Dear Captain Awkward,
I’m an undergrad English student who just got published for the first time (yay!) and I’ll be starting work on my capstone thesis next semester (although I’ve already started reading and outlining and stuff like that). My family is currently very supportive and thrilled for me- also yay! Problem is, I’m not sure if that will continue once they actually read the paper in question. I promised to get them copies of the journal in the heat of the moment when I first announced my big news, and now I’m thinking that might not have been such a good idea.
I hold some rather… radical opinions on gender, sexuality, and the politics thereof, which is what I’m writing about, and my writing makes that VERY clear. My parents aren’t good at dealing with this stuff- I came out to my mom once, very awkwardly, and she still thinks it’s a phase; I’m closeted to the rest of my family because my grandmother is Super Catholic. This paper is the most important thing going on in my life right now, but I’m not sure how to talk about it with my family beyond a very cursory “I’m writing about gender and sexuality in Shakespeare” (which is totally not going to cut it for long). And once the journal is published and they get to actually read what I wrote, things could get very awkward very fast. (I do have an aunt and uncle who are ex-professors- they read the paper and loved it, but sadly I don’t get to see them very often.) It sucks, because otherwise I’m very close with my family, and I want to be able to share the biggest step so far in my academic and professional life without screwing things up permanently. Any suggestions?
Please Just be Happy for Me and Don’t Read the Paper
Dear PJBHFMADRTP, or, as I will address you henceforth, Wünderkind,
Sweet Machine reporting for duty, as resident queer literature scholar WHAT UP. We are in good company, don’t you think? If this were another blog, I’d be all over talking shop with you. Instead, I’ll try to help you sort this mess out.
But first! Congratulations are in order! Publishing as an undergrad is a huge deal — it means you done good, kid, and you are right to be thrilled. (Also, kudos to your profs for mentoring you through that process.) You are a talented scholar, and in a just world your family would be throwing you a party.
You don’t quite say enough about your family for me to know how drastic you expect things to get. You are out to your mom, who was not supportive but apparently hasn’t cut ties; you have a supportive aunt and uncle who, even if you’re not officially out, know about your “radical opinions;” you have a Super Catholic Grandma (the least impressive superhero ever, btw). You say you’re not out because of SCG, but it sounds like she doesn’t rule your family with an iron fist, at least not completely. Do other family members share her religious and political views? Can you make a list of who does and who doesn’t, or ask your nice aunt and uncle for their take? Since I’m not sure how many family members we’re talking about here, let me issue a Blanket Statement to the Awkward Army:
Blanket Statement: Your family is made of individuals, and you’re allowed to have different relationships with different individuals even if they live in the same house/go to the same church/watch the game every weekend.
The reason I think this is important to keep in mind is that you are totally, totally allowed to show off the paper to some members of your family and not others. You are also allowed to come out to some members and not others. Please note: showing off your paper may or may not be equivalent to coming out (assuming the first line is not “Since the dawn of time, undergraduate students have always [loved/abhorred] cock…”). With that in mind, here are some possible options for any given family member:*
- Don’t give them the paper for a made-up but plausible academic-sounding reason. You couldn’t get multiple copies of the journal! Your advisor wants you to revise it for a writing sample for grad school, so it’s not really done! TRUMP CARD: It’s excruciatingly boring to anyone not in your field of study! (Seriously, that is true of most academic papers — you can snap a pic of the table of contents with your name in print and send it to your adoring relatives instead.) Note: This will only work with people who aren’t very familiar with academia.
- Give them the paper and let them speculate on what it means for your personal life. The fact that a friend of mine writes about Soviet propaganda doesn’t mean she’s a Stalinist, right? The fact that you write about cross-dressing in Elizabethan theater doesn’t mean you’re about to get your own show on Logo. If they feel like extrapolating, that’s their business, and they’d damn well better have an actual conversation with you before jumping to any conclusions.
- Give them the paper and explicitly come out. You don’t have to do this all at once, necessarily, but if you want to come out to a given family member, this is a readymade opportunity to do so. Possible script: “Uncle Luis, I’m so glad that you wanted to read my paper — I’m so proud I can barely describe it. This may seem like a weird thing to talk about now, but I figured once you read it you might be wondering why I chose such a hot topic. The fact is, I’m [INSERT IDENTITY HERE], and not many people in the family know. I’ve been nervous about telling you, but I trust you and I want to have this conversation.” Then, have the conversation.
The upshot is, there are two decisions here: Share the paper y/n; come out y/n. There’s some thinking you’ve gotta do about each of those, but try to answer them separately at first so you can decide which course of action is best for which person. And if you do trust someone enough to come out to them, you can ask them not to share this information with Super Catholic Grandma; even if they think she should know, that is your decision, not theirs, and you can impress upon them how important it is that they respect this boundary.
Wünderkind, you are doing awesome things with your awesome self, and anyone not poisoned by homophobia will be so proud of you. I’m not gonna lie to you: coming out can be hard and awkward, and sadly it’s not something you get to do once and then it’s over. Queer people have to come out again and again in our lives, always assessing our safety and our expected level of wearying and intrusive questions. The good news is, the more you do it, the better you get at it. Everything in your life is in transition or new right now, and whatever you do, it may take a while for your family to get used to it. Your mom, for instance, clings to the “phase” idea because doing so allows her not to make the effort to get used to it or to understand what your future might look like. Eventually, she’s going to have to make that effort; meanwhile, you are turning into a fine, talented adult who can build support systems that don’t involve her dumb “phase” wishes. Assemble Team You, Avengers-style, make a “queer-friendly” and a “stuck in the 1950s” family tree, and map out your course of action. If Super Catholic Grandma sends beams of Catholic Guilt your way, they can be deflected with your Rainbow Shield of Justice and your Riverside Shakespeare.
*NOTA BENE: The absolute most important factor in coming out is your safety. If you suspect you might not be safe — physically, psychologically, financially — once you come out to a given person, you should not do it! Be safe.