With “family above all” ingrained as a societal norm, parental estrangement can seem mysterious and unfathomable. But it’s often a heartbreaking reality for the queer community, 39% of whom say that “at some point in their lives they were rejected by a family member or close friend because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.” Stevie is a 22-year-old art student whose parents cut them off at the age of 19. Below is their as-told-to story of putting self-care above the parent-child relationship.
Coming Out to My Parents (Over and Over)
Growing up, I had a pretty good relationship with my mom and dad, but around late grade school, it started to go downhill. My parents are religious; we went to church every Sunday. A lot of my family is conservative, so when I started questioning my sexuality, I wondered if they would accept me.
My parents were really controlling to begin with, so I started to hide a lot of things from them. I became a very private person. I drew a lot in my sketchbook but didn’t want to show anybody; I talked to friends that I met on the internet; I started keeping things to myself that weren’t necessarily private, like the music I listened to. I didn’t want my parents to know that I listened to Tegan and Sara, for example. I was afraid that they would find out there was something wrong with me.
My freshman or sophomore year of high school, I started going to therapy, which was my parents’ idea. My therapist thought I should come out to them since that was a huge part of myself that I was hiding. So at my therapist’s office, I came out to my mom and dad as pansexual. They didn’t really know what that meant, but they pretended to be cool with it at the appointment. Afterward, they told me that I should keep it to myself and not talk about it or tell my siblings.
Around my junior year of high school, I told my parents I was having feelings of being genderqueer. It was eating me up; I couldn’t handle the stress of hiding it. Again, I don’t think they really knew what that meant, so I tried to explain it to them, but they were not receptive. Their response was dismissive; they seemed really uncomfortable. They told me it was a phase. From then on, when I had conversations about my gender identity with friends over email or text, I would try to hide it from my parents because I didn’t want them to know I was still talking about it.
A major conflict was over my desire to bind my chest and wear men’s clothes. At that point in high school, my parents still controlled a lot of my life. They didn’t want me to be binding at all. I knew they checked my bank account, so I bought a gift card at Walmart and bought a binder on the internet with it and had it delivered to a friend’s house. Anytime my parents found a binder, they would take it and throw it away without telling me. There were a lot of little fights too, like, “You can’t wear this because this is a men’s shirt.” And I’d tell them, “Yes, I can wear it. It doesn’t matter.”
I tried to come out to them again during my freshman year of college, but they weren’t receptive to that either. At that point, I just kind of gave up. I didn’t know what else to do.
The biggest turning point in our relationship was when I was 19 and entering my sophomore year of college. I wrote them a letter, coming out to them again and detailing everything I was going through. I wanted to be really transparent. I was still living at home and was afraid they’d react badly to it, so I packed up a lot of my stuff and moved to my friend’s house for a while. I remember thinking, If they don’t come around after this, it’s going to be really hard for them to ever come around.
During that time, I basically lived on my own, couch-surfing at my friends’ houses. A couple of months later, they cut me off from everything except for insurance. After that, I only went over to their house for holidays and to see my siblings. It was kind of like, Okay, let’s get together for the holidays and pretend everything’s okay. I was doing that for about two years, but I would come away from my family gatherings feeling negative and dredging up bad feelings, so I stopped going. My parents don’t like my partner, either, so it makes more sense to see his family instead of mine.
The Challenges of Estrangement
My sister is five years younger than me, and my brother is a year younger. I think both of them thought I was a little weird, but they were okay after I told them what was going on. Since I left the house, though, they’ve kind of gone to my parents’ side. I think my parents have pushed a lot on to them, which I don’t blame them for, but that doesn’t make it easy. It’s difficult to talk to my siblings without feeling like they’re going to relay something to my parents.
Not being around my parents has also affected how my extended family views me. But there’s no way I can find out exactly how they feel about everything because I haven’t seen them in a long time. There’s a disconnect where I feel like I can’t talk to my grandparents without talking with my parents first. My grandparents don’t really know how to interact with me right now.
One of the most difficult parts of all this was that initially I didn’t have a lot of money. I felt like my parents wanted me to feel desperate and then come back to them for help, but I knew that if I went back after how they treated me, it would probably get worse.
After they cut me off, I had to work full-time in addition to going to college. I had to go through all these steps with my university in order to stay in school, which was really difficult. Luckily, someone who worked at the university helped me with a lot of the paperwork and getting to be independent on my FAFSA [federal student aid documents]. I basically had to rely on other people helping me to be able to afford food and somewhere to stay for a short time. That was a really scary point in my life.
I feel like I constantly have to network to find support; it feels like another career. I have to constantly keep in contact with friends and older adults in my life who I trust so that if I get in trouble or something happens, they’ll be able to help me. That’s a bit difficult to manage.
The Freedom of Estrangement
Since I’ve been away from my parents, I’ve had a lot more independence and freedom. I’ve been able to be my own person instead of trying to fit into a category that they were trying to put me in. I can be more honest about myself and present a more authentic version of me to the world. My mental health has improved too. I used to feel terrible and anxious all the time, and now I feel happy a lot and feel like I’m making my own decisions. That’s helped me feel better about my decision to leave.
I would still love for my parents to accept me, but based on the conversations and interactions I’ve had with them, I’ve reconciled with the fact that they’re not going to. I don’t really feel bad about it anymore. Even if they were to come around, it would still take a while to trust them based on how they’ve treated me and my partner. I find it really sad, but I just have to keep building myself up and move on.
I’ve learned I have to surround myself with good people — an adult I trust, someone I work with, a professor or teacher. People I’m able to have confidentiality with are people I want to hold on to. As an introvert, it’s been hard to reach out to people, but it’s been necessary for survival. For me, it’s been about creating a support network, at least on an emotional level. It feels so much better having people on the outside validating my experience and supporting me, rather than isolating myself as I was before. Staying connected with people who support me is the best thing I can do for myself.
Collages by Emily Zirimis.