him, just as Senator Rob Portman did earlier this month when his son came out to him.

2. There’s no right way to come out.

So, let’s say you’ve decided you’re going to go for it — you’re going to come out to your parents. How you do that depends on your relationship with them, as well as your own personality. I don't believe there's a 100% wrong way to do it, although Rachel Maddow says she made a big mistake when she came out to her parents through her school newspaper. I think the point is that coming out is a personal thing; you’re sharing a very personal part of your identity with your parents. So you want to do it in a way that makes both of you as comfortable as possible.

A lot of people advise you to be casual about it, but frankly, I’ve never thought there was anything casual about saying, “I’m gay.” (Especially not to your parents!) To me, it feels unnatural and often completely annoying that I have to tell anybody anyway. Why should I? It’s personal!

And yet, I think you’ll find that after you come out — particularly to yourself and in your everyday life — you’ll feel more free to be who you are. You won’t be hiding that part of you anymore, and after you come out, it can start to be a more casual thing: only one part of you, not the whole of you.

But we’re still at that first “I’m gay” moment, and there are tons of ways you could do it. You can tell your parents face to face at home, if that's where you all feel most comfortable. If you feel like they’ll react better in public (as in, not freak out), you could tell them when you’re at the mall or out at a restaurant. You can write them a letter if you don’t feel comfortable telling them face to face. You can do it over the phone if you live far away from them. You can tell them via Skype. But maybe don't do it in an interview with your school newspaper. :) Keep it personal.

3. What words should I use?

  • You can say “I’m gay,” which is easy because it’s only two syllables, and if you’re worried you’re going to choke partway through, two syllables is totally doable.  Also, gay is a word that the vast majority of people are familiar with so they know what it means.
  • You can say “I’m a lesbian” (unless you’re not). Your parents will probably know what that means, too, and it no longer has the stigma that it used to have. Personally, I’m fine with the term lesbian, but sometimes I do feel like it’s a bit titillating in a way that gay is not.
  • You can say “I’m queer,” but be prepared that they might not like the word queer. Some people find it very offensive, although I and many other queer people think it’s more inclusive than the word gay.
  • You can also say “I’m bisexual” (especially if you are!) but you may run into the problem that your parents might respond with, “Why can’t you just choose to be with people of the opposite sex?” In which case, be prepared for a lot of talking about what bisexual means.

4. It’s normal to be nervous!

Whatever you decide, remember that it’s totally normal for you to be nervous before, during, and probably after you come out to your parents. It is a weird, weird thing that we gay people are forced to tell others something about our sexual orientation that the vast majority of straight people never even have to think about mentioning. It’s not fair, and it’s completely weird.

But you can do it. Just think about what your parents are like, and what would make you both comfortable during the coming out. If you’re still stumped, you can always copy what this girl did and bake an “I’m gay” cake for your parents:

Image of a cake with "I'm gay" written on it in frosting. Next to the cake is a handwritten note from a girl explaining to her parents that she's gay. (Update: Her parents loved it.)

5. For further reading