Monday, June 24, 2013

The Tricky Tightrope of Familial Acceptance


About a week ago, I was asked for advice by a Rioter. She recently got married to her partner, and is having a tough time navigating her family's feelings on the matter. Here's her question to me:

Your parents aren't very accepting of the fact that you are gay, am I right? I believe I remember you talking about it on the show... My dad refused to have anything to do with my wedding. My mother came before the wedding with a gift but he wouldn't allow her to attend the ceremony... Every time I reach a state of resolve with my father he pulls something like this... How does one move past that sort of thing and just be ok with their close-mindedness? It's so hard...
You're absolutely right, dear Rioter (whose name shall be stricken from this response to further protect anonymity), it is very hard.  I've been with Partner for over 7 years now, and there are still parts of our relationship that I don't speak with my parents about. (My apologies to prepositions everywhere for that last sentence, but I'm too lazy to fix it.)

Some background, before I respond: Your first question to me, as to whether my parents accept my being gay, is an interesting one. Do they accept that this is the way I am and that I'm probably not going to leave Partner and get hitched to the nearest baby-making, vagina-having female I can find? Yes. They accept that's the way my cookie crumbles. They understand that to be a truth of the world that they are not going to change. But that question has a load of connotations and implied meanings. Such as:

Do they respect/include/love/speak about/speak to/regard your partner as family? Does your family support your right to equal marriage under the law? Do your parents allow you in their home with your partner? Do your parents support your right to become a parent? 

And more...

Herein is the tricky tightrope of familial acceptance.
There used to be a television show called Queer As Folk. It's been off the air since 2005, but it's still quite good, quite relevant, and worth a rewatch if you have access to the DVDs. When it was out, the mantra from many gay youth I knew was "I wish I had Michael's mom for my mother." Michael's mother, Debbie, was the quintessential 'best case scenario' for what it means for a parent to "accept" their gay child. So much so that there's an iconic scene where Michael says his mother is too accepting, pushes him to be too gay sometimes. She's the PFLAG button-wearing, dildo-joke-making, loud, brash, tiger mama mother every gay boy wishes he had. And, I feel like that's the standard for what people mean when they ask "Do your parents accept you being gay?".


In truth, I've yet to meet a mother who was that supportive. The mother who never once wished their son was straight, never once questioned whether it was just a phase, never hesitated to start a local PFLAG chapter, never blinked an eye when their son said he wanted to marry a man, never worried about him becoming a parent, etc. etc. etc. The moms I know and have met at least had doubts, worries, questions of their own. Sometimes these took minutes to overcome, sometimes decades. But I've yet to meet the real world Debbie Novotny, in short because I think she's what the writers created to become the paragon of acceptance, and not what real world gays experience. She's wishful thinking.

But I digress...

My parents started off not wanting a thing to do with Partner. Slowly, over the months and years following our relationship's inception, they came to understand that he wasn't going anywhere. They invited him to Thanksgivings, Christmases, introduced him to other family and eventually even their friends. They visit us and we visit them. My father calls to ask Partner his vet advice on one of their animals, and partner will call my mother to wish her luck on the new job. We've become a family, indistinguishable from other families. And then there are the hypothetical conversations... The ones where we talk about our hypothetical wedding and whether my parents will come - my mother frankly told me a couple of years ago that she was still undecided, a conversation we haven't revisited. However, my mother has also asked if we've considered adoption, because she wants to be a grandmother.


The tightrope is a tricky one. What boundaries can you push, when can you push them, and then - and this is hard for LGBT activist-minded folks - when do you back the fuck off? There's an importance to backing off. To letting your parents breathe and think and digest. We want them to become Debbie Novotny as soon as we let the rainbow out of the bag, but that's just not how it works.

I'm not sure I ended up with the best case scenario, but I ended up with a loving relationship with my parents, which is more than some get. And, for that, I am thankful.

So, here are my tips for you, dear Rioter, such as they are:

