In late October of 2012, I received a Facebook message from my niece, “H.” I had bestowed her with the single letter moniker as a nickname at a family gathering sometime in her early teens. Not missing a beat, H immediately began addressing me as “Uncle R.” I like to think we’ve shared an unspoken understanding since that interaction.
We didn’t communicate all that often. She was attending college back in our home state of Montana, a place I had left faster than you can say closeted-gay-kid-stuck-in-a-tiny-rural-town. So I was surprised to receive her message, and even more surprised to read it. In her message, H came out to me as a lesbian.
My hometown is called Shelby. It sits on the high plains of Montana, with a population of about 3,000 people. Oil wells punctuate a vast expanse of winter wheat and alfalfa fields that render a landscape that feels unforgiving and relentless. Sort of like an Andrew Wyeth painting, but with more quiet desperation.
During my adolescence, when the ’80s were rolling over into the ’90s, there was no internet. There were no smartphones. My scope of the world at that time was confined to my tiny rural town. I couldn’t conceptualize anything outside that reality because I’d never experienced it. The idea of meeting another gay person in my lifetime seemed impossible.
I do remember people talking about one gay person. He was from the neighboring state of Wyoming. His name was Matthew Shepard, and if you don’t know that name, you should.
A few months after realizing I was “different” at the age of 9, I made what would be the first of three suicide attempts before I turned 23.
To survive, I had to create and manage a persona that matched the expectations of my environment. By the time I graduated high school, I had learned to play the part so well that I was even starting to believe myself.
H’s parents are conservative Montanans. They chose to homeschool H in a cabin on a mountain. When it came time for H to attend high school, she was sent to a Christian school. This was when Facebook was in its infancy, and through the platform, I watched her teenage years play out.
I always had a hunch that H might be gay. My suspicion of her queerness came from once seeing her teenage bedroom. There were posters, but no boy bands. No brooding emo dudes with asymmetrical haircuts. Not even one square-jawed teenage heartthrob. Instead, H’s bedroom walls served as a shrine to one particular celebrity of that era: Gwen Stefani.
So, some four or five years later, I wasn’t all B-A-N-A-N-A-S about the news of her being gay. I was touched that she had reached out to me, but I was also thrown.
H had already come to terms with being gay. She was in her early 20s. In her personal life, she was out. She had already had her first long-term relationship. She was a fully self-aware, young queer adult. What she wanted from me was advice on how to come out to our family.
How had I done it? What were the repercussions? How did I think my brother/her father would take it? How did he react when I came out to him?
It was clear H loved her parents dearly. Additionally, she had a very strong bond with her younger sister and was terrified by the prospect of losing all of them. But despite the risks, H was an adult and needed to just be herself. She wanted to experience her adulthood free from the exhausting burden of living a double life.
My heart broke for her. I related to her situation more than anyone else in our family could. Underneath that relatability, however, ran a river of resentment. After all, I didn’t have a gay uncle to reach out to when I was in her situation. Hell, I didn’t even have the internet.
How had I come out to the family? I didn’t. I ran. Far away.
By the age of 19, pretending to be straight was taking a hefty toll on my mental health. This came with many consequences, one of which was flunking out of my first year of college. I chose not to tell my parents about this when I came home that summer. Much like H, I was terrified by the thought of disappointing them.
I picked up two full-time jobs and worked my ass off for 16 hours every day that I could. My parents were under the impression I would be headed back to college, but my real plan was to save as much money as possible so I could leave my hometown and pursue a new life in New Orleans. After that, I just kept running.
I realized years later, through therapy, this was a basic survival response to my situation. Fight or flight. Growing up as a Gen X queer youth in rural Montana literally almost killed me.
When H came out to me, I was 33 years old. With her questions, I realized I’d never “officially” come out to anyone in my family, including my father before he died a few years prior. As an adult, I had left family members to extrapolate answers from the existing clues.
I did try to come out to my mom when I was 30, after I had established a life for myself in Seattle. I had been living with a boyfriend (ahem, roommate), but we broke up and I moved out. Rather than try to conjure some bullshit reason to justify my hasty address change, I pounded a six-pack and picked up the phone for our weekly check-in.
My mom’s response quickly ended my tear-stained soliloquy. She informed me she always knew I was gay but “didn’t believe it” because I “dated girls before, in high school.” “I just hadn’t met the right one … yet.” I officially crossed the task of coming out to the rest of my family off my list after that.
I took the time to really mull over the complexity of my reaction to H asking me for guidance (thanks again, therapy). Through this self-reflection, I was reminded of an unattributed quote I had stumbled across months earlier: Be the person you needed when you were younger.
This was the time to put those words to action, to snuff out the generations of anger and sorrow and misery passed to me from my parents. It was an opportunity to let go of the idea that the only way H could learn was the hard way, because that’s how I learned.
Over the next couple of years, I gave her what guidance I could. She came for a quick visit to Seattle once and I pulled out all the stops. I ran her around what was left of Seattle’s swiftly gentrifying gayborhood. I took her to her first lesbian bar. I remembered how she loved her swim team in high school, so I even had my friend who was captain of the city’s LGBTQ+ swim team tag along and do his best to recruit her.
Alas, I was trying to sell the city to a girl whose love for the rugged beauty of the Treasure State held an anchor deep in her heart.
Not long after that, H met a gal who shared a similar admiration for Montana. They dated, fell in love, and eventually got engaged. The day was set and the details were sorted, but H’s dad declined to come to the wedding.
In lieu of my brother’s attendance to this celebration of love, I fulfilled the honorable duty of walking my niece down the aisle under the big sky of Montana on a sublime summer afternoon. I will never forget the soft breeze on the back of my neck and the smell of sweet pine sap that clung to it as I witnessed H, shining with beauty and brilliance, exchange vows with her equally radiant wife.
At the reception, my heart was overflowing with gratitude and joy. I had the widest grin in the room while introducing everyone in my family to my boyfriend at the time. Their reactions varied from pleasant to bewildered, but no one was unkind in the face of such unabashed joy.
I had officially come out to all of my family, all at once — and in a tux! I reveled in this space and the opportunity to be myself with them with no shame or concern for the first time in my 35 years of existence. This was a gift I never thought I deserved, but as it turned out, my adorable little niece had been holding on to it for decades, waiting for the perfect time to give it to me — to us.
H and her wife are now mothers, building a family and traditions on their terms. After a lot of work, H’s parents have started to come around for their grandkids and their daughter-in-law. I’m holding down a genuine space for myself within my family — one I carved out of the generations of trauma and pain that, at multiple points in my life, almost ended me.
I will forever be humbled by that message H sent over a decade ago. It made me a better person. I no longer let speculation define who I am to my family. I’m proudly the cool, gay uncle. The scrappy one. The survivor. The person I needed when I was younger.
If you or someone you know needs help, dial 988 or call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also get support via text by visiting suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.