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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Lesbian and Gay Couples: Dealing with Homophobia in Families

Holiday season can be a stressful time for most people, but it's often even more stressful for couples in lesbian or gay relationships. As a psychotherapist in NYC, over the years, I've worked with many gay and lesbian couples in couples counseling as well as in individual therapy where their families have not accepted that they're gay or that they're in a gay or lesbian relationship. The families' disapproval often causes individuals in gay and lesbian relationships to feel that they have to choose between spending time with their partners and spending time with their families.


Gay Couples Coping with Homophobia in Their Families
Of course, there are degrees of acceptance--everything from outright disapproval to half hearted acceptance to fully embracing the relationship and everything in between. It can be a very heart wrenching decision as to how to handle these situations.

Lesbian Couples Coping with Homophobia in Their Families
The following scenario is based on a composite of many cases, and it does not represent any particular couple:

Vickie and Susan:
Vickie and Susan had been living together in a committed relationship for over three years when they came to couples counseling. They were both in their early 30s and had successful professions. Susan's family lived in NYC, and Vickie's family lived out of state.

Susan tended to be "out" as a lesbian to her family, at work and in most social situations. Vickie tended to be more reserved and she only told certain people that she was a lesbian. She had never told her family directly that she was a lesbian, but she assumed that they knew and they just never discussed it.

They had many close lesbian and gay friends, both single people and couples, in NYC that they socialized with during the year. But the holiday season often presented a problem. If they were staying in NYC, there was no problem because Susan's family embraced Vickie as their daughter-in-law and made her feel at home. They would also spend time with their friends, both heterosexual and gay.

But there were certain years where Vickie missed her family and they wanted her to spend the holidays with them. In most ways, Vickie was close to her family and she loved them. She liked spending time with her parents, and her older sister. Her family had many holidays rituals that Vickie enjoyed from the time she was a young child. The problem was that, even though they knew that she lived with Susan, she had never told them explicitly that they were life partners.

Both Vickie and Susan wanted Vickie's family to recognize and honor their relationship, but Vickie was too afraid of losing her family if she actually "came out" to them and told them that Susan was her wife. For Vickie, it was one thing for it to be understood that Vickie was a lesbian without having to discuss it, and it was quite another for her to be direct about it.

At certain times, Susan and Vickie would argue about this during other times of the year. Susan wanted Vickie to be more direct and "come out" as a lesbian and introduce Susan as her wife. But their disagreements about this were never as bad as they were during the holiday season.

When Vickie and Susan started couples counseling, Vickie's family was urging her to come to see them for the holidays because they had not seen her the prior two holiday seasons. Vickie felt torn about what to do. On the one hand, she missed her family and she wanted very much to see them. On the other hand, she didn't want to hurt Susan's feelings by going without her or inviting her to come without defining their relationship to her family.

Aside from dealing with homophobia among friends and families, internalized homophobia can be just as challenging, if not more challenging for someone who is a gay man or a lesbian. And both Susan and Vickie had to be willing to look at their own internalized homophobia in couples counseling, especially Vickie, with regard to this situation.

In working through this problem in couples counseling, Susan and Vickie both made a commitment to put their relationship first. Vickie had to confront and overcome her fears about her family's reaction if she told them directly that she was a lesbian and she was in a lesbian relationship. Her worst fear was that her family would cut her off. She also had to look at how she was withholding an important part of herself from her family and the effect this was having for her own internal world, as well as the effect on Susan and their relationship.

As we worked through this issue, we came up with a plan that began by Vickie telling the person in her family who would be most receptive, her older sister. As Vickie expected, her older sister told her that she already knew that Vickie was a lesbian and she suspected that Susan was more than just a "roommate." She told Vickie that she would love to meet Susan. But she agreed with Vickie that their parents probably wouldn't be as receptive to Vickie being openly gay and bringing her partner for the holidays. She told Vickie that she was in her and Susan's corner, no matter how their parents reacted and she would be supportive.

Vickie was relieved that her sister was supportive, but she knew that talking to her parents would be more challenging. They tended to be conservative and not open to people and situations that didn't fit into their values.

Vickie decided to talk to her mother first because she felt that, even though both parents were conservative, her mother was a little more open than her father. When the day came for Vickie to have the conversation with her mother, as we discussed, she "bookended" her call by talking to her best friend first and planning to talk to her after she spoke to her mother. This helped her to feel supported.

Vickie had a plan for how she was going to broach the topic of being a lesbian in a lesbian relationship with her mother, but her mother threw her off by interrupting her and telling her about all she was doing to prepare for the holidays. Vickie listened for a while and she felt herself becoming increasingly anxious. At one point, she considered not telling her mother at all. But she didn't want to go back on her commitment to Susan and the commitment that she made in our couples counseling sessions.

After listening for more than 20 minutes to her mother go on about the holiday preparations, Vickie knew that she had to say something at that point or she might lose her nerve. So, when her mother took a breath, Vickie began by telling her mother that she was the most happy that she had ever been in her life. She was afraid that if she didn't tell her mother this from the outset, her mother might not hear it after she "came out" and talked to her about her lesbian relationship.

