Queer People’s Communication With Families of Origin
- Cimmiaron AlvarezCimmiaron AlvarezSchool of Communication, Illinois State University
- and Kristina K. ScharpKristina K. ScharpDepartment of Communication, University of Washington
Communicating with one’s family of origin requires considerable effort for queer people (e.g., LGBTQ+; queer is used as an encompassing term to include all gender and sexual identities that are not both cis and heterosexual). Queer people must decide if they want to disclose their gender and/or sexual identities, to whom they want to disclose, how they want to communicate, and anticipate the ways their family members may react. Immediate family members, such as parents and siblings, typically play an important role in queer people’s lives and are consequently some of the first people to whom queer people talk about their gender and/or sexual identities. Yet not all these disclosures are met with positive reactions from family members. Research suggests that queer people perceive their families’ reactions range from complete acceptance to total rejection. Thus, it is often the case that queer people must cope with multiple sources of stigma. From the family members’ perspective, parents and siblings also report having varied reactions to the queer person’s initial disclosure that require them to engage in sense-making. Thus, in addition to the communicative burden of queer people, their families may also have to share in the communicative work to communicate with people outside the family or (re)construct their family identity. All this communicative labor simultaneously reflects and constructs larger overarching ideologies surrounding gender and sexuality.
Disclosing to Heterosexual Families of Origin
Disclosing a queer identity, which may include a sexual and/or gender identity, can often be difficult given societal expectations and prejudices (Adams, 2011). Thus, before queer people communicate about this aspect of their identities, scholars and lay people alike use the metaphor of the “closet” to suggest this information is private or a secret. Indeed, this metaphor illustrates the general cultural assumption of cis heteronormativity and its power to silence alternative gender and sexual identities (Adams, 2011). When a queer person decides to disclose their queer identity and “come out” of the closet, family members are often at the center of those disclosures. These family members may serve to support their queer family member or hinder them, and some members’ actions can accomplish both simultaneously (Valentine et al., 2003). In this section on disclosure, we begin by addressing disclosure considerations (i.e., whether people will disclose their sexual and/or gender identities) before turning to a discussion of disclosure recipients and disclosure practices. While the disclosure experiences differ between sexual and gender identities for a variety of reasons (see Zimman, 2009), disclosure considerations, recipients, and practices do not differ between the sexual or gender identities of queer individuals.
Given the stigma the LGBTQ+ community faces, queer people must first decide whether or not they want to disclose or “come out.” Research suggests that queer people base this decision on a variety of factors. For example, some queer people anticipated reactions from family members that played an important role in whether or not they chose to disclose. Indeed, queer people report considering not only family reactions but also their family’s general reputation (Valentine et al., 2003). Deciding to disclose to family members or even at all is also contingent on cultural factors. Merighi and Grimes (2000) examined sexual orientation disclosures from young gay men (ages 18 to 24) of African, European, Mexican, and Vietnamese descent. For these queer men, they were less inclined to disclose if they came from a culture where that disclosure would negatively affect the perceptions of the entire family. For example, Latinx queer individuals reported being afraid to express any gender nonconformity because of the hegemonic masculinity and homophobia that are present in their communities (Pollitt et al., 2021). Meanwhile, men felt encouraged to disclose their queer identity when family unity and unconditional love pervaded the values of their culture (Merighi & Grimes, 2000). In a U.S. context, Grafsky (2018) found four factors that created a pressure, or lack thereof, for nonheterosexual youth (gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, and pansexual) to disclose to their families: (a) comfortability, (b) closeness, (c) prior messages, and (d) expected outcomes. In other words, these youth were more comfortable disclosing their sexual identity to their families if they were close and comfortable with their family members. In addition, the findings from this study suggested that nonheterosexual youth disclosed in different ways depending on how their family members communicated about same-sex attraction in the past. For example, if family members spoke poorly about queer people in the past (i.e., prior messages), then youth were less likely to disclose. Finally, youth also took into consideration how their family members might react to their disclosure by anticipating potential responses (i.e., expected outcomes). Taken together, this research suggests that the decision to disclose is fraught with complex considerations about how that disclosure may reflect on their family of origin more broadly.
