Back over the holidays, I spent some time with my extended family, who I don’t get to see that often. My aunt has a couple of younger kids (they’re 11 and 13) and based on a few things that happened over the holidays I am wondering if one of my aunt’s kids is a lesbian. She spent the whole weekend in sweatpants and flannels, there were some LGBT books in the family bookcase, and she seemed kind of withdrawn especially when my mom tried to engage her on the topic of boys. My cousin and I are not especially close since I’m much older, which is why I didn’t ask her something in the moment. Now that I’ve had a little perspective, I’m not sure what to do. I won’t see them again until next Christmas, probably, unless everyone ends up getting together for my grandma’s birthday. I want my cousin to feel like she has an ally and positive role models and that it’s safe to come out, but thinking about it all I’m not even sure whether my cousin knows that I’m a lesbian. It’s not exactly something that comes up in family discussions, although I am out and never lie when asked direct questions (like when I told my grandma one Thanksgiving that no, I didn’t have a boyfriend yet but I did have a girlfriend). Our family is on the conservative side; I am fortunate that my parents support me and love me for me, but I can’t assume her family will be similarly supportive and I don’t want to push her. What should I do?
It’s sweet that you’re looking out for your younger cousin! She’s at a critical age when a lot of things are changing; she could be experiencing first crushes or even friendships so intense they have some of that crush energy. None of the signals you’re picking up on are firmly conclusive that she is a lesbian.
Something like Fun Home on the bookshelf could signify that she is a lesbian or that she likes graphic novels. Wearing sweats could indicate that she likes sports, likes comfortable clothing, wants to hide her breasts, and so on.
You could scout for more information, perhaps by asking your mom if her sister has ever said anything about her niece. That really depends on the relationship you have with your mom; specifically, on whether you would trust your mom to keep it confidential. The last thing you need is your query getting back to your aunt and impacting your cousin.
But I don’t think you need conclusive evidence that she’s a lesbian to be a positive role model in her life and offer an alternative viewpoint to her family’s conservative mindset.
Rather than pry (and risk causing problems), connect with your niece on social media or even via email. Social media works well here because it provides a window into your life. She’ll see you post pictures of your dates or share gay/lesbian news stories. She’ll get the message that you are a lesbian (if she doesn’t know) and that you are an ally if she needs a supportive adult in her corner. She may or may not have any positive lesbian or gay role models in her life, so it could help her be more comfortable — if she is a lesbian. If not, then you still get to be the fabulous gay cousin expanding her worldview.
After you connect, send your cousin a brief message saying how good it was to see her over the holidays and that you are here for her if she ever wants to talk about things. This gives her control over what to say, if anything. If your cousin is questioning her sexuality, she may not be ready to place a label on herself. If she does identify as a lesbian or bisexual, she may not be ready to come out to her peers or to adults, even well-intentioned ones like you.
When you see her in person, be the same authentic, openly out lesbian it sounds like you already are. Talk about any lesbian or gay friends you have, comment on news topics, or push back if anyone in the family makes a homophobic comment. Perhaps be a little more explicit in talking about your identity if you get signals from her that she is interested or curious. That could be a secret smile when you drop the L word, a like of your couple pic on Instagram, a sudden avoidance of gender pronouns when talking about friends or crushes.
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