The holidays are upon us; trees are up, gatherings have begun, and school breaks are right around the corner. Being home and having more exposure to family, immediate and extended, can bring pressures for anyone. You may not realize that these pressures can be uniquely amplified for our LGBTQIA+ loved ones.

Family gatherings are filled with people trying to catch up on each other’s lives. Often well-meaning questions such as “Do you have a boyfriend?” arise. While these types of questions are actually intrusive, they typically come from a well-intentioned place. However, because they assume a specific sexual orientation, they can put someone who does not identify as heterosexual in an uncomfortable position. The person being asked may not feel ready to disclose their orientation in that moment, so may not correct the assumption. Or perhaps they will correct the assumption to prevent confusion in the family, but were not prepared to do so yet.

Then there are the less welcomed, but still expected questions no one enjoys such as, “Have you gained/lost weight?” or similar comments on a person’s body . These questions are uncomfortable for everyone. For trans or non-binary folks, these comments bring focus and attention to a body that may be in the process of changing. The change in weight or muscle could be from HRT (hormone replacement therapy), or exercise training to build muscle in a way that helps represent their gender identity. For some, these transitions are a private and personal journey that they are not comfortable sharing with everyone.

Why Does Someone Come Out?

Anticipation, or anxiety, for family functions and responding to these uncomfortable questions, can motivate these individuals to come out to family around the holidays. Coming out is a major process for LGBTQIA+ individuals. It is the realization, acknowledgement, and acceptance of their identity. It is also a communication to others that embracing one’s identity is an important and necessary gesture of self-love. Often we hear the comment in response to coming out, “You don’t need to let everyone know your personal business,” but ultimately, we really do. Each of us deserves to feel that we are seen and acknowledged for our entire, true, authentic selves. This does not differ for LGBTQIA+ individuals and loved ones. When one is not able to express who they are freely, or feel that they can be their authentic selves, it can feel stifling. This often creates a feeling of shame and secrecy, and leaves a negative impact on one’s mental health. If someone you love comes out to you, that means you have made them feel safe and that they want you to know them fully. To educate yourself on the commonly used terms in the LGBTQIA+ community, check out Human Rights Campaign’s complete dictionary.

Responding to Someone Who Comes Out

When a loved one shares something about themselves, such as gender identity or sexual orientation, it is okay not to have a response right away. You are allowed to need time to process fully, or to get more information. However, this can be a scary conversation for the person coming out to even initiate. Keep in mind that they are anxious and fearful. If you want to align yourself as an ally, but are unsure of what to say, some good responses are “Is there anything I can do to support you?” or even just “Thanks for sharing that with me.” Allow them time and space to share as much as they want and intend. Do not make assumptions, rather ask questions in a non-judgemental way. Just like with any private conversation, it is always best to wait until you are in a private place and have time alone to process. Do not change how you treat or act around your loved one. Remember that they are still the same person you know and love.

For more tips on how to support and respond to your loved one when they come out, this list by USC includes some great responses and ends with a few questions to avoid.

If you’re an LGBTQIA+ person in need of some good ideas for coming out to your family during the holidays, PFLAG has an article for you and your family for just such a time.

However, resources are not the same as therapy, and you may need personalized care by a counselor in a supportive space. Mind Works is a haven for everyone who needs help, and we want to be there for you. We encourage you to reach out if you relate to any of the descriptions on our LGBTQIA+ page.

Aryn Thompson, M.S.W., LCSW