This Is Us features unconventional families as they struggle to overcome and navigate their differences.
Recently, one of the young protagonists, Tess, comes out as a lesbian to her parents and receives support in return. We tuned back in this week to follow Tess’s journey of self-discovery.
In the latest episode, Tess complains that she thought she would already be out instead of having to come out again at her new school (and honestly, what’s more lesbian than having to come out over and over again). Tess displayed hesitancy surrounding her sexual orientation when she first came out to her parents in the previous episode. Namely, she seemed to be testing the waters and even backtracked before receiving a positive response.
This hesitancy becomes irritation in the latest episode when she’s assumed to be straight at school. She’s able to vocalize her frustration surrounding heteronormativity when explaining to Deja that she didn’t come out to a girl at school when she had the chance, and instead regrets agreeing with her about the attractiveness of a football player, due to the pressure to fit in (we’ve all been there). Though she doesn’t use the term heteronormativity, she’s referring to the assumption that everyone is straight, which causes her inner turmoil, regardless of her positive coming out experience.
It’s not uncommon to expect everything to fall into place after coming out. And how many of us have wished we could just magically snap our fingers and just be out already? This stems from a fear of setting ourselves apart from our peers, as well as worry about taking up space with our seemingly unrelatable gay experience.
This episode juxtaposes Tess’s difficult first day with her brother Randall’s, as he experiences a panic attack due to a dress code violation. Just like Tess, his first day doesn’t go as planned and his high expectations are undermined by his teacher, who gives him a note to bring back to his parents (which Kevin forges for him). His expectations were academic in nature, which provides a contrast to Tess’s social expectations. However, just like Tess, Randall is comforted by a sibling, reminding us of the familial focus of the show. His reaction is also fear-based, just like Tess’s, who’s worried about making friends while out. This comparison normalizes Tess’s experience since it’s addressed in a similar manner to Randall’s. Kids or teenagers watching the show will be able to relate to Tess and receive reassurance from TV parents Kevin and Deja.
The most striking part of this conversation is Tess’s confusion and disorientation, as she admits to not knowing why she was unable to come out. She mentions that it’s harder to confide in her mother, and she’s reassured that Randall and Beth are always there, even when “they don’t know what’s going on.”
Isolation can ensue after coming out in average families, but as is emphasized throughout the show, their support system is more reliable than the average family’s. As we’re all aware, not everyone in our community has a supportive sibling or even friend to rely on, which can lead to internalized shame. Luckily, we can always rely on supportive fictional families to receive validation and even draw from Tess’s coming out experience.
As a family show, This Is Us represents a healthy family dynamic that can serve as a model for young lesbians. Besides showing up for their children, parents Randall and Beth provide an unconditionally accepting space for their kids. This can be as simple as checking in, as Beth does with Tess after her first day, or as saying “your turn” the way that Deja did in gently nudging Tess to express her experience. Her developing bond with Deja provides some insight into Tess’s future, where she’s a social worker. As a social worker, she can draw from her positive coming out experience to support gay youth who are rejected by their families. Some of her initial hesitancy seems resolved after she voices her worry to Deja, but it will be interesting to watch her come out to peers rather than instantly supportive family members.
The pressure to fit in can overwhelm even the proudest lesbian. Whether we come out as preteens or adults, the fear of ramifications is real and paralyzing. Representation of accepting families on television can lessen this fear and offer lesbian and gay youth the language to articulate themselves to their own families and peers.