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The Power of Kinship: Coming Out to One’s Family of Origin in Hungary

0 Comments 🕔13.May 2014

This article is part of our Over the European Rainbow feature.

“Jesus had two fathers too.” Credit: Habeebee

by Rita Béres-Deák

In the European Social Survey (ESS) conducted in 24 European countries, Hungarians agreed most with the statement that “family should be the most important value in people’s lives.”[1] State ideologies reinforce the central role that family occupies in popular discourses, but also limit the meaning of the term: the new Basic Law (constitution) states that “Hungary protects the institution of marriage as a voluntarily formed union between man and woman, and the family as the foundation of the survival of the nation.”[2] Non-heterosexual family members are often invisible or receive negative reactions: a survey conducted in the LGBTQ population[3] (n=2755) in Hungary found that fewer than half of the respondents had come out to their parents and slightly more than half to their siblings; among those who had, 47 percent met with acceptance from siblings, 38 percent from mothers, and 24 percent from fathers.[4] People living in same-sex relationships thus become “exiles from kinship,” both on the state and family level.[5]

Under these circumstances, non-heterosexual people need to carefully consider whether to come out to their families of origin. Based on qualitative research, I hope to demonstrate that such decisions on the part of same-sex oriented people are strongly influenced by prevailing discourses of kinship, swayed by state ideologies as well as other geopolitical factors.

 

Myths governing coming out

Until the middle of the twentieth century, the term ‘coming out’ meant entering the gay world; telling one’s family about one’s sexual orientation was, if not unheard of, at least unusual.[6] It was only after the Stonewall Riot and the birth of the Gay Liberation Movement that coming out to heterosexuals became a structural possibility and a desired goal.[7] The new activist emphasis on coming out saw it as a political tool to enhance gay visibility and challenge stereotypes, and therefore the duty of all responsible gay people.[8] At the same time, social psychologists emphasized that, in line with Allport’s contact hypothesis, people who know gays/lesbians personally have more positive attitudes toward homosexuality in general.[9] A new myth arose in the community that coming out would eventually eradicate homophobia. This myth, of course, does not consider structural causes of heterosexist oppression, such as rigid interpretations of gender roles or moral panics designed to obscure other social problems, but it nevertheless continues to be widespread within LGBTQ communities, including in Hungary.[10]

Coming out to family of origin, however, is not exclusively motivated by activist purposes; rather, it is also encouraged by prevailing notions of the family. Schneider claims that (Euro-) American kinship is supposedly based on ‘diffuse, enduring solidarity’: unlike friends, relatives offer unconditional support at all times.[11] Thus it is unthinkable that anyone might sever kinship ties for whatever reason; it is not what one does but who one is (that is, a relative) that counts. This myth resonates with Habermas’ description of the bourgeois family; with the increasing separation of the public and the private spheres, the latter became a site for ‘being one’s true self’.[12] Showing this ‘true’ inner self became increasingly important from the nineteenth century with the development of what Sennet calls ‘ethics of authenticity’.[13] As a result, being honest to one’s family members becomes a requirement in mainstream culture, and also in many LGBTQ subcultures.

There is another myth, however, which acts against those encouraging one to come out to kin.  It is the Heterosexual Family Myth, which claims that happiness and meaning in life can only be achieved through raising children in heterosexual unions.[14] Thus, coming out forces the family of origin to discard one of its own foundational myths, for if they accept their non-heterosexual kin, they acknowledge the falseness of the Heterosexual Family Myth, yet if they reject them, they break the obligation of ‘diffuse, enduring solidarity’.[15] At the same time, the non-heterosexual person is also forced to choose between myths. Not coming out in order to preserve the status quo (that is, the Heterosexual Family Myth) means they have to hide part of ‘who they are’, and in this sense they become ‘half-members’ of the family.[16] If they only come out to some family members but not others, they acknowledge that ‘diffuse, enduring solidarity’ is not universal and kinship is subject to choice.[17]

 

