I'm closeted and my sister is homophobic -- is there a way to save our relationship?
Sam replies:My sister and I have never really gotten along. My nerdy and analytical personality has contrasted her affectionate and sensitive one for our entire lives. Though our relationship has never been perfect, everything's spiraled downhill since she enrolled in a local all-girls' Catholic school. While I was originally happy she found a community that suited her need for camaraderie, the ideals this institution enforces have ruined my perception of her. In her freshman year, her cheerleading squad bullied a lesbian teammate so viciously, she left the school. The school decided against persecuting the bullies. This past semester, she and her friends discovered a classmate's private social media page, in which he was out as a trans man. After realizing their discovery, the student begged them to keep it a secret. They refused, and outed the student to the administration and his community, resulting in his expulsion. Obviously, not every student at this school behaves in this manner, and I've met plenty of my sister's classmates who are allies, activists, and much more. However, it's the administration's open allowance and even enforcement of hate that's destroying our relationship. Through this school, she's shed her anxieties towards spewing racist, homophobic, and transphobic rhetoric at our family dinner table. She's found a foundation in the Bible, and she sees me and my friends as freaks, and assigns anyone she associates with LGBTQ+ identities a similar label. The big challenge for me is that I can't truly express my frustration without outing myself. I'm a 17-year-old bisexual girl preparing for college. I know I am not mentally ready for the communal backlash that coming out would entail. Because my family sides with her affectionate and conservative personality, I could risk meaningful relationships with my parents and grandparents as well. The problem is that the bottled frustration on both sides is seeping into our interactions. When I am upset with someone, I tend to withhold words of encouragement and affection until the situation is rectified. My sister is the opposite, as she can't function without displays of care. As a result, I'm finding it really difficult to spend time with her, which is our family's suggested solution. We share little in common outside of our blood, and every time we talk, it inevitably ends in an argument as we fail to establish common ground. Neither of us know what to do in this situation. I can't force myself to find love and affection for someone who openly attacks individuals like me, and could try to hurt me. Then again, I feel like I can't fully express my disgust for her actions without endangering myself in that manner. I don't know how to effectively communicate in a manner that suits both of our needs, without endangering my future with my identity. Any advice at all would help. I'm beyond lost at this point.
I wish I could reach through the screen and give you a hug. You, and the two classmates of your sister's who have been targeted by their peers and failed by the adults who should have protected them. I am so very angry on their behalf, and on yours.
This situation sucks in no small part because, from the sound of it, you want to have a positive relationship with your sister and your parents. So let me say something that is at the core of the rest of my answer: the discomfort and unhappiness in this situation is not coming from you. If I could, I would give you a magic phrase or technique that would make them understand your point of view. But because that doesn't exist, most of the advice I'm going to give focuses on how you can navigate this situation, rather than on how you can make them change.
One of the reasons your question leapt out at me is that, as I write this, large chunks of the internet are demanding that people look for common ground. Namely, they're asking for queer people, trans people, people of color, and other marginalized communities to make nice with people who have made it clear over and over again that they do not have our best interests at heart. More than that, they mean us harm, take pleasure in our suffering or, at the very least, make excuses for people who hurt us. Your situation with your sister is a microcosm of that same dynamic.
"Be nice to me" and "Please don't hurt me" are not equivalent needs. They never have been. Likewise, "Please don't hurt me" and "I think you and your friends are freaks and think you deserve to be driven out of spaces, and I have already demonstrated my willingness to do that" are not positions with an easy compromise. I'm going to make a few different suggestions, ones you can try or not based on your own sense of the risks and whether you want to take them. Regardless of what approaches you choose, I encourage you to prioritize your wellbeing above all. You know what's at stake and how your family is likely to react to certain things far, far better than I do.
It's worth remembering that, while the school certainly sounds like it's enabling your sister's views and actions, she's still the one choosing to embrace those beliefs. As you pointed out, she has classmates on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of allyship and activism. That means that she has the option to choose different beliefs, or at least different actions, just as she's choosing to be cruel and bigoted right now.
In an ideal world, it would never, ever, be on marginalized people to try and change the minds of people who are harming them. But I do think the fact that you two are siblings means you might have more sway over her opinion than someone outside the family would. If you want to try to help her unlearn all the toxic nonsense she's absorbed, that's a choice you can make. It's not a task you have to saddle yourself with if you know it will hurt you.
Since you mention she's drawing on the Bible, one thing you could do is arm yourself with more queer-friendly interpretations of it. A lot of conservative religious rhetoric relies on people not actually reading or contextualizing the passages they cite as evidence, and sometimes you can jar someone into looking at things in a new way (or at least stun them into silence for awhile). I'm not sure what other nonsense she's spewing about queer and trans people, but in my experience it follows some predictable scripts. I'm including a link at the end of this article that debunks common transphobic and homophobic talking points. Again, you don't have to get into those conversations if they're not safe for you or make you miserable.
