Coming out: ‘Mam would you ever mind if I brought home a girlfriend?’

When someone comes out as LGBTI+, the love and support of parents and family is critical

Alison Hallahan with daughter Charlotte Cannell.

Alison Hallahan with daughter Charlotte Cannell.

 

New Year’s Eve, 2015, was the night I told my parents I was gay. It was the year of the same-sex marriage referendum and I wanted to be open to my family on how important the vote was for me.

Over the course of that night I penned a letter that in reality had been 10 years in the making, introducing to my family a new Barry as soon as the clock struck 12.

Like many who come out, I feared the worst, predicting things would become awkward, or worse, that there’d be no place at home for me. So, the letter stressed that I was the same Barry from that morning, only now a huge weight had been lifted. That I had struggled in understanding this for some time, and could understand if they needed time too. That life might be different for me, but I would be happier being different.

By the end of the night, the letter had more tear stains than words, as I left it on their bed and asked them to read it.

Emotions were high, but on reading the letter my dad put his arm around me and said: “You are my son, and I love you. Once you find someone you love, I’m happy.” Mam hugged me, kissed me and told me she would always be my number one supporter. My family talked of how proud they were that I had the courage to come out – but what they didn’t realise was how proud I was of them.

Of their reaction, their support and understanding.

Coming out is one of the biggest milestones for many LGBTI+ people. Introducing your “true self” to someone – hoping for the best but expecting the worst, is stressful.

And we really do expect the worst.

Rejection, ridicule and hostility are all part of the planning. Despite knowing how supportive our families are, there is always a fear that can smother you.

That is why it is so important for parents and family members to play their part in the lives of the LGBTI+ community. Because for many, they are our lives.

When do people come out?

The LGBTIreland Report in 2016 was a national study of the mental health and well-being of LGBTI+ people in Ireland. It found that 12 years of age was the most common age people discovered their LGBTI+ identity, and that 16 was the most common age people told their very first person. While people can come out at any age, coming out at this age, in particular, is so important for a child’s physical, emotional and social development.

It’s a time when no one really wants to be different from the crowd, and realising this difference and feeling unable to tell anyone about it puts enormous stress on teenagers.

A supportive family makes a difference

Moninne Griffith is the executive director of BeLong To Youth Services, the national organisation which advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI+) young people in Ireland. She feels no matter how inclusive a society gets, it is so important for people to come out.

“We know that usually when a young person comes out, it reduces stress and anxiety” she says. “I know from the work we do in BeLonG To, young people who have a supportive friend or family member in their life who they can ask these questions and feel unconditional love from, their outcomes are always so much better.”

Griffith says parents can send very clear messages of support that indirectly make it easier for a young person to come out when the time is right for them. “You can talk about other LGBT friends and family. It’s about visibility – you see and hear of role models that are not just pop stars anymore. It’s our Taoiseach. It’s company CEOs. People from every walk of life. Making your language open and inclusive is also a great way of showing interest and openness to talk. It should be up to the individual to come out, but simple things can make a great difference to the process.”

How to react when a child comes out

“Firstly, it’s amazing that the young person has the resilience and confidence to come and tell you this,” Griffith affirms. “That parent should feel privileged the young person has come out to them, and that they trust them. It reflects the importance of the relationship that they have with you. It is important to remember that your child is still the same child the day before they came out. Except now they’re less anxious.”

Barry O'Rourke.
Barry O'Rourke.

For Griffith, it’s important to reassure parents they are not going to be expected to know everything from the get-go. “Parents might have mixed emotions and many, many questions. Don’t be afraid! You’re not supposed to be an expert. Be upfront about wanting to learn and help them. ‘Can you tell me a little bit more about this? Can we find out more about this together?’

“There’s nothing a parent did or didn’t do that made their child LGBTI+. It’s not something they saw or experienced. As a supportive adult, the best thing is to help them on their journey to self-acceptance. That they have all the supports and friends around them that they need,” Griffith says.

“Mam would you ever mind if I brought home a girlfriend?”

There are number of ways people come out to their families. Some write letters, while others talk directly to loved ones. No matter the method, it still carries great importance to that person.

For Charlotte Cannell, this took the form of a conversation before dinner with her mother Alison. It was an opportunity to share something personal about herself to her mam; and equally an opportunity for Alison to show her support for her daughter. “I recently came out to my mam as pansexual,” Charlotte says. “Bearing in mind this woman took me to Pride when I was nine, but this is how the conversation went.”

