Thinking of coming out to your family during the holidays? Why experts suggest 'have an ally on standby'

·10 min read
Young woman celebrating gay pride event wearing rainbow flag symbol of Lgbt social movement
Coming out should always be on your own terms, say experts, adding that deep introspection is also paramount. (Credit: Getty Images)

Making the decision to come out as LGBTQ to family or friends is one of the biggest and most vulnerable steps a queer person can take. And while getting it done in one clean sweep, like when you're all sitting around the table enjoying your favorite holiday feasts, can certainly be tempting... is it really the best idea?

"We see spikes in people desperately looking for help because they come out during the holidays, and it didn't go as they wanted," Jean-Marie Navetta, director of learning and inclusion at PFLAG, tells Yahoo Life. "Holidays are already so stressful and it may not be the best time for some: 'Can you pass the cranberries? Oh! By the way, I'm gay.'"

It's true that the holidays are particularly stressful for most. But for LGBTQ people, who are more likely to experience anxiety and depression than their straight counterparts, some experts say they're vulnerable to experiencing even higher levels than normal.

“There's good and there's bad during the holidays, but for [LGBTQ people], there's additional pressure,” Sammy Maramba-Ferrell, a youth prevention coordinator at the LGBTQ Community Center in New York City, explains to Yahoo Life. “Maybe they don’t have the same access to what their existing support structures and networks are [in their normal lives]. If someone is struggling with feeling accepted, whether this is supported by language that's not affirming or if it's just an insecurity someone has and they're ruminating on it or imagining a worst case scenario, that's still a lived experience.”

Directly above shot of family and friends toasting drinks while enjoying meal at home during Christmas
"Holidays are already so stressful and it may not be the best time for some," notes one expert. "'Can you pass the cranberries? Oh! By the way, I'm gay.'"

For those living far away from home — especially young people — who have built a queer community in their personal lives, the holidays provide a unique chance to come out to families of origin, adds Dr. Samuel Allen, chief postdoctoral fellow at the Family Institute at Northwestern University. It's why so many decide to take the leap.

“The notion of doing this disclosure face-to-face is important to them,” Allen tells Yahoo Life. “So if they know they're only going to come home for a holiday, it becomes a pressured moment to do it.”

Still, the choice to come out to your family is a very personal decision and, for many, requires some serious planning. Below, some helpful tips to help navigate the process.

Consider your safety and security

Understanding what the outcome might mean for your personal safety should be a top concern, says Navetta. "Do your best to determine, 'Is there any chance I might be subjected to violence? Is there any chance I might be subjected to some kind of conversion therapy? Is there a chance my family may throw me out?" she explains. "That is a very real fact. A significant portion of homeless youth are LGBTQ identified, and they've been rejected by their families."

She continues, "If you don't have that network of support, if you are not in a place, in terms of your mental health, where you're in a safe space, where you are feeling confident, where you don't have a resource if something doesn't go well, it might be worth waiting [to come out]. Or it may be worth coming out to some people, but not others."

Those concerns should extend to one's financial situation, adds Maramba-Ferell. "Who are you financially dependent upon? What are your plans and options for where you can live?" he says. "Being aware of potential consequences is important. It's a little cliché, but hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. It's so universal. It's a strategy for building an array of protective factors. From my experience, a lot of folks underestimate the wide range of self-care and survival practices. And that's how we take care of ourselves."

Create a safety net

"Make sure that if it doesn't go well, there is a safe place for you to be," explains Navetta. "That goes for adults, too. Just because you're grown up doesn't mean you're necessarily safe. Having an ally on standby you can call after is also really important — somebody who's going to be there to kind of debrief the entire experience with you."

Allen agrees, adding that another thing to consider is having a designated safe space should you need it. "It could be a physical space in the house that you're in, like a room that is only yours," he says, or it can even be friend's house or a nearby coffee shop. "It's important to set yourself up for all possible scenarios."

Navetta adds one might want to "think about how you're going to tap into resources. Are you going to start going to a PFLAG meeting, where you've got a little network to talk to people and there'll be someone to hug you and tell you it's OK? Is there something at your local LGBTQ community center, any kind of services you might be able to tap into if things don't go the way you want to?"

Find an ally

While there are pros and cons to coming out to the family in one swoop, Allen says taking inventory of those you think will be most accepting, and sharing the news with them first, could help ease the brunt.

"Is it maybe a sibling or a cousin or an aunt or uncle? Or maybe a parent?" Allen suggests thinking about. "Who does it feel like would be most comfortable and supportive? It might help them chisel away at the sometimes overwhelming beast of coming out."

