What Is Coming Out, and Why Hasn’t My Child or Teen Come Out to Me?

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Part one: What is coming out?

The term coming out, which was popularized in the 1920s, was borrowed from the tradition of debutante balls, which were large formal events where young women would be introduced into high society as eligible bachelorettes.

Drag balls echoed the lavish and elegant nature of mainstream debutante and masquerade balls but were built by primarily queer and trans Black and Latinx folks during the explosion of creative expression that took place during the Harlem Renaissance in New York City as welcoming spaces for other queer and trans people. Taking place in many large US cities, including Chicago, Baltimore, and New Orleans, these drag balls were some of the “largest collective manifestations of prewar gay society” (The Week).

While people often associate it with emerging from a closet, “coming out” in the context of drag balls meant stepping safely and joyfully into one’s community but didn’t carry the assumption that you had been keeping that part of your identity a secret before that point. The addition of “the closet” came later, in the 60s and it is unclear exactly why – perhaps it referred to another turn of phrase, having “skeletons in one’s closet”.

Today, the term “coming out” isn’t as readily attached to a closet and most often refers to the internal journey of exploring and recognizing one’s sexual or gender orientation or the act of externally disclosing one’s identity, more specifically, their gender identity or sexuality.

For some people, the concept of coming out is a daunting one. For others, it can be a joyful event and a way to receive support from those around them.

The important thing to note about coming out is that there is no right or wrong way to do it and that everyone places different weight and meaning to it.

Why hasn’t my child come out to me?

Firstly, don’t make assumptions about your child’s gender or sexual identity. While you may have a hunch, it is not appropriate to assume anything about someone’s gender or sexual identity.

Maybe you’ve heard your child talking about their identity around friends or other family members but they haven’t told you explicitly about that part of their life. All you want is for them to talk to you so that you can tell them that you love them no matter what!

While you can’t know exactly what is going on in your child’s mind, try to practice empathy and conceptualize the sorts of factors that may be impacting what they feel comfortable talking to you about.

While we may try our best to protect our children from them, they receive so many messages and social pressure from all directions about how not to be. Whether it’s homophobic comments by peers at school or by other adults in their life or the neverending and terrifying anti-lgbt legislature making headlines, your child may be hesitant to take the step of “coming out” because of how it might impact the way they are perceived by friends and strangers alike.

Because of the way homophobia and cisheteronormativity (the system of belief that centers and naturalizes heterosexuality and a binary system of assigned sex/gender) are so inherent in how systems in this country were built and are run, it is impossible not to be impacted by them, and everyone has internalized these messages in some way. While you can’t keep your child from hearing all sorts of messages, you can make sure that in your home, tolerance, acceptance, and unconditional love are modeled and practiced.

On the other hand, there is also societal pressure for adolescents and teens to know exactly who they are, what they like and don’t like, and what is cool or not cool. The concept of “coming out” does not particularly make room for the confusion that is inherent in identity formation. What if you come out as one thing, but then start to feel like something else? What if you feel different than your friends or siblings somehow, but you’re not quite sure in what way or what that means? Formally coming out can feel restricting for some people who may be questioning or exploring.

For other folks, their sexuality and/or gender identity does not feel like an important or particularly relevant identity to their life, and therefore doesn’t feel important to “come out” as. People aren’t expected to come out as an athlete or a pescaterian or any number of things that may feel more important to someone’s identity than their gender or sexual identity.

More and more, the concept of coming out is seen as less of a necessity or something to be expected of queer people. Some people might have a distinct memory of their “coming out” story and where it fits on their timeline, and others might not be able to point to a coming out, or want to. For one thing, it is extremely rare that someone comes out just once. Queer folks are constantly making decisions about what is safe to disclose and to whom. “Coming out” happens all the time.

With the voices of more and more queer and trans people affirming and normalizing queer identities and lives, it is becoming more understood that while straight and cis are considered the standard, sexualities and genders exist on a beautiful continuum and it doesn’t make sense to operate as though we are straight until proven otherwise.

