With “family above all” ingrained as a societal norm, parental estrangement can seem mysterious and unfathomable. But it’s often a heartbreaking reality for the queer community, 39% of whom say that “at some point in their lives they were rejected by a family member or close friend because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.” Stevie is a 22-year-old art student whose parents cut them off at the age of 19. Below is their as-told-to story of putting self-care above the parent-child relationship.

Coming Out to My Parents (Over and Over)

Growing up, I had a pretty good relationship with my mom and dad, but around late grade school, it started to go downhill. My parents are religious; we went to church every Sunday. A lot of my family is conservative, so when I started questioning my sexuality, I wondered if they would accept me.

My parents were really controlling to begin with, so I started to hide a lot of things from them. I became a very private person. I drew a lot in my sketchbook but didn’t want to show anybody; I talked to friends that I met on the internet; I started keeping things to myself that weren’t necessarily private, like the music I listened to. I didn’t want my parents to know that I listened to Tegan and Sara, for example. I was afraid that they would find out there was something wrong with me.

My freshman or sophomore year of high school, I started going to therapy, which was my parents’ idea. My therapist thought I should come out to them since that was a huge part of myself that I was hiding. So at my therapist’s office, I came out to my mom and dad as pansexual. They didn’t really know what that meant, but they pretended to be cool with it at the appointment. Afterward, they told me that I should keep it to myself and not talk about it or tell my siblings.

Around my junior year of high school, I told my parents I was having feelings of being genderqueer. It was eating me up; I couldn’t handle the stress of hiding it. Again, I don’t think they really knew what that meant, so I tried to explain it to them, but they were not receptive. Their response was dismissive; they seemed really uncomfortable. They told me it was a phase. From then on, when I had conversations about my gender identity with friends over email or text, I would try to hide it from my parents because I didn’t want them to know I was still talking about it.

A major conflict was over my desire to bind my chest and wear men’s clothes. At that point in high school, my parents still controlled a lot of my life. They didn’t want me to be binding at all. I knew they checked my bank account, so I bought a gift card at Walmart and bought a binder on the internet with it and had it delivered to a friend’s house. Anytime my parents found a binder, they would take it and throw it away without telling me. There were a lot of little fights too, like, “You can’t wear this because this is a men’s shirt.” And I’d tell them, “Yes, I can wear it. It doesn’t matter.”

I tried to come out to them again during my freshman year of college, but they weren’t receptive to that either. At that point, I just kind of gave up. I didn’t know what else to do.

Cutting Ties

The biggest turning point in our relationship was when I was 19 and entering my sophomore year of college. I wrote them a letter, coming out to them again and detailing everything I was going through. I wanted to be really transparent. I was still living at home and was afraid they’d react badly to it, so I packed up a lot of my stuff and moved to my friend’s house for a while. I remember thinking, If they don’t come around after this, it’s going to be really hard for them to ever come around.

During that time, I basically lived on my own, couch-surfing at my friends’ houses. A couple of months later, they cut me off from everything except for insurance. After that, I only went over to their house for holidays and to see my siblings. It was kind of like, Okay, let’s get together for the holidays and pretend everything’s okay. I was doing that for about two years, but I would come away from my family gatherings feeling negative and dredging up bad feelings, so I stopped going. My parents don’t like my partner, either, so it makes more sense to see his family instead of mine.

The Challenges of Estrangement

My sister is five years younger than me, and my brother is a year younger. I think both of them thought I was a little weird, but they were okay after I told them what was going on. Since I left the house, though, they’ve kind of gone to my parents’ side. I think my parents have pushed a lot on to them, which I don’t blame them for, but that doesn’t make it easy. It’s difficult to talk to my siblings without feeling like they’re going to relay something to my parents.

I feel like I constantly have to network to find support; it feels like another career.

Not being around my parents has also affected how my extended family views me. But there’s no way I can find out exactly how they feel about everything because I haven’t seen them in a long time. There’s a disconnect where I feel like I can’t talk to my grandparents without talking with my parents first. My grandparents don’t really know how to interact with me right now.

One of the most difficult parts of all this was that initially I didn’t have a lot of money. I felt like my parents wanted me to feel desperate and then come back to them for help, but I knew that if I went back after how they treated me, it would probably get worse.

After they cut me off, I had to work full-time in addition to going to college. I had to go through all these steps with my university in order to stay in school, which was really difficult. Luckily, someone who worked at the university helped me with a lot of the paperwork and getting to be independent on my FAFSA [federal student aid documents]. I basically had to rely on other people helping me to be able to afford food and somewhere to stay for a short time. That was a really scary point in my life.