In addition to concerns about how disclosing sexual and gender identities may reflect on their family, queer people must also decide to whom they want to disclose. Adams (2011) suggests that queer individuals often include their family in the coming out process. Yet disclosing a queer identity does not only occur between parents and children. Indeed, families are interdependent, meaning that information shared with one member may quickly proliferate throughout the entire family system. Grafsky et al. (2018) differentiate between horizontal relationships, between siblings and cousins, and vertical relationships, between parents and children. Vertical relationships involve guidance, boundaries, and hierarchy, while horizontal relationships are egalitarian and marked by reciprocity. When choosing to disclose, regardless of the relationship they were disclosing to, 75% of queer individuals disclosed face to face, while 25% disclosed using a mediated form of communication (Manning, 2014; Savin-Williams & Ream, 2003). Savin-Williams (2001) found that 38% of queer individuals in their study disclosed to their siblings, a horizontal relationship, before any other family member. Based on their sample, Grafsky (2018) found that often this initial disclosure occurred at the age of 16. In Savin-Williams and Ream’s (2003) sample of young men and women who had same-sex attractions, 46% of males and 44% of females had disclosed their identities to both parents. Meanwhile, 81% of all queer youth in Grafsky’s (2018) study had disclosed to at least one parent. Of those queer youth who had disclosed, 10 engaged in planned conversations with their mothers, and seven with their fathers. Unplanned disclosures happened for seven individuals to their mothers and six to their fathers (Grafsky, 2018). Queer youth disclosed to mothers more than fathers, and of the queer youth who were out to both parents, 35% came out to both parents together; 54% came out to mothers first, and only 12% came out to fathers first (Savin-Williams & Ream, 2003). In sum, this research suggests that regardless of timing, queer people find it important to disclose their sexual and/or gender identities to at least some of their immediate family members.
Once queer individuals decide they will disclose and to whom, they must then contend with how to share this information. Manning (2014) specifically explored the ways gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals disclosed their sexual identity and developed a typology of seven types of disclosures: (a) preplanned conversations, (b) emergent conversations, (c) coaxed conversations, (d) confrontational conversations, (e) mediated conversations, (f) romantic conversations, and (g) activist conversations. In accordance with Adams (2011), the most common type of disclosure was preplanned conversations. During disclosures that were preplanned, the queer person decided they were going to disclose and then initiated the conversation. Emergent conversations, though not planned, occurred when the queer person chose to disclose because the conversation naturally led to an established trust between the communicators. Queer men who utilized preplanned and emergent disclosures likely communicated in a direct style in which they clearly stated their LGBTQ identity (Merighi & Grimes, 2000). Meanwhile, some queer individuals reported that their communication partners coaxed them to disclosure through nudges, hints, or questions (Manning, 2014). Although queer people did not initiate these conversations, they reported feeling as if they had the power to disclose or not. Individuals did not necessarily have to be direct, however, in their disclosure because they could assume that their family member knew their sexuality (Merighi & Grimes, 2000). As a result, queer individuals within coaxed conversations could integrate their identities into the discourse indirectly. Similarly, a Native American, gay, and queer participant in Pollitt et al.’s (2021) study stated:
Oh, I never really had to come out. … From a young age, my mom said she knew when I was little. I just wanted to be a ballerina and all this stuff and she just knew. I never really had to say “I’m gay!” or anything like that. (p. 11)
For those with similar experiences, Pollitt et al. (2021) argue that some queer individuals who expressed gender nonconforming behavior, such as an individual assigned male at birth wanting to be a ballerina, did not feel the need to directly disclose their queer identities because their behavior made this aspect of their identity clear to family members. Although coaxed conversations were voluntary disclosures, a level of force characterized confrontational conversations (Manning, 2014). Confrontational conversations included evidence, confrontation, and chaotic communication. Moreover, most face-to-face confrontations occurred after the parent looked through the child’s bedroom, came upon notes or letters, or overheard phone conversations. Recounts of these experiences were overwhelmingly negative. The LGB individuals described their parents as angry while they described themselves as feeling betrayed, scared, or confused. Through confrontation, queer individuals reported being punished, censored, accused of being insane, or banished. Although preplanned, emergent, coaxed, and confrontational conversations all occurred face to face, mediated disclosures also occurred through the use of emails, letters, texts, or phone calls. As it happens, LGB individuals also disclosed their same-sex attraction through implicit conversations about attraction or as a way to advocate for LGBTQ rights. Thus, this research suggests that the disclosure itself may take many forms based on a variety of factors and in anticipation of a variety of responses. Similarly, McDonald et al. (2020) argue that disclosure, or coming out of the closet, “is constituted in communication and is not merely the outcome of an individual’s internal decisions and intentions” (p. 87). In the next section, we will address how queer people perceive that their family members receive their disclosures.
