Will I Ever Be Able To Bring My Girlfriend To The Family Cookout?
Coming out is often just the first step towards family acceptance — especially when you want to make your girlfriend a part of family gatherings.
It was a regular day in May, nothing special. I was sitting in a Sonic Drive-In laughing with my girlfriend and drinking slushies when I changed my relationship status on Facebook.
My followers on Twitter and Instagram had been privy to this information for months. But a Facebook announcement means all of the extended family, hers and mine, now have access to what still feels like a secret. While I've been proudly out for almost two years, among my family, it still wasn’t common knowledge. My mind began to race: Who was going to see? Would my anti-LGBTQ cousin report the news back to my devout grandmother in South Carolina? Would I lose family who decided to judge me before they even know me?
But somehow, just like every other moment thus far, we survived.
My girlfriend and I were old friends who reconnected after college in October of last year. A weekly date turned into spending time with each other every day, constant Facetime calls and late-night chats in her Mustang. But living in this teeny tiny town with our Black families, we knew one truth at all times: people talk. And in the past, my sexuality has been minimized to “just a phase” and similarly, my girlfriend’s was overlooked.
But at the pace our relationship was taking, we couldn’t stay in our little bubble forever. Formally meeting the parents was inevitable. It would never be the “perfect time” so it had to happen sometime. January 2020 was a new year, a new start and ultimately became the “right time.”
I’ve been publicly out of the closet as bisexual for about two years but I can remember being attracted to girls as young as twelve years old. Like many people, obstacles like religion and family expectations got in the way of me being my full and complete self until my third year of college. It wasn’t until I was in a space where it was okay to be queer that I was able to stand proudly in that identity.
Tackling being Black and gay has its own challenges. Because they are two marginalized identities that you’re dealing with, explaining those portions in either world can be difficult. There’s plenty of anti-LGBTQ prejudice within the Black community. There is plenty of racism among the queer community. And belonging to one does not absolve your faults in the other.
Christian values also play a huge role in many Black families, ours included. Acceptance into my girlfriend’s family was a big concern, but the biggest one we found ourselves thinking about was how to sustain a level of privacy and boundaries. Once the door is opened, there’s no shutting it — it’s real.
Although it has gotten easier, challenges pop up all the time and there’s really no manual.
The biggest turning point was our first Christmas, when my parents invited us to church service. My gut reaction was absolutely not. It was too soon.
I hadn’t been back to church in over a year, and the last time I was at my parent’s church in particular, the pastor’s sermon was all about their belief that homosexuality was a sin, complete with video testimonies of queer people “turned straight” because they found the Lord. My girlfriend knew this but insisted that we go because it would be rude not to. This was the first time I had ever brought a partner to church, let alone one of the same gender.
The service was lovely and reminded me of why I liked going to church. The building was decorated in colorful lights, Christmas trees and snowflakes. The choir filled the building with classic hymns and the preacher’s message of inner peace felt personal. However my girlfriend couldn’t even look at me. It took me back to a time when I would repress what I already knew. It made me sad and uncomfortable, but it was reality.
"It’s uncomfortable feeling rejected because you find yourself outside of the heterosexual norm."
Following that, I got to come over to her home to open presents with her friends, but she put some guidelines in place — after all her parents thought we were just friends. I sat on the other side of the room. We exchanged one hug after handing each other our gifts. The pet names were silenced. And still, after I left, her mother immediately knew what was going on. The argument that followed between them wasn’t pretty.
It’s uncomfortable feeling rejected because you find yourself outside of the heterosexual norm. But it’s also difficult letting go of the ideology that who you are is wrong. The next time I saw her mother, I was caught off-guard and cornered with questions about my sexuality and the intentions of our relationship. Some of the questions were extremely invasive. How do I define myself? How do my parents feel about my sexuality?
One thing I remember she said to me that I’ll never forget: No parent wants their children to be gay. I told her that parents should just want their children to be who they are.
The line of questioning brought so many emotions. I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry. I wanted to get defensive. But none of those things would have done any good. I had to stand my ground and answer each question thoughtfully. I had to continue coming over and being present.
And six months later, that feels like a lifetime ago. My girlfriend comes to dinner with me and my parents. Her mom and I laugh about all of her daughter’s little quirks as she talks to my dog over the phone. It’s hardly a perfect relationship, but it’s getting there.
The progress we’ve made now feels like night and day, and gives me hope that more and more kids in Black families won’t have to hide who they are. Now, I dream of bringing my girlfriend to the family cookout without worrying about piercing stares or the whispers behind my back. I wish I could take my girlfriend to the bi-yearly family reunion in October. It was canceled this year because of COVID but I hesitate regardless. I want my grandmother to be happy for me and show up to my wedding, but I don’t know when or if she’ll ever approve.
Your sexuality is no one else’s business.
The best advice I can offer is time and patience with yourself and your loved ones. Not all parents get over it and I am grateful that I’ve been able to adopt a relationship with my girlfriend’s parents that feels comfortable. It’s difficult because you have to find that balance. You can’t fall into the trap of rejecting yourself. You can’t make yourself smaller to be more palatable. But unfortunately, you’re also the first line of education, and you want to do it because they’re family.
The truth is that almost no one comes out just once. You’re going to be breaking down barriers within yourself and with others all the time. Your sexuality is no one else’s business. And sharing that information is a privilege, so there’s no shame in taking it one person at a time. You don’t have to address homophobic family members if you don’t want to.
Every time I publicly talk about myself and my relationship, I run the risk of being outed to someone I’m not ready to be out to. And in the age of social media, gossip about your personal life is inevitable. So I’ve decided to let the church people stare. I’ve decided to let the distant relatives question. It will now not stop me from living, posting Instagram photos, and being cheesy for monthly anniversaries.
Because there’s no one else I’d like to weather the storms of life with — and one of these days (if quarantine ever ends), she will be one person I am most excited to bring to the cookout.