For the vast majority of my youth, I pretended to be in love. I jumped from crush to crush, pouring affection onto boys and men who responded in exactly the way they were expected. I imitated the trappings of heterosexuality that I saw on TV, played the “cool girlfriend,” asked for what I thought I wanted and acquiesced when it wasn’t given. I thought the love I saw between my parents, my friends and their partners, the countless straight couples that surrounded me, was something I could replicate in myself. But it wasn’t.
Jewish culture is all about shared experience. Jewish families vary in race, size and observance, but they are bound together by history. Even if a Jew is estranged from their family, it’s difficult to estrange themselves from the whole of Jewish culture. But the LGBTQ child of straight parents becomes culturally divorced from their family, even if that family is supportive. The experience of straightness is lost to them and they are set adrift, off to find people who share their perception of the world.
“I feel like I’m losing you” is one of the most common things a gay or trans person hears upon coming out to their parents. It’s ironic, since coming out is associated with finding oneself. I’ve always found it interesting that the process focuses so heavily on other people’s feelings, rather than the joyous occasion of accepting oneself. Gay and trans people are tasked with reassuring their friends and family that they’re the same person, that absolutely nothing is going to change, as if their joy is somehow a burden on their family. Of course, this is not always the case, but it would be disingenuous to claim that the majority of LGBTQ people fold seamlessly back into their families after coming out.
When I came out as a lesbian at 22, I had just learned what romantic love felt like. Not the love I was trying to replicate, but the complex, beautiful love I had long since given up on achieving. It felt like I had been trying to breathe through a straw for my entire life, and then the weight on my body lifted and I was able to break through the water. It was overwhelming and terrifying and wonderful, but the process didn’t end there. I had to learn what I wanted from a relationship, shed the expectations I had placed on myself and figure out what it was to love another woman.
Often, LGBTQ people experience what is considered a second adolescence after coming out, since they didn’t have the ability to learn about relationships or themselves in their teens. They have to learn from other LGBTQ people outside their families, a connection that is difficult to build if resources are not readily available to them. This disconnect from one’s family members can cause a rift, and even the most understanding parents can find themselves distant from their children. And why wouldn’t they? Newly out people are venturing into territory their parents may not fully understand, but it’s still necessary for them to create a new sense of community. It can be isolating for all parties.
The search for love and community is vital to all of us. The fact that LGBTQ kids have to go outside their families to find it is not inherently bad. While there is a grieving process, straight parents should inevitably come to the conclusion that because their cultural experience is different from their children, that diversion is healthy. This doesn’t mean that LGBTQ people are completely split from their families (though that is sometimes necessary) and that they no longer share other cultural touchstones. It simply means families have more room to grow, learn and create space for new love, and that is always worth celebrating.