Ambiguous Loss: Rejection of LGBTQIA+ Family Members

I often explore the concept of psychological absence with physical presence with my LGBTQ+ clients who come from families that rejected their sexual or gender identity. Such a loss is ambiguous, given the persecutory and punitive factors involved that a child may not clearly understand. Any form of emotional withholding or bargaining can be traumatic for a child/adolescent. Family rejection of LGBTQ+ identity is no different as the parent or caregiver is bargaining for the suppression of their child’s identity in exchange for keeping the relationship intact. These interactions look different for each individual.

For instance, a parent may tell their child that being queer is a sin. The parent may also ask their child to forego their true identity to maintain the relationship, proposing that if they choose not to, they will only be permitted to remain in the parent’s lives on their terms. For example, they may be asked not to share when they are in relationships or bring up anything related to their sexual or gender identity that does not align with cisgender or heteronormative standards.

Consciously or not, the child likely interprets the messaging from the family to mean that they are broken—perhaps even unlovable—if they cannot change this aspect of their identity. The losses are multi-faceted, including the child’s suppressed identity and their emotional detachment from their parent or caregiver. As the child becomes an adult, these feelings and the overall narrative about being sinful can translate into self-hatred and self-doubt. This can trigger anxiety and depression or lead them to exhibit passive or active suicidal ideation or other mental health-related struggles.

The symptoms—and for the sake of remaining attached to the parent/caregiver—are often cloaked and can lead to self-destructive decisions in adulthood, including substance abuse, forced heterosexual relationships, or presenting as heterosexual or cisgender. An individual suffering this type of loss may feel compelled to maintain the relationship with the parent/caregiver by any means necessary.

Ushering in the “False Self” After Rejection

Any loss of identity can trigger a domino effect on decisions that create a false self. A false self is created when one lives a life where they shrink themselves to fit the emotional needs of others, neglecting their own needs. These accommodative behaviors maintain the sense of shame around one’s true identity. This leaves one feeling unfulfilled and causes them to “grasp at straws” to maintain relationships that are not mutually beneficial.

Re-defining and Restructuring “Family” to Honor the True Identity

After being rejected by their families, many LGBTQ+ people find “chosen” families where they experience the love, acceptance, and nurturing they don’t receive from their nuclear families. Even as this happens, some biological families may become more accepting over time and work toward rebuilding their relationships with their LGBTQ+ family members.

Other families don’t change their attitudes or beliefs about LGBTQ+ individuals. This forces LGBTQ+ individuals to restructure how they see their familial relationships with their family or how much contact they have with them. Instead, they focus on seeking accepting relationships outside of their family. The road to forming healthy relationships while mending the wound of family loss is not easy. Still, it is possible to live life authentically, intentionally, and satisfactorily.

Remember to honor your true self and relational needs by redefining “family” to mean those who are respectful and accepting of ALL of the self—not just the parts they choose.

We will continue delving into trauma’s impact on the self and other parts of psychological well-being. Look out for more on religious trauma in a future post. 

Disclaimer: Content on my blog or any other social media platform is meant for psychoeducational purposes only. The content is not intended to replace treatment from a licensed professional.


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