It took us a long time to decide on a title for this week’s Issue. We tossed around ideas about communication and censorship, about acceptance and avoidance, about family and identity. We could not quite settle on one theme or set of words that felt complete but not too clunky. I found myself drawing word-webs on scratch paper at my desk, wondering how to put a label on a coming out story that is really less about the act of coming out and more about the years following.
When Ben first mentioned the word “reconciling,” I wasn’t immediately sure which act of reconciliation he was referencing. Was it the process of reconciling with family - of coming to terms with a truth weighing heavily upon your relationships? Was it the idea of Adam’s reconciling two identities - the first lived within his family environment, and the other lived in his time apart? Or was it the hope that Adam’s parents might reconcile their versions of their son - the one they knew before his coming out, and the one they knew after, two versions that are really one and the same?
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. Adam’s letter does not offer us a conclusion to his doubts, his frustrations, or his hopes. It gives us an intimate window into an internal and familial struggle, but it does not assure us that anything will be immediately, or ever, solved. Like Adam, we are left wondering - and desperately hoping for change.
Adam is honest yet kind; blunt, yet generous. He does not lay blame only on his parents, but on all three of them. He reminds us that our stories are as multi-dimensional as we are, and that we can use straightforward language to address complicated conversations.
One of my favorite lines comes near the end of the essay, when Adam writes:
“We’ve retreated from the truth, pretending it doesn’t exist rather than facing it. That hurts me.”
This is what I wanted to say with my vision for “The Issue.” Reconciliation is an individual experience, but it is also a community act of healing. Let’s stop retreating from our truths and start facing them.
A LETTER TO MY PARENTS - Adam Johnston
My name is Adam. This letter contains things that I want to say to my parents, but haven’t.
Mom and Dad,
I love you. I know you love me. My whole life you have done your best to help me in any way you can. Despite this, there is a part of my story that I feel I cannot share with you. I came out to you both nearly five years ago in the spring of my freshman year of college. Since that conversation, we have spoken twice about me being gay. I’m writing this letter to express how I really feel. This might not be easy to read, but I don’t want to continue holding these emotions to myself. I want to share my life with you without censoring myself.
Growing up, I spent a lot of time thinking about being gay. I was afraid and tried to ignore it before accepting and understanding the truth. This process of acceptance wasn’t always easy. While I had a positive experience in school, there were still challenges. I learned that being gay was bad - and I internalized that message. The jokes and slurs I heard about gay people stuck with me. I remember living in complete denial, pretending that this truth didn’t exist. When I could no longer deny that something was different, I prayed to not be gay. I tried to avoid anything sterotypically gay. I didn’t audition for the school play. I even “dated” some of my female friends. Despite my best efforts, I knew that some people thought I was gay. Mom and Dad, maybe you did too. Some of my classmates asked me directly and, of course, I always denied it. Looking back, I wish I had been brave enough to be myself.
The beginning of self-acceptance came after a track meet my senior year of high school. It was time to address the feelings I was avoiding. That night, before you two got home, I cried - hard. I realized that whatever challenges came with being gay, being authentic couldn’t be harder than pretending to be something I’m not. Letting go of the illusion of being straight was cathartic. It also marked the beginning of a new chapter for me. Change was coming with high school graduation and the transition to college. It was time to be honest with myself.
College was new and exciting and intimidating. It was a place that quickly became home. Some of the first people that I came out to were my college friends. They loved me exactly as I was. Coming out was awkward, it was hard, and it was important. Sharing this was a big deal to me, so much so that I wrote details of every conversation in a journal reserved for that topic. In school, I explored and gained confidence in my beliefs, passions, and identity. Mom and Dad, I told you about the classes I took, the organizations I joined, and the friends I made. I shared many of my college experiences with you, but not all of them. I didn’t share details about my first college research paper because it mentioned gay people. I didn’t mention the news I followed preceding the supreme court ruling on gay marriage. I never told you about my first real relationship. Small and large parts of my life were omitted when I spoke to you because I felt, and still feel, like I couldn’t talk to you about anything gay.
I came out to you in the Spring semester of my freshman year after seeing “Christian” protesters. These people said nothing to me, but their message regarding people like me was crystal clear. The tears came as I walked to the car. I had wanted to come out to the two of you for months, but I was scared and stalling. The protesters were a catalyst for the conversation we had. Dad, I called you and said that I needed to talk when I got home. I went downstairs and shared that I had seen these people, and I thought to myself that no matter what happened and no matter how you felt, your reaction to my coming out couldn’t be as bad as the protesters.
