My Saturday morning reading always starts with the Family section of The Guardian. If the sun is shining and I can sit in the conservatory then that’s a blissful bonus. This Saturday there was a different column in place of one of the regular contributors. Louise Kelly from Stonewall gave Ten Tips on How to Come Out as LGBT to Your Family and Friends. As I read through I thought, this feels familiar, and I realised that an awful lot of what was being said applies to ‘coming out’ as a donor conception family as well. Of course some things are not the same but the essence is that you are trying to explain a ‘difference’ to people you love but who have not been through the same experiences and feelings that you have. So I thought I’d take the headings she had and see where we get to with substituting explaining about donor conception for explaining about being LGBT.
You don’t have to come out – True. You don’t have to do it but the main difference between the LGBT situation and donor conception is that it’s not just your feelings as parent(s) that are involved. There is your child as well. If you don’t tell family and friends (and that is what this is about rather than focusing on telling the child) and you do tell your child then you risk the child being at the end of an unplanned and possibly shocked or unbelieving reaction from a family member. All children deserve to have those in the caring circle around them know about their beginnings so that grandparents, uncles and aunts can process their thoughts and feelings before a child mentions it. If you don’t plan to tell your child but anyone else knows then you risk unplanned disclosure. You can certainly wait until you feel comfortable and confident about ‘telling’ (as Louise Kelly suggests) but remember that not-telling is much harder than many people imagine and can put anxiety as well as dishonesty at the heart of family life. And the longer you put it off the harder it gets.
Coming out can be a really positive experience – Also true. As Louise says, it can be very liberating to be authentic with family, friends and colleagues. So very many members of DC Network have told stories about being terrified of telling certain people, only to have them respond warmly and supportively.
Many people worry about other people’s reactions – Quoting from the Guardian, “Key concerns are that they won’t be accepted or will be seen differently.” This is so true of many DC families and it can be helpful to them to understand that they may need to allow time for people to understand what they are being told.
Worries and concerns may vary according to how old your family members are (this is adapted from Louise’s list which talks about how old the LGBT person is). People often worry that elderly parents, for instance, could not possibly understand DC but it could well be that adult children are under-estimating their mum and dad who have had many more years than them of negotiating life’s surprises. Different personalities will of course receive information in different ways. Sometimes older people will hear the news, absorb it, but not want to discuss it openly again, instead showing in subtle ways that they understand and support you. The most important thing they can do is welcome and accept your children, loving them the same as any other grandchild.
Allow people to be shocked and to need the time to take the news in – be sensitive to their feelings too. Pick a calm, quiet time when you tell people, which will give you all time to talk about it. Remember that coming out may be more of a process than an event.
These last couple of sentences come verbatim from the Guardian and are absolutely appropriate for DC families as well as those explaining about being LGBT. Remember how at the beginning, when you first knew you had a problem with conception, how clear you were that egg, sperm or embryo donation was absolutely not for you! One Network mum to an egg donation child had to recall her own first reaction to the idea of using an egg donor when her mother initially said that she wouldn’t be a ‘real’ grandmother to any child conceived this way.
If family or friends react in a negative way it won’t necessarily be how they will always feel. Give them time to get used to the news. First reactions aren’t always lasting reactions. People sometimes say silly or ignorant things at first because they haven’t thought about what they are saying or the impact it might have. Have patience, be an educator. They are likely to come round to acceptance and even full support (admiration often) after getting some information and thinking about it for a while.
If you are really nervous about coming out, particularly to certain people, consider writing them a letter and then following this up with a telephone call or a visit. This allows the recipient time to get used to the news, but you still retain control of the situation. You might even want to send them a copy of Our Family, DC Network’s booklet for family and friends of those using donor conception.
Stay in control of the news as best you can but remember that hushed tones and pleas to not tell anyone else, may encourage some people to share what feels like forbidden and titillating information. Telling in a matter of fact way is far more likely to result in people feeling privileged to share in something special about your family and then forget about it! You can always say that you would appreciate people asking you before they tell anyone else but in the end you cannot ever guarantee privacy. Best of all is feeling confident and proud – although not necessarily shouting the information to all and sundry – not feeling worried if the news in known by people other than those you have told.
If you are not sure of how certain significant people in your life may react it’s a good idea to build a support network around you first. This could mean telling one person whom you trust and are reasonably confident will be supportive. If necessary, have that person with you when you come out to others. I can just imagine this working in DC families where some, say, brothers or sisters-in-law may be felt to be intolerant or judgemental.
If you suspect someone you know has donor conceived children too remember that you cannot – and should not – force them to come out, but you can foster an environment where the family feels supported and safe to do so.
Again, this last tip is verbatim from Louise Kelly (to whom many thanks). Hopefully in years to come both LGBT people and donor conception families will not feel so fearful of exposing their difference to the world. In the meantime Stonewall is there to help, guide and support LGBT people and DC Network is there for all donor conception families, including LGBT ones.
Telling and Talking for Family and Friends -booklet for people committed to donor conception family creation and parenting young children and wanting support in ‘telling’ family and friends. http://www.dcnetwork.org/catalog/books-and-pdfs
Our Family – booklet for the family and friends of those using donor conception for family creation and parenting young children. http://www.dcnetwork.org/catalog/books-and-pdfs
Stonewall help and advice on coming out http://www.stonewall.org.uk/help-advice/coming-out-0