Charlotte: “So Mam would you ever mind if I brought home a girlfriend?”

Alison: “No, as long as you’re happy and they treat you right. I don’t care who you bring home.”

Charlotte: “I’ve been thinking about it lately, and I think that I’m pansexual.”

Alison: “Okay, what does that mean?”

Charlotte: “It means that the only thing that matters is their personality, not whether they’re a boy or girl or what they would call themselves.”

Alison: “Okay. So what do you want for dinner?”

What’s key for parents, Alison explains, is the happiness of their child. “The whole time people are pregnant,” she says, “they are asked if they want a boy or a girl. Most people say they don’t care so long as they’re a happy, healthy baby with 10 fingers and toes. It’s that same mind-frame I keep.”

‘Dear daughters . . . ’

The LGBTI+ National Youth Strategy, a world-first involving more than 4,000 young people and leading rights campaigners, launched during the summer. It is a three-year strategy, with a mission to ensure that all LGBTI+ young people are visible, valued and included in Irish society.

Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone says embracing yourself should be the focus for anyone still in the process of coming out.

The late Ann Louise Gilligan and Katherine Zappone in 2005: “You have to come out to yourself before you come out to someone else. This is the most important advice,” says Zappone. Photograph: David Sleator
The late Ann Louise Gilligan and Katherine Zappone in 2005. Photograph: David Sleator

“You have to come out to yourself before you come out to someone else. This is the most important advice” she says. “People should only do so when they feel absolutely comfortable with their sexuality and identity and it is true this can happen at any age. Coming out requires bravery but it can also be a liberating time. It is a moment when you are true to yourself.

“Never underestimate the love of family and friends. Once you come out you will not be alone. Those who truly love and value you will not only stand with you, they will often come closer.

“My beloved Ann Louise and I met in Boston in 1981 when we were on the same doctoral programme, and we were love-struck. We did share our relationship with close friends when we decided to live the rest of our lives together. We had a commitment ceremony in 1982: I didn’t tell my parents on that occasion. I didn’t come out to my parents until considerably later. Ann Louise and I moved back to Ireland, and I got a letter from my sister saying that my youngest brother had just come out to our parents.

“So at the age of 33, I decided to write a letter of my own across the Atlantic. I told them that I was very happy with Ann Louise and happy to share the relationship with them. Then I waited for their response. There was a lot of anxiety in the moment of posting that letter, but it was also a great relief. My parents soon rang us to tell us that they were happy about our relationship and that they loved me.

“Then my father wrote this extraordinary letter that started with: ‘Dear daughters . . .’

“I didn’t wonder if they would still love me – of course they would – but I did wonder if my relationship would put a distance between me and them. I could have picked up the phone and told them, but maybe I wasn’t as brave as I might have liked. Letter-writing is a great form of art, and it also gives people time to reflect about what’s being written to them.

“It would have been wonderful to share my questions and concerns about who I was myself to my mom and dad earlier, but you have to come out to yourself before you come out to someone else.”

LGBTQI+ terminology

Traditionally, LGBT was the acronym used to describe diversity of sexuality and gender. This has evolved over time, with LGBTQI+ more commonly used. Remember, if in doubt, ask!

  • Lesbian: females who are attracted sexually and emotionally to other females.
  • Gay: males who are attracted sexually and emotionally to other males.
  • Bisexual: a person who is attracted to either gender, but not necessarily equally.
  • Transgender: a person whose gender identity is different from the sex they were given at birth.
  • Queer: Historically a slur, more recently reclaimed by some as a positive term describing someone who does not conform to, but challenges traditional ideas about gender, sexuality and identity.
  • Questioning: Refers to people who are uncertain regarding their gender identity or sexuality.
  • Intersex: People born with variations in their reproductive or sexual organs that don’t fit with typical definitions of male or female bodies.
  • Heterosexual: a person who is attracted to people of a different gender. Known as ‘straight’.
  • Pansexual: someone who can be attracted to any other person, regardless of their gender.
  • Asexual: someone who does not experience sexual attraction.
  • Cisgender: someone whose gender identity matches with the sex they were given at birth.
  • Non-binary: People whose gender does not typically fit with male or female.
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