(Perceived) Family of Origin Initial and Communicative Reactions
Adams (2011) reports that the immediate reactions to disclosure—the seconds, minutes, hours, and days that follow—are so significant that people will remember and incorporate these reactions into the stories they tell about coming out. Because family members are often the recipients of these disclosures, how family members react can become an integral part of a queer person’s story and experience. Disclosure can have both extreme negative consequences and positive impacts (McDonald et al., 2020). Further, these reactions may be complicated by the fact that many families do not have family traditions or rituals to help guide them through this familial transition (Valentine et al., 2003). Other heteronormative familial transitions, such as births of children and weddings, although sometimes difficult, have coalesced into a familial script over generations. Because of the nonheteronormative transition that the family experiences after a queer individual discloses their identity, the family often does not have a script to follow. As a result of a lack of scripts, Valentine et al. (2003) note that several of their lesbian and gay participants reported that their families appeared to be in a state of denial by never acknowledging the disclosure. Adams (2011) clarifies that coming out is an ongoing process. Even after an LGBTQ individual discloses to one family member, they may disclose, or not, to every other family member. Adams (2014) even reports that there are some individuals who have to come out to their parents several times for various reasons, such as if the parent has Alzheimer’s or refuses to accept the queer identity.
Yet not all families react this way. In their study of 516 gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth, D’Augelli et al. (2008) found that in single-parent families, reactions were equally positive and negative. Meanwhile, in two-parent families where the LGB individual had disclosed to both parents, one-third of parents reacted positively, one-third negatively, and one-third of parental dyads had one parent who reacted positively while the other parent reacted negatively. In D’Augelli et al.’s (2008) study, mothers and fathers did not differ in their likelihood to react positively or negatively. Furthermore, Ben-Ari (1995) found that the most important postdisclosure factor that impacted family dynamics was how the parents reacted to the disclosure of same-sex attraction. By including parents and their gay or lesbian child in the sample, Ben-Ari found that after disclosure, the family experienced increased honesty while also struggling to maintain the parent–child relationship. The disclosure of a queer identity can be a shock to some family members, resulting in one of the initial perceived reactions of family support or rejection. Next, we describe what family support and rejection may look like for queer individuals.
(Perceived) Family Support
Even though coming out can be an arduous process, family support can play an integral role. Queer people may perceive family support and acceptance of an individual’s queer identity to take several forms. In their study on sexual orientation disclosures of males during emerging adulthood, Merighi and Grimes (2000) found two types of support: (a) support through action and (b) support that preserves the kinship bond. Some family members showed these men support by taking action to advocate for and support the queer community. Other family members showed their support of the men’s sexual identity by preserving a kinship bond. Because their family members did not treat them differently, these men perceived support; their disclosure did not change the family dynamics. Meanwhile, Reczek (2014), studying gay men and lesbian women in midlife long-term intimate partnerships, characterizes family support (including in-laws) into four types: (a) integration, (b) inclusion through language, (c) social support, and (d) words of affirmation. Queer individuals perceived support through integration when their families incorporated them into everyday life. Families showed support through their language use by using familial language such as son, daughter, or in-law. When parents or in-laws relied on the queer person for social support, they perceived this as familial acceptance. Finally, queer individuals perceived acceptance when their family used words of affirmation about them and their identities.
Acceptance in Context
Families that are perceived as accepting and supportive of queer identities often have certain qualities or characteristics. For example, some research suggests that White family members of queer young adults are more likely to accept their queer family member than other ethnicities (Snapp et al., 2015). Queer youth who lived with their parents at the time of the study reported more familial support and experienced less parental verbal harassment (D’Augelli et al., 2008). Gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth who reported higher parental acceptance and lower parental rejection during childhood disclosed at an earlier age with more parental acceptance (D’Amico & Julien, 2012). Fuller and Riggs (2018) studied transgender individuals and found that those who rated their family as emotionally close perceived their family as supportive of their gender. Although transgender individuals reported moderate to high levels of gender-related support from their families, nonbinary individuals received less support than their transitioned male or female counterparts. Meanwhile, transwomen of color reported that their female family members were more accepting than their male family members (Koken et al., 2009). Youth who reported feeling supported by their families were less likely to fear rejection at a later date (D’Augelli et al., 2008). Similarly, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth who reported that their family would consider counseling also reported that they did not fear expulsion from their home because of their queer identity and had a fairly good relationship with their parents (Potoczniak et al., 2009).
Each and every family member has their own reaction to a queer identity disclosure, but most GLB youth reported that their siblings were accepting of their identity (D’Augelli et al., 2008). In their study of lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals between the ages of 14 and 21, D’Augelli et al. (1998) found that 51% of mothers, 27% of fathers, and 57% of siblings accepted their sexual identities. Watson (2014) studied bisexual adults and found that half of the 47 individuals they interviewed experienced comfort, solace, encouragement, and support from their families. Half of the transwomen of color in Koken et al.’s (2009) study described verbal, physical, and symbolic affection from their parents and close family members. Gay and lesbian adolescents with a queer family member (a sibling, cousin, aunt, or uncle) reported that this individual often played a supportive familial role (Roe, 2017).
Queer individuals who experience familial acceptance experience a myriad of better psychological and health outcomes. Following disclosure and acceptance, 56% of gay and lesbian individuals perceived an improved relationship within their family unit, 66% in their relationship with their mother and 44% in their relationship with their father (Ben-Ari, 1995). Meanwhile, 84% of mothers and 63% of fathers thought their parent–child relationship improved. Family acceptance predicted higher self-esteem and well-being for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth (Snapp et al., 2015). Furthermore, gay and lesbian individuals with accepting parents experienced less minority stress, fewer depressive symptoms, and more family support (Feinstein et al., 2014). Lesbian youth reported that they were more comfortable being queer when their mothers and fathers accepted their identity (Savin-Williams, 1989). Gay youth were more comfortable being gay when their parents accepted them, and they had better self-esteem. In their study of gay males, Elizur and Ziv (2001) found that family acceptance was correlated with the individual’s gay identity, mental health, self-esteem, and family support. In addition, gay, lesbian, and bisexual adolescents who reported higher acceptance by their mothers had lower levels of psychological and identity maladjustments (D’Amico & Julien, 2012). Transgender individuals who reported being accepted by their family experienced lower levels of psychological distress and perceived more gender-related support (Fuller & Riggs, 2018). Finally, transwomen of color described familial acceptance as an essential part of transitioning during adolescence and early adulthood (Koken et al., 2009). Needless to say, family acceptance is an optimal response.
Studying parents of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer children, Gonzalez et al. (2013) found that 95% of the parents reported at least one positive aspect of having a queer child. The positive aspects of being a parent of a queer child resulted in five themes: (a) personal growth, (b) positive emotions, (c) activism, (d) social connection, and (e) closer relationships. Fifty-six percent of parents reported that they experienced personal growth. As a result of this growth, parents were more openminded because their queer children challenged them to step out of their comfort zone. Other parents adopted new perspectives because they had to reconsider and reevaluate their previously held beliefs. Being open to new perspectives increased parents’ awareness of discrimination and prejudice toward all minority groups. As parents became more aware of discrimination, they expressed a deeper compassion and empathy for others. Forty-one percent of parents expressed enhanced feelings for their queer child. Some parents reported feeling pride because they were a parent of a queer child; feelings of pride included being proud of their child and proud of themselves. Parents also reported that unconditional love transcends sexual or gender identity. Some parents (33%) increased their activism as a result of having a queer child. Thirty-one percent of parents explained that their queer child led them to make social connections they would not have established otherwise. Having a queer child established closer family relationships for 20% of parents, both with their child and with the family unit as a whole. Lee and Lee (2006) interviewed 14 parents of gay sons who were members of a chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. These parents reported that they wanted to show their sons that their disclosure would not disturb the parent–child relationship by demonstrating verbal support, inclusion in family events, acceptance of significant others, and unconditional love.
Although some parents were quite supportive, others were not. Most siblings accepted an individual’s queer identities, but male siblings, compared with female siblings, were more likely to respond poorly to a sexual orientation disclosure (D’Augelli et al., 2008). Overall, D’Augelli et al. (1998) reported that 10% of mothers, 27% of fathers, and 15% of siblings reacted negatively to disclosure. Mothers attacked lesbian women the most, while brothers of gay men were most likely to turn to physical violence. Very few family members stepped in to protect the queer individual from violence, although 43% of men reported being protected by their mothers.
Thus, same-sex attraction or a queer identity can be contentious and stigmatized; as a result, disclosing a queer identity can be dangerous for the individual (Adams, 2011). A queer individual can experience hostility, rejection, or even violence from their family members after disclosure. Adams points out that family rejection can occur for three reasons: (a) the family member may consider same-sex attraction or a queer identity as inappropriate or immoral; (b) the queer individual may reveal and then be held accountable for hiding, lying, or omitting information; or (c) the disclosure may not have happened at the appropriate time because the individual hid their identity for too long or they disclosed in an inappropriate context. Thus, a family member may draw upon any of these reasons not to support their queer children.
Rejection in Context
Familial reactions may also be subject to cultural contexts. African American gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning adolescents often experience initial rejection from their parents after disclosure; however, some familial relationships do heal over time (Potoczniak et al., 2009). Of the 30% of adolescents who were expelled from their homes in the Potoczniak et al. (2009) study, all were African American. In the Siconolfi et al. (2020) study on youth experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles, California, 70.3% of the queer youth identified as nonwhite, 38.2% of whom were Black. Similarly, adolescents who described their family as religious felt that religion was related to their family’s negative reactions. Religion was even used against queer youth to condemn their relationships (Roe, 2017). The adolescents who feared family rejection doubted that their family would attend counseling because family problems are private and not to be shared with outsiders (Potoczniak et al., 2009). In sum, these studies suggest that particular communities may have norms that enable and constrain some families from accepting queer identities.
Forms of Rejection
Of note, the experience of rejection may take a variety of forms, including minor hostilities. Roe (2017) reports that for the gay and bisexual adolescents in the study, initial parental reactions to queer identity disclosure were not supportive. Unsupportive parental reactions included disappointment and anger; some parents even chose to ignore the disclosure. Of the lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth who lived at home in the D’Augelli et al. (1998) study, 25% of males and one-third of female queer individuals reported verbal abuse. In their ethnically diverse study of gay males, Merighi and Grimes (2000) found that some men reported that their family members used distancing and disengagement strategies. Meanwhile, other men were not outright rejected by their families, but the family would avoid the topic of same-sex attraction and assume heterosexuality, a tactic that was also found in Watson’s (2014) study. Of the queer individuals who had disclosed to at least one parent during adolescence in the Ryan et al. (2020) study, 21.22% experienced a parent or caregiver attempting to change their sexual orientation, and 31.84% experienced an attempted change with the addition of external conversion efforts, such as therapy.
Forms of rejection also varied by identity. For example, Todd et al. (2016) found that family members often engaged in microaggressions in which they would use passive-aggressive tactics to invalidate bisexual identities. Although sometimes manifesting in microaggressions, some family members were more overtly hostile. In these cases, family members would call bisexual kin names or isolate the individual. Furthermore, bisexual individuals reported that after disclosing to their families, their families used language that suggested they now thought of them as permanently lesbian, gay, or heterosexual (Scherrer et al., 2015). These family members also fetishized bisexual women for the pleasure of heterosexual men. Further, queer homeless youth in Los Angeles were more likely to be bisexual rather than gay or lesbian (Siconolfi et al., 2020). In Reczek’s (2014) study, midlife gay men and lesbian women experienced rejection in three ways: (a) rejection in everyday life through negative or limited interactions; (b) traumatic events and statements; and (c) the threat of being usurped in which parents would not honor their wishes in the case of death or illness. Transwomen of color experienced indifference/neglect, in which their families would withhold emotional or material support without engaging in overt hostility (Koken et al., 2009). Meanwhile, 55% of these women reported that their family utilized undifferentiated rejection when the family failed to relate to them. In their study of young gay and bisexual men, Bird et al. (2017) found that parents communicated rejection through negative messages about being gay, such as an HIV infection being inevitable for the queer men.
Rejection could also be violent for queer individuals. Forty percent of the transwomen of color in Koken et al.’s (2009) study reported that they experienced hostile and aggressive rejection from their family including physical violence and being forced out of their home. Classified as overt hostility, bisexual individuals reported experiencing threats of physical violence (Todd et al., 2016). More than their gay male counterparts, lesbian women were threatened with physical violence, often by their mothers (D’Augelli et al., 1998). Meanwhile, two men in the Bird et al. (2017) study reported experiencing physical abuse after disclosing to their families. Indeed, queer people may experience a range of rejection behaviors and messages to varying degrees and with a multitude of outcomes.
Similar to queer individuals having positive outcomes as a result of family acceptance, queer individuals experienced negative outcomes as a result of familial rejection. Lesbian and gay youth who experienced negative family reactions conformed to heteronormativity to get along with their family members (Waldner & Magruder, 1999). When gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth were rejected by their families, they had higher levels of identity and psychological maladjustment (D’Amico & Julien, 2012). Higher levels of current rejection by family members were associated with a higher prevalence of the GLB youth consuming drugs and alcohol. Transgender individuals who experienced gender-related discrimination from their families had higher levels of psychological distress. As a result of familial rejection, young gay and bisexual men engaged in risky sexual behaviors to fill the void left by familial emotional and tangible support (Bird et al., 2017). Of the eight men who were expelled from their homes, five engaged in sexual acts to survive, by trading sex for a place to stay, food, or money. Nine men sought out older partners who they believed could provide emotional and instrumental support. The average duration of the homelessness episode for queer homeless youth in Los Angeles was 1.3 years (Siconolfi et al., 2020). Similarly, 89% of homeless queer youth reported that they engaged in tobacco use through cigarette smoking, 87% smoked while 43% vaped marijuana, and 52.4% reported binge drinking. Of the LGB adolescents who had disclosed to their parents in the D’Augelli et al. (1998) study, 51% had attempted suicide. Bisexual individuals had lower self-esteem, more mental health issues, and less family cohesion after familial rejection (Todd et al., 2016). Of the 60 gay and lesbian individuals who experienced familial rejection in Reczek’s (2016) study, 44 experienced parental disapproval of their romantic relationship. Once the family has reacted to the disclosure of a member’s queer identity, they must make sense of the disclosure and establish a new family identity.