Methodology

This paper is based on ethnographic fieldwork I conducted in Hungary between 2007 and 2012. The bulk of my research data comes from semi-structured ethnographic interviews with 69 men and women who were living or had lived in a same-sex relationship, and 12 family members of people living in same-sex couples. I recruited interviewees via the internet (mailing lists, Facebook pages), at LGBTQ events, and through snowball sampling. Though the majority of my interlocutors live in Budapest or its suburbs (this is partly due to the Budapest-centered nature of the subculture), about half of them have families of origin living in the countryside. Thus, researching this community provides an opportunity to research the rural through the urban.[18]

The other important source of information I have looked at is the internet. Virtual communities are important sites of interaction for Hungarian gays and lesbians, especially those who have difficulties accessing non-virtual communities (e.g., rural people, teenagers, the disabled, etc.). The three websites I used were pride.hu (originally an LGBT news website, which nowadays focuses more on personal ads and forums), melegvagyok.hu (the website of Szimpozion, an LGBT youth organization, with special focus on coming out), and labrisz.hu, the website of the Hungarian lesbian association. All have forum threads that are relevant to this paper (pride.hu: family model forum, parenting forum, “children are not a private affair” forum; melegvagyok.hu: coming out forum; labrisz.hu: marriage forum, parenting forum).

In order to protect the anonymity of my interviewees, I refer to them by the pseudonyms they chose. I have also assigned pseudonyms to forum posters; although they already use nicknames on the internet, they might not wish to be identified with their earlier comments.[19] Also in order to protect the anonymity of forum contributors, when citing them I will indicate the website, but not the forum thread. After interview quotes, I will indicate the person’s gender and whether their family is urban or rural.

 

Arguments for coming out

G: All gay people have a mother and a father, a brother or a sister, so on such a cellular level if everyone [who is gay] makes people accept or at least know gayness, that it’s valuable when two people are together, I mean two of the same sex, just like two of different sexes – then, sooner or later, these little cells will touch. So you can’t expect a politician swaggering in parliament to understand that two women can love each other and want a child. But if there was a lesbian in his family, he would understand. […]

A. So this is the point, come out.[20] Everyone in his or her little environment should tell, admit and live as gay. And that’s when society can change. (András and Géza, male, small-town families)

András and Géza, along with the rhetoric of identity politics, perceive coming out to kin as a political tool; the personal literally becomes political as former homophobes begin to understand the concerns of LGBTQ people when they find one in their immediate family. Ironically, this praise of coming out to kin as a source of political advancement is voiced by two men who have not come out in their families (though some family members found out about their sexual orientation by accident). This difference between practice and discourse shows, on the one hand, how compelling the rhetoric of coming out is within the LGBTQ community, and, on the other hand, how people negotiate community values and adapt them to their own situation and possibilities.

Advancing the cause of LGBTQ emancipation is just one of the arguments people in this community advance for coming out; many have much more practical reasons. As a result of prohibitive real estate prices and rents as well as strong family ties, it is quite common in Hungary for young people to live with their parents into their twenties and beyond. LGBTQ people of this age (not to mention those who already have relationships in their teens) are faced with the choice of either coming out or making complicated arrangements to hide their relationships from people living under the same roof. The former often seems easier: when I asked Havana what motivated her to come out to her parents, she answered matter-of-factly: “I wanted to take my girlfriend home!” (Havana, female, village family).

The personal benefits of coming out are also often emphasized. As secrecy is incompatible with the notion of the family as a site of openness and honesty, many people report that being in the closet distances or distanced them from their loved ones. Jocó recalls that he and his mother drifted apart when he was in the closet, because the secret stood between them, and after his coming out their relationship got better again (Jocó, male, village family).

