(Or telling friends and family big news about us at whichever holiday time is important to you)
For the festive season we decided to tackle something we’ve often been asked about at this time of year – how to come out to friends and family – or share other big news – over the holidays.
Here’s our chat about it (in a pub, hope you can hear us okay)
And here’s a summary of what we said
Coming Out at Christmas – Why?
Many people feel they need to share important aspects of their identity or lives at this time of year for the following kinds of reasons:
- It’s essential if they are to spend time with loved ones, for example if it’s something obvious about them or their partner/s like being pregnant, not being pregnant any more, expressing their gender differently, their partner being of a different gender to previous partners, there being more than one partner, or having broken up with a partner.
- It may be the only time of year they get to see these friends and family so there is no other time to tell them face-to-face.
- They might have reached the end of their rope keeping this thing a secret and just need to get it out there.
- What’s going on in wider culture might have helped them to realise something about themselves that feels urgent to share with loved ones or that is likely to crop up in conversation because of it being in the news – such as #metoo helping them to realise they’re a survivor, or all the trans media helping them to recognise their own gender.
- Somebody might already know and there’s a risk of others finding out if they don’t say anything.
Three big caveats
Before getting into it, there’s some important things to say about coming out:
- People shouldn’t have to come out at all. The only reason some people do have to is because our culture makes assumptions about the ‘normal’ way people should be and the ‘normal’ life they should have. So anybody who deviates from that in any way (which is most of us at some point) has to choose either to keep that a secret (if that’s even possible) or to share it and face rejection and discrimination. Neither option is great. It’d be far better if we all stopped making these normative assumptions (e.g. that people will remain in the gender they were assigned at birth, will form romantic and sexual relationships, will have one partner of the ‘opposite’ gender, will get married by a certain time, have kids at a certain time, do certain kinds of work, have a certain kind of body, not experience mental health problems or abuse, etc.)
- For many people it is impossible to come out so we should never pressurise anyone to do so. Many face homelessness, loss of essential care, physical violence, or rejection from vital communities if they come out. The idea that coming out is what everyone should do comes from a place of privilege and a certain way of viewing the world which not everyone shares.
- The onus should really be on the people receiving the coming out to receive it well, rather than on the person doing the coming out to do it in the best way for everyone else. The person coming out is already having to do a heap of emotional labour that they wouldn’t have to be doing if everybody didn’t make normative assumptions.
How to go about it
On the podcast we spoke about things you might think about – if you are the one sharing something about yourself – in order to make it as safe as possible. As we’ve said, the onus shouldn’t be on you to ensure that it is well-received, and however you do it is okay. However, you might want to think about some of these ideas also in terms of the other person being in a good-enough place to hear you.
- Think about self-care and support around it – what might you do to look after yourself before and after, can you have your people online or with you to help you through it?
- Think about safety too – emotional and physical – can you have escape routes for if it goes badly, e.g. other places to stay or easy ways of getting out of the situation for a while or completely.
- Meta-communication could be a good idea in advance if possible – checking out how you like to communicate this kind of thing, and how the recipient likes to have it communicated.
- You might even want to communicate it before actually spending time together – perhaps in writing – so people have time to process it and check in before deciding whether to spend time together.
- People often feel under pressure over holidays, and therefore may well not be at their best, so it is worth thinking about whether there are other – less pressured – times when the conversation might happen, or about when during the holidays would be the best time to do it. But remember also there is not perfect way to do these things and whatever happens is okay.
How to receive it
Sadly people on the receiving end of these kinds of things often respond poorly: focusing on the impact on them rather than the person it is happening to (e.g. ‘Was it my fault?’, ‘How will I ever tell so-and-so this?’), questioning it, asking lots of inappropriate or intrusive questions, expecting the other person to support them with difficult feelings, minimising the importance of it (e.g. ‘Are you sure it’s really that big a deal?’ ‘It’s probably just a phase’), or catastrophising the situation (e.g. ‘This is terrible’, ‘I’ll never be able to look so-and-so in the face again’).
Here’s some pointers to receiving well:
- What the person telling you this information generally needs most is to be heard, acknowledged, and affirmed. It’d be great if you could also express your gratitude at them telling you (which was probably very scary for them) and your reassurance that this doesn’t change your love for them.
- For now leave it at that. There’ll be time for more conversations later. Just focus on enabling them to say everything they want to say to you. Good questions include: ‘Is there anything more you’d like to say?’ ‘What do you want me to know about this?’ ‘How can I best support you?’ ‘I imagine that it is a lot telling me this, what can we do to make the rest of today as easy as possible for you?’
- Take what they say at face value – they will have thought long and hard about this.
- If you’re struggling at all don’t ask them for support – practice self-care and go to your other people who aren’t directly involved (if the person gives you their consent for that) and/or to helplines, knowledgeable professionals or other support.
- If you want information don’t ask them to educate you beyond saying you’d love to look at any resources they’d like you to see. There’s lots of helpful support available online – ideally access materials from people within the relevant communities.
© Meg-John Barker and Justin Hancock, 2018