In recent years, acceptance of LGBTIQ people has dramatically increased. In 2016, research out of the United States found that 63% of Americans believed that homosexuality should be accepted by society, an increase of 12% from the decade before.
Despite this, many of the one in 25 Australians who have been estranged from their family at one point in their lives are still LGBTIQ people. Estrangement over sexuality is still a common experience for many, creating long-lasting impacts.
SBS Sexuality spoke with two Australians who have been estranged from friends or family about their experiences.
When Peter started dating men, his father rejected his relationships, refusing to meet any of his boyfriends, and stating that he wouldn’t attend any family events if they were there.
“I tried really hard to accept that position and to respect it,” Peter says, “but it was too tiring and too damaging to my own sense of self-worth and feeling okay about myself. I felt that I was unable to be myself and to be accepted.”
Stating that he felt that no matter what he did, this lack of acceptance would “never be okay”, Peter decided to cease contact with his father, an estrangement that has extended to his whole family.
“As the result of my brothers not being able to manage [the estrangement between my father and I], I have become estranged from my two younger brothers as well,” he shares, describing the situation as “very difficult”.
“I used to be close with them,” he says, “but they refused to have my boyfriend at my brother's wedding and my brother supported my dad to keep the peace.”
This didn’t just have an impact on Peter’s family, but his relationships as well.
“The negativity from my family has been very deleterious to my relationships,” he says. While Peter was living away from his family in Adelaide, the distance from his family in Canberra helped sustain his eight-year relationship. However, when the pair moved back to Peter’s home city, he says that “the fact that they were local and didn’t want to accept my relationships made it really difficult to develop happier relationships”, adding that the relationship “did not do well” after the move.
When Peter moved away from Canberra again he tried to reconnect with his family, but it hasn’t gone well.
“I was moving to Brisbane and I wanted to say goodbye and it was an excuse to make contact. I’ve had email contact since then but I have made accepting my homosexuality contingent on phone and face to face contact.”
“The contact was optimistic at the start but now deteriorated to emails after phone calls have been non-productive.”
Emily has faced multiple estrangements from both family and friends, mostly due to strong religious beliefs. This has led to some extraordinary circumstances.
“I lost some close friends early in my adult life who were from a particularly fundamentalist Christian church,” she says, recalling. “They regularly told me - as kindly as they could - that my sexuality was because I was possessed, by a spirit of frigidity, no less, and at one point blindsided me with an intervention from the senior pastors, which I realised part way through was an attempt at an exorcism."
Although Emily tries to look back on these events with humour, she acknowledges that they have caused a lot of pain, and notes that it was often the more subtle moments that caused the most harm.
“The 'partial estrangements’ — with a parent and some other extended family members — are probably best described as a form of emotional estrangement, without complete cessation of contact,” she explains. “In many ways, these are more upsetting. I have had family members sit silently while acquaintances told me that people like me deserved to be rounded up and shot, or marched into the sea and told to start swimming. These family members were unable to speak up in my defense, or even address the comments at an abstract level.”
“They have also shied away from any overt acknowledgement of my sexuality. It has been fairly clear from their subtle body-language reactions when I've referenced my sexuality in passing that it is not something they are comfortable with. I have found myself gradually reducing my emotional investment in these relationships over time, and certainly the relationships are now entirely superficial.”
Naturally, this has all had a huge emotional impact.
“The estrangement from my religious friends was initially quite traumatic, and more recently just really sad. I don't believe they are bad people, and I'm sad that they see their beliefs as more important than my well being .”
“Being told I was possessed left more scars than I like to admit, because even though I didn't intellectually believe it was true, unconsciously there was always a part of me that had always felt defective, and the possession or 'sinner' label reinforced that feeling.”
But most of the pain comes from those that Emily is still in contact with, but who she feels like she cannot share her life with anymore.
“My emotional estrangement from non-accepting family has been similarly saddening, particularly realising that a parent couldn't overcome their beliefs or their fear of judgement to defend their child against someone effectively threatening their death. It made me doubt the strength of their love, and certainly the strength of their acceptance.
“Contact with that family member is quite tricky and anxiety provoking as our relationship has gradually deteriorated, and I leave their company feeling pretty despairing, because the time together is now entirely superficial. They no longer have any awareness of or involvement in large parts of my life, which feels pretty strange and detached.”
When thinking about whether she’d want to contact those she’s estranged from, Emily’s response was “not really”. She explains:
“I have a fantasy that one day I will contact them, down the track, and try to help them understand the hurt they have caused, but I think I am more inclined to let sleeping dogs lie. Particularly in the case of religious beliefs, they are so deeply ingrained that I suspect anything I say will just be used to justify the existing beliefs, and I will end up feeling just as bad, all over again."
“So I am trying to work on acceptance and letting go.”
The ground-breaking new six-part documentary series, Look Me In The Eye, concludes tonight, Wednesday on SBS at 8.30pm. Each episode will be available to view on SBS On Demand after broadcast.