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Sexual Orientation

Coming Out Is Good for Our Mental Health

Two books illustrate how coming out benefits everyone.

Key points

  • Since 1973, when homosexuality was removed from the DSM, coming out has increased mental health for those who have relational support. 
  • Coming out and acknowledging trauma can be healing for families, as illustrated in the books "The Family Outing" and "Emotional Inheritance."
  • Coming out, and owning one’s own experience, can help one to recognize others on their own terms.

Source: Harper Collins
Source: Harper Collins

I think psychologist Charles Silverstein would have loved Jessi Hempel’s exquisite memoir The Family Outing. Silverstein, who passed away in early 2023, leaves behind a world-changing legacy that includes helping to declassify homosexuality as a disorder in the DSM, in 1973. And that salvational activism alone has saved the lives of a great many people who’d been told, from the beginning of time, that they were “sick.” But Silverstein didn’t stop there. He devoted the rest of his life not only to destigmatizing homosexuality but to advocating for the mental, emotional, relational, and sexual well-being of all queer people—those of us who don’t fit neatly into strict normative expectations for what it means to be male or female, which arguably includes all of us. For Silverstein, to be able to live openly; to claim who we are even if that initially creates conflict with other people and with ourselves; to come out, as it were, was ultimately crucial to one’s mental health, and to one’s capacity to relate with other people. Without the support and encouragement to come out, and specifically without models of people who have already done so, Silverstein believed individuals would be at risk of psychological harm, even by the helping professionals who claim to heal them (O’Connell, 2012; Silverstein, 2007). In The Family Outing, Jessi Hempel shares compelling models of what it means to come out, and shows firsthand how this pivotal action can yield great mental health benefits not only for the individual who takes it but for everyone in their lives.

Jessi was the first in her family to come out as queer, specifically as lesbian; followed by her father as gay; her brother as trans (having been assigned female at birth); her sister as bisexual; and her mother as a survivor of complex trauma. (Hempel’s retelling of her mother’s courageous journey to embody her life to the fullest despite terrifying disruptions in her youth, and the parallels to similar challenges many queer people face in pursuit of full lives, is particularly poignant.) Hempel narrates each of these coming-out stories with eloquence, insight, compassion, and the kind of raw humor that can only come from living in one’s own skin. One of the many times I laughed and cried at the same time was a scene in which Jessi attends a “transformational training” seminar where the participants are asked to stare at the “ugliest person in the room.” When two dozen people choose her, she writes, “My fear has created the circumstances I fear. But now, there is nothing to fear. I feel connected, relieved, seen.”

Source: Jessi Hempel
Jessi Hempel: Photo by Christine Han
Source: Jessi Hempel

As a mental health professional, I was also particularly interested in how each of these unique, yet utterly human, family outings were entirely individual and inextricably interrelated at the same time—at least according to Hempel’s incisive storytelling. She opens the book with the backdrop of her parents’ childhood secrets and acknowledges the intergenerational trauma that both led to those secrets, and was passed on to Jessi and her siblings.

“My parents’ shame became my shame.” Hempel writes. “Without ever being told, I learned what I could share about myself and what I had to hide.”

And in this sense, psychoanalyst Galit Atlas’ riveting book Emotional Inheritance is a great companion to The Family Outing. As Atlas puts it:

“The people we love and those who raised us live inside us; we experience their emotional pain, we dream their memories, we know what was not explicitly conveyed to us, and these things shape our lives in ways that we don’t always understand.”

Little Brown Spark
Source: Little Brown Spark

In her book, Atlas helps us to understand that by finding ways to identify and give voice to these inchoate feelings, and the experiences and contexts that led to them, we can free ourselves to be truly alive. She says that the “permission to grieve for our losses and faults, as well as for our parents’, connects us with life and welcomes the birth of new possibilities.”

Similarly, Hempel discovers in The Family Outing that, “Coming out is the act of letting go of our planned lives in pursuit of the lives that wait for all of us.”

It’s rewarding to read and get lost in Hempel’s portrait of herself and her family, to follow how each one of them seeks to embody who they are, how they face the often heartbreaking conflicts that arise with each other, and how they come to find genuine, healing, and expansive connections with one another through this process. As a reader, I felt a warm sense of relief from the hard-earned outcomes for each family member in ways I imagined they themselves felt in living their lives.

Hempel’s effective capturing of these necessary journeys called to mind the psychological research that indicates the great health benefits many queer people have found after coming out—that is, when they feel supported to do so. Jessi’s family may have had suffocating secrets, but their enduring support for one another ultimately led to open, loving lives and connections with one another.

Source: Jessi Hempel
Jessi Hempel with her wife Frances and their two children.
Source: Jessi Hempel

Perhaps most moving of all for me is how directly Hempel has learned to look not only at herself but at each of her family members. She recognizes them as they are, on their own terms, as opposed to projecting onto them the people she once thought they were. When introducing her brother at the start of the book, she writes:

“The youngest member of our family is assigned female at birth. But as we grow this will change. By the time I begin The Project [the book], I will have known him as my brother Evan longer than I believed him to be my sister… As I describe my brother to you, exactly as he was, he becomes more clearly himself when I use the pronouns he chooses.”

I encourage you to read The Family Outing, not only to experience Jessi Hempel and her family, through her eyes but to become emboldened to recognize yourself exactly as you are, as well as the people in your life. When we are able to see while being seen, we honor the bold efforts of people like Charles Silverstein, who put themselves on the line so the rest of us could discover the possibilities of who we are, and who we can be–in relation to ourselves, to our families, and to the rest of the world.

*Copyright Mark O'Connell, LCSW-R, MFA

References

Atlas, G. (2022) Emotional Inheritance: A Therapist, Her Patients, and the Legacy of Trauma. Little Brown Spark. New York.

Hempel, J. (2022) The Family Outing. Harper One, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers. Chicago / Turabian

O’Connell, M. (2012). Don't Act, Don't Tell: Discrimination Based on Gender Nonconformity in the Entertainment Industry and the Clinical Setting. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health 16:241-255.

Silverstein, C. (2007). Wearing two hats: The psychologist as activist and therapist. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Psychotherapy, 11(3/4), 9–35.

Universite de Montreal. (2013, January 29). Health benefits of coming out of the closet demonstrated. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130129074427.htm

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