Have You Told Your Parents?
Not telling our parents absolutely everything is framed as a kind of dishonesty, but it doesn't have to be.
Almost a year ago, I emailed my close friends, asking if they would use “she” and “her” when referring to me. My friend Kristin had suggested that this would be a gentle way to test out these pronouns and see how they felt for me, given that I had been called “he” and “him” for 34 years. An hour after I hit “send,” one of my friends called me.
“Wow,” she said. “Big news! Have you told your parents?”
I happened to be in the car with my parents when she called, and I was studying the backs of their heads, trying to gauge how closely they might have been listening to my conversation. I hadn’t told them; we were on our way to a casual family breakfast at IHOP.
“I am taking baby steps,” I responded, carefully.
That question — “Have you told your parents?" — isn’t new to me. Being a queer artist who makes work that delves into intersections of race, religion, gender, and sexuality, a version of this question is one I am asked regularly — “Have you shown your parents this film about celebrating queerness?” or “How do your parents feel about you reimagining Hinduism in your novel?” My art also often explores my family, my mother especially, so the relevance of this question is almost undeniable. For a recent photo project, Trisha, I reshot nine vintage photos of my mom with myself as the subject. Since the release of that project, and coming out as trans six months ago, questions about disclosure have been asked with heightened frequency — “What does your mom think?”
In being asked this question so often, I’ve been asking myself different ones: Why is there such an unrelenting investment in sharing personal information with our parents? Why is it so pressing for trans and queer people in particular to be formally “out” to our parents?
On the surface, “Have you told your parents?” is innocuous. It can feel like the questioner doesn’t have an explicit investment in my response, just a genuine, harmless curiosity. My friend on the phone was possibly just making conversation. After all, “big news” is often shared with family, right? But when I juxtapose this question with the recollections of when I have told my parents an intimate detail about my life — the linguistic juggling required to communicate with my parents, using other words to signify the ones I can’t say out of fear or respect, accompanied with body-throbbing tension — it does not feel harmless at all. Rather, it feels invasive.
When I was 23, my then-girlfriend and I had been living together in a small bachelor apartment for six months. My mom called me and began the conversation with “I have a question for you.” Uh-oh. I am notorious for pacing while chatting on the phone, but here, I immediately sat down on the bed and sighed.
“Sure, Mom. What do you want to ask me?”
“Are you and your girlfriend living together as friends?”
“Are you and your girlfriend living together as friends?”
Decoded, my mom’s question was whether or not my girlfriend — whom I had been dating for three years — and I were fucking. I laughed even though I was angry. I had grown up in a home where the word “sex” was never spoken and any association with the opposite sex was vehemently opposed. (The irony!) Predictably, this silence around sex during my upbringing had spawned feelings of shame about my body and pleasure, feelings I continue to work through in my thirties. And yet my mother felt entitled to call me on a Saturday morning to ask if I was having sex — without using the word, of course.
Option One was to open the truth door: “No, Mom, we aren’t living together as friends. We are living together in sin and are doing it a lot.” But instead, I gifted her with Option Two: the answer that would confirm I was still the “virtuous” child she had raised, and thereby affirming that was still a “good” mother. “Yes, Mom, we are living together as friends,” I said, shaking my head at my girlfriend, who shook hers back at me.
Perhaps I didn’t want to deal with her response to the truth, that her child was premaritally sexually active. But mostly I told her what she wanted to hear from a place of compassion, and maybe even pity, imagining how uncomfortable it must have felt for her to make the call and ask the question, and then feel relieved by my answer, while probably knowing that I was lying to her.
Parents are the ultimate barometers of approval. Every time I am asked if I have told my parents something — in this case, my transness — all I hear is "Have you told your Gods of Acceptance that you’re trans? Do they still accept you? Do they still love you?" The question, merely by subtext, is transformed into something even more personal and challenging.
