It starts with a casual aside; a set of syllables that should dissolve into the ether like wisps of breath on a mid-winter morning. Yet these words hang heavy in the air like the dense smell of oven gas.
‘Are you going home for Christmas?’
‘Yes, back to grey Leicester!’ I reply.
‘So, you’ll be seeing your Mum and Dad and stuff?’
‘Oh, well, I’m an orphan so I’ll be staying with other family.’
(A slight pause in which the other person’s eyes widen and their face is cloaked in shock.)
‘Oh my god, I am so sorry!’
This conversation, around Christmas and all manner of other scenarios — general family history, where I grew up, even something as stupid as Mother’s and Father’s Day — has happened countless times. As I write this on 13th November, it has happened twice in the last three days — once literally about going home for Christmas and the other when I was getting to know a new co-worker.
My parents both died in the same year when I was 16; my Dad first in February and then my Mum eight months later. Relentless alcoholism did it for my Dad, while my Mum succumbed to that great guardian of mortality: cancer. I’m a journalist and librarian, and in my previous blogs for InSPIre the Mind I wrote about somewhat more conventional mental health topics — eating disorders and emotional regulation. This piece is more esoteric; I’m not focussing on the grief or trauma of being an orphan, more on how it affects my relationships to other people, how something so unusual creates its own anxiety.
It would be a stretch to say that being an orphan clouds every conversation I have with every new person I meet, but once the discussion veers towards something that could potentially mean I have to say it, a strange anxiety grips me. Telling someone I’m an orphan doesn’t bother me; I’m not going to collapse onto the floor in a tidal wave of tears. This is not a clinical indifference on my part, only that it has been 13 years since my parents died, I have told dozens, if not hundreds of people over those years, and it has become a normal part of my reality.
Rather, it is the other person’s reaction I most fear, and what fills my stomach with a sickly apprehension.
How awkward will it be? Will they get upset? How uncomfortable will it get?
I am throwing a grenade of intensity into what may have been the blandest phatic conversation.
People’s reactions are so uniform, it actually makes me laugh a little, which doesn’t exactly help the situation. Their eyes go wide in shock, and they start stammering apologies. If they ask a simple follow up question that results in me telling them it happened in the same year, their eyes somehow go wider, an awkward silence forms and it’s clear their mind contains one single thought: ‘****’
A (Very) Brief History of Coming Out
The phrase ‘coming out’ is indelibly associated with the LGBTQ+ community, and it’s common understanding refers to somebody revealing their sexual identity to others, with the popular cultural depiction being gay people coming out to their parents.
The intrinsic connection between sexual minorities and coming out is a relatively recent socio-cultural phenomenon. It’s original meaning, dating back to the 19th century, referred to the debutante process of introducing young women to their eligible suitors at deliriously posh balls. These balls were adapted in the 1920s and 30s, usually by gay men, and evoled into ‘drag’ balls. These masquerade events were a way for someone to come out to other gay people in the community, and not necessarily to the rest of society.
In George Chauncey’s history of modern gay culture, Gay New York, the term was beginning to be adopted in the 1960s to describe revealing your sexual identity to those outside of the gay community. The phrase, and it’s ‘coming out of the closet’ extension, gained wider usage after an organizer at the first Gay Liberation march in 1970 declared; ‘we’ll never have the freedom and civil rights we deserve as human beings unless we stop hiding in closets and in the shelter of anonymity.’
No Fagin, No Danger
If we drill down into the idea behind coming out, at its most fundamental level it means that some aspect of your life fails to align with a predetermined, expected set of experiences and/or behaviours, across social, cultural, political or any number of potentialities.
You can then, at some level, ‘come out’ as practically anything — from the utterly trivial to the intensely vulnerable. In certain situations, you might have to come out as a non-football fan, a communist or disabled. Perhaps all three at the same time, if you are having a particularly intense session in the pub.
In sociologist Abigail C. Saguy’s Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are, she describes how ‘coming out’ — as a cultural concept and political tactic — has spread within and well beyond gay rights activism’ and that a ‘search for the terms coming out and closet in the keywords of major papers, indexed by LexisNexis, yields examples of people coming out as asexual, celibate, heterosexual male, Jewish, a Republican, Scotish, a Kiwi male, and even witches (coming out of “broom closets”!).
Among many other differences, there is one very clear and obvious distinction between telling someone you are an orphan and telling them that you are not heterosexual or cisgender: the lack of any potential harmful response.
Telling someone you are LGBTQ+, to family members or anyone else, can result in all manner of destructive scenarios, up to and including assault and potentially murder. Of course, this is not in anyway a universal experience, and many LGBTQ+ people experience incredibly positive reactions from their loved ones. In contrast though, the chance of something negative happening when I tell someone I’m an orphan is basically 0%, unless I’m talking to a neo-Fagin Victorian psychopath.
A Minority of One
Being an orphan means I am effectively in the smallest minority group in the country. It is very difficult to find data on how many orphans there are in the UK. I have personally spoken to both the ONS and the Census and neither of them record such data. The crudest estimation I have, based on a bereavement study of the 1970 British Cohort, is that 0.1% of the population are orphans, roughly 68,000 people.
This puts me in a very strange place, at once completely removed from the inherent dangers of coming out while simultaneously living an experience so far removed from most people’s lives. According to a 2019 ONS report, there are around 1.4 million people who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and this doesn’t even account for gender identity with non-binary and trangender individuals, nor other sexualities including asexuality and others under the queer umbrella term.
I exist in this weird liminal space where my life has been defined by an experience that most people have not, and by the time they get to my age, cannot ever experience themselves.
By 32, I’ll have lived literally half my life without my parents. A family friend got to retirement age with both parents still alive.
I’ll never stop telling people I’m an orphan and it will still generate the same response for decades to come, the same anxiety, the same awkwardness as people feel they have stumbled blindly through a door into my most intimate life. Genius screenwriter Russell T. Davies, when talking about himself being gay, said that, “you never stop coming out”. I will always be an orphan, will always have to come out as one, and that’ll always separate me from almost everyone else in society, never in danger but completely alone.
Header image: © Eugène Delacroix, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons