Coming out to loved ones: A short toolkit to help
Coming out is possibly the worst thing that you could ever want to do. Ever. It is scary and hard and terrifying and really difficult. You psyche yourself out for a long time trying to pump yourself up.
For some ‘coming out’ is simply a social obstacle, something that is more annoying to do than anything else but for others it could prove a traumatic and dangerous experience. Especially given that in a number of countries not being straight is illegal, society can make it physically and emotionally dangerous to come out.
When we say coming out it can mean a number of things to a number of people, but for the purposes of this it means actively telling someone about your sexuality.
Usually queer people are expected to make some “confession” about their sexuality because they are not heterosexual. But know this: You do not EVER have to come out to anyone.
Ever. Straight people never have to come out to anyone as heterosexual and you do not have to tell anyone about your sexuality either. You are not your sexuality. Nobody can tell you that you are hiding or that you are lying because you choose not to disclose your sexuality. Not your partner, not your friends, not your family. Disclosing your sexuality is your prerogative.
No one can ever pressure you to come out, not a partner, not your friends, not other family members.
It is a personal choice as to who you tell and why you tell them and no one can force you. Anyone who does is being awful and you should tell them.
With all that said, if you decide to come out to people you know, here are a few tips.
Have someone who you can talk to before and after: Having someone who can walk this journey with you is important. If possible, find someone who has gone through the process of disclosing their sexuality to their family and friends. This person will hopefully have some amazing advice and be a sounding board for you as you go through the process. There will be a lot of people challenging you and trying to convince you that you are on the wrong path. Having someone who will check in with you and support you during this time is crucial. It can be a friend who just listens without judgment, someone from an organisation…dang, you can even email us and we will have your back digitally. But having someone there is so helpful we cannot even say.
Have somewhere you can go if things go badly: If you are living at home having somewhere to go if things go badly is important. We know African parents: one minute you are the light of their world, next they tell you have brought shame to them and must never darken their doorstep ever again. We hope the latter is not your experience but if it is, please have a plan. If you are not living at home but are still dependant on someone who could take it badly also have a plan. LGBTI youth experience homelessness at higher rates than most other people. It is heartbreaking and we don’t want you to be in this position. But humans can suck sometimes. Its not right but it happens. If you have somewhere you can go at least to lay your head if things go badly that would be a relief. Believe us. It helps.
Do it for yourself: never be pressurised to tell your parents or anyone else about your sexuality. Partners who say things like ‘you have to tell them for us to be together’ are not helpful and are not respecting your choice. Friends who push you into coming out are not helping either. Remember, the decision to disclose your sexuality is your choice and yours alone to make.
Don’t apologise: Sometimes people feel compelled to apologise when coming out because of the negative perceptions around queer sexuality. You have nothing to be sorry for. Rather than apologise you can tell your family and friends that you understand how they would be disappointed. But remind them that your sexuality does not signal the end of the world and it is nothing you need to be sorrry about because there is nothing wrong it.
Try to be confident: Coming out is difficult and scary. We know. But this is a time when you must gather all your courage and stand your ground. This will be a time when people tell you that ‘it is a phase’; that queer sexuality is wrong and you will grow put of it or that you must be going through a hard time.
Tell them to go kick rocks.
But tell them firmly and calmly that it is something you have thought long and hard about. If they need to hear it tell them it is something you have even prayed over. Remind them that you understand the difficulty of this conversation and you would not come to them over something that was not this important or that you took lightly. *Queerness well might be a phase, but it is still your truth. People like to insist that sexuality is clear-cut, that you are either straight or gay for always and all time. This is just not true. You don’t have to claim one sexuality for the rest of your life. Some people who identify as bisexual later identify as lesbian or straight and some lesbians later identify as straight. Your sexuality does not have to be static and nobody can tell you that how you feel is wrong!*
Write down what you would want to say: Like any important speech having what you want to say nearby will help. Just in case you get nervous or the crowd (namely those you are speaking too) starts getting rowdy you can keep your place. Also sometimes people are better at reading things than actually listening to them because then they cannot interrupt and start answering back.
Writing is also helpful as a way to sort out your emotions and order all the things you want to say. We are guessing that at this moment there are so many things. Write down what your feelings are, look at them, and own them. Because what you feel is real and important. As a caveat, you might not want to digitally send out a letter in case it is shared in a way that you have no control over.
Understand that extended family may get involved, think what family from your generation can support you: “It takes a village to raise a child” is a popular saying amongst Africans. This means aunts and uncles and cousins from far may be called in when you come out. If there is someone in your family who you can talk to and connect with it might make things a little easier especially if some family members react badly.
Give them time: Queer sexuality is not often something that people have to try and understand and coming out is a process. As African people, we understand our world as dominated by heterosexual weddings, men as heads of households, natural-born children as the most valuable gift and the like. By coming out, you might be seen as challenging this world view. In many ways, you are and it will take time for people to understand. Your mother will probably keep going ‘why? Why, my child, are you doing this?’ Be ready to keep having the conversation. They will keep asking, again and again. These things take time.
Talk to someone who has gone through it (if you know someone): Talk to someone who can chat to you about the process if they have gone through it. They usually have some amazing advice or even they can be an ear to listen before or after the fact. If all else fails you can get in contact with us.
Be ready to keep having the conversation: Your mother will probably keep going ‘why? Why my child are you doing this?’ Be ready to keep having the conversation, again and again. They will keep asking again and again. These things take time.
Learn what religion/culture really says about homosexuality: Chances are they might not listen but at least you have an answer when they start telling you things. One thing you might hear a lot is that “it’s unnatural”. Do not give into the claim that your sexuality is unnatural. There is nothing unnatural about being in love, there is nothing unnatural about desire. The only thing that is unnatural is hate and homophobia. You don’t have to address this argument right away, but just know for yourself that nothing about you is unnatural. At HOLAA! we have some information on pre-colonial same-sex practices. Also ‘For the Bible Tells Me So’ is a good movie that deals with sexuality and how religion engages with it.
Do not think that something is wrong with you: You are perfect and amazing and just the way you are meant to be. People will try and convince you that you are a lot of things, possessed, evil, wrong, confused etc. You are not. To quote the ‘Good Book’ you are fearfully and wonderfully made.
This is not an easy thing to go through, but you are strong enough to get through this. We hope this guide helps a little bit.
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