DEAR THERAPIST from The Atlantic
How can I be open and honest with him when he doesn’t know who I am? LORI GOTTLIEB
NOVEMBER 23, 2020
Dear Therapist, I came out to my mom when I was 23, thinking she would embrace me with open arms. It was a night I’ll never forget. My dad was on the road for work and my younger sister was at a friend’s house. After crying for what felt like an eternity, my mom told me that I was just inexperienced with girls and that she would pay a prostitute to turn me into a real man. She made me get on my knees and promise that I wouldn’t tell my dad, ever. She was holding my six-month-old brother in her arms throughout the whole ordeal, and at one point asked God for guidance to properly raise him so he wouldn’t turn out like me. Sign up for The Atlantic’s daily newsletter.
Each weekday evening, get an overview of the day’s biggest news, along with fascinating ideas, images, and voices. She kicked me out of the house the next morning. I told my dad why a year later. He wasn’t happy that I was gay, but he didn’t reject me like she had. He hugged me and told me, “You’re my son. That’s all that matters.” I thought his acceptance, though reluctant, would usher in an opportunity for reconciliation with my mom, but that didn’t come to pass.
I tried my best to remain a part of the family, but doing so wasn’t easy. I was never allowed to take my little brother to the park or grab a slice of pizza with him. My sister said that our parents probably thought that my homosexuality would “rub off” on him. I showed up to his birthday parties and school plays, but that was all my parents would allow.
Thirteen years later, after two stays at a rehabilitation clinic for depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, I have forgiven my parents. But I’ve never had an opportunity to build a relationship with my little brother. Mom and Dad never wanted him to know that I’m gay, but he’s 14 now, and I have his personal email address. I have no interest in revealing to him the details of my ordeal with our parents, but I desperately want to be genuine and authentic with him. I want him to know who I am without any secrets or lies. I’m an adult, and I feel I have the right to make such a revelation, with or without my parents’ consent. I’ve respected their wish to remain silent for far too long and have begged them to tell him, but they keep making excuses as to why that isn’t prudent. My patience has run dry, but I still hesitate to do this behind their back. Should I tell my little brother that I’m gay despite our parents’ disapproval?
Dear Anonymous, I first want to say I’m so sorry for the pain you’ve been through. When you told your mother that you’re gay, she asked you to do one of the hardest things anyone can be asked to do: pretend to be someone you’re not. Humans have an innate need to connect with others, and when we aren’t truly known—or when we are rejected for who we really are—we are left feeling utterly alone. I imagine that’s how you felt when you were kicked out of the house and forbidden from telling your father that you’re gay. You say that you’ve experienced depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, and studies show a relatively high level of these experiences and behaviors among LGBTQ children whose families reject them for their sexual orientation. The dilemma you’ve had to grapple with has left you with an emotional conflict: I can deny who I am and be loved, or I can share who I am and be shunned. Most people can’t live with this conflict for long, and if they do, they tend to suffer greatly. The damage to your family goes beyond your own private pain. It sounds as though your mother, father, and sister all know now that you’re gay, but that information is a family secret from which your brother is supposedly shielded. The thing about family secrets is that they’re rarely truly secrets. Many people who grow up in homes with family secrets say that they always had a sense that something was not as it seemed, and that this resulted in chronic unease. What your parents don’t realize is that in trying to protect your brother from whatever danger they believe the truth would pose to him, they’re likely making him feel less safe. Read: How one mom changed other parents’ minds about their children’s sexuality Living authentically—in both the telling and receiving of truth—is essential to emotional well-being, so when this secret is finally out, both you and your brother will ultimately benefit. The issue right now is that your brother is living in a household with parents whose beliefs are misinformed and misguided, which complicates how you might tell him the truth and how he will receive it. For instance, a 14-year-old boy who gets a coming-out email from his much older brother with whom he barely has a relationship might not know what to do with that information. I’m guessing that some of what he’s learned about being gay has come from your parents and their community, so your email could make him uncomfortable, afraid, or confused. He might go straight to your parents with questions: My brother just emailed me and said he’s gay. Is this true? Is it contagious? Will he go to hell? If he does, your parents might reinforce their misguided beliefs and even forbid him from having any contact with you, which could make establishing a relationship with him when he’s older even harder.
The point is that you won’t have much opportunity to process the truth with him if your parents haven’t evolved in their thinking, so that’s where you might want to start—by educating your parents, even if they aren’t initially receptive. That you have to do this at all is unfair and a burden, but without this work, your parents will continue to put you in this untenable situation. Instead of emailing your brother first, email your parents and let them know that you can no longer tolerate living a lie and that you’d like to share with them why being open about who you are would benefit the entire family.
Then send them articles such as this one that explain that same-sex attraction is not contagious, and more important, this blog post by a mother named Linda Robertson who used to feel the way your parents do until she realized, tragically, the harm she had caused her gay son, Ryan, who died from a drug overdose. Let them know that their continuing demands to hide who you are from your own sibling and prevent you from creating a relationship with him are doing great harm. If your sister is more accepting than your parents are, you might be able to enlist her as an ally in this process. The more you can educate your parents about the consequences of their actions—not just on you, but on the family as a whole (including the possibility that your little brother might feel angry and betrayed by your parents as an adult when he learns that he’s been lied to all of these years)—the more movement they might make toward seeing some benefit in letting go of the secrecy, even if they don’t change their beliefs about being gay. Sometimes one parent is more open than another, and based on your dad’s reaction to learning that you’re gay, he might faciliate some movement here as well. If as a result of this email one or both parents are willing to engage in dialogue with you and then work together to find a way to tell your brother—who will tell him, how his questions will be answered, etc.—that will hopefully open the door for many more honest and productive conversations over the years. And if your parents remain intransigent, you can certainly email your brother and include the same links you sent your parents, knowing that they might block you from further contact with him; or you can choose to wait a few more years, until he’s out of the house and has more exposure to gay people and different values about sexual orientation. Whatever happens with your parents and however you decide to approach your brother, the clarity you have now about the toll of secrecy and the importance of embracing and sharing who you are will serve you well in the most important relationship of all—the one you have with yourself. It will help you choose to surround yourself with people—a community of close friends, a loving and supportive romantic partner—who embrace you not just in ways that are convenient for them, but in your exquisite entirety.
Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity. LORI GOTTLIEB is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a psychotherapist based in Los Angeles. She is the author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone.