In the Therapy Room, Timing Is Everything: Coming Out To Clients

By Jeff Levy, LCSW

Reprinted from In The Family Magazine, July 1998, pp. 22-24.

Celia was referred to me by a colleague who was treating her grown daughter, Janie, a survivor of incest by her older brother. The family had been living with this secret for almost 30 years, never having discussed it openly. At age 70, Celia was feeling burdened by the secret and hoped that therapy might allow her, and other family members, to release Janie from the pain she had been "holding" for all of them. Celia had been divorced from Janie's father, Charles, for 20 years, although they remained on friendly terms, getting together for holidays, socializing and even traveling together. For the past few years, Janie had been psychiatrically hospitalized numerous times, which left Celia, her primary caretaker, feeling drained.

At first, I focused therapy on dealing with the secrecy of the incest, but gradually Celia revealed that Janie was not the only one harboring a secret. Her ex-husband, she told me, was gay and she had known it even before they married. She and Charles met at a party while they were both in undergraduate school in the 1940s. She described him as flashy, sensitive, and exciting; she felt immediately attracted to him. Charles invited her to one of his parties, and when she arrived she noticed that she was the only woman in attendance, and further that the men were touching one another, dancing together and sometimes kissing. She realized they were "homosexual" but she wasn't put off by it as they readily accepted her into their circle. She quickly became friends with many of Charles' friends. She socialized almost exclusively with this group throughout her undergraduate years, although the word "homosexual" was never uttered. She and Charles developed a particularly close friendship, and she was also friends with Charles's male lover, socializing with both of them. After graduating, the group of friends disbanded and Charles' lover moved away. Charles started graduate school and Celia got a job. The two continued to socialize casually until one evening Charles proposed to her.

Throughout the engagement, Charles' sexual orientation was never discussed. Celia told me that she hoped Charles was making a commitment to a monogamous, heterosexual marriage; that they would live in a nice house in the suburbs, raise healthy, happy children, and live together for the remainder of their lives. But Celia described life after the wedding to be less than idyllic. In the early years of their marriage Charles would leave for evenings or weekends without saying where he was going or when he would return. They both knew he was having sexual relationships with men, but never once did they talk about the infidelity, or that fact that he was gay. Though rarely sexual in the marriage, Charles and Celia had four children together. They bought a home in a wealthy suburb and to all appearances were like any other family in the neighborhood.

As Celia told me her story, I assessed whether or not I should come out to her as a gay man, myself. My practice is a mix of individuals, couples, families and groups of varying sexual orientations. My sexual minority clients generally assume I'm gay, but my straight clients often make no overt assumption. The issue of disclosure is complicated. I have material in my office which alludes to my sexual orientation--books, magazines, and informational brochures. This is in place to ensure that sexual minority clients know that my office is a safe place for them. In addition, it "notifies" my straight clients that my space is open and accepting Sometimes clients will ask about my sexual orientation. I discuss the underlying reason for the question, and in most instances disclose that I'm gay. Occasionally, I conclude that disclosing my sexual orientation will not be helpful to their therapy, and so I talk about why I feel it is important not to self-disclose. Though Celia did not bring up the issue of my sexual orientation, after understanding the dynamics of her family, I came to believe that it was important for me to bring it up.

As our relationship evolved in therapy, Celia opened more of the secret feelings she harbored related to Charles' being gay. She told that when their eldest daughter became a teenager, Charles took her to parties in the city and introduced her to some of his male friends. These were people whom Celia, herself, had never met. She believed that Charles made it clear to his daughter, without saying the words, that he was gay. She colluded in the secrecy and also didn't speak of it. At the same time, Charles began having physical confrontations with their son, and Celia discovered that he had molested the boy on several occasions. The family went to one session of family therapy and then Charles refused to go back. When he became a teenager, Celia's son molested Janie, the youngest in the family. When Janie reached adolescence and the other children had left home, Celia realized that she could no longer remain in the marriage. She was worried about how Charles's behavior was affecting their children. Angry and frustrated after 20 years of marriage, Celia divorced Charles and retained custody of Janie.

