Family and the Holidays

Did I forget to wish you all happy holidays? Sorry ’bout that.

As is often the case, the holiday season had me thinking about family. I’ve seen more of my family in this month and a half than in the ten and a half months before it. And that, especially combined with an upcoming family Bar Mitzvah, have me thinking about coming out. It’s been a major topic of conversation with me lately, and I have no idea how it hasn’t occurred to me before this to blog about something so pertinent that’s taking up so much space in my brain.

I’m a little bit ashamed to admit this, since it contradicts my self-image as a shameless, fearless bisexual superhero, but there are whole segments of my family I’m not out to yet. I’ve been out to my mother and my sister for years, and at some point my mother told my grandmother on that side, and she’s not sure who else. But until I very recently introduced Girlfriend, Esquire to one of my aunts and her husband and children, I wasn’t out to anyone on my father’s side of the family at all. (Which is not to say I’m not out to my father. I’m not, but that’s because he died nearly 12 years ago — before I figured out I was bisexual, let alone had a chance to tell him.)

There are a lot of reasons for this, and some of them vary based on what part of the family I’m talking about. And as a general principle, I’m not really into the big dramatic announcement. I prefer to slip out, mentioning a girlfriend or an ex and letting people figure it out. But until recently, I haven’t had a girlfriend serious enough to mention to my family, with all of the interrogations that would entail. I haven’t had a boyfriend serious enough to mention to them yet, either. There have been people I’ve been quite serious about myself, but no one I really thought might stick around for the long term.

As far as my mother’s side of the family, I know my grandmother knows. She’s asked me what my “friend” does for a living, but she knows. I’m less sure about my aunt and uncle. I’m not worried about their son — I’ve met his friends — and I’m not even worried about them, really. I know they’ll accept it. But probably not without hours of grilling me on my level of sureness, dating history, potential ability to just be with a man and forget about the rest of it, etc. Followed by a lifetime of what they’ll think is gentle, affectionate teasing. And that just sounds tiring enough that I’ve been putting it off.

Probably the biggest thing stopping me on the other side of the family is my paternal grandmother. I don’t think my aunts and their families will care much, but she just would not want to know. She’s pro-LGBT rights in general, for people who aren’t her grandchildren. And I’m confident she wouldn’t stop loving me, she wouldn’t make me feel unwelcome in the family…but she wouldn’t accept it, either. She’d just let it go in one ear and out the other, and continue treating me like a straight person. After all, this is a woman who still doesn’t know my parents lived together before they were married. They told her; she just didn’t hear them. And I don’t really know how to deal with that. I suppose it means I can just come out to her and the rest of my family, and it can’t hurt her because it will wash right over her. I won’t be any more invisible than I am now. But it’s this dilemma that helps me understand other people’s reluctance to come out. Because I have a very strong belief that everyone should be out, in all of the settings in their lives, that it is the only way to teach people that we are people too, people they care about. But she’s old and fragile, and I worry about her…and a tiny, guilty part of my brain wonders how much longer she can live, and if it wouldn’t be better and easier to just wait. And then I think, Oh, I get it, this is how people put this off indefinitely. And, Shouldn’t I give her a little bit more credit? And, I’d never wish for anything to happen to her, I want her to live many more years and how long am I willing to wait? But it took me a while to get there. I’ve always been the kind of person who hates making waves. I do it, because it’s necessary, but I don’t thrive on it.

This is all further complicated by the fact that I’m much less ready to come out to my family as poly. But I may need to, it may be the price I pay for being out as queer. Girlfriend, Esq. is married, and that tends to come up in conversation. Even if she were sneaky enough, I’d never ask her to lie or to avoid mentioning her wife. And, as with queerness, it’s not my family knowing that I dread. I’m not afraid they’ll stop loving and welcoming me. I’m very, very lucky that way, it seems absurd to even stew over this when so many queers, especially young ones, have so much more to fear from coming out. I just dread their questions and concerns, the effort it will take to help them understand, to convince them that I’m doing what I want and I’m happy, that it’s possible and not morally wrong to love more than one person. I’m expecting that this will be the first time they hear of such a thing from someone they actually know and respect, and I’ll have to convince them that it’s an arrangement that people can sustain, a foundation one which its possible to build a stable and satisfactory life. I don’t really even hope they’ll ever fully understand or believe that, but I hope they can eventually get to the point where they trust me to handle my own life, and don’t need to be constantly asking pointed questions or advising me that everything would be easier if I’d be more conventional. Even the thought of getting them there exhausts me.