Family of Origin Adjustment: Sense-Making and Identity Work
After family members initially react to a queer individual’s disclosure, they continue to engage in sense-making to establish their own identity as a family member of a queer person. Adams (2014) explains that disclosure may perpetually complicate relationships with family members. A family member can be supportive immediately following the disclosure and then engage in rejection behaviors over time. Other family members may need to adjust to the disclosure but, over time, may come to be accepting of the individual’s queer identity (Beeler & DiProva, 1999). For example, in Grossman et al.’s (in press) study on transgender and gender-nonconforming youth, 42% of transfeminine youth experienced initial positive responses from their mothers, while 45.3% were positive at the time of the study; 30% of fathers had initial positive reactions and 36% were currently positive. For transmasculine youth, mothers were initially positive for 26% of individuals, but 53.3% were currently positive, while 24% of fathers were initially positive and 44.6% were currently positive. Beeler and DiProva (1999) interviewed entire families and found that family members had to develop a narrative coherency that linked the past behaviors of the queer individual to the disclosure event. Though some family members felt sadness that their queer family member would have a difficult life, over time, as the queer individual lived their everyday life, these families added queer individuals into their social networks.
Norwood (2012, 2013) studied how a variety of family members made sense of a family member being transgender. Her study revealed three sites of dialectical tension in the online posts of partners, parents, and siblings of transgender individuals: (a) presence versus absence, (b) sameness versus difference, and (c) self versus other (Norwood, 2012). Family members described the tension of presence versus absence when they acknowledged the transgender individual being physically present while they still grieved the loss of the individual’s former identity. This ambiguous loss, which occurs when an individual is physically present but mentally gone or mentally present but physically gone, was dominant in the experience of family members during the transitioning process because of a perceived sex/gender binary (Norwood, 2013). Families also viewed the transgender individual as the same, yet different (Norwood, 2012). Family members described the self in one of two ways: sovereign or social (Norwood, 2013). A sovereign identity is an inborn combination of mind and soul that is independent of the physical body and therefore remains intact through transition; meanwhile, a social identity views the transitioned person as different because of a change in body and behaviors. As a result of their understanding of the self, family members made sense of their kin’s transition in one of four ways: (a) replacement, (b) revision, (c) evolution, or (d) removal. Regardless of whether the family member viewed the self as sovereign or social, they engaged in replacement when the family member discussed their transgender relative as a different person because of the transition. Family members engaged in revision when they viewed transition as a change of the outward identity, while the individual was still the same person they had always been. When family members gave voice to a revision discourse, they did not need to grieve the individual because the change was superficial and localized to outward appearances and behavior, not inborn identity. Meanwhile, for families that viewed transition as an evolution, the transition created an updated version of the same self. When families viewed transition as an evolution, they created a hybrid discourse in which the self was both sovereign and social at the same time. Removal, on the other hand, was an aesthetic moment in which family members made the intersection of sex and gender irrelevant to personhood, completely erasing the competition between the sovereign and social origin of identity. Finally, family members experienced a tension of the self versus other where they wanted to be unconditionally supportive of their transgender kin but also struggled with their own conceptions (Norwood, 2012). In addition to this overarching picture of family sense-making, researchers have also illuminated patterns among parent and sibling responses respectively.
Overall, research suggests that parents have a myriad of reactions and sense-make in a multitude of ways that reflect various levels of support for their children. For example, after the initial disclosure, some parents constructed their identity as a parent of a queer child (a) cognitively, (b) emotionally, and/or (c) behaviorally (Goodrich, 2009). Parents engaged in cognitive action when they would make a shift, utilizing higher-order thinking, to be more open to change. Alternatively, when outsiders responded negatively to their queer child, or to queerness in general, parents experienced an emotional response. Finally, parents took behavioral action when they educated themselves about queerness, advocated for queer rights, and renegotiated their relationship with their child.
Although some parents engaged in these prosocial identity constructions, other parents were subject to institutionalized heterosexuality (Fields, 2001). “Institutionalized heterosexuality organized the parents’ identity work strategies, offering them a language of heterosexual rituals, gender norms, and parenting models” (pp. 174–175). Parents often have heteronormative ideas for their children’s future that revolve around the nuclear family (Beeler & DiProva, 1999; Goodrich, 2009). After the disclosures, parents must develop alternative visions for their children’s future. Adams (2014) argues that parents may mourn the loss of future biological grandchildren. When studying parents of transgender individuals, Whitley (2013) found that parents had to change their gendered expectations and dreams for their child, such as biological grandchildren and wedding customs. While observing parents who attended a Parents and Allies for Gay Empowerment meeting, Fields (2001) found that the heteronormative culture led parents at the group to search for a script that would make both them and their child normal. In keeping with heteronormative understandings of family, some parents, prior to the legalization of same-sex marriage across the entire United States, would rely on a legal perspective of family in order to exclude their queer child’s partner (Adams, 2014). For example, Adams explains in his autoethnography how his mother would schedule family photos that included his siblings’ partners. When Adams would confront his mother about this, her reasoning was that Adams’ partner was not his husband, something that was impossible in the state in which they lived. Throughout this identity work, parents often engaged in sense-making, looking back in time and then coming to a conclusion about their role in the process. Yet other parents were concerned with the safety of their child because of institutionalized heteronormativity. In Hill and Menvielle’s (2009) study of parents with gender-variant children, 60% of parents reported that they feared that others would hurt their children through teasing or violence because of their gender nonconformity. Many parents worried for their children’s physical safety and especially their well-being and treatment by others. They ultimately concluded that the world wasn’t safe for their children.