In spite of my misgivings about the question, I know I have asked this of others. While grappling with this question myself, I’ve started to examine my own motivations for posing it to others. So perhaps the motivation is purely selfish. For those of us who have parents, the desire for their approval can be profound, at times obsessive, and is possibly even universal. Maybe when we ask someone, "Have you told your parents?" we are actually grappling with whether or not we could tell something (maybe the same thing) to our own parents, and wondering whether our own parents would still approve of us.
On one of my first and only dates, 20-year-old me and a messy-haired, stocky guy I had met at the gay bar the night before were huddled at the back of a Second Cup. The café was on Jasper Avenue in Edmonton, where it wasn’t unusual to see the occasional gay man or a gay couple even, but we still spoke quietly to each other, partly from shyness and partly to avoid drawing attention to ourselves. I was also convinced that this boy’s interest in me (and any boy’s interest) was actually a prank, and I was waiting for it to unfold, waiting to be right. He told me how he loved to travel with friends and the countries he wanted to visit.
“We should go to Egypt together!” he said.
“Ha ha, should we?”
“No, seriously. My dad will pay for it.”
Prank confirmed, I thought to myself. But talking about his dad opened the door to the inevitable question, the question that almost felt like the destination of every conversation with another gay person at that time.
“So does your dad know?”
“Oh yeah, totally,” he said. “He’s so great about it.”
I nodded. I wasn’t yet out as queer to my parents, and I was unconsciously collecting stories like this to bolster myself, and to give me hope that maybe my parents would be so great about my queerness too. This is maybe what all young queer teenagers are doing by circling around this question with each other — building solidarity and courage. I collected the stories from friends who came out to their parents and their parents reacted negatively. These stories were certainly demotivating, but I was more fixed on the fact that many of these friends seemed to be okay nonetheless. They were in pain, of course, and some friends were even kicked out of their homes, but their parents' rejection of their queerness seemed to instill a resoluteness in their identities. This suggested to me that parental acceptance wasn’t crucial to survival. I needed to know this then.
When queer youth ask me if I have told my parents about my queerness, I am happy to answer, because it is often accompanied by "How should I tell my own parents?" Despite being out as queer to my parents, I often push against the pressure for queers to come out. Not telling our parents absolutely everything is framed as a kind of dishonesty, not only with your family, but also with yourself. But the ability to come out to one's parents is a privilege that many, particularly people of colour, don't always have because of cultural, religious, and familial barriers.
When a straight or cis white person asks me about my parents in relation to my gender or sexual identity, the underlying motivation feels different. Last year, I had the opportunity to attend a film festival in Glasgow for the screenings of my short films. During the Q&A, a white woman asked: “Can you please speak to what it’s like being queer with South Asian parents?”
This question is rooted in two racist assumptions: One, that I embody a universal and monolithic South Asian queer experience. I have to answer with caution and care, because whatever I say will shape the white questioner’s idea of The South Asian Queer. Two, that my parents must disapprove of me, because all Indian parents are conservative and backwards. In this context, I feel a subtle pressure to provide a positive and uncomplicated narrative: As soon as I told my parents I was queer, they hugged me and fed me ladoos!
I first came out to my mom as gay when I was 21. I had planned to take Dan Savage’s advice and wait until I was financially independent and living on my own, mostly out of fear of how she might react. Queer children tend to cling to clues in relation to potential acceptance or rejection from others, especially our parents, before coming out. One of my clues from my mother was when she came home from work, declaring that her hero Oprah had been “talking about lessssssbians.” The insertion of a hissing sound into the word “lesbian” didn’t bode well for me. And despite the fact that my mom had a strange affinity for movies with gay characters, such as The Wedding Banquet, I had observed that during the inevitable man-kissing-man scenes, she seemed slightly more repulsed than she was during man-kissing-woman scenes. Beyond clues, my best friend’s cool mom (she knew all the lyrics on Jagged Little Pill) had a breakdown when he came out to her. I was learning that you can never predict how a parent might react to learning their son likes to suck cock. Nonetheless, not telling my mom I was queer had created a dense cloud that hovered over me and our relationship, a silent barrier that bred more silence.
“Mom,” I told her, “I think love is for everyone.”
“Okay,” she said.
