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“Swipe This!” is an advice column about how to navigate human relationships and connections in an age when we depend so heavily on technology. Have a question? Email [email protected]
. . .
Dear Swipe This!
I fear that I accidentally outed myself to my conservative relatives through Instagram.
Accepting my queerness has been a long journey for me, and coming out to my conservative cousins has been an even longer one. As someone who exists on a spectrum of queerness (not quite gay, not quite straight), it’s been something that fluctuates for me constantly, and the identifiers I use to describe myself (queer or bi) are not often heard or understood in the conservative Canadian community that I grew up in.
Because of that, I’ve found it hard to find the right words to explain my dating life to my fundamentalist Christian relatives. We don’t see one another often, but we used to be much closer when I was younger. In that way, I feel a lot of shame about not coming out to them. However, because of clashes we’ve had on Facebook over other cultural issues, I know that it would be a hard conversation to have.
Recently, I started being more open in my social media posts about my queerness, and even though I thought I had that side of the family blocked from seeing my posts, one of my cousins saw a Coming Out Day post I had made on Instagram and messaged me. She said that she wanted me to know that although she may not agree with or understand my “lifestyle,” she still loves me.
I was really touched that she reached out, and it made me feel even worse about not being open with this group of cousins. But the “lifestyle” comment didn’t quite make me feel accepted, either. Now that this one cousin knows, I’m assuming that all of her sisters know too because they’re all very close. I’m not 100 percent sure if I’ll see them when I go home for Christmas, but I’m feeling anxious.
How should I come out to people who already know I’m queer? And am I even obligated to? Basically, I feel like I got myself into a situation where I came out to relatives whom I wouldn’t have necessarily felt comfortable doing so with in person, and now I’m not sure how to acknowledge it. I’m also feeling like a bad queer for not being more out to them.
What should I do?
Out But Not Quite
. . .
Dear Out But Not Quite,
First of all, congratulations! I am so happy that you’re in a place where you feel safe enough to share this part of your identity with your social network. Some may think of IRL conversations as the space where we “really” come out, but I would disagree. Social media is such an integral part of how we share ourselves. You’ve come out to your extended community, and I think sharing your identity at that level is something to celebrate. You’ve done something incredibly vulnerable and daring, and—if you haven’t already—I hope you’ll pause and give yourself a high five, or a big hug, or a slice of “Hell yes, I came out to my Instagram followers” cake.
I’m proud of you. And I hope you are, too.
I know you wrote to me seeking advice for how to approach your cousin, but I think before you make that decision, the healthiest thing you can do is examine how you’re approaching yourself. Are you being kind to yourself? Or are you putting pressure on yourself? Your letter describes your identity as complicated and changeable, and while that may be true to your experience, I hear a little bit of self-criticism in your descriptions. Why should you have to find the “right words” to describe yourself? What if your sexuality is ambiguous or evolving? Does that make it any less valid than any other identity, straight, gay, or otherwise? And who exactly gets to decide whether in all your careful articulating you’ve finally gotten it “right”?
When it comes to identity and labels, our terms are always evolving. So I think the idea that you could ever get it “right” is a myth and the myth doesn’t serve you. But I understand why you’re chasing it. You’re hopeful that if you find the right words, the right phrasing, the most accurate explanation, you’ll finally be beyond criticism, both from others and from yourself. Trying to get it “right” is wasted energy because no matter how careful and thoughtful you are, you can’t control your family’s attitudes. The only person you can convince to stop criticizing you is yourself. So if you are practicing self-criticism regarding your identity, even at a microscopic level, please knock it off.
Maybe you’re already doing this work. Maybe you’ve been compassionate and kind when you address yourself. And maybe you’re still feeling the sting of your cousin not quite fully accepting you as you are. I understand that even when we feel proud of ourselves, and sure of our choices, the opinions of others can rattle us. I can see why your cousin’s message made you anxious, or uncomfortable, or even a little bit angry. It is totally human to feel flustered when people tell you in the same breath that they support you and remind you that they are in fact very different from you. Especially when those people are your family.
While I was reading your letter, I found myself wondering what other kinds of feedback you’ve gotten since coming out. Who’s made your feel valued, affirmed, and safe? And who’s made you feel like you have to prove yourself in some way?
I’m asking you this because I am sure that in your larger community there are people who have welcomed you with open arms. And I’m hopeful that you’ve had those experiences in your family too. Coming out is not a magical elixir that makes your life perfect and free of anxiety, but it can open a doorway to authentic connections that do their own kind of magic. I would encourage you to take stock of those connections where you feel safest and most yourself, and hold them close. If you don’t have them at home, remind yourself that you can carry those connections with you wherever you go. The people who love and support you unconditionally are rooting for you, whether they’re at your holiday dinner table or not.
Which brings us to the dinner table. It sounds like you don’t have much choice about whether or not you’ll interact with this family member this year. But you do still have a choice about whether or not you want to engage in conversations about your identity. You are not a “bad queer” and your identity is no less valid if you decided that this conversation is not the way you’d like to spend your holiday. You don’t have to prove your queerness to yourself or anyone else this season.
All you have to do is listen earnestly to yourself. Are you longing for a deeper, more meaningful interaction with certain family members? If so, and if you feel safe enough to do so, go ahead and open up. But if you feel that this precious piece of who you are is something you’d like to protect, you have every right to politely but firmly shut down conversations that you aren’t ready to have. You’d certainly never ask your cousin to prove or explain her heterosexuality, so why on earth should you have to prove or explain yours?
The fact is, there is no “right” way to navigate this process of coming out to your family. And—while your relatives may be unlike you in many ways—when you gather to celebrate the holidays, they are likely hoping for much of the same things you are: to feel a sense of warmth, acceptance, and belonging. Especially if they are fundamentalists, they are likely to share your sense that things will work out if they do everything “right.”
Is it possible they are clinging to outdated beliefs because it offers them the sense of safety we all crave when we come home to our families? I’m not suggesting you forgive them for any bigoted views, but I wonder if viewing them in this light, they might feel a bit less threatening to you.
And while you cannot control how they will treat you, you can choose to treat yourself and others with unwavering kindness. And kindness doesn’t have to mean sugar-coating truths or being nice when people make you feel bad. Kindness means acting with staunch respect and consideration for your feelings and the feelings of others.
So, whatever conversations you choose to have or evade this season, if you enter the holidays with a firm commitment to treat yourself and others with care, to say no to conversations where you or your loved ones are shamed or harmed, and to say yes to connecting from a place of love and curiosity, I am confident you will find the peace and warmth you crave.
Nayomi Reghay is a frequent contributor to the Daily Dot, covering body positivity, feminism, sex, relationships, and gender. She is also the author of the advice column “Swipe This!” A former New York Teaching Fellow, her writing has been featured in Reductress, Rolling Stone, Mic, Someecards, and more.