While it will be a long time before that concept can be truly internalized, we have the ability to change our language around coming out so that queer people sharing their identities isn’t about locating oneself as different or other, but celebrating who we are, who we have been, and who we will be, at every moment and stage of life.

Once we realize that there is no right or way wrong to be, we realize that there is nothing that we need to “come out” as.

Part two: Creating a safe environment

If you bring up topics related to your child’s identity and they don’t engage, back off. Avoid leading or prying questions.

If you suspect that your child isn’t ready to come out to you, the best thing you can do is work to create a safe environment for them so that they know that they can trust you when they’re ready.

There are little ways to do that that have nothing to do with your child’s identity – showing interest in their hobbies and passions, sharing affirmations about who you know them to be, practicing active listening skills when they do share with you. What do you know is important to your child? It may not be how they identify! Show support for what you do know.

On a broader scale, model acceptance and inclusion in other ways in your home. Engage in media that features and affirms LGBTQIA+ voices. Let your child know that you support the LGBTQIA+ community, even if you’re not directly addressing your child.

When your child feels safe, they will be more likely to talk to you. What messages about other things might you be saying that are sending the message that there are people that should not be embraced or celebrated?

Remember, it is typical teen behavior and developmentally normal for teens to distance themselves from parents, no matter who they are! Be patient with them and respect their timing and pace, and try not to take it personally.

Keep in mind: Just because your kiddo hasn’t come out to you doesn’t mean that they don’t feel safe or loved in their environment. In fact, that can be a sign that they already feel loved and supported – they know that you love them no matter what, and don’t need to be scared of disclosing and know that there isn’t a big fuss about it. If your child knows that they don’t need to make a big deal out of their identity, because in the end, there is nothing to “come out” as except oneself, then congratulations!

If coming out does feel important and relevant to your child and they come out to you, don’t say “I knew it”. Rather, thank them for their trust in you and show your love and support for them exactly where they’re at, whether you saw it coming or not.

Operate from a place of unconditional love. Your acceptance of your child on every part of their identity, whether they share the specific details of that or not, is the most important thing. You don’t need to know exactly who your child is, and when they are ready, they will share that part of themselves with you.

Part three: Additional Support

Support at home is one of the most important factors in children’s mental health and wellness, but there are other resources for kids and their parents that can help navigate this time.

Finding a licensed mental health therapist who specializes in working with LGBTQIA+ clients can be an empowering and validating experience for teenagers who may not want to open up to their parents.

There are also support groups for queer teens that provide a safe environment that prioritizes mental health and help them build community with peers, which is another crucial component of well-being for teens.

Therapy and support groups aren’t just for teens! Sentier’s Parents of Trans and Non-Binary Teens group is a support space for parents who want to share the highs and lows of their journey with their child.

Individual therapy can also be a valuable tool for parents to process their kids’ journey in a way that they can’t around their child or other family members. Seeking out a mental health professional for individual support will help your capacity to be there for your child, if ever, and whenever, they decide to take the brave step of coming out.

So…when will my child come out to me?

They don’t have to and may not ever!

You don’t need your child to come out to you as anything in order to love, support, and affirm them. There are ways to show that you love them no matter what and that don’t need them to “come out”. After all, did you “come out” as straight (if you are straight, that is)? The answer is likely no. There was not the pressure to be sure about your identity because it was the norm. You barely had to think about it.

Just because your child hasn’t come out to you does not mean you’ve done something wrong. In fact, feeling comfortable enough to just be themselves is a huge win!

Understanding and exploring one’s identity is a lifelong and deeply personal process, and there is no timeline. If your child does “come out” to you in some way, that doesn’t mean that they can’t or won’t do it again another time – as identities change, so can coming out.

Being a teen is a strange and important time, and respecting our children’s personhood and believing in them means showing love and support for everything that they are. Whether or not they come out to you does not indicate whether or not you or they are doing anything “correctly”.

Blog written by Sentier Client Care Coordinator, Ellie Struewing

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