I feel like I constantly have to network to find support; it feels like another career. I have to constantly keep in contact with friends and older adults in my life who I trust so that if I get in trouble or something happens, they’ll be able to help me. That’s a bit difficult to manage.

The Freedom of Estrangement

Since I’ve been away from my parents, I’ve had a lot more independence and freedom. I’ve been able to be my own person instead of trying to fit into a category that they were trying to put me in. I can be more honest about myself and present a more authentic version of me to the world. My mental health has improved too. I used to feel terrible and anxious all the time, and now I feel happy a lot and feel like I’m making my own decisions. That’s helped me feel better about my decision to leave.

Staying connected with people who support me is the best thing I can do for myself.

I would still love for my parents to accept me, but based on the conversations and interactions I’ve had with them, I’ve reconciled with the fact that they’re not going to. I don’t really feel bad about it anymore. Even if they were to come around, it would still take a while to trust them based on how they’ve treated me and my partner. I find it really sad, but I just have to keep building myself up and move on.

I’ve learned I have to surround myself with good people — an adult I trust, someone I work with, a professor or teacher. People I’m able to have confidentiality with are people I want to hold on to. As an introvert, it’s been hard to reach out to people, but it’s been necessary for survival. For me, it’s been about creating a support network, at least on an emotional level. It feels so much better having people on the outside validating my experience and supporting me, rather than isolating myself as I was before. Staying connected with people who support me is the best thing I can do for myself.

Collages by Emily Zirimis.

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  • Adrianna

    I’m estranged from my father (10+ years) and older sister (7+ years). Both were abusive in separate and different ways. In retrospect, I suffered through PTSD in college. I felt incredibly alone because I couldn’t find anyone to relate with. I also struggled financially, while people thought I was lame because I was too “serious.” I couldn’t even rely on a credit card – I only had $150 monthly credit after my sister stole my identity and amassed debt in my name.

    I am ultimately significantly happier and better off, and I started to feel this at around age 22/23. I don’t miss them, and realized that I’ve gone days or weeks without thinking about either of them. Unless someone has been in similar situations, most people are judgmental about this.

    I’m lucky that I have an okay relationship with my mother, but the estrangements initially strained our relationship. She tried to make it work with my sister for several years after I cut ties, and my sister put her through some despicable things in the process. There actually isn’t a lot of discussion about children abusing their parents. Now it’s just the two of us.

  • Aleda Johnson

    This just infuriates me. How people can hide behind the veneer of religion while treating those they are supposed to care about and protect like less than human. The hypocrisy.

    My best friend in college went through (and is still going through) something similar. While not LGBTQ+, he grew up mormon under an abusive father. I understand that may not come with the anxiety, depression and selfdoubt as growing up like you did, but I hate how they treated him and the estrangement process was the same. Now, he’s happily married and along with my partner (and two cats!), we have our own little family unit.

    But through it all, my partner and I were there for him and wanted to help him out. Just like I’m sure your partner and friend group do as well. These people care about you, and I’m happy that you are happy and getting the love and support you deserve.

  • Alex

    I’d like to thank the author for being so honest and open up about their experience! We’re supposed to love our families and it can be hard to express feelings towards them unless they’re fully positive.
    I think that creating a support network was an amazing thing to do, and you’re also creating a strong foundation within yourself by accepting who you are, unapologetically.
    Thanks again for sharing this!

  • Thank you for sharing this! After seeing all of the different family posts here I was hoping to see something I could relate to. I haven’t seen my father for over 10 years. My sister’s kind of kept in touch with him and convinced me to reach out last year, so we emailed for a bit. At first I thought he had changed but after a couple of emails I realised he hasn’t and started to get those same anxious, negative feelings I used to get when I talked to him. So I stopped and honestly I don’t regret it. I’ve always felt a bit weird about our relationship because I often hear “but he’s your father”. But I know it’s not the same as with other fathers. I’ve met a few other people in similar situations but it always helps to meet/read about more.

  • Cara

    It’s really good to read this. I have (and kinda still am) gone through a very similar experience with my extremely religious family. Throughout college, I had to fight for my independence and to make choices on my own. They checked everything I did rigorously, even after I become an adult. (Even now, I’m paranoid about posting this comment in case they somehow find my disqus profile.) At 19 they kicked me out just for dating a guy they didn’t like. I’m now in my mid twenties, and I still haven’t fully “come out of the closet” as a liberal and non-religious person. And forget coming out as a bisexual woman. I’m married to a man now, and I just can’t see myself ever feeling it’s worth putting myself through that kind of fight. My family will never accept who I am, and I’m fine with that now. I will never have the relationship I want to have with my parents because of it, but that’s their choice not mine.

    I really admire and respect you for having the courage to be yourself.

