Ask a Queer Chick: Do I Have to Come Out to My Conservative Family?

Also: How do I stand up for a friend being misgendered at work? And how do I know if I'm nonbinary?

[Photo: Two genderqueer individuals pose for a picture during a parade.]
If you are queer, you will do with your queerness what everyone does, which is to say: everything. It will feel strange at first, and then less strange, and then it will be part of you. Eric Parker / Flickr

I hope you had a wonderful Valentine’s Day, lovelies! Yes, I know it’s heteronormative and consumerist and often anticlimactic, but for all its shortcomings I can never resist celebrating the concept of love. Of course it’s a made-up holiday. All holidays are made up, and that doesn’t make them irrelevant. Let’s make up even more holidays this year and spend them showering our friends, families, and ourselves with adoration. And now for some advice!

When I was around 18 years old, I accepted the fact that I am bisexual. I am also a practicing Muslim, and I’ve finally reconciled my faith with my sexuality after years of research and personal reflection. 

I came out to many of my Muslim friends, and they were incredibly compassionate and supportive. Most of those friends were born, raised, and educated in the West. However, my family is very conservative and they stick to strict cultural values. I haven’t come out to them yet and I am extremely frightened to do so. I sometimes wonder if it’s even worth it, as I know they will most likely never understand or accept this about me. I don’t want to lose them, so what do you advise? Is it imperative I come out to them? If yes, how?

I give so much advice about coming out—the details, the script, what happens next—that sometimes I jump ahead a few steps. The first and most important decision in the coming-out process is, of course, whether to come out at all.

You do not have to come out. That goes for you, brave letter writer, and for anyone else who happens to be reading this, now and in perpetuity. You have my eternal permission to keep the truth of your heart folded safely inside, if bringing it forth into the world will be too great a risk. You are always allowed to choose safety.

Of course I think you should tell someone. Any secret held that tight starts to curdle into shame, and you do not deserve to be ashamed. But you’ve already told your friends, and you know you’re part of a community who accepts the whole of your heart and who affirms the things you hold dear: both how you worship and how you love. That’s absolutely wonderful. And it might be all you need.

You don’t mention a partner, but I wonder if you’ve considered what you would tell your family if you ever began a serious same-sex relationship. Would you be willing to hide your paramour (or downplay their significance in your life) forever? What if that person was not comfortable being a secret? Would it be worth a breakup to keep your orientation from your family? There are no wrong answers to these questions. I simply think it’s worth taking some time to think about them. It’s possible that you will sacrifice other things you care about for the sake of preserving your familial relationships, and you have the absolute right to do that. Every life involves some trade-offs. Just make sure yours are made after thoughtful deliberation, not in a panic at the spur of the moment.

It is also fine to wait to come out. Not doing it today doesn’t have to mean not doing it ever. The calculus of “is it worth it to risk my family’s rejection” may change throughout your life. Keeping this part of yourself a secret may seem easy now, but it could weigh you down later. Or you may see changes in your family’s thinking—an opening or softening in their hearts—and decide that the risk is not as daunting as it once seemed.

Whatever you choose, your decision is valid. And, should you one day come out to your family (by design or accident—sometimes people learn things we’d rather they didn’t know), their reaction is not a reflection on you. If they reject you, that is terribly sad and it’s OK to grieve that loss. But I hope you won’t blame yourself, now or ever. There is nothing wrong with you for loving who you love. You are gorgeous and holy and whole.

I have a very dear friend who is continually struggling with misgendering in a professional setting. My friend, who uses they/them pronouns, is an educator and is continually misgendered in front of co-workers at their place of employment.   

They feel it might be easiest to address everyone at once for the emotional labor and vulnerability, but is worried because they don’t want to cry in front of everyone. This is such a personal and stressful topic of conversation for them, but crying at work can open a lot of other judgments about competence and professionalism (gah).  Some staff members have notes on their doors about “standing with transgender students”… but the lack of support for trans staff might also impact how the kiddos perceive that signage and the messaging.

Would it be worth coming up with a direct one-on-one script so folks hear the need but don’t feel “called out” in a group setting? Should we care about their comfort, even though this is their problem? A one-on-one approach is also time-consuming, especially when you have students and a limited day.

What are some thoughts, ideas or suggestions my friend could try? Resources? How can I help as someone not directly involved?

While I appreciate your impulse to help your friend, if you don’t work with them (and it doesn’t sound like you do) there’s not a lot you can do directly. Just keep letting your friend know that you sympathize with their frustration and that, yes, not wanting to be misgendered at work is valid. The stress of microaggressions is only compounded by being ignored or told not to be so sensitive, and it may be immensely helpful for your friend to have someone loving and affirming to vent to.

Ideally it would be the school’s responsibility to establish a policy on misgendering colleagues, both for the good of the faculty and, as you rightly note, to make the space safer for trans and questioning students. If your friend’s school has an HR department, that should definitely be their first stop. However, we all know there are huge shortfalls in resources and support for teachers (many of my friends and loved ones were recently on strike in Denver for exactly this reason), so it’s very possible that no one is available to address this issue. In that case, I would recommend your friend talk to an administrator they trust (assuming there is such a person) about the best way to approach this and how the school can support them. Unfortunately, a faculty that already prides itself on being trans-affirming may be especially reluctant to acknowledge ways in which they are currently falling short—people who think of themselves as “good guys” are often notably resistant to constructive criticism.