Géza (at the beginning of this section) takes it for granted that a parent would automatically understand and accept her/his non-heterosexual child, in accordance with the myth of ‘diffuse, enduring solidarity’. This expectation is especially strong toward mothers: “[o]n mothers who suddenly start relating differently to their children [after coming out] its not worth wasting words, coz they cant be regarded as real mothers,” Quasimodo asserts on the pride.hu forum. In Euro-American culture, motherhood is predicated upon complete devotion to, and even sacrifices for, one’s children, and in the Roman Catholic countries of Central and Eastern Europe the cult of the Virgin Mary as mother further emphasizes the veneration of motherhood.[21] It is thus unsurprising that Hungarian LGBTQ people are more likely to be out to their mother than their father, and those of my interviewees who were out to both parents either came out to them at the same time, but more frequently to their mother first.[22] Coming out to one’s mother is not only seen as less risky than to one’s father, but might also be considered  a moral obligation. “How can I do it to my mother that she should know a different person than what I really am? After all, she gave me my life!” exclaims 5min on the melegvagyok.hu forum. Such notions are founded on the ‘ethics of authenticity’ and the idea that sexual orientation is part of one’s ‘true self’[23]. It is based on the ideas that someone in the closet must pretend to be a ‘different person’, which is incompatible with the idealization of family as a site of trust and openness.

The examples above posit coming out to kin as a moral obligation both toward one’s family (in order to live up to the ideal of trust) and toward the LGBTQ community as a whole (in order to increase the number of allies to the cause). However, there are also voices within the LGBTQ community that question this rhetoric of coming out, and sometimes they too operate with notions of kinship.

 

Arguments against coming out

According to Weston, when people choose who to come out to, they virtually identify the people they consider ‘true’ kin.[24] A number of my interviewees have chosen not to come out to relatives because they do not feel close enough to them. Lilla cites the looseness of her relationship with her brothers as the reason for not telling them about her same-sex relationship of eight years.

It’s literally alienation. […] We’re not in the kind of relationship that our lives would influence each other, you know? That I’d feel the need [to come out], that it [coming out] would improve something or hinder something or mean anything at all. (Lilla, female, village family)

Besides the emotional and geographical distance, Lilla’s relationship with her brothers is also fraught with tensions: when she decided to break out of her working-class environment and get an education, they did not support her either morally or financially, but now that she has a well-paid job they expect her to give them endless loans (that they tend not to pay back). This behavior is incompatible with ‘diffuse, enduring solidarity’, as is their lack of interest in Lilla’s life. In this account, the kinship tie has already been broken by the brothers, so Lilla is under no obligation to come out to them.

In other cases, however, people claim not to come out to their family for their family’s sake. Arnold thinks that his coming out would upset the whole family’s functioning.

They basically survived by keeping together, the whole family, and this is because they very strongly stick to the view that family means to them. Now, if an anomaly appears in this, they get scared. And when they get scared, they usually do stupid things. […] At present there is a state of balance at home that seems really stable, they cooperate and that’s how they survive. So they – how can I say it? If this balance broke up even a little bit, it would mean that for example they would move apart very soon, and they couldn’t get on separately as well as they do now. So in this respect I don’t think I should upset this now. (Arnold, male, village family)

Traditional filial obligations to make life choices that serve the interest of the family reappear in new forms in contemporary post-socialist society.[25] Arnold emphasizes that in the midst of an economic crisis, his rural family’s survival depends on cooperation. Coming out would challenge the Heterosexual Family Myth, and in case they related differently to Arnold’s homosexuality, this might cause serious conflicts and even disintegration. Therefore, he stays in the closet in the family’s interest.

Others fear not for the well-being of their whole family, only some of its members, and therefore practice what Davies calls ‘collusion’: one or more family members are not told about their kin’s non-heterosexual orientation.[26] Collusion is often initiated by other family members: Csaba is one among many whose parents asked him not to come out to his teenage sister yet, because that might influence her sexual orientation (Csaba, male, Budapest family). Though he disagreed with the theory, he granted his parents’ request so as to preserve family peace. Dávid, on the other hand, was himself convinced of the necessity to stay closeted from his ailing father.

