Emily Rizzo

August 1998

Keeping Secrets

Q. I recently came out to my sister and she's very supportive but she's told me I shouldn't come out to my parents because it would just upset them. I had been planning to tell them next but now I'm not sure what to do.

A. First of all, congratulations! You've come out to a close family member and the world didn't come to an end, which should give you the courage you need to come out to others in your family.

As for your sister's reaction, remember your sexual orientation is your secret, you "own" this secret and thus you alone have the right to decide who knows it. Just as no one has the right to out you to someone else, no one has the right to keep you closeted.

Before you decide to ignore your sister, ask her what basis she has for her advice. Are your parents in the midst of a family crisis, such as a serious illness, impending divorce, or something else, which might make it advisable for you to postpone telling them until things are calmer? Is she concerned for your safety or well being because she has reason to believe that they will either throw you out of the house or cut you off financially? Perhaps there's a family secret involving homosexuality, which she knows about but you don't? If her only reason for not telling them is because it will make them or her uncomfortable or cause family disequilibrium then that's not good enough!

Remember to talk it over with her though; this will give you practice in discussing your homosexuality and give her a chance to ask any questions she may have. You've had years of practice hiding and keeping your true self from people so that being open about your feelings may be a new experience for you. It will also give you a chance to compare notes on your parents: sometimes siblings who grow up together have very different perceptions of their family dynamics. My sister and I, who are less than three years apart, joke that we grew up in parallel universes since there are so many incidents we remember differently.

If her sole concern is that they will be made uncomfortable, you can explain to her that while they may go through some discomfort now, there are many positive benefits to your being out. You can point out that they don't really know you now, and, as you get more involved with gay friends and activities, there will be less of your life that you can share with them. After all, your coming out to them is really about having a more open and honest relationship with your parents; it's an act of trust that they will see you as you really are and still love and accept you.

If you do decide to come out to your parents, do some advance planning. Pick your time carefully; do not come out at Christmas, Thanksgiving, your sister's wedding or any other big family event. Choose instead a time when you can talk to them privately and quietly and they can give you their full attention. Also, do your homework. Check out the PFLAG web page at www.pflag.org and locate the nearest chapter, find out when and where the next meeting will be, and get the phone number of a parent who would be willing to speak to yours if they need immediate support. Obtain some PFLAG pamphlets in advance and, if you can afford it, a book written just for parents. Enlist your sister as an ally; having a supportive person on hand can be a tremendous help. Then practice, practice, practice. Try writing them a letter; you don't have to give it to them, but it will help you organize your thoughts. Imagine all the worst things they could say and think about how you will respond. Prepare for the worst, but don't be surprised if things don't go so badly.

All personal queries will be answered confidentially. Send e-mail to Emily.Rizzo@nyu.edu.

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