I didn’t know what to expect, but nothing could have prepared me for what happened. You were upset. You looked devastated. It was the first time in my life that I saw you cry. You shared with me that you had been “afraid” that I would be gay since I was ten years old. I heard the pain in your voice and my heart sank. The next morning you told me that you loved me, still visibly shaken. I told you that it would be okay - everything would be okay.
The next morning, Mom, you drove me back to school. I planned to tell you in the car. My stomach hurt just as it did before I told Dad. I waited, delaying the moment of actually telling you the truth as long as possible. Eventually, there were only a few more miles to go. I braced, and told you exactly what I had said to Dad the night before. Since I had waited so long to say anything, there was little time for you to react or respond. I’m sorry that I took that chance away from you. You didn’t say much. You seemed surprised and shocked as I got out of the car.
A few days after I came out to you, you two visited me at college. You shared how you felt about me being gay. This conversation was tense and painful. Dad, you told me that eighty percent of people who come out in college actually change their mind about it. That is not true. Mom, you told me that you felt like you didn’t know part of me. You both shared your fears of stigma and how I would have to “live [my] life in the shadows.” It was clear that this would be hard and uncomfortable for all of us. I recognize now, I had years to live with the truth, but you two had only had a week to digest this information. Seeing how dramatically and negatively this news had affected you discouraged me from bringing it up in the future.
Mom, you once asked if I was dating one of my friends. Even though my curt response didn’t show it, I was so thankful that you asked. The moment was awkward, but it was affirming to know you hadn’t completely blocked out the fact that I’m gay. Other than that single conversation, the three of us didn’t speak again about me being gay until three years after I came out. Just before I moved across the country, I tried to bring it up again. This conversation was just as difficult as the very first one. We have not spoken about it since.
My most private and vulnerable emotions are related to how I feel about us ignoring the fact that I’m gay. I came out to you when I was nineteen, knowing that it would be awkward, but thinking it would be the beginning of a new openness in our relationship. Instead, I felt like I was back in the closet, once again forbidden to be honest about who I am. I feel like I can’t openly talk to you about my life and I carry that feeling each and every day. It hurts. When I’m with you, I want to be myself, completely. I want to tell you if I’m dating someone. I want to ask for your advice. I want you to know that I’ve been in love. At this point, I don’t feel like we can have those conversations.
I have friends who came out to their families without the pain or confusion that we experienced. Part of me is jealous of that. I can’t help but wonder what it could have been like to come out to you and have been met with joy, or even indifference. When we avoid this topic, it makes me doubt that you’re thinking about it or trying to understand it. I know this is scary and confusing for you, but, speaking from experience, avoiding the truth is a waste of time. We’ve retreated from the truth, pretending it doesn’t exist rather than facing it. That hurts me.
While I’m hurt, I also feel responsible. I haven’t made it clear how important this is to me. I’ve been just as silent as you are, taking care to never bring up anything gay. I feel like it’s my job to teach you what it can mean to be LGBTQ+ in the modern day, but it seems like you never wanted to learn. I resent that. From my perspective, you have chosen to stay ignorant and afraid rather than desirous of truth and understanding.
When I share my coming out experience, often, the conversation often turns to family. I explain to people that my parents know the truth, but it’s hard for them. Mom, Dad, I hope that one day this subject won’t be taboo for us to talk about. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t even have to come out. I want to share my life with you without feeling like I have to hide parts of it. I want to love someone and not fear how, or if, I could introduce him to you. I want things to be different. Hopefully one day they will be.
I love you,
MORE TO THE STORY
Did you like what you read? Our second "Issue" also featured another powerful coming out story. Guest contributor Mae Dodd discusses the challenges and joys of her coming out journey. Check out her essay here.
The video below includes a compilation of coming out stories submitted by BuzzFeed readers. Please be prepared for some sensitive content.
A child's coming out can be surprising and confusing for parents and families. PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) is an organization founded in the 1970s to educate families, advocate for allyship, and serve as a support network for those with questions and concerns. They provide resources on topics such as sexual orientation, gender expression, and gender identity -- and educate parents on how best to support their LGBTQ+ children. Check out their website here, or read their handbook for parents here.
The Family Acceptance Project (FAP) studies LGBTQ+ youth as well as their families; they develop resources and trainings to combat victimization and improve health and development. You can read more about Dr. Caitlin Ryan's work, access resources, or make a donation here.
The Trevor Project works to prevent suicide among LGBTQ+ youth. Read more here. Access their emergency hotline by dialing 1-866-488-7386.