One of the things that people often forget, is that coming out never happens just once. You don’t decide to take the plunge, and bang, that’s that (well some people try to get the whole thing over in one facebook post, but Grandma may not be on facebook, and certainly the new colleagues at work twelve months down the line may need to learn afresh). Instead, coming out is a regular experience, repeated frequently in all sorts of situations and to all sorts of people.
There are lots of reasons why it may not always be necessary to come out in every situation. It really is down to the person and context. You can’t gauge the reaction you’re going to meet with – and when the threat of violence or discrimination exists, it is perfectly within a person’s rights not to reveal their sexuality. Much as I think it’s important to have proud, out LGBT+ role models, not everyone is in a safe position to be out, and it’s understandable that people may not want to risk their income, that chance of promotion, or their safety.
I’m in the position where I sometimes need to out my family’s status. It can be a funny balance. I don’t necessarily want to be shouting it from the rooftops the first time I meet someone (firstly, because it seems a little arrogant – that person may not care less), but equally, it feels weird that I can be close to people and they may not know, because it’s not every day that a relevant conversation starter comes up and so I may not have had a chance to break the news.
When I was little, the problem was handily solved by the fact that everyone at school knew. My parents would always explain the family set up to any new school, and my class teachers were fully on board. I guess that when I was five I also assumed that there was nothing particularly abnormal about my family, and the questions I in turn faced weren’t so lengthy, so ‘outing’ my family was a relatively quick and painless process that didn’t lead to debates over the Sochi Winter Olympics or gender roles in modern families.
By the time I was at secondary school, deciding who to discuss my family with was more of a complicated choice. The first time one friend came round to my house, I deliberately sought her out to explain my family structure, so that she wouldn’t be surprised on arrival. I remember having to do a presentation in German on ‘Meine Familie’, complete with a photo. I pulled a friend aside to ask what I should do about grammar. She suggested I describe one of my mums as my au pair. Hell no. I was ready to go to battle with my German teacher, should he fault my ‘Ich habe zwei Mütter’ as a simple mistake.
What always felt weird, was not knowing who did know, and who didn’t know, precisely what. At a post-party sleepover, aged sixteen, with a girl in my year group whom I’d never been particularly close to, I was surprised to find out that she didn’t know about my family. She said the only thing she knew about my family was that we scraped the butter rather than dug at it (really? Is that gossip worthy?). Somehow I’d imagined that my situation was prime gossip, and that the news got around (I’m not sure I can be blamed for thinking so considering that when I was younger kids I didn’t know would sometimes shout to me about my family from across the street or in the park).
That my family wasn’t prime gossip, could be put down to a number of reasons. Perhaps my friends didn’t find it that new or exciting – it simply wasn’t worth talking about. Perhaps they didn’t know how to talk about it, or they were a little embarrassed even. Maybe some of them hadn’t fully grasped the concept, it was so alien, and they had assumed that one of the women in my life was an au-pair or aunt.
Certainly there were lots of times when people only saw what they wanted to see. When I was sixteen I was invited along to my own parents’ evening for the first time, and I decided to take both of my mums. We were sitting in front of my History teacher who was discussing my performance that year. She looked up, “Who’s mum?”. Instantaneously, my parents answered “We both are”. She blinked a few times and continued, stuttering a little (this same teacher apparently told my brother she thought I was Native American…so…).
When I went to Germany on my German exchange (and after my exchange partner, Lise, had stayed for a week at my house in England), Lise’s mother picked up a photo of my family and pointed to everyone asking who was who. When I repeated ‘mutti’ twice, she couldn’t accept it. My German wasn’t advanced enough to push back much when she authoritatively declared ‘Tante’. She had insisted on identifying the carrier of both my brother and I; to this day I don’t know what she fully made of the family.
During my twenty-five years, there have been times when I’ve been fierce in describing and, when need be, justifying my family. There have also been times when strangers enquire about my ethnic background (quick hint: don’t do this to the person sitting next to you on the bus – she will think bitter thoughts), a conversation which will end up ‘So is your mother or father Indian?” to which I will mutter ‘father’ through clenched teeth: it’s not always easy or appropriate to explain the particulars of your family to someone you’ll never meet again.
Similarly, when a colleague asks about my weekend plans, I might say that I went to an exhibition with my ‘cousin’ or ‘friend’, as shorthand for describing my half-brother’s brother, Conor. The reason why? If every time I mentioned him I described our exact familial link, that’s what the conversation would become about. Sometimes I’m alright with that, and happy to explain our connection. Sometimes though, I just want to discuss the exhibition, or the cocktail bar, or the birthday party, without necessarily being sidetracked into a more complex conversation with someone I don’t know that well, and in that case, it’s easier to describe my relationship with Conor using a term that does justice to the strength of our relationship and that is understood by my colleague but need not be further questioned. On a little side point, Conor’s term for me, his half-half sister, is one I find adorable!
I often try to use language in a way that will signify my non-traditional family to those who are more aware of the particular significance of my chosen words. An example is my avoidance of the word ‘dad’, substituting for ‘parents’ when necessary. For instance, I frequently find myself in group situations when people will discuss what their parents do, naming jobs, before asking me what my mum and dad do. I’ll answer “Well one of my parents does X, and the other does Y”. This is my attempt at challenging the assumption that I have a father, without having to outrightly announce that I have two mothers. This is in much the same vein that many lesbian and gay people will respond to a question about their husband or wife by responding with the gender-neutral “partner” – it’s a subtle hint for those who will be (positively) receptive, and enables the conversation to continue without fully sidetracking it, while allowing room for someone who is more curious to ask for more information should they so wish. In a way, it’s leaving the ball in the other person’s court.
My family are mine and I could not be more proud of them. That not everyone I ever meet and converse with knows of my lesbian mothers, does not mean I am any less proud (heck, I’ve decided to become an online ad for LGBT+ families). It simply means that some stories require a little time, or a little intimacy, to be fully appreciated, and when I discuss my family with someone, I always want to be able to do their wonderfulness justice.