Vickie's mother reacted positively and told her that she was pleased that she was happy. Then, Vickie took a deep breath and told her mother, for the first time, that she was a lesbian and Susan is her wife. There was silence on the other end of the phone for a few long seconds. When she spoke, Vickie's mother's tone of voice had completely changed. Whereas she had been upbeat and chipper before, she spoke in a whisper and told Vickie that she must never tell her father this because he would be devastated. She also told Vickie that she never wanted to talk about this again. Then, she began to change the subject.

At that point, as planned, Vickie told her mother that she knew that it might be hard for her to understand, but it was important to her that the family accept that she is a lesbian and that she is in a committed relationship with Susan. Again, there was a long pause at the other end, and finally her mother told Vickie in a whisper, "We know you're a lesbian. We figured it out a long time ago. But we don't have to talk about it and you don't need to throw it in our faces. We love you very much, but you can't expect us to talk about this as if it were nothing. And you can't expect us to accept that you're in a gay relationship. If you want to invite Susan to come for the holidays, she can come, but you can't flaunt your relationship and you can't stay in the same room."

Vickie was deeply disappointed, but she was not surprised. As agreed, she told her mother that she couldn't and wouldn't come under these circumstances, and she hoped that they could talk about this in the future and try to work it out. But, for now, she was spending the holiday with Susan and her family. At that point, Vickie's mother hung up the phone, and Vickie didn't speak to her parents for over a year.

Vickie and Susan remained in couples counseling to work through the repercussions of this turn of events. It placed a strain on their relationship, but they were both committed to staying together and working things out. They also strengthened the bonds of their relationships in the lesbian and gay community so they felt supported among other gay people who had similar experiences.

Vickie's older sister was also supportive and she came to NYC to meet Susan and to spend time with them at their apartment. It meant a lot to Vickie to have her sister show support for her and her relationship, even if she wasn't talking to her parents.

Vickie's sister told her that their mother broke down and told their father, even though she had told Vickie not to say anything to him, and he was even more upset about it than their mother. When they weren't discussing it openly, prior to Vickie's call, they put the whole idea of Vickie being gay in the back of their minds. But when Vickie talked about it openly with her mother, it was too confronting for the mother. It also removed any shadow of a doubt that Vickie was a lesbian and that she was in a lesbian relationship.

The following year, Vickie's sister announced that she would host the holidays in her house and she was inviting Vickie and Susan. When her parents heard about this, they told her that they wouldn't come if Vickie was coming to "flaunt" her relationship with Susan--to which Vickie's sister responded, "That's up to you. But if you come, I expect you and dad to be pleasant and respectful of Vickie and Susan." She gave them a book to read that was written for parents of gay children. She also gave them information about PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).

After much chaos and commotion, the parents decided to come. Vickie and Susan were anxious, and it was obvious that when Vickie's parents came, they were also very anxious too. There were anxious and awkward moments when Vickie introduced them to Susan. But, eventually, things settled down, at least on the surface, and everyone was polite. But there was an under current of emotional strain in the air.

This was the first of many holidays where Vickie and Susan went home to see Vickie's family. Over time, Vickie's parents got to know and like Susan and Susan began to feel more comfortable with them. Vickie's parents even began to attend PFLAG meetings and talk to other parents of gay children. After a while, they were able to talk to Vickie more about her life with Susan. They told her that they didn't understand, but she was still their daughter, they loved her, and they wanted her to be happy. And if being happy meant that she was a lesbian and in a relationship with Susan, they accepted this.

Having gone through this ordeal together strengthened Susan's and Vickie's relationship. They both wished that Vickie's parents would more than just "accept" their relationship, but they came to terms with it, and it no longer interfered with their relationship.

For Vickie, as an individual, "coming out" as an open lesbian and telling them that her relationship with Susan came first was a huge step. It strengthened her self confidence and it was a great relief not to have this secret any more.

The above composite scenario is one of countless ways that lesbian and gay couples and individuals cope with homophobia in their families. There is no one right way to deal with these situations. Each individual and each situation is unique.

Don't Let Your Family's Homophobia Interfere with Your Relationship
If you're a lesbian or gay man who is struggling with similar "coming out" issues, you could benefit from getting help from a psychotherapist who specializes in gay and lesbian issues. You could also benefit from seeking support from LGBT support groups.

In NYC, you can contact the LGBT Community Center: http://www.gaycenter.org.
They offer a host of services for the LGBT community, including support groups, 12 Step programs, and other special programs specifically for the LGBT community.

If you're outside of NYC, you can contact the Gay and Lesbian National Hotline for support: http://www.glnh.org.

If you're a parent of a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered child, you can educate yourself and get support through Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. : http://www.pflag.org.

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR therapist and Somatic Experiencing therapist in NYC.

I have helped many gay and lesbian individuals and couples with their own "coming out" process, relationship issues, and other issues specifically related to the lesbian and gay community.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006.


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