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OPINION: Nobody should tell you who to come out to

Editor-at-large Andy West is tired of hearing people say their sibling has told them: “Don’t tell Mum!”

It was a common thing for people to say to me in Northern Ireland when I was on TV as a BBC newsreader and reporter. I was the first openly gay face of BBC news in a part of the UK that suffers a constant hum of homophobia in everyday life. Often, people would approach me wanting to talk about their own experiences.

“I am out to a couple of my friends and my sister” they would say. “But not to the rest of my family.”

Andy West reading the BBC news in Northern Ireland

It’s not an unusual situation and I can completely understand why it’s so hard to come out to your family even when you’re going to gay bars every weekend.

What always troubled me – angered me – though was the reason so many people weren’t telling their parents or grandparents. “My sister says she’s okay with it but she’s told me not to tell my mum because it’d kill her.”

Coming out to our relatives is hard enough. It’s made twice as difficult when someone close is effectively forbidding you from doing something that feels so frightening.

Let me make this plain: it is not for anybody else to decide who you come out to. Nobody should tell you who to be honest and open with. They can advise, if their advice is helpful and positive, but they cannot tell.

It’s something we discussed in Dear Podcast this week and just thinking about it during recording reminded me how angry I feel when I hear someone being threatened not to open up to the people they love most.

The truth is, when people tell you they’re fine about who you are but not to tell someone else, they’re being dishonest with you and possibly with themselves too.

In my own opinion, and feel free to disagree, when someone tells you they’re fine with your sexuality, they should then offer their strength, love and support as you continue to open up about your feelings to the rest of the people in your life.

When someone says they’re not judging you for your sexuality but then goes on to say they don’t want you to come out to someone else, they are revealing their true feelings.

If they accept you then they won’t try to prevent you from coming out to others. Even if they’re right that someone will react badly, it simply isn’t for them to make you more afraid.

A friend of mine came out to his brother a few years back and was told by his older sibling not to tell his mum. As a result, my friend kept his sexuality from his parents for years, only coming out to them when he fell in love and found a stable relationship. Even then, his brother was against him revealing the truth to his parents; but when he did, they were relieved and understanding. Now it’s his brother who remains hostile while the rest of the family are perfectly happy to welcome their new son-in-law into their lives.

So, if you come out to someone and they tell you not to have the same conversation with other people then ask them ‘why?’, listen to their answer carefully and consider it but make it plain that you won’t be told who to come out to. Tell them that you need their support, not their discouragement and ask them to be there for you in case they’re right about the reaction you get.

Remember though, that you are talking to someone who has not necessarily reacted very well to your news and try not to be influenced by their own discomfort.

You are who you are and people who love you have a right to know how you feel. Nobody can tell you to stay in the closet and nobody should.

Dear Podcast is a weekly comedy podcast offering bad advice on some very surprising problems

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