How To Deal With The Holidays When You're Not Out To Your Family

A queer therapist weighs in

Image by Sarah Lutkenhaus

Before I came out to my family, I stayed quiet for a while. No time felt like the "right time" to tell my family that I was queer; it was something I was still grappling with myself. I'm lucky in that I wasn't afraid of being rejected by them—even though they're conservative, I knew they'd always love me for who I am—but I still felt the need to come out in the "right way," whatever that means. So, there were months where I hid, not saying anything so that I could find the right time to say the one thing I was having a hard time getting out.

While I stayed silent, I felt like a fraud. I never outright lied, but lying by omission made me feel extremely guilty—and it also took a toll on my understanding of my identity. Feeling like my sexuality was something worth hiding then made it feel like it was something to be ashamed of. For me, family gatherings triggered these emotions in an extreme way.

I'm extremely fortunate that I wasn't worried about being excluded from my family because of my sexuality, but for so many other queer people, being out to their family might be impossible, or even dangerous, so they choose to stay closeted instead of putting themselves in harm's way. And now that the season of nonstop holiday gatherings is upon us, being forced into these situations where you feel like you can't be your true self can take its toll.

Stephanie Peña, a psychotherapist for queer-identified people, agrees that individuals may choose not to disclose their gender or sexuality to their family members "due to fear of rejection, bullying, or different forms of violence [mental, financial, or gender-based]." For so many, staying closeted is the safest thing to do. But at the same time, it can feel like you're covering something up, which can unleash countless uncomfortable emotions: Peña notes that one can feel "conflicted, confined, isolated, and like you're not being fully seen for your authentic self" when they remain closeted from loved ones, which "can be very painful and certainly cause sadness."

While it's never fun or fulfilling to hide a part of yourself from others, there are certain areas in which it is a safer option to omit that aspect of your identity. If you know your family has a homophobic stance, then it may be the best bet to keep yourself safe—there's nothing wrong with that. It's sometimes taxing, too, that when you come out to someone with limited knowledge of queer identity politics, more is involved than merely saying, "I'm [insert identifier here]."

"Many times education and vocabulary lessons are asked of us," says Peña, "especially if you fall into the T and or Q part of the rainbow." And explaining your identity to someone who can not or will not understand can be tough: "Coming out is not enough, and that can require a lot of emotional labor." It's totally fine to want to avoid that, especially around the holidays. "The holidays are stressful as is," Peña points out.

When it comes to the feelings of guilt that come with not disclosing your sexuality or gender identity, Peña advocates for people who are being forced into these situations to remember that they have other support systems, filled with people who accept them for their sexuality or gender identity. LGBTQ people often have some sort of chosen family of people that accepts them and may even be going through something similar. "If you can, load up on support from friends and chosen family before the holiday," she suggests. "You can remember their affirmations when feelings of guilt start creeping up." When you're feeling these negative emotions, it can be hard to remember that there's nothing wrong with you and that you are handling the situation as best you can, but if you come prepared with loads of positive vibes, being reminded that you're still valid can be a little easier.

If the negative feelings are getting to you, Peña urges to take care of yourself, whether that means exercising or engaging in fun activities. "Make excuses to get out, check in with friends or family, biological or chosen, who are supportive, and go ahead and treat yourself!" she says. "Self-care is especially important during trying times." And, above all, be kind to yourself. "Remember that you are a resilient person and that you are making the right decision for your situation. Only you can determine when the best time to come out to whom is."

Obviously, it's never anyone's preference not to be out; feeling like you're not being the best, most authentic version of yourself can make you uncomfortable or insecure, and when you're forced to shroud a part of yourself for your safety or for the comfort of others, it can make you feel guilty, like you're lying to family. But that's not actually the case. "You can still engage and cultivate meaningful connections, even if you're omitting information about your sexuality," Peña assures those in this situation."While your sexual orientation is an important part of who you are, it's not the only part. You can still be sincere and genuine in other situations and conversations that don't center around your romantic life." Most of all, remember that you're not being inauthentic by not sharing your sexual or gender orientation.

But, she says, just because you think your family wouldn't approve of you or would react negatively to the information, doesn't necessarily mean that that will be the case. "Sometimes our family can surprise us," Peña says. "I think its okay to have an 'expect the best, prepare for the worst' mentality." This doesn't mean that a family gathering would be the exact right time to come out, but being open to the possibility that you might be accepted when you do choose to cross that bridge could ease the discomfort of feeling like you're lying.

We still live in a world that doesn't fully understand or accept sexualities other than straightness, or genders that don't align with one's sex at birth. And that prejudice can, even if we deal with it on some level every day, feel alienating and even harsher when it comes from your family. But it's always important to remember that it is possible to be genuine without talking about your sexuality and that your identity is still valid, even if we live in a world that doesn't always think so.