I’ve pulled out my sexy long johns and pumpkin is the lingering artificial tang gracing everyone’s lips; the holidays must be upon us. This is great: holidays mean presents, warm traditions and spending time with family. Unfortunately, they also mean buying presents, participating in dumb traditions and spending time with family. That last one is especially difficult because families inherently entail compromise and conflict. Every family has its own set of values and expectations — however broad or narrow — and violating those brings forth a storm of acrimonious woe. If you have changed and no longer fit all of those values, you have a difficult dilemma ahead of you. With the holidays comes the tight-rope walk of identity in which you face a gaping pit of strife and possible disinheritance on one side and the maddening suppression of your true self on the other. There is a reason that your mother adds a little extra cheer to her eggnog. Deciding if you should come out to your family and break their firmly held expectations is not easy. We all want to see ourselves as fearless mavericks of self love and expression, but no one wants to be left broke and alone, estranged from the support system that so many of us are blessed to have.
This is a tentative guide to help you make this “Sophie’s Choice.” The first thing to understand is that coming out takes many forms beyond the traditional exposure of sexual orientation or gender identity, although this is still one of the most difficult to do. You may want to break your family’s career expectations, transgress a religious or cultural restriction, express an uncouth view or tell them you’re struggling in school. Maybe your first semester at the wild College of William and Mary has poisoned your mind and you don’t want to be an engineering neuroscience doctor-lawyer but an art historian, or to at least add a gender, sexuality and women’s studies minor. Perhaps you need to break it to your hemp-loving hippie parents that you tried bacon for the first time and you now know they have been lying for years; soy is just not the same.
No matter the issue, the key operatives here are strategy and discretion. If you don’t want to literally kill your strictly orthodox, Reagan-idolizing great aunt Terry (bless her weak heart), then you probably don’t want to burst into the dining room wearing only a rainbow flag in what’s commonly known as the rip-off-the-Band-Aid method. Strategy is key. The first question to ask yourself is if there were any other trail blazers that came before you. Our families’ histories are generally pretty indicative of their future actions. If your outed cousin disappeared KGB-style, then it’s probably a no-go for you. Also, consider how they reacted to the last thing you dreaded announcing to them. If they were surprisingly accepting despite their regular Trump rhetoric and reproving, they might just surprise you. They are your family after all. However, if there is no data to base your decision off of, you’ll want to be cautious. Test the waters by coming out to your most accepting, tight-lipped, peripheral relatives. They’re usually the ones who get seated at the overflow (kids) table. Together, you can work to subtly change the minds of your other family members through the slow forces of erosion and suggestion — or at least hide out in the garage together. But this progress can be glacial, sometimes coming only one coffin at a time.
Then again, maybe not everyone really needs to know everything and maybe those who do shouldn’t have every detail. You have the power to choose who to tell and when to tell them. For example, if you’re failing classes, that is something that can stay between you and the people who can read your billing statements. When making this decision at the margin, you need to consider both your family’s level of acceptance and your own current ability to cope with the fallout. Honesty is always the best policy, except when it isn’t. I wish I could tell you to have no fear and that your family’s love is unconditional. Unfortunately, for a lot of people it isn’t that simple. Pick your fights carefully; just as you should be honest with yourself, you also don’t deserve to be ostracized or berated for your identity and choices. And remember, there is always winter break.