“It gets better.” This is what I’ve heard time and time again as a way to encourage LGBTQ+ folks, like myself, to live in their truth openly.
But what is “it,” and does all of “it” get better? And how can you tell when it’s getting better?
Coming out, for many folks, is often messy. And when you have a conservative, Christian, South Asian family like mine, let’s just say it’s traumatizing.
I had to come out to them twice. The first time, they put me through conversion therapy. I’ll spare the details to avoid triggering fellow survivors, but needless to say, it was awful. The second time, I told them over the phone 1,000 miles from home.
My dad disowned me. My mom threw the Bible at me. Aunts, uncles and cousins started unfriending and blocking me on Facebook. My grandfather, who was also my childhood pastor, hasn’t spoken to me since I came out.
In fact, I haven’t seen any extended family in the six years I’ve been an openly proud gay man. As a result, the concept of family has transformed in my life after coming out. As my deep connection to my birth family was severed, my network of chosen family has grown and grown.
[Read Related: ‘Weaving Cultures Together: A Tale of Interracial Gay Love’]
But that doesn’t mean my birth family is no longer relevant. In fact, the rare times I break down and allow myself to cry is directly tied to them.
Four years ago, I married Ian, the love of my life. He has the heart of a social worker and a demonstrated passion for my culture. He embodies the confidence of a man firm in his Christian faith while proudly loving me.
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Our wedding wasn’t the kind I had imagined growing up, but Ian’s family and our collective chosen family stepped up to help fill the void left by my birth family. I hadn’t invited them out of fear that they’d either try to ruin the wedding or close off contact for good.
[Read Related: ‘I Decided to Embrace Emotional Vulnerability, and it Changed my Life’]
Fast forward to now. My father still refuses to acknowledge I’m gay and that I’m married. I know having a gay son wasn’t what he expected, and I’m sure he’s struggled with how to react in front of other members of our community.
My mother and I have had highs and lows since coming out, just like most relationships at any given point. I’m hopeful that we’ll continue to make progress, however painstaking that growing period may be.
Times like these, during the holidays, are usually when I think of my birth family the most. I’m not allowed to bring Ian to either of my parents’ respective houses. (They divorced when I was 11.) There were even times when I left Ian to spend time with them, but it only reinforced their desire to ignore reality and to pretend nothing had changed.
Some of you may be struggling with similar family issues, especially around this time of year. It may include snide comments and dirty looks from relatives or uncomfortable dinner conversations and fake pleasantries. While I’m grateful to have avoided all of this recently, I still miss being around the people who raised me.
[Read Related: ‘Why I Finally Started Therapy. And Why I Won’t Stop.’]
Over the past year, I’ve been working with my therapist on ways to manage the family-related anxiety and depression I feel during special occasions, like birthdays and holidays. One approach that’s worked for me is to focus on celebrating with my chosen family and to acknowledge the love I feel from them every day.
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Honesty is the best policy. I believe the most effective way to show my family (as well as others) a positive example of the LGBTQ+ community is by living my best life and being my best self. That means leaning on the people who love me for exactly who I am.
I choose to focus on the amazing life I have with Ian. It’s my birth family’s loss for not wanting to know him. The door remains open for them to do that, and if that happens, we’ll go through it together. All of us.
So, here’s to family. Whatever that looks like for you and for me.
I wish I had a place like @BSCLehighValley when I was struggling with my identity. The daily support and resources the center provides truly enrich and save lives.
Help support future Stephens by donating today: https://t.co/VWTVZYV8Ec pic.twitter.com/7UNKJcDtOd
— Stephen Jiwanmall (he/him) (@StephenG1Mall) December 20, 2021
“For Blood, as all men know, than Water’s thicker, But water’s wider, thank the Lord, than Blood.” — Aldous Huxley, Ninth Philosopher’s Song