Telling Your Family about Your Alternative Lifestyle Part One: Why?

Note: I’m not really fond of “alternative lifestyle”. It implies choice where there may not be any. It also sounds frivolous and trivial. And I don’t believe either of those things. But I don’t really have a better term for something so vast, varied, and life transforming. So I’m using shorthand.

In the last few days, several people I know have gotten flak for their alternative lifestyle, be it bisexual, transgendered, BDSM or pagan, from their families.

I never told my family I was pagan. I was outed by my soon to be ex-husband. The resulting fall out was ugly and heartbreaking and vicious. I had to rebuild relationships with my siblings. They were never as strong or close. I never did build a good relationship with my mother. I don’t speak to her at all now.

My relationship with my father suffered the least. At the time, he believed religion was all BS, so mine wasn’t any worse than anyone else’s. However, that is changing, he’s found the Christian god in a new way and has become very devout.

My relationship with my mother was always horrible. So putting it aside for my mental health was painful but not devastating.

Losing my father will be. He is the person that taught me to be prepared and responsible for the consequences of my choices; to understand the cycles of nature; to live in mindfulness; to know that nature was not tame but dangerous for the unwary; to love the trees and rocks and mountains and animals of my home here in the West. He taught me to revere the land and all that lived on it, not in an idealistic “don’t eat Bambi and Babe” sort of way, but in a practical, good steward of the land and the things that live there way.

I have several friends and colleagues that have chosen not to tell their families about being pagan. Their reasons are reasonable and logical. They don’t want to frighten their families. They don’t want to stopped being loved. They don’t want to cause their families pain. They don’t think their religion is their families’ business.

Given a choice, I might have made that decision myself.

When we embrace something new, something transformative, we want to share that with the people we love. We want them to understand the amazing clarity we have achieved, and we want them to love and accept us anyway.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen.

Many families are very accepting of difference. We all hear coming out stories with happy endings, where everyone expresses approval and you have group hugs. They happen more often now that cultural awareness includes some alternative lifestyles. But they don’t always happen.

I am not advocating NOT telling your family.

I believe honesty is good and powerful thing, as well as a lot less work.

I also believe that there are some families that you need to walk away from, for your own health and well-being.

You just have to be prepared for the consequences. And those consequences could very well be never seeing or speaking to or of your family again.

Self check number one: Why are you telling them?

For those of us that have childhoods full of pain and anger and abuse, telling our family about our alternative lifestyle can be the ultimate F*** Y**! But you have to ask yourself, do you want to start your new life that way? Are you prepared to deal with the rejection, the anger, the viciousness? Do you have an support system that will help you through the grief?

For those of us who have positive relationships with your families, telling our family about our alternative lifestyle can be the ultimate in sharing why we have become a happier/more peaceful/more aware person. But you have to ask yourself, will they see it that way? You know your family better than anyone else. Will they react positively? Do you have a plan on what to tell them to minimize confusion or fear? Do you have a backup plan if they reject what you are telling them? Do you have a support system that will help you through the grief?

Self check number two: What do you expect their reaction to be?

Do you want them to understand your lifestyle? Do you want them to accept it? Do you want them to leave you alone about it?

To understand takes time. It doesn’t happen with one talk or five or ten. You have to give them time. So if they do something or say something incredibly insensitive or bigoted or painful, you have to confront them on the behavior, and have the “talk” with them as many times as it takes. But if after much time and energy they still don’t seem to be understanding, that’s when you have to reevaluate if the relationship is worth keeping.

To accept and love you anyway takes even more time. And it’s much harder, because once they understand your lifestyle, they still may not be able to accept it. Again, this is when you have to reevaluate if the relationship is worth keeping.

To leave you alone about it takes less time, but fosters more misunderstandings. If this is what you want, you may be better off not telling them at all.

Your mileage will most certainly vary.

Next time I’ll talk about after you’ve told them, or if you’ve been outed.

Dan Savage on how to come out to your evangelical parents

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