The impact of coming out on extended family relationships
Usually, in the life of a homosexual, bisexual or queer person (LGBQ), sooner or later comes the moment, colloquially defined as coming out, in which you decide to communicate your sexual orientation to your family.
Sharing such a personal aspect of yourself can make you feel vulnerable. At the same time, receiving this news can activate various psychological, social and emotional dynamics in family members, for example refusal or a sense of guilt or vergona (Grafsky, Hickey, Nguyen, & Wall, 2018).
Grafsky, Hickey, Nguyen and Wall (2018) delved into the impact of coming out on family relationships, having in mind this question: what differences are there in the revelation of one’s sexual orientation by adolescents and young adults to different family members ?
The authors pointed out that traditionally research has focused on revealing sexual orientation to one’s parents and their reactions. However, all family members, including siblings and other less close relatives such as grandparents or uncles, can differentiate and influence each other with respect to how they welcome information and react to it.
This is why Grafsky and colleagues (2018) interviewed twenty-two teenagers and young adults between the ages of 14 and 21, who identified themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer or pansexual. During the interview, each participant had to identify six significant people from their family, describe their relationship with each of them and indicate whether they were aware of their sexual orientation or not. The participants then had to report whether the disclosure was spontaneous or due to communication by others, specifying in this case who had communicated the news. Finally they had to explain their decision to disclose their sexual orientation to specific family members and tell about positive and negative experiences associated with coming out.
The results indicate that approximately 63% of all family members identified were aware of the respondents’ sexual orientation. The family members to whom sexual orientation was most likely revealed were brothers (84%), followed by mothers (81%). In general, parents and siblings were more likely to be aware of their children’s sexual orientation than relatives outside the close family unit.
The interviews also showed how the sharing of one’s sexual orientation is different depending on the relationship one has with a particular family member. In particular, the authors made a distinction between “horizontal” and “vertical” relationships. In the first case, relationships are characterized by equal status, reciprocity, closeness and intimacy, as happens between brothers. In the second case, the relationships are more hierarchical and provide for more distinct roles: on the one hand, there are those who have more authority, take care and are responsible for the other, on the other there are those who are to some extent dependent and must show more obedience and respect. This is the case of relationships between parents and children or between grandparents and grandchildren.
According to what emerged from the interviews, revealing the sexual orientation to the brothers involved anxiety, but also feelings of loyalty and closeness. When the brothers were supportive, coming out could strengthen their bond.
Participants believed that coming out with extended family members was less urgent and necessary than with their parents and siblings. The decision to talk about one’s sexual orientation depended above all on the geographical and relational closeness with grandparents, uncles and cousins. In general, coming out with the extended family was a non-linear process that was repeated cyclically with the various family members.
Respondents were less likely to come out with grandparents, in part because the age difference made them feel uncomfortable discussing sexuality, in part because they feared that grandparents had prejudices against LGBQ people. Adolescents and young adults were concerned that grandparents might reject them or communicate news that was difficult to process, adding further difficulty to any health problems. In some cases, however, support from grandparents was significant.
An important role in the coming out process is that played by aunts or uncles. The authors defined the relationship between a teenager or young adult and uncles as “diagonal”. In fact, uncles can share affectionate relationships with their grandchildren, maintaining a certain degree of authority as adults, even without playing the same educational role as a parent. For this reason, the participants said that their aunts and uncles often mediated with other family members or gave advice on how to communicate the news to their parents. Therefore, uncles can be valuable supporters in the process of revealing one’s sexual orientation.
A similar role could be played by the adoptive parents, understood here as stepfathers or stepmothers, as their relationship with their children can also be called diagonal. However in this case proximity and proximity had to be negotiated and shared. Similarly, sharing with the acquired siblings depended on having developed a more or less close bond with them.
This study also has some limitations: it was conducted on a small sample, with qualitative methods and with participants from the United States. It would be interesting to compare the impact of coming out on the various members of the family and on the intertwining of their relationships in different cultures.
However, this study allows us to look into the complex world of family relationships and to begin to understand how these can be a source of emotional support and understanding, but sometimes also of stress, for LGBQ + children.
For clinicians working with LGBQ + teenagers and young adults, it is important to remember that siblings, uncles, grandparents and extended family members, by virtue of their specific roles, can represent sources of stress or resources to consider when sharing. of one’s sexual orientation with the family. Moreover, recognizing the sexual orientation of LGBQ + members of one’s family also means expanding the concept of heteronormative nuclear family to accommodate the possibility of more fluid families, in which the relationship counts more than the social role.