You could also try setting limits with her around political talk. Limits here could mean, "I'm not talking about this with you at all." The goal here is not to change her mind, but to get her to stop saying horrible things around you. If she wants to know why you're setting that limit, a response like, "I find those topics unpleasant and I'd rather not spend our time together with both of us angry or upset" is vague enough that it shouldn't out you.
Regardless of whether you want to push back on these conversations, a priority is to get your home situation livable for you until you can get the heck out. Here are a few ways you could do that.
- Find safe topics of conversation: This could be a piece of media you both like, school projects, or, if you have pets, what said pets are doing right now. The more you can keep your interactions on neutral topics, the easier it will be to get through them.
- Locate your exits: When she starts spewing these comments, what ability do you have to leave the conversation entirely? Are you able to excuse yourself to go do something else (homework, chores, etc.) without people demanding you stay? If you have the ability to have your phone on you during dinner or other conversations, can you give your friends a code word that, if you text it, means: "Call me with a question about our homework?"
- Have some outlets for your frustration or anger: Since you want to avoid outing yourself, you also want to minimize your chances of getting into the kind of argument where you snap and blurt out something about being bi. That's not a dig at you -- it's more that I know exactly how easy it is to reveal the truth when you feel backed into a corner. Having an outlet for your frustration, whether that's texting a friend, doing deep breathing exercises, playing that horrible goose video game, or writing angry poetry that you then burn, can be immensely helpful. You deserve to not have to constantly bottle up your feelings about something that is genuinely upsetting. Having outlets for those feelings can be super helpful when it comes to maintaining your own mental health.
- Become suddenly very busy: If avoiding your sister is drawing unwanted questions from her or your parents, a full schedule of reasons why you can't sit and listen to her latest homophobic commentary is your new best friend. It gets you away from those comments without outing you. And it can look a thousand different ways. Maybe you and your friends start a (Covid safe) study group after school. If you're planning to go to college, maybe you devote lots and lots of time to prepping for that. Maybe you find a new volunteer gig or hobby, or take up running or biking or some other physical pursuit that gets you out of the house. If you're not already working, you could also look for a part-time job, which has the added benefit of putting some cash towards your eventual freedom. Not all of those options might be doable right now, given the pandemic, but they should give you a sense of how being busy can help you deal with living in a hostile space.
- If necessary, make a safety plan: Even if you're very, very careful, you still might get outed to your family. One way to make that situation less scary is to have a plan for what you'll do if it happens. You have a much better sense than I do as to whether that plan looks like bracing yourself for lots of arguing and leaning more on your friends for support, or if you'd be at risk of something more severe. From your question it sounds like the risk is more the former, but all the same I want to give you this safety planning tool just in case.
- Embrace being a freak, even if it's just in your head: You sister clearly means "freak" as an insult. That kind of rhetoric can get under your skin and make you feel like crud, even if some part of you knows it's nonsense. It also sounds like you're the black sheep of the family -- the weird, queer outlier. So I'm going to give you advice I wish I could give my younger self: if someone calls you that, own it. Being a "freak" just means you're not conforming to norms, and normalcy is deeply overrated and restricting. There's no shame in it, even if some people in your orbit try to claim that there is.
For all the energy you put into managing your relationship with your sister and the situation at home, I encourage you to put an equal or greater amount into taking care of yourself and finding communities where you're accepted. It sounds like you're already doing some of that, and that your friend group includes other queer folks, which is great! If you have the ability to do so, connecting with queer elders could also be really beneficial, because it's community connection and it puts adults into your life who accept you for who you are. I also want to share this guide I wrote for Pride in 2020, because a lot of the advice about celebrating, expressing, and connecting with your sexual orientation when you can't be out holds true all year long.
I hope this answer will make the situation with your sister even the smallest bit easier. What you're going through right now sucks, and some parts of it might keep sucking even if you implement some of this advice. That may be your burden, but it isn't your fault.
I'm not a fan of saying "It gets better" to queer youth, because even if it comes from a good place, sometimes it feels like a pat on the head, or a hollow promise that ignores the difficulties you're going through in the here and now. So I'll say this instead: there are futures out there, so very many of them, where you get to be yourself and surround yourself with people who love and support you as you are.
There are futures full of vibrant, accepting, and loving freaks who see the weird, queer, or otherwise nonconforming parts of you and say, "Come on in." That's not to say those futures will be without struggle, because that's not how the world works. And it's not to say that the path between now and those futures won't involve some really awful days. My promise to you, from one freak to another, is that they're out there, and that you have within you the ability to make it to them.
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