Dear Dr Ren:
I’m at the end of my rope. My boyfriend of five years refuses to come out to his family. He wants me to pretend to be his “roommate” when his parents visit from the States. When they came three years ago I agreed, but this time I say if he cares about me-and about us-he’ll tell them the truth. We’re not kids anymore, needing our parents’ approval. He says they’ll never accept this and I have no right to tell him how to run his life. Who’s right?
Taking a Stand
In a perfect world your boyfriend’s parents would embrace his choice of partners and family visits would be happily anticipated and enjoyed, but this is far from a perfect world.
None of us wants to disappoint or anger our parents, nor do we want them to disapprove of our choices. We long for their approval our whole lives and wish to have the best possible relationships with them. But, sometimes, the less said the better.
Yes, it’s a bother to de-gay the apartment and hide our lifestyle, but we need to weigh our priorities. After all, your boyfriend’s parents’ visits are rare, and isn’t it his call how he handles his family? When your family arrives, you can manage the situation how you like.
Did your own parents react with no more than “That’s nice, Son. Pass the mashed potatoes” when you came out to them? That’s certainly not the story most gay people tell. Parents and children are rarely comfortable discussing their sex lives with each other. The coming out conversation begins in that particularly scratchy place and quickly moves on to confront even more deeply-felt taboos and conflicting belief systems. Those parents who come to accept and then embrace their children’s unsanctioned lifestyles rarely do so easily or quickly. Many parents never manage to make that leap.
Let me ask you some questions.
Apart from his discomfort around his parents, does your boyfriend include and honour you? Do you believe he is ashamed of his sexuality or your relationship? Does he treat you with respect and kindness? Is being gay routinely a touchy topic, or is it an issue only when his parents visit?
How do you two resolve other contentious issues? Is this a singular disagreement or is it just one more subject you wrangle about? Are you used to getting your way and are you angered that he won’t back down on this issue?
If your answers point to deeper, more encompassing problems in your life together, think about making the effort to repair the greater dynamics of your relationship. In that case, you can relegate your disagreement over how you present yourselves to his family to being the symptom of unhappiness it really is, rather than the cause.
However, if the upcoming visit will mar an otherwise placid relationship, ask yourself why his parents’ acceptance is so important to you. Isn’t it more important that those who are integral to your daily life properly honour your bond?
In other words, who cares? Do you know (or care) about the orientation of your dry cleaner or banker? Is it necessary they know about yours? Just what is your investment in the approval of people who are more or less peripheral to the core of your life and well-being?
In the end, if having your boyfriend totally out is a must then your relationship faces a major and deeply divisive challenge, and you must act accordingly. In that perfect world, you would have been clear about this need from the beginning, but you can still be clear about it in this imperfect world. He needs to understand that this is not about his family-it’s about your need for a particular personal presentation. Be caring and courteous, though, and wait until after the visit to drop this bomb.
I thank everyone who bore personal risk so we could all love freely and safely. I am not suggesting you or your boyfriend become turncoats to the gay community. But, choose your battles wisely. Nothing is gained by alienating your lover’s parents. Surely he is the better judge of their ability to accept. In fact, if they come to respect you as their son’s “friend”, they might realize your special status. They may even embrace you as family if they needn’t formally acknowledge their son as homosexual.
Not exactly what you want? Well, it’s not exactly what they want either, but it would be a working peace.
I think you’ve gotten off track with this challenge. If your boyfriend is closeted only during his parents’ visit, he’s doing nothing worse than protecting the relationship that moulded him into the man you love. Help him keep that relationship healthy.
The parents will leave and you will resume your everyday lives. Spend your energy making those days important, enjoyable and memorable. Work together to counter homophobia and hatred in ways that do not divide you, but rather draw you together within our global family.