Part of the sense-making process for parents included sharing their retrospective account of their suspicions about their children’s queer identities. Most parents suspected that their child was queer around the age of 15; however, average disclosure for these parents occurred when the child was 22 (Aveline, 2006). Although some parents were relieved that their son finally disclosed, others described the disclosure as emotional, stressful, or shocking. Although parents may have known about their child’s queer identity, the suspicion must have remained at a subliminal level (Aveline, 2006). In their retroactive sense-making, parents described indicators and counter indicators to their child’s queerness that centered around three topics: (a) gender traits, (b) relationships, and (c) sports. Some parents described their child as having personality traits, talents, or interests that were different than other boys of the same age; however, parents attributed this to less rigid gender roles among this generation. Meanwhile, other parents described their son as fitting the expected gender roles. Parents described their son’s relationships as expected or too close to girls during childhood, yet not close enough during the teenage years. Parents considered participation in sports as a counter indicator while the lack of interest was either considered an indicator or as the child just having different interests. When parents reflected on the indicators and counter indicators, they used one of three reflective actions: (a) revelations, (b) confirmations, or (c) justifications. Parents cited that disclosure was a revelation when they did not understand an indicator’s meaning or when they attributed a different meaning to an indicator. Parents engaged in confirmation when they solidified their interpretations based on what they considered indicators. Justifications occurred when parents relayed an event then gave a reason as to why they had not seen the incident as an indicator or used a counter indicator.
After the initial disclosure, regardless of their suspicions, parents typically reacted either by blaming themselves for their children’s queer identity or by expressing pride in their children. While studying the attendants of the support group, Fields (2001) found that parents feared they were to blame for their child’s queer identity. The parents, specifically mothers, that attended the support group were working to overcome the idea that they were the cause of their child’s sexuality; these individuals needed help understanding queerness as nature versus nurture. Freud’s conceptualization that parents perpetuate masculine and feminine traits in their children exacerbated parental fears. More than fathers, mothers felt blamed for their child’s sexuality; fathers typically attended the group only to support their wives. In Whitley’s (2013) study of family members of trans individuals, all nine parents feared they were the cause of their child’s gender. As a result, their own identity shifted based on their children’s transition. The fact that parents perceived their child’s sexual orientation to change as they went through the transition process further complicated their sense-making around their children’s queer identity.
Although some parents blamed themselves for their child’s queer identity, others felt that being the parent of a queer child was a point of pride (Fields, 2001). Parents who felt pride about raising a queer child felt they were good parents because they were the parents of a queer individual. These prideful parents did not engage in the nature versus nurture debate on sexuality and gender identity because this was irrelevant to their queer child. The expectation of the Parents and Allies for Gay Empowerment group was that parents who did blame themselves would over time transition their identity work from caring about the cause of their child’s queerness and striving to be normal to embracing their child’s queerness (Fields, 2001). Parents of transgender children struggled to figure out how they could maintain their religious identity while being supportive of their transgender children (Whitley, 2013). Identity conflicts led some parents to leave the Catholic Church to support their transgender child. For these parents, their identity was not tied to how their child came to be queer but rather how good they were as parents following the disclosure of a queer identity. For some parents several identities were considered incompatible, and as a result, being a good parent was the more important identity to enact.
Similar to parents, siblings engaged in a variety of sense-making behaviors, albeit arguably less negative. Despite having closer relationships, some siblings described shock after an individual disclosed their queer identity (Hilton & Szymanski, 2011). Siblings thought they knew their sibling and the disclosure changed that. Yet disclosure often brought the siblings closer together (Toomey & Richardson, 2009). When siblings described a closer relationship with their queer kin, they cited the fact that their queer sibling now shared more of their life with them (Hilton & Szymanski, 2011). Many siblings expressed that they felt protective and concerned for their queer sibling because they belonged to a sexual minority group. As such, siblings reported that having a queer sibling brought queer issues to their attention and normalized queerness, bringing the sibling more comfort. These siblings were more aware of heterosexism in their own life and even expressed disappointment for how their parents reacted to their sibling’s disclosure.