Gay Male Couple Kissing As They Hang Decorations On Christmas Tree At Home Together
Holidays spent with a partner can be much easier than with one's family — especially if you choose the occasion to come out. (Photo: Getty Images)

Arm yourself with answers and resources

Questions from concerned family members are inevitable, which is why Navetta says to come to the table with knowledge, research, revelations and answers — but all on your own terms. "Be ready to explain your identity," she says. "It's pretty easy for people to understand 'gay' or 'lesbian' but people start getting confused when you say 'bi.' Certainly when we get into 'trans' and when we get anything past LGBT, not everybody understands it the same way."

You may need to say, for example, that you identify as nonbinary, and then explain what that means, she says. "The person on the other side of the conversation, in addition to being caught off guard, maybe a little ashamed to actually ask the question. If you make it easier, it's better," she suggests. "Also, you have the opportunity to define that for yourself. So if somebody has the wrong idea about people who are bisexual, here's your chance to get them on the right track by saying, 'I'm bi. This is what it means to me.'"

An extension of that, she adds, is anticipating what might be relevant to the conversation. For example, if your family is religious, recognize if that is likely to be an issue and have a solid defense prepared. Equipping them with resources is always a good idea.

"When I came out to my parents, who are Catholic, I was like, 'Here are some groups that work with Catholic families of LGBTQ kids,'" Navetta says. "The more information you can guide people towards, the better chance they are going to read the right stuff and not read something that might be damaging."

Set boundaries and be clear

"Saying 'I'm ready to talk about this, but I'm not ready to talk about this" is an important way to set your boundaries right away, says Navetta. "One of the questions that we often hear parents ask is 'Why didn't they tell me sooner?' And that is a really hard question for many people to answer, because the answer may not be particularly flattering to the person asking it. It's OK to say to people, 'Listen, I'm happy to answer whatever questions I can at this time, but please remember I'm also going through the coming out process still."

It's also important to make clear who you're already out to, she adds. "So if you come out to mom, I would then say, 'I'm comfortable with you telling dad' or 'I'm comfortable with you telling the rest of the family' or 'Mom, you're the only person who knows now and I'm going to ask you to please keep this to yourself because I want to be able to control how people find out.'"

Be mindful of microaggressions

Just because the discrimination you experience may not take the form of physical violence doesn't mean they should get a free pass, explains Maramba-Ferrell. Still, it's important to be mindful of your emotions so they don't get the best of you. The last thing you want is to "lash out" over something that could very well be a misunderstanding.

"We're talking about maybe passive-aggressive statements or [when] someone might not even be aware of the impact of something that they're saying," he says. "It could be a gesture or, you know, giving people access to dinner last. There's such a wide range of what a microaggression could be."

"You might not want to engage in like, hashing it out," he continues, explaining while it's important to stand your ground, you should mentally prepare for these moments beforehand. "How can you think that out in terms of how it will develop? Will it kind of backfire? Being aware of potential consequences is important."

Lead with compassion and empathy

It's easy to have a staunch approach leading to the big moment, but as Allen says, they're "still your family" and setting the stage for a high level of compassion makes it easier for them to reflect the same back to you.

"[LGBTQ] people experience an unfair and undue sort of burden from minority stress and discrimination. And when a person comes out to a family, to their family members, it becomes a family affair," Allen says. "It no longer becomes a secret, or just a personal identity, for some it becomes a family identity."

"We are imperfect people and we don't do things perfectly all the time," adds Maramba-Ferrell, noting the importance of "refining" how we and our families "hold ourselves" in times of stress.

Have some perspective

Above all, remember who you are and the "years it took to figure this out," Navetta says, adding that "the person on the other side of the conversation literally just got the news. So if they are not reacting the way you want them to react, remember it may take a little bit of time."

Although it's 2021 and there's been much progress she continues. "people still have a lot of baggage around being LGBTQ and people have a lot of crazy ideas about who our community is. You're going to be navigating that on top of how people are feeling about what you just told them. Be prepared for these possibilities and recognize that just because it may not be the most affirmative response at first, it doesn't mean it's not going to change."

Finally, she offers an important reminder: This is just the start of something difficult, but wonderful.

"This is the beginning of every single day coming out to people you don't know. When I go to the grocery store with my wife, I'm coming out to a grocery store full of strangers. It never goes away. So, know that this is just the beginning of something much longer," says Navetta. "But it can be something pretty phenomenal."