“Like, it doesn't matter if you are black or white, or are tall or short, or are a man or a woman…” My voice got more and more quiet.
“So, you're gay?” my mom asked, without skipping a beat.
“Yes?” I often wish I had said, "No, I am bisexual," instead, because it would have made my subsequent coming out about dating a woman a bit smoother.
“Well, some kids have cancer. Some people are paralyzed. You are our child. We love you no matter what.” Not quite the PFLAG-mom response or fanfare, but I was mostly happy to not be kicked out of our home and that she didn’t, to my knowledge, have a jagged little breakdown.
Oh, and my best friend’s cool mom? She was white.
As an adult, I have prioritized establishing boundaries with others, despite the implication that I am being secretive or stuck up. A couple years ago, a man chided me as being pretentious for giving him my email address and not my phone number. In a time of 24-hour self-documentation, dissemination, and surveillance, our sense of entitlement to every aspect of each other's lives has become immeasurable. Consequently, drawing a line between the things I don't and do share is crucial for my sense of safety and well-being. This extends to my parents. When my mom called to find out if I was having sex with my girlfriend, I’m not certain sharing the truth with her would have brought us closer. If anything, it is the boundaries I have established with my parents, the details I haven’t shared with them about my life, that have maintained familial peace. My parents will live a happier life not knowing I have written a short story about humping my bed.
They would likely agree with me, given that I learned about the importance of boundaries from them. When my brother and I were children, we weren’t allowed to ask our parents where they were going when they left the house to do errands on the weekend. Instead, we were instructed to ask them “Are you going to Southgate Mall?” and they promised to respond with “yes” or “no” and grant more details about their planned excursions. Except they never said yes and no details were ever offered. This bizarre routine was their polite way of saying, “What we do is none of your business.” This is how my parents taught us that they were entitled to their privacy. At what point am I entitled to mine?
I haven’t yet explicitly come out to my parents as trans. A central aspect of my hesitancy is connected to determining how necessary this is for me. Do I need to hear my mom refer to me as “she”? Does my transness need to be named when she already shares her jewelry with me and I occasionally wear makeup around her? Maybe there is beauty in love that thrives even when difference is unnamed. When I have talked about my resistance to sharing my art with my parents, I have been asked if I am handling my parents with kid gloves, if I am over-parenting them. Maybe I’m not ready to have formal conversations about my gender with my parents, even if they might be open to learning and accepting me. And maybe there are details about my life that my parents don’t want to know about me. Maybe it’s easier for my mom to see me as a feminine man than as trans. Maybe that’s okay.
But the repeated asking of “Have you told your parents?” seems to suggest that an informal, quiet form of acceptance is actually not okay. The question seems to be more of a comment: “That’s well and good, but until you tell your parents and they approve, you aren’t officially out and your transness isn’t real.”
What would happen if instead of asking trans and queer people if they have come out to their parents, we told them that they are loved, that parental acceptance is not paramount to living queerly, and that we have a rich history of building chosen families that allow each other to be seen fully and adored? Moreover, why aren’t parents bombarded with the question, “Have you accepted and celebrated your trans or queer child?” as often as we are asked “Have you told your parents”? Why must trans and queer people bear the burden of parental disclosure and of proving that we are still worthy of their love and approval? Why aren’t parents expected to be accountable to their children? Why aren't they asked, “Do you see your children for who they are?” Instead, the lack of parental acceptance is often excused under the banners of their upbringings or generational and cultural differences, even though we aren’t similarly excused for not wanting to navigate our parents’ unpredictable reactions. Parents are also given time “to come around.” And yet, not one person has said to me, “You can take your time in coming out to your parents.”
In my lifelong battle to be my whole self in a world that has fought equally hard against my brownness, my gender, and my desires, a part of me also wonders when I get to be my own God of Acceptance. When is it enough for me, just me, to accept and love myself? Aren't I, not my parents, the intended "self" in "self-love”? My choices to use “she” and “her” pronouns, to be queer, and to make art transcend my parents, however much they support and inspire me.
So the next time I am asked, I hope to answer: “I have done something harder. I have told myself.”