What to do if you’re afraid your family will disown you for coming out

‘How you choose to come out is a personal choice’ (Picture: Getty/Metro.co.uk)

Coming out can be nerve-wracking at the best of times, and that can be multiplied tenfold if you’re worried your family won’t take it well.

A 2021 YouGov study, which surveyed 10,175 adults across eight countries, found that 16% of Britons were either not sure they’d be supportive if child, sibling, or a close family member came out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, or they were sure they would not be supportive.

That percentage increased to 29% in the event of a close family member coming out as trans or non-binary.

While the survey does suggest that the majority would be supportive in both cases, those numbers aren’t low enough to erase all anxiety around coming out.

Especially when data from charity AKT found that, of the 161 LGBTQ+ young people who’d experienced homelessness that completed the survey, half of them said they feared that expressing their LGBTQ+ identity to family members would lead to them being evicted.

So how can people deal with the fear of coming out?

Firstly, Counselling Directory member Ruth Parchment says the idea you need to come out to every single person in your life to be complete isn’t necessarily true for everyone.

She tells Metro.co.uk: ‘It’s important to allow yourself to come out at a time that feels right for you.

‘There has been a popular notion that you aren’t living your most authentic self if you aren’t out to everyone. This idea is harmful and doesn’t consider the individual circumstances that can make it very difficult to come out.

man talking to his father

Give yourself time (Picture: Getty Images)

‘Some clients I have worked with have come from oppressive family backgrounds where coming out means being shamed, cut out, punished and/or ostracised from their families and communities.’

A red flag that indicates your family members might not take the news well is how they talk about LGBTQ+ people and subjects – are they open-minded or do they sound judgemental?

Ruth, who’s a psychotherapist who specialises in working with LGBTQ+ individuals, says you should ‘give yourself time and space to process your emotions and thoughts’.

‘It can be helpful to come out gradually,’ she adds, ‘gauging who feels safe and trustworthy to come out to. You do not have to come out to all family members and can ask those that you do come out to not to share your disclosure.’

In addition to giving yourself time, you may also find that your family members need a bit of time to process.

Ruth explains: ‘Give family time to process your coming out, as it may be news that your family are hearing for the first time.

Clients that I have worked with have found it useful to share resources that help educate family on aspects of their identity and coming out.’

As well as considering your family’s perspective, you also need to make sure you’re taking care of yourself.

‘For many people, Ruth says, ‘coming out is a highly emotional experience that brings up a lot of anxiety. I recommend practising self-care ahead of the conversation and making sure that you are looking after yourself.

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‘It’s useful to approach conversations feeling calm, as opposed to feeling angry, frightened, or upset. When we feel calm, we are better able to communicate clearly and thoughtfully. Anxiety can trigger feelings of reactivity and defensiveness which tend to distort messages.

‘Clients that I have worked with around coming out have found it helpful to write a journal of their thoughts, feelings and what they plan to say around coming out. Writing is a very useful way of making sense of thoughts and feelings.’  

If you have family members who do react very negatively, it’s important to remember that ultimately, your coming out is about you, not them.

If they can’t get with the programme, it might be time to set some new boundaries.

‘It’s painful when coming out is met with emotions that appear to be negative,’ Ruth tells us. ‘If family members held certain ideas and expectations about you, coming out may be a shock for them.

Female couple enjoying time together on a sofa

Surround yourself with people who accept you (Picture: Getty Images)

‘It can be helpful to give them time and space to process their emotions. There are stages of grief and adjustment that family members may experience and need to work through.

‘Your family’s response may change over time. However, your coming out is about you and being able to be who you are. If family members seem invariably hostile, unaccepting and invalidating, it may be necessary to set boundaries and work out ways of protecting yourself. This could involve limiting time spent with family members and saying no to certain conversations.

‘I encourage surrounding yourself with people that are affirming and accepting of who you are. We do not have a choice over the families that we are born into but can decide who we move closer to.’

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that who you do or don’t come out to is your decision – no one else’s.

‘How you choose to come out is a personal choice,’ stresses Ruth.

‘It’s okay not to come out if doing so feels unsafe.’

Degrees of Separation

This series aims to offer a nuanced look at familial estrangement.

Estrangement is not a one-size-fits-all situation, and we want to give voice to those who’ve been through it themselves.

If you’ve experienced estrangement personally and want to share your story, you can email [email protected] and/or [email protected]

MORE : ‘This is a war for human rights’: The Ukrainian LGBT community’s fight for survival

MORE : 50 years on Pride is just as important as ever – and here’s how we’re going to mark it

MORE : One in 10 still feel ‘disgust’ against LGBT people

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