    • Adrianna

      I was born into a very Catholic culture, so much so that my mother doesn’t consider other religions to be valid. My adolescence was full of fights about my gender identity and sexuality, and I got pretty good at living a secret life. (Ironically, I pass as pretty hetero by American standards.) I never thought it was worth it to “come out” as an atheist – it’s just easier to go along with Christmas once a year.

      • Cara

        Catholic kid here too. Of the Opus Dei strain.

        • Adrianna

          I’m Polish, and you could imagine how devout my parents and grandparents generations are because of John Paul II…

  • Olivia

    Thank you so much for writing this piece and being so open. I do not talk to either of my parents after being cut off for struggling with mental health issues that they weren’t able to understand or accept. I am also 22, and being completely independent has been an incredibly hard thing to relate to others with. It was hard for me to relate to other friends who couldn’t understand that my family was structured a different way, or that my parents behaved differently, and spoke to me differently than theirs did. And not every family is worth surrounding yourself with if the environment is harmful to you.

    But I think you are so brave putting yourself first and making your personal health a priority. It can be a hard and scary thing to do when you have no idea what the outcome is, or what is down the road. It gets easier, and having solid friends who understand, care and accept you for who you are makes all the difference. The journey of discovering, loving and accepting who you are is not always the easiest one, but I think it is the most important thing we can do. And you deserve to be loved and celebrated!

  • Lou

    Beautiful story. I wish there was more discussion about parental abuse, the effects of it, and the fact that no one owes anyone anything. “But she’s your mother/father/brother” is not an argument. Also, as Ram Das said when asked if he was Jewish, “Yes, but remember only on my parent’s side.” Meaning we are far more than just the families we were born into. We are here in this particular body for a short time, and deserve to learn how to love and be loved.

  • Andie

    This is heartbreaking but also so brave and inspiring. Thank you so much for sharing your story (and fighting to be yourself). I wish your parents could see what a strong and compassionate child they have.

    • I really wish her parents could see this way….. thats more important than anything else….

  • I feel like I constantly have to network to find support; it feels like another career. I have to constantly keep in contact with friends and older adults in my life who I trust so that if I get in trouble or something happens, they’ll be able to help me. That’s a bit difficult to manage

    God as a care leaver, this is something I DEFINITELY relate to hence why I am trying to create events where care leavers can meet up and share support, tips whatever!! I got funding to start one event from an organisation and hope it will get to a point where it’s a common occurrence

  • Laura S

    It is so far beyond my understanding how you could ever have a child and not love him/her unconditionally.

    • ApocalypsoFacto

      I don’t get it either, but here are my theories:

      – A lot of very religious people have children because they think it’s what they’re supposed to do, not because they would actively choose to have children if they felt they had a choice.

      – Once someone has had a child because their religion told them they had to, they’re under an obligation to produce the kind of child the religion (and thus, their social circle) finds acceptable. If the child deviates from the idea of what a “good” child is, the parent has no idea how to deal with it.

      – Some people get pregnant by accident and then because of rampant, terribly judgemental anti-choice messaging don’t feel like they can get an abortion, even though they don’t really want to be parents.

      – Some people have kids because they are lonely and think the child is the answer to their loneliness. When the child asserts independence and tries to be their own person, that threatens their concept of why the child is even here/even exists. This can get really toxic if the parent is a narcissist, or has Borderline Personality Disorder. P.S., this is my story.

      – People who are emotionally limited themselves because of past trauma, limited life experiences, other issues, etc. have a hard time understanding and accepting a child that experiences a broader range of emotions.

  • JM T

    Thanks for this article. I have been estranged for about 8 years now but living on my own since i was 16. I’m 29 now.

    The hardest part for me now other than remnants of trauma is the expectations from people. i feel like it is impossible to connect because i moved to another continent as my mother would not stop trying to find my address and in my previous country I could not stop that.

    But coming from poor and abusive family, i am not the person that ever “should” get to travel to a different continent and so locals as well as other expats keep expecting i am one of the lucky people with easy fun life and am just traveling and looking for fun experiences or adventures. And at this point i cannot bring myself to pretend any longer, which is never received well.

    I have accepted this isolation though, i feel there is something constructive about it, although it sometimes hurts i do feel like i am living my own authentic life even if it is outside of society. I would say it is still worth it even when there is no happy ending.

  • Anony

    I haven’t had a relationship with my family for many years. When I was 11 or 12, I tried to come out to my parents. That same year, my dad started molesting me. No one believed me and because I tried to come out, they thought I was just going through an imaginative and hypersexual phase.

    My family now consists of my friends. Biological connections mean very little to me.

  • Alison

    Thank you, Stevie, for sharing your story, and to you, Jackie, for giving voice to it. These are important, nuanced stories that need to be heard.