But what I’ve been finding recently is that, all of these factors aside, I’m impatient to be out. I don’t want to make a big deal of it, but I want people to know. I want to be open about something that is no longer only about my romantic life, but is central to my identity, politics, and way of being in the world. I want to talk about the things that matter to me, the places I put my energy, to the people who care about me. I want to bring Girlfriend, Esq. to family gatherings, when it’s feasible. And I’m just not interested in being closeted. It’s not necessary, it’s tiresome, and it’s not consistent with who I am. So clearly it’s time to come out.

One of the things I’ve started doing about this is just talking about queer issues when politics come up, without bothering to explain why they’re of particular interest to me. And people have taken that in stride. If nothing else, they know I’m a big Radical McLeftypants. But I have gotten a little bit less veiled than that as well. This got pretty amusing at Thanksgiving and Chanukah with my mother’s side of the family. Because my mother never really considered it a secret (my goodness, I’m so lucky), neither I nor she have any idea who she’s told. And many of my relatives are of a generation where they hear the world “girlfriend” to mean female friend, nothing more, so it’s hard to figure out how to work Girlfriend, Esq. into conversation in an unambiguous way. I thought I had found an opportunity when my mother started talking about her engagement ring, and her surprise that my grandmother hasn’t asked her to return it since it always goes to the oldest son’s fiancee and my parents had two girls. Only half-joking, I said, “Well, Mom, maybe I’ll give it to my partner when I get engaged, and we can keep it in the family that way.” And my mother laughed, but no one else batted an eye. I was completely stymied. Were they not asking about the idea of a girl being the one to give an engagement ring, and my use of the word “partner,” because they’d already heard through the family grapevine and never found it important enough to ask me about? Or are they just that clueless? Did that clue them in, but they were concerned about offending me and so didn’t show their reactions? I have no idea. I also mentioned that I was headed to DC after Thanksgiving about seven times, hoping that someone would ask what I’d be doing there and I could answer “Visiting my girlfriend,” but no one in my often nosy family bit. It was a peculiarly frustrating experience; I felt like I’d spent the entire evening trying to come out and hadn’t quite been able to. Maybe I should chalk it up to them already knowing and/or not particularly caring, and count myself lucky. The next time a Jewish holiday falls on a weekend Girlfriend, Esq. can spend in New York I’ll just invite her along. I’m sure they’ll be warm and welcoming, though I can’t promise they won’t ask her about herself extensively — they always do with new people, romantic partners or just friends who needed someplace to go for the holiday.

With the other side of the family things are more complicated, because of my grandmother and because I don’t spend as much time with them. There’s a Bar Mitzvah coming up soon, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to handle it. My first thought was to ask if I could bring Girlfriend, Esq. as my date. I decided against that for several reasons. One is that, at least in my family, bringing someone as a date to a life-cycle event is a Big Deal, and announces that you have Serious Intentions toward them. And while I am serious about Girlfriend, Esq. and hope she’ll be in the picture for a while, the way I’m serious about her isn’t something they have a context for, and marrying her isn’t really on the table. I’m also concerned about hijacking someone else’s big day. A Bar Mitzvah is a big deal, and your cousin’s queerness shouldn’t get more attention than your rite of passage. Since I’m concerned it might, I’ll save it. Especially since this is the Orthodox branch of the family; I’d feel bad if my aunt got negative attention from her community because Girlfriend, Esq. and I can’t spend an evening together without smooching on each other. Really, smooching on anyone would be inappropriate, and I’m no good at refraining.

It’s funny to realize that, since no one has asked me to stay closeted for their own comfort, I feel free to worry about all of these things. Had anyone asked, I’d be offended and might very well refuse to make a statement. As it is, I’m concerned about shocking the more conventional members of my family, or behaving inappropriately at an Orthodox event (I also need to find something both modest and dressy enough to wear, which is a challenge in my closet), and what other people will think about my relatives because of me. Crazy.