  • Give up on your father: By that I mean, give him space. Stop inviting him to things. Stop asking. While you may not think so, he might be feeling as though you're "shoving your lesbian love affair down his throat". He doesn't like it. He doesn't understand it, and he might have the faintest inkling that Satan will be in the room conducting a blood orgy under an inverted pentacle. Or, you know, there might be other gay people there. Either way it goes, he needs his space to process what is happening in his daughter's life. It sounds like your mother wants to attend things. She wants to be a part of your life, and, whether she agrees with your lifestyle or not, she's going to be supportive of her daughter. That's great. Embrace that, and understand that SHE will work on your father. Over time, he'll either miss you and want to get involved in your life, or he won't, but either way you'll be living your life and you won't be fretting over how he feels about it. (And I think I just accidentally quoted Dolly Parton in Straight Talk...further proof that The Gay has invaded me fully.)
  • Don't give up on your father: By that I mean, don't think I'm saying write him out of your life. Don't ignore him. Don't not wish him a happy birthday. Don't stop calling, etc. Remain his little girl. But, perhaps don't push it when holidays come around and you want him to come over for supper. You can let him know what's going on in your life without it being an invitation. 
  • His mind isn't closed, it's unfamiliar: Studies tell us that we immediately reject the unfamiliar and have the propensity to label it as wrong... That is, until we get to know the unfamiliar. It's basic in-group/out-group dynamics. He doesn't see what you two have as part of his in-group. It's not the same as his marriage to your mother. In some ways he's right, but in many others he's wrong. You know those gossip magazines where they have the pages dedicated to showing celebrities going to Starbuck's and shopping at Target? "Celebrities: They're just like us!" That's what he needs. He's got to hear about you doing stuff like buying furniture. Going to dinner. HAVING FRIENDS!!! I know a big hurtle for my parents was that they just wanted to know I was going to have a good life. When they got to know my friends, they realized my being gay was going to have zero impact on whether I had a rich, fulfilling, and delinquent free social life. Being gay didn't mean I was going to become a drug-using prostitute for shady politicians and internet trolls. When you've been sufficiently humanized to him, he'll want to get close with you again.
The problem with everything is time. I heard something several years ago that's always stuck with me about folks coming out and acceptance from family. What you - as the coming out person - need to realize is that you've been processing your feelings for years. When did you first have the idea that you might be gay? When did you come out? Was that distance 5 years? 10 years? 15+ years? For me, it was 8th grade (so...12 or 13) and I finally came out to my parents officially in college. So I had the rest of middle school, all of high school, and a good chunk of college to process, wrestle with, experiment, and come to the conclusion that I was indeed a died in the wool homosexual. I didn't accept myself at first, so it should be no surprise when my parents didn't either. 

I realize that much of that doesn't apply to you, since you're clearly out, loud, and proud - what with getting gay hitched and all - but I hope you understand what I'm saying. You've had years to come to terms with yourself and grow. It might take him the same number of years it took you. It might take longer, but he'll come around...

Or, he won't. 

The thing to do at this point is live your life. Embrace those folks who come around, but don't pressure (and pressure here can literally mean "invite them for Sunday dinner") those that don't want to come around just yet. 

I know it's not a neat and tidy response, but walking the tightrope is never neat and tidy. 

Love and Lyte,

Fire Lyte

4 comments:

  1. Dearest Fire Lyte -

    This is, I think, going to become one of my very favorite of your blogs. Such Sage advice - wisdom, obviously nurtured by experience and pain.

    Wouldn't interviewing parents (if ever it were even possible) make for fascinating podcasting?

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  2. Thank you for an honest and real view of what something like this is like. I'm straight, so I've never had to face up to the struggle of this. But I can honestly say I'm glad I didn't have to. It was hard enough telling my parents I was pregnant, because technically I had gotten pregnant outside of marriage. We got engaged in May, set a date for September and 3 weeks before my wedding, I found out I was pregnant (conceived in July). I was terrified to tell my parents. With good reason. I finally told my parents after I said "I do" (Literally. I was still in my wedding dress when I told them the good news). My father was immediately accepting, which surprised me. My mother however, wouldn't speak to me for weeks. She was so upset and she didn't hide it. Eventually she "overlooked" the fact that my daughter wasn't born 9 months after my wedding (just a bit over 7), though she doesn't really let me live it down.
    I can't imagine having to tell a parent like that something as big as being gay. I admire your courage, as well as anyone else who has faced this. I'm willing to admit that I'm a coward and I'm glad that I haven't had to do something this hard.
    On the other hand, my dearest mother doesn't know that I'm pagan....

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  3. I totally agree with the bit about giving him time. Rioter might be fine and ready to fight a society that says being is wrong or ugly or evil... but the dad doesn't have the same conviction. In fact, it is very likely that he is trying to figure out if everything he has been thought about marriage between a man an a woman was true or just societal expectations.

    My father is one of the most supportive parents I know, but I still saw a world of sadness (and perhaps disappointment) when I told him I wasn't going to have children. It took many years before he understood (and much later) accepted that it was what i wanted, what make me happy, and that my decision was one of the things that made me his little girl--I'm true to myself. Yet, I still see the longing in his face when he looks at me and my Piano Man. A good father wants the best for his child, but this doesn't mean that he understand exactly what that means.

    Give him time... and space. For instance, my brother is a very devout Christian and I'm a non-religious Witch. We have a great relationship, but we don't really talk about religion--he can't handle it or accept it and I'm okay with that. I love him anyway. I don't think he's close-minded; he's just himself.

    I'll say something that might not sound kind, but I always say what's in my heart, so here it goes: I know you wanted your dad and mom in your wedding, but it is obvious he didn't want to be there. The fact that he didn't show might have been a blessing. I'm sure you wanted your wedding to be about love, and I have a feeling that your dad's pain might have been too big of a cloud on your happy day.

    May all your days be as happy as it is real to expect, dear Rioter.

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  4. It's not just gays that have these types of problems. I decided not to have a church wedding (parents - Catholic), so my mother said she wouldn't come and then my Dad wouldn't come because it would upset my mother. My mother did finally accept the new hubby after we have been married a while, but my not going to church is still a big sticking point in our relationship. It really doesn't get any easier for some of us, but over time you can usually find a way to deal with it (parent's reactions) better.

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