If there’s just no support forthcoming from anyone else at the institution, I’d suggest your friend keep things as short and to the point as possible, to minimize emotional wear and tear when they’re already likely to be spread so thin. Since it sounds like they’re already out at work, this doesn’t need to be a big conversation, just a gentle reinforcement of basic respect. They should practice saying “Actually, my pronouns are they/them” and “Actually, I’m nonbinary” in as bland a tone as possible, and then immediately—before the other party has an opportunity to performatively apologize—picking up the conversation where it left off. Having a heart-to-heart with every individual colleague about the trans experience is not part of your friend’s job description

I’m 23 years old, and I think I might be genderqueer, but I’m not sure. This is a lot to unpack, and I hope I’m doing this right.

My “aha!” moment came a couple months ago when I attended a support group with a transgender friend of mine. As they went around the circle, all the trans people seemed to echo the same sentiment, that they saw themselves internally as their identified gender even if they hadn’t accepted it externally. One guy, in particular, said that even though his parents called him a girl’s name, and he wore girl clothing and did what girls did, his internal monologue had always been masculine, so to himself, he had always been male.

And that kind of got me thinking, what’s my inner monologue like? How did I see myself? And I realized that I had never taken a gender. I didn’t think of myself as male or female. I was born a girl, but that was so inconsequential to my identity that I had never considered I might be anything else. I was just kind of like, “whatever” about my gender. And now I’m conflicted about it. 

For a few weeks, I tried to incorporate my gender into my view of myself. Like, when I was in line for coffee, I was a woman in line for coffee. And when I was doing my homework, I was a woman doing her homework. You get the idea. And that just felt so forced and wrong. So I tried to think of myself as a guy, and that felt even more alien. Whenever I tried to think about myself in gendered terms, I didn’t feel like me. I felt like someone else entirely, and I didn’t really like it.

So, I’m not a guy, and I guess I’m not a girl. And yet, I hesitate to call myself genderqueer. I can’t tell if I don’t want to do it because I’m afraid of the word and its connotations, or because I actually am a woman and don’t really know how to be one. This has me so conflicted. I feel like I’m not queer enough to be queer, but I’m too queer to just slap a label on myself and be done with it. I feel like I’m not completely happy with any of my options, while the people in the trans support group were confident and sure in their labels. I just don’t know what to call me. Do I have to call me anything? Is this just what queerness is? And if I am queer, what do I do with my queerness?

Are you nonbinary? That’s a question I can’t answer for you. It sounds to me like you might be agender—having no gender identity, rather than identifying as male, female, or some combination of the two. You may find it helpful to look for a support group for people who are questioning their gender identity, rather than for those who have already come out as trans. The place where you accompanied your friend is probably a good place to start looking for groups, events, or counselors who can help you unpack your experience of gender.

If you’re not excited about your in-person options, or if you want to explore on your own first, you can do some reading online or at your local library. Online resources dealing specifically with agender identity are still somewhat scarce, but you can start here or here to see if you connect with how other people describe their agender experiences. You can also find hands-on resources like My NewGender Workbook and You and Your Gender Identity: A Guide to Discovery, which offer interactive exercises to help you find the words for your unique, authentic self.

If you are queer, you will do with your queerness what everyone does, which is to say: everything. It will feel strange at first, and then less strange, and then it will be part of you.

Do you wear glasses? I realized that I needed glasses in high school, but I never wanted to wear them. They looked foreign on my face and they didn’t suit my style, so I avoided it as much as possible. (I can’t wear contacts because touching my own eyeball is the stuff of actual nightmares and we will speak of it no further.) It wasn’t until after college that I finally acknowledged my eyesight was getting worse and I could no longer pass myself off as a non-glasses-wearing person.

For a long time after I started wearing glasses regularly, I was extremely aware of them. I thought a lot about choosing outfits and hairstyles that would “work with” my glasses—that would make my glasses look intentional, like part of my aesthetic. I fidgeted. I felt self-conscious, afraid the real glasses-wearers would know I was a newcomer and that they were laughing at me behind my back.

Now I wear glasses every day. I no longer think about them much, or even see them when I look in the mirror. They are part of my body, integral to my regular human functioning, as present and as inextricable as, I don’t know, my elbows. What do I do with my elbows? Nothing, I just have them.

This is an analogy for my queerness, and yours. If you conclude that you are actually not a woman or a man—if a nonbinary gender is the lens that makes everything snap into focus and that finally makes sense of all those blurred messages you’ve been trying to decipher—it will feel very strange for a while. Then you’ll probably think about it less and less until it’s so ingrained in your understanding of the world that you will not think of it at all. There will come a day when it’s not surprising that everything looks so clear. That will just be the way you see

Need advice? Email me: [email protected]. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.