I really had good reasons, so not simply fear, like fear of coming out or fear of confrontation. He’s had health problems and stuff, so I didn’t want to top it with this. I know it would be a big struggle for him; I don’t want him to die of it. I’m serious. (Dávid, male, small town family)

Dávid used to be an LGBTQ activist, so he might think he is expected to come out to his whole family. The suggestion that the news of his homosexuality might kill his father possibly appears to him the only legitimate excuse for collusion. Vándor makes a less dramatic assessment of her grandparents’ possible reaction but arrives at a similar conclusion:

They [my grandparents] would understand, but they would suffer. And I can’t make myself watch their suffering. Because they’ll suffer for sure. And usually, when I get to this point, I get angry with the world and society. So why does it have to be so? It’s one thing that I have a certain lifestyle – it’s me who’s living it. But why should it cause any kind of suffering to my loved ones? (Vándor, female, small-town family)

Coming out has a potential to cause suffering on both sides: to the grandparents, and to Vándor who would have to come to terms with the knowledge that she has caused them pain, even though it was not her fault but that of Hungarian society, which is perceived to be extremely homophobic.[27] Two kinship duties are contrasted here: that of honesty and of protecting the other from unnecessary suffering. Vándor’s painful rhetorical questions reflect a will to come out, which she sacrifices for the sake of her grandparents’ interest. While activist rhetoric, especially in the West, tends to suggest that a responsible gay or lesbian should come out of the closet, from this point of view it is coming out that seems selfish, and the sign that one truly loves one’s family is not exposing them to the shock and stigma related to same-sex sexuality.

 

Conclusion

LGBTQ politics considers coming out in the family beneficial not only for the LGBTQ person her/himself but also her/his kin, as they would now see the person’s ‘true’ self and open, honest communication can develop. The image of family transmitted by this approach is an organic whole, with people working for the same goal. This model is challenged by feminists who see different individual interests clashing within the family.[28] Such clashes of interest can cause internal ruptures, like in Lilla’s case, or might cause the individual to subordinate her/his interest to that of the family, like Vándor and Dávid did. One way to ignore conflicts of interest is to avoid certain topics, such as homosexuality; this way, Arnold’s family maintains the illusion of unity, but at the price of sacrificing the openness and trust accredited to the ‘ideal’ family.

How geographically specific are these stories? Some elements, like adult children living with their parents, rural families depending on cooperation for survival, or the assumption of general homophobia might be seen as typical for the Hungarian context. Still, I am not convinced that such features are necessarily limited to certain lifestyles or geographical areas: Csaba’s example proves that urban middle-class children are just as ready to sacrifice their interest on the request of their parents as rural people like Arnold is. Of course, it is possible that the arguments they raise are just excuses for avoiding confrontation, but it is still significant that preserving the peace and unity of the family is considered a valid argument for not coming out. While activism-informed Western researchers tend to acknowledge this phenomenon among ethnic minorities, I suspect that kinship plays a much stronger role globally in the coming out practices of LGBTQ people than we tend to acknowledge.

 

Rita Béres-Deák is a cultural anthropologist and LGBTQ activist in Hungary. She received her BA in Cultural Anthropology from ELTE Budapest University in 2001 and her MA in Gender Studies from the Central European University in 2002. She is currently a PhD candidate at the Central European University in Budapest, where her dissertation topic is the relationship between same-sex couples and their family of origin. Her main research interest is LGBT communities, but she has also done research on gender representations and people with disabilities.

 

This article is part of our Over the European Rainbow feature.


[1] Judit Takács, Munka és magánélet harmonizációs problémák Magyarországon és Európában” [“Problems of harmonizing work and private life in Hungary and in Europe”], Esély 6 (2008): 51–73.

[2]  “Magyarország védi a házasság intézményét mint férfi és nő között, önkéntes elhatározás alapján létrejött életközösséget, valamint a családot mint a nemzet fennmaradásának alapját.” Basic Law 2011. All translations are mine, unless otherwise indicated.

[3] It is important to note that 12 percent of the sample identified as non-cisgender; their coming out was probably related to gender identity rather than, or as well as, sexual orientation. My research, however, does not address coming out as transgender.