Families of Origin and Communicating With the Outside World
Following disclosure, initial reactions, and sense-making, families must figure out how and when to come out to extended family and friends (Beeler & DiProva, 1999). Once parents and siblings came to terms with their identities as family members of a queer individual, they had to go through their own disclosure, or “coming out,” process (Whitley, 2013). Goodrich (2009) found that all the parents interviewed reported that they discussed as a family who they should tell, who was responsible for the disclosure to extended family, and when it was appropriate to disclose. For some families, the queer individual wanted to disclose for themselves; for other families the queer individual disclosed with the support of their immediate family. In their case study, Baptist and Allen (2008) describe the family “coming out” process as involving three stages. The familial “coming out” started in the personal and private realms, spread to relational and social realms, and finally the family embraced the political realm as an altruistic need to educate others. The initial stage of the personal and private has already been discussed as the family making sense of the disclosure and their new identities.
All the families in Goodrich’s (2009) study kept the disclosure a secret for a period of time. Queer individuals who were planning to share the news about their same-sex marriage or engagement consulted family members before making a public announcement (Lannutti, 2013). Yet family members who had not accepted their new identity as a family member of a queer individual continued to practice secrecy when communicating with the outside world. For example, one parent of a transgender male told Whitley (2013) that they used female pronouns when their child was not around and male pronouns when they were. Indeed, parents and children experienced conflict when parents attempted to keep their same-sex marriage a secret when the couple wished to publicly announce their news (Lannutti, 2013). Because disclosure of same-sex marriage is a kind of “coming out” for the family, these couples experienced privacy dilemmas regarding the fact that some family members were uncomfortable with their identity as an individual with a queer family member. Sometimes this uncomfortableness was because the family member associated their identity as having a queer family member as also carrying a stigma. Some couples felt betrayed when their family reacted negatively or discouraged the disclosure of their same-sex marriage to outsiders. Although many families engaged in secrecy in regard to sharing their child’s queer identity with the outside world, parents of transgender individuals in Whitley’s (2013) study described feeling guilty when they did not explain their child’s transgender status to the outside world. For some families, secrecy was a result of not yet coming to terms with their new identities; for other families, disclosure was selective, with members only disclosing to those they thought would react positively to the information (Baptist & Allen, 2008; Hilton & Szymanski, 2011). Yet Tyler and Abetz (in press) found that parents and queer children differed on inclusion versus privacy, with parents wanting to keep the disclosure private while the child wanted to be open about their identity. Over time, often after receiving support and acceptance from their social networks, parents came to find that secrecy was a mistake.
In the second stage, relational and social realms of familial disclosure, family members shared their identities with their social systems outside the family. Parents who suspected their child’s queer identity prior to disclosure were less guarded about communicating their new identity with the outside world and were more likely to seek resources following disclosure compared with those who had no preconceived notions (Goodrich, 2009). Siblings reported that as they became more comfortable with their siblings, they were more likely to disclose their siblings’ queer identity to the outside world (Hilton & Szymanski, 2011). When taking the step to share their identity as a parent of a queer child, parents reported a competing discourse of hope for acceptance versus fear of rejection or a loss of friendship (Tyler & Abetz, in press). In Baptist and Allen’s (2008) case study, they found that once the family had built relationships within the queer community and became comfortable in these relationships, they started disclosing their identities to their own individual communities at home, work, and school. Yet if a family member was disclosing to a familial acquaintance, they sought permission from their queer family member first.
Finally, families enter the political realm when they accept themselves as a queer family and therefore as marginalized (Baptist & Allen, 2008). Once the family in the case study identified as a marginal group, they were more attuned to and started taking a stand on social issues. Similarly, in Tyler and Abetz’s (in press) study, parents reported that as they heard or received homophobic messages, they became more and more outspoken about queer rights. For family members in Baptist and Allen’s (2008) and Tyler and Abetz’s (in press) studies, having a queer family member allowed them to enter the political realm and advocate for queer acceptance.
Communication plays an essential role as queer people disclose their identities to their families, their families react to those disclosures, and they all collectively make sense of their family identity. Indeed, how people react may even be a driving force in whether a queer person perceives another person to even be a family member. For example, Carpineto et al. (2008) asked men who have sex with men who they consider their family. Regardless of whether the men upheld a biogenetic or choice perspective on family, they expected a certain level of support from these individuals. In fact, the men described “family as a supportive group of people, those who provide love and support,” and who will always be there (p. 60). Consequently, communication in queer people’s family of origin has the power not only to change the lives of queer people but also to both construct and deconstruct what it means to be a family.
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