As she talked about her life in therapy, Celia began to discharge her anger and sadness through imagery, writing letters she did not intend to send, and processing her feelings through discussion. With each session that Celia worked on her feelings about the secrets, my anxiety grew. Initially, I denied the impact of my sexual orientation on my relationship with Celia, much like Charles must have denied the impact of his on their marriage. I believed that my anxiety was perhaps countertransferential and should be dealt with in supervision. Even in supervision, the parallel process did not immediately emerge. Finally, I realized that being gay and not telling her meant I was somehow participating in the drama of her family's secrets. The more I listened and the more I remained silent, the more collusive I felt. She never asked me if I was married. She never asked if I had children. She never commented on the gay books I had in my office. I realized that some of my anxiety in hearing Celia's story was directly related to the parallel process in our relationship. Celia knew I was gay and was keeping it a secret! She had not addressed it with me nor had I addressed it with her. I had recreated with her the same dynamic that she had endured for 20 years with Charles. I gradually became aware of how my internalized homophobia had kept me from disclosing to Celia earlier; that on some level I identified with Charles' struggle. I began to feel some empathy for Charles' experience, especially given the social context during the time in which he struggled with his own "coming out." I decided that there was one action I could take that would allow my relationship with Celia to be corrective for her, and that was to disclose my sexual orientation.

The day came when I told Celia I was gay. I talked about the secret of her ex-husband's sexual orientation, how this secret had never been opened in her family, and how this created a relationship that left her feeling inadequate, disrespected and unimportant. I told her that I felt that our relationship provided her with an opportunity to address some of those issues, but only if we did not maintain the same secrecy. "I'm also a gay man," I told her. She responded with two words: "I know."

I was relieved to have opened this secret to Celia and explained why it was important for me to tell her, how I didn't want to perpetuate a dynamic that had been destructive for her. Celia tried to reassure me that it was "okay" that I was gay. I told her she didn't need to take care of me in this relationship. My job was to support and care for her. I had disclosed my sexual orientation to allow her to ask questions, express feelings and continue to develop our relationship based on truth. Her shoulders relaxed and she leaned back in her chair and smiled.

While at first Celia wasn't aware of how my "secret" had affected her, gradually she was able to express relief at being able to discuss something she had never been able to discuss with Charles. Coming out allowed for many of the confusing and tangled feelings she experienced in her marriage to be overt and discussed in the context of her relationship with me. My coming out felt like a burden had been lifted for both of us. Celia talked more openly about her anger at Charles and her feelings of powerlessness in the marriage. She also began sharing more with me about her childhood; growing up in a family where she felt devalued, powerless, and unattractive. Charles' proposal of marriage reassured her that she was, indeed, an attractive woman. These feelings kept her from confronting Charles about some of the deceitful things he did and kept her from discussing his sexual orientation. She did not wish to disrupt the life she had created for herself. She felt she dared not risk the rejection that might come with confrontation. These are, perhaps, some of the same reasons that kept her from asking about my sexual orientation.

As she became more in touch with her resentment for having protected Charles and her anger for his abuse of the children, she asked Charles to come to a session. After preparing herself to say what she had long feared to say to him, Charles canceled the day of the appointment, saying he was too anxious to come. Celia was disappointed and angry. She experienced some of the rejection she had defended against, but also stated she felt strong enough to deal with these feelings. At about this time Janie's individual therapist and I broached the subject of a family session with Celia and with Janie. They were both open to the idea and we invited Charles and Janie's siblings. Charles came, as did Janie's middle sister. Many subjects were discussed for the first time--including the incest--and Celia, for the first time in her life, made an overt statement about Charles' "secret" relationships and "secret life," opting for a nebulous reference to his homosexual activity. My coming out to Celia and talking openly about being gay provided her with a framework from which to talk with Charles. As she cried a little, Charles took her hand. To my knowledge, this subject has not been addressed again, but for Celia it was a relief to publicly name the secret that had trapped her for many years.

Most recently, Celia talked about one of her grandsons. She was certain he was gay and felt tortured by it; unable to come out to his parents because of his father's homophobia. Celia asked me what she could do to let him know she would continue to love and accept him if he chose to come out. If Celia and I had not had that conversation two years ago about my sexual orientation, I believe, she would not have been able to ask me that question.

I've thought a lot about whether I should have come out to Celia much earlier in our therapy. I've come to the conclusion that one of the reasons my "outing" was so powerful for her was because I hadn't come out sooner. My relationship with her had paralleled her relationship with Charles and we had, unwittingly, created a dynamic that mirrored her former marriage in many ways. Our "secret," had to evolve in order for my coming out to Celia to be truly corrective.