Coping with family estrangement as 2SLGBTQIA+ people
I knew that in my family being queer was not something that was gonna be accepted. So I tried suppressing my queerness, my gender expansiveness, then later hiding it from family. This led to a one sided relationship where I censored what I shared of my life, didn’t bring partners around or introduced them as “friends”, wasn’t asked questions about my life while listening for hours about theirs, always visited my family who would never come to any of the places I lived and so on. For years I believed this was better than the possibility of having no relationship with them if I showed my full self to them. Family has high importance where I come from and it’s no light thing to be separated from it.Then there came a point in my adult life where I just couldn’t do it anymore and didn’t want to. I wrote a long letter reminding my Mom of the time in high school that the school outed me and I was told “not gonna happen” and not to tell anybody else. I shared that I wanted a real, genuine relationship with them but needed it to go both ways. I needed to be able to show up as my whole self.
It didn’t go well. I was told I was gonna cause relatives to have health problems, heart attacks, high blood pressure, etc. I was told I was lost and in sin and that my queer community didn’t really love me. I was left long angry voicemails, sad tearful ones. I tried setting boundaries and writing more letters but things didn’t get better. It was such a painful, stressful time. For a few years I got a birthday card signed by my mother and eventually those stopped. I found out that one relative never told her husband after years of estrangement why they weren’t speaking to me. It’s been 12 years at least now since I saw my immediate family. I recently received a box in the mail of childhood school projects and baby items with no note. It seems like the last trace of me may have left my family home.
I have other relatives I’m in touch with but the pain of estrangement from family never fully goes away, even when you have a beautiful chosen family and community. We’re told that family love is supposed to be unconditional and it can be a deep, core wound when we find out it’s not. It can be intense work not to internalize the message of rejection and that work can be ongoing as different life situations may push on that bruise. We may also have lost any safety net that other people might have- family members pitching in to help in emergencies, gifts of money, time, or connections that benefit some adults. This can have practical implications and sometimes make day to day life harder than it would have been. Other people may not recognize or understand this impact.
The good news is that even when estranged from family, we can have loving and healing relationships in our lives. We can cultivate community and chosen family. There are times when the grief comes up no matter how long it’s been- holidays, birthdays, becoming a parent yourself, other big milestones, seeing other adults who have close relationships with family. In those times we can be gentle and compassionate to ourselves, acknowledging the hurt and identifying what we like about ourselves. We can reach out to connect with people who love us. We might know other people who are estranged from family, especially other 2SLGBTQIA+ people,and we can reach out to them to show care and love.
Sometimes people who have been estranged find that they want to try again to connect, maybe with different expectations of the relationships and ability to forgive. This is not the path for everybody but if you decide you want to try again, think about what kind of support you need. A pep talk with friends, asking for a family therapy session, solid self care plans for after you try a conversation?
No matter your journey, know that sometimes even though everybody might be doing their best with the skills and energy they have at the time, it may not be enough to be a healthy dynamic. You can own and take responsibility for any of your part in the conflict if there’s something there for you to work on, and then recognize that the other parts are not yours to carry and are the other person’s work to do. There can be peace and relief in releasing somebody else’s emotional shadows. Most of all, on your hardest days, remember that we are never truly alone. Speak to your ancestors, encourage yourself, work with a healer, ask for affirmation from community members. You are worthy of love and belonging.