Brian Ventura, a freshman at Harvard University, had big news to share with his parents, and he needed to time it perfectly.
Thanksgiving dinner? Too awkward, he decided.
“I thought it would be like, ‘Pass the turkey. By the way — I’m gay!’ ” said Ventura, 18, who returned home to Florida for the holiday.
He settled on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. It would be just after bringing home a Christmas tree with his family, and hours before he was to fly back to Boston to finish the semester. Anxiety hung over his head all weekend as he worried about how his parents would respond.
“In my mind, I knew that there was a possibility, however small, that this could be the last time I’d be eating Thanksgiving dinner with my family,” said Ventura, who packed his bags early, in case he was thrown out of the house. “I wanted to have that one last holiday with my family before everything went south.”
For many young people who move away for college, coming home for the holidays can bring with it a particular source of stress: coming out to their families as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. In some ways, it’s a logical time to have the conversation. After a semester away at school, young people may feel more open and confident about their sexuality. They want to share the news with their families in person, so they wait until a break from school, which tends to coincide with major holidays.
But in some regards, the holidays are a difficult time to come out. The tension that can accompany coming out to family is often compounded by the awkwardness inherent in holiday gatherings, fraught with annoying questions from grandparents about significant others and passive-aggressive snipes between relatives.
“I jokingly say that LGBT people love to ruin the holidays,” said Pam Garramone, executive director of the Greater Boston chapter of Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Young people, she said, have the tendency to break the news when their parents are least prepared to have a substantive conversation.
“They’re off to college and they’re finding themselves and feeling more confident and happy about who they are. . . . It’s like you’ve held it in for so long, and when you get to college, for some kids it’s like, ‘I can’t lie anymore.’ ”
And when it comes to finding the right time to broach the subject, Garramone said, the stakes are high.
According to research from San Francisco State University, 30 percent of young people who come out to their parents are kicked out of the house. Another 50 percent, she said, receive the “I love you, but” response — an unwillingness by parents to accept their child’s sexual orientation, which can be emotionally painful for young people and has been linked with higher rates of suicide and self-destructive behavior.
For Andrew Engber, 20, a Boston College sophomore from Acton, the holidays loomed large as he anticipated long days spent in the company of extended family. His parents, siblings, and close friends knew that he was gay, and supported him, but he was not sure aunts, uncles, and cousins knew.
To preempt any holiday awkwardness — and, he joked, to get things off his chest in case the world ended with the conclusion of the Mayan calendar — Engber took to Facebook.
At 6 p.m. sharp on the Thursday before Christmas, he posted a status update:
“In case the world ends tomorrow, there is something that I need to clear up . . . I am gay. I never thought I would have the strength and confidence to come out, but I am finally ready to be fully honest with myself and the world . . . Thank you to all my friends and family for supporting me through these crazy times and getting me to this point . . . Happy holidays to you all :).”
Engber’s post garnered more than 450 Facebook “likes.” Still, he worried what the holiday would be like with extended family who had learned of his sexuality for the first time.
He arrived at his family’s holiday gathering on Christmas Eve. Each relative had the same greeting: “I’m so proud of you.”
“It feels nice, because I feel completely honest and open with my family now. It feels good again,” Engber said. “And the whole holiday spirit, being here with everyone — it’s almost made this whole experience even better. I couldn’t have asked for more from my family.”
Steven Petrow, author of “Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners,” says that while he believes coming out in person is preferable to coming out over social media, the throes of a holiday may not be the best time to broach the topic. Maybe wait a day or two, he suggested.
“If mom or dad is watching the roast beef and worrying about the pies, and then you say, ‘By the way, I’m a lesbian!’ ” Petrow said, “that’s not the best scenario.”
The conversation, he said, doesn’t need to be awkward. It can be more subtle, and more natural, to make a casual mention of a same-sex significant other, or experiences working with an LGBT organization.
“You don’t have to stand on the table and say, ‘I’m gay!’ ” Petrow said.
For Ventura, the nervousness grew in the days after Thanksgiving. Finally, on the last night of his Thanksgiving break, he asked his parents if he could talk to them. His sister, who had known for years, sat beside him and held his hand.
“Mom, dad, I need to tell you something,” he began.
“What’s wrong?” his mother asked.
Ventura tried to spit it out, but as his parents’ faces filled with concern, he couldn’t find the words.
“Is this about you?” he remembers his father asking.
“Yes,” Ventura mustered.
“Is this about preference?” his father continued.
“Yes,” Ventura answered.
His sister “started crying hysterically.”
“I’m gay,” Ventura said.
“Well, I figured,” his father said.
Ventura’s parents, it turned out, were angry he had considered it possible, even for a moment, that they would have kicked him out of the house.
His mother, perturbed, asked him to take a nighttime walk. She peppered him with questions. How did he know? Did he have a boyfriend?
“While I was on the walk, I thought, ‘This is the most awkward thing in my life,’ ” Ventura said. “But I look back on that now, and I realize how important it was to have this walk.”
“I felt like the holidays was a better time to come out,” Ventura said. “In my family, there’s more familial emotion, and it’s kind of a big mess of love. Everyone feels closer . . . and that made it easier, rather than just coming out on a random day.”
Things with his parents aren’t perfect, he said, and they’re still wrapping their heads around the idea that he’s gay. But he’s confident they’ll come around — though maybe not by the end of this holiday season, he said.
But happily, there are many more to come.Martine Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.