By Adrienne Kilby
“They’ll come around.” This was a phrase I heard from friends, coworkers, a mentor, and even the therapist I was seeing after I came out as a lesbian at the age of twenty. They were trying to comfort me, but after growing up within the confines of ultra-conservative Christianity, I knew the average person had no concept of what “coming around” would entail for my parents. Those individuals obviously meant well, but their easy reassurance enabled me to dismiss my own pain about my family’s silence.
My parents are polite, intelligent, rational people. Despite their devastation about my sexuality and impending damnation to hell, they did not scream at me, kick me out of the house, or force me to attend an ex-gay camp. While I avoided the most dramatic types of family reactions young people may experience when coming out, the silence was a quiet kind of pain that crept up on me unexpectedly. It hurt to see “turn-your-child-straight” books on my parents’ nightstands, to overhear whispers about a support group they attended for Christian parents who were praying for their kids to “straighten out”, to know I had to avoid acknowledging a huge part of myself in order to maintain an artificial (yet comforting) sense of normalcy in our household.
Because of my parents’ almost complete avoidance of the topic of my sexuality, it seemed like my struggle was invisible even to other LGBTQ people. I’d heard that the gay community could become your “chosen family” when your family of origin couldn’t deal with you. That never happened for me. Getting kicked out of one’s house or being repeatedly berated are situations that are easy to sympathize with. In fact, the LGBTQ community often sees silence on the part of the LGBTQ person’s family as a positive reaction. It’s scary to acknowledge the pain of someone we love when there’s nothing we can do about it. Humans are empathetic creatures and often the boundaries we set to protect ourselves from absorbing other peoples’ emotions aren’t as strong as we like to think. We search for a quick solution, rather than spending time with pain.
The best advice I received about dealing with silence from my family and as well as the LGBTQ community was from my therapist. The one, coincidentally, who told me my parents would come around. She taught me about the importance of learning to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. Basically, she explained, I had to acknowledge my discomfort; be okay with feeling confused, angry, sad, and helpless. Simultaneously, I had to be able to recognize that I’d have better (and worse) days, and that I could go on with my life even while experiencing pain. Life wasn’t some grand quest to conquer and control my emotions.
Rejection and stigma are part of our society. They are sometimes obviously cruel, sometimes veiled in sympathy. They come from people with opposing ideologies, as well as the very support systems we need to fall back on when the world seems against us.
I learned a few valuable lessons by practicing the philosophy of “being comfortable with feeling uncomfortable”. I learned to be at peace in my pain. Not to ignore it, try to be bigger than it or “get over it”, but to simply let it flow through me as I go about my life. I learned how important it is to acknowledge the gravity of other people’s unique experiences without assuming I know anything about them. Lastly, I found myself able to forgive people who were too afraid of feeling pain to sit through mine with me. And I learned that sometimes, while we’re learning to accept whatever life brings our way, the people we least expect to really do come around.
A message from the author…
I felt really excited about writing this blog when I was invited by CHAI to do a guest post for the month of June, which is Gay Pride Month in the United States. Most media about LGBTQ people seem to cover only the most extreme, tragic stories and I never felt like the experiences of my friends or I quite fit in. It was great to be given an outlet to tell my “in-between” story, which is neither tragic nor ideal. In the past few years, as I began to really integrate being a lesbian into my everyday identity, I came to the realization that my family was evolving on the topic of my sexuality just as I was. Writing this guest post has helped me to step back and appreciate the difficult and very rewarding challenge this journey has been for me and my family.
Adrienne Kilby grew up in a conservative, religious household and attended a Southern Baptist church for all of her childhood. Through personal experience and social work/feminist education, she has become a firm believer that groups of people with the same ethnicity, religion, culture, gender, sexual orientation or ability contain individuals with a diverse multitude of experiences that cannot be lumped together easily. She enjoys questioning the parameters of social groups society places people in and considering how those parameters isolate and oppress individuals, families and communities. Adrienne will graduate with her MSW at the end of the summer and hopes to go on to a career helping under-served individuals break down barriers to good, quality healthcare.