[4] Tamás Dombos, Judit Takács, Tamás P. Tóth and László Mocsonaki, “Az LMBT emberek magyarországi helyzetének rövid áttekintése” [A short overview of the situation of LGBT people in Hungary], Homofóbia Magyarországon [Homophobia in Hungary], ed. Judit Takács (Budapest: L’Harmattan, 2011).

[5] Kath Weston, Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 21.

[6] Weston, Families We Choose; Chauncey, George Gay New York. Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890–1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994); Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovski and Madeline Davis Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold (London-New York: Routledge, 1993).

[7] Weston, Families We Choose; Ken Plummer, Telling Sexual Stories: Power, Change and Social Worlds (London-New York: Routledge, 1997).

[8] Plummer, Telling Sexual Stories.

[9] Gregory M. Herek, “Heterosexuals’ Attitudes toward Lesbians and Gay Men: Does Coming Out Make a Difference?” in A Queer World: The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Martin Duberman (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 331–44.

[10] C.J. Pascoe, Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in  High School (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007); Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship, (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1997); Gilbert Herdt, “Gay Marriage: The Panic and the Right,” in Moral Panics, Sex Panics: Fear and the Fight over Sexual Rights, ed. Gilbert Herdt (New York and London: New York University Press, 2009), 157–205.

[11] David Schneider, American Kinship: A Cultural Account (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968). Although Schneider writes about American kinship, I find his insights applicable to kinship in contemporary Western and Central Eastern Europe, including Hungary.

[12] Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1998).

[13] Cited in Nikolas Rose, Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self (London: Free Association Books, 1989).

[14] Gilbert Herdt and Bruce Koff, Something to Tell You: The Road Families Travel when a Child is Gay (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).

[15] Weston, Families We Choose.

[16] Herdt and Koff, Something to Tell You.

[17] Weston, Families We Choose.

[18] Kath Weston, Longslowburn: Sexuality and Social Science (New York: Routledge, 1998).

[19] Angela Cora Garcia et al., “Ethnographic Approaches to the Internet and Computer-Mediated Communication,” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 38, no. 1 (2009): 52–84.

[20] He said the term in English.

[21] Steph Lawler, Mothering the Self: Mothers, Daughters, Subjects (New York: Routledge, 2000); Elizabeth Dunn, Privatizing Poland: Baby Food, Big Business, and the Remaking of Labor (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004).

[22] Dombos et al., “Az LMBT emberek magyarországi.”

[23] Plummer, Telling Sexual Stories.

[24] Weston, Families We Choose.

[25] Lisa Rofel, Other Modernities: Gendered Yearnings in China after Socialism, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); Ágnes Boreczky, Családtörténet és társadalmi-földrajzi mozgás – a szimbolikus család szerepe [Family history and social-geographic mobility: the role of the symbolic family] Társadalmi egyenlőtlenségek, a nem hagyományos családmodell, a szülői viselkedés és a gyermekek fejlődésének összefüggései [Connections between social inequalities, non-traditional family models, parental behavior and child development], ed. Éva Sallai (Budapest: Educatio, 2008), 107–16.

[26] Peter Davies, “The Role of Disclosure in Coming Out among Gay Men,” Modern Homosexualities, ed. Ken Plummer (New York: Routledge, 1992), 75–86.

[27] Vándor’s perception is not unfounded: among the 26 countries participating in the ESS, in 2008–2009 Hungary was preceded by all Western and Southern and several Eastern European countries with respect to the acceptance of homosexuality, Judit Takács, Homofóbia Magyarországon és Európában [Homophobia in Hungary and in Europe], Homofóbia Magyarországon [Homophobia in Hungary], ed. Judit Takács (Budapest: L’Harmattan, 2011).

[28] Rayna Rapp, “Family and Class in Contemporary America: Notes toward an Understanding of Ideology,” Rethinking the Family. Some Feminist Questions, ed. Barrie Thorne and Marilyn Yalom (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992 [1978]), 49–70; Suzanne Bergeron, “Querying Feminist Economics’ Straight Path to Development: Household Models Reconsidered,” Development, Sexual Rights and Global Governance, ed. Amy Lind (New York: Routledge, 2010), 54–64.

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