Last week, I got a surprise email from a former student. She told me that she was gay and wanted my opinion on whether or not Christmas was an appropriate time to come out to her family. "Let's talk," I said.
Once on the phone, she asked me that obligatory question, "How did you come out?" As such, I was forced to tell her my Christmas "outing" horror story that strongly exemplifies why you should avoid making this major pronouncement during the holidays.
After my father died when I was 12, my mother married three years later, and my brother and sister and I gained a great stepdad and a stepbrother and sister. Christmas was for the most part fun during the early years, and after we'd all grown, and gone our separate ways, the holidays were less about fun and more about just surviving them. So as the years went on, and as I got older, unfortunately the yuletide season became more about sustaining small talk and innocuous conversations. That's just the way of our family.
At the age of 28, I had made the decision to start coming out to some of my friends and one family member. I drunk dialed my gorgeous and fun-loving sister Mary and spilled the beans, albeit incoherently. She and her boyfriend at the time jumped in a car and drove almost 10 hours from Memphis to Washington, D.C., to be with me, since I was a bit traumatized and she was concerned. We laugh about that incident now, but I do remember her clearly saying at the time, "When are you going to tell mom?" And I replied, "Never!" "Well, just wait right for the right time," she advised.
Two years later, at the age of 30, and arriving home to Pittsburgh for Christmas, I still had no intention of telling my parents and other family members that I was gay. Having my sister on my side was enough. My step-siblings didn't need to know. And, I, nor the rest of the family, didn't have a close relationship with my obstinate brother. So, there was no need to come out, and certainly no need to interrupt the small talk around the holiday table with what I thought at the time was a damning revelation.
My brother had been a constant source of unpredictability, and it was no different during this Christmas period. He showed up with his date, who I thought was quite possibly a prostitute. She walked into the house in a very revealing, short, short skirt in the dead of cold winter, pushed a brown paper bag at my mom, and said, "Hear yinz like wine." Yinz being popular Pittsburgh slang for "you" in the plural. Mom, and the rest of us, were a bit flummoxed, and also biting our tongues not to laugh. My parents considered themselves wine connoisseurs, so there was no way in hell they were drinking wine from a brown paper bag.
That evening, which was Christmas Eve, my mother took great pains to appease my brother and his...err...date. She fawned over his precariously dressed paramour and lavished undeserved love and attention on my lackluster brother. I was pissed at being slighted, since I was the golden, oldest child who had succeeded and done no wrong. Why was she ignoring me? Why was my brother getting so much attention? My anger and resentment were fueled by a steady and more rapid gulping of well-aged wine, and when what I was drinking didn't matter anymore, I grabbed the pseudo-wine in the brown paper bag.
By the end of dinner, I was shit-faced, and the only way to escape the uncomfortableness of the dining room was retreating to the kitchen to pretend helping my mom and my sister as they cleaned up the dishes. My ire was scorching, and my sister could sense it. I felt dissed and ignored at dinner and started to hint around at my displeasure. I turned to my sister and said in a loud voice, "Mary, do you wonder why mom doted on our brother all night and hasn't asked us a single question to us?" Mary turned red, and with an alarmed look on her face, shook her head no. She knew what was coming and was helpless to stop it.
"Mom? I asked. "Don't you care about what I've been up to? Why don't you ask me any questions? Do you wonder why I didn't bring a girl home or talk about girls," I inched closer to the reveal. "Maybe it's because you know I've been sucking cock in New York City!" And with that, mom slammed down her dishrag, and growled. "Get out of my house." This was not the way I had planned to come out, and certainly wasn't the way my sister suggested.
I stumbled upstairs to the bedroom, started packing my things, when my stepdad and Mary walked in. "John, the snow is so bad, you can't leave here tonight," my stepdad said almost reassuringly. "Just sleep here and Mary can take you to the airport in the morning." I proceeded to pass out.
The sun hadn't even risen, when I woke up, rustled my sister and wearily whispered to her, "hurry up so we can get out of here," and together, we headed for the airport. "You really do owe mom an apology," Mary pleaded. "I know," I agreed. "My behavior was awful."
Once at the airport, I called my mom, wished her a Merry Christmas (I think I was still drunk, so wasn't sure how to start the conversation.), and apologized for what I said. "Come home," she said, "You are my son." And I did, and when I walked in she cried and hugged me. But there was, and really never has been since, any further talk of being gay.
Obviously, this is not the way to come out to your family, and I'm not sure the holidays are the most optimum time to do so. Not because you're liable to get drunk and bring it up awkwardly -- or crudely -- but because the holidays really are about keeping peace and harmony. Plus, there's plenty of room for error in delivering the message with lots of people and distractions. I advised my former student that the best time to come out would probably be when her family is less stressed, when it's just her in the room, and when there's ample time to have a really and meaningful conversation. And when everyone is sober.
Finally, I told her not to say or do what I did when the moment happens. "I can't do that," she shot back. "Because I don't suck cock!"
JohnCasey is a PR professional and an adjunct professor at Wagner College in New York City, and a frequent columnist for The Advocate. Follow John on Twitter @johntcaseyjr.