There’s also a brunch the next day, much more casual and low-key, just for the family. I’m still trying to decide whether to bring her to that. She seems to want to go, which is so sweet of her. But it doesn’t seem like the perfect time. (Will there be a perfect time? Is it just another excuse to put it off?) For one thing, my mother and my sister can’t be there, and they both want to be present to support me when I do bring a girl home to the family. And I’d like to have them there. I’m also still not convinced I want Girlfriend, Esq. to have to deal with being the coming-out girlfriend, even if she is willing; my family is warm and welcoming, but also very, very curious. And as she points out, if I don’t introduce her to my family, coming out as poly isn’t inevitable. Someday I’ll have a primary partner, and I can just introduce them to that person. I don’t think staying in that closet is how I want to play it, but I’m not sure I want do anything final before I have a little more time to think about it. It looks like she’ll pick me up, though, so maybe there will be a kiss hello and a quick round of introductions and we won’t stick around for the questions. That might be a good compromise. Whatever I do for Sunday’s brunch, though, I plan to start using the weekend to start dropping mentions of my girlfriend and my queer activism into conversation. My grandmother may not hear me, but everyone else will, and they’ll start to get adjusted to the idea. And if they have questions, I’ll answer them.

Life is complicated, isn’t it? It always seems so simple and clear-cut from the outside; of course people should come out, it’s of vital importance that everyone realize they do actually know queers and care about them, etc. And yet once it’s my own family (or your own job at risk, or your safety and well-being — it’s easy to forget how much is at stake, living in New York), I’m worried about hurting them, or causing a scene, or having to deal with endless questions, or things being weird. And that’s even without being fairly confident I don’t have to worry about being shut out or disowned, and I know the roof over my head isn’t on the line. No wonder people struggle with this stuff. Nothing is ever as clear-cut as it seems from the outside; people are messy, and there are always special circumstances and things to consider. Coming out to my friends was a no-brainer, even coming out at work was a breeze (although I think some of my colleagues think I’m a lesbian…), but this isn’t as easy.

Wish me luck!

7 Responses to “Family and the Holidays”

  1. 8 January 2009 at 12:49 am

    I really like all the complications you get into here, and I think sometimes it is easy to overlook the nuances of coming out in a family that’s not totally homophobic. I mean, obviously, we have it way easier than people whose families are intolerant. But these are families we’re talking about here, and so there’s bound to be some messiness no matter what.
    I never even officially came out to my parents; I just mentioned people I was dating until they got the hint. Which I now think is kind of silly, but at the time, I think I wanted to avoid what I saw as the Lifetime-movie cheesiness of the Family Coming Out Scene. And, now that I think about it, I didn’t really see a family coming-out script for bisexuals; those representations seemed to be pretty universally gay. I also suspect that part of my discomfort at the prospect of a Coming Out Scene was feeling like it entailed claiming a really sexualized identity (which I think bisexuality often is, in the popular imagination) in front of my parents, which seemed kind of icky. Now, of course, I would think differently about the whole thing, but that’s what seemed to be going through my head at the time.
    The really ridiculous thing is that I’m now out to the extended family via Facebook.

  2. 8 January 2009 at 8:43 pm

    . She’s pro-LGBT rights in general, for people who aren’t her grandchildren. And I’m confident she wouldn’t stop loving me, she wouldn’t make me feel unwelcome in the family…but she wouldn’t accept it, either. She’d just let it go in one ear and out the other, and continue treating me like a straight person.

    Sounds like my maternal grandmother. *sigh*

    Due to my inexperience (outside of her, the rest of the family knows and doesn’t deny that they know and are good about it), I can’t offer any advice, but I hope it works out.

  3. 3 K
    5 February 2009 at 1:44 pm

    As someone who came to accept her bisexuality after marriage in her mid-20s (isn’t it weird how you can completely accept others and not yourself until the cognitive dissonance gets too much?), I then had a struggle about coming out to my parents. The Spouse advised that I wait until I had enough confidence to do it, and to do it when he could be there with me for support.

    It was tough, partly because it was Such A Big Deal to me to be honest about myself once I got hit hard enough with the Clue Stick, partly because I knew they only just coped with the idea of gayness, and partly because we lived in different countries and I only got to see them for a short time every 2-3 years. Oh, also, I was dealing with depression, which made everything worse.

    So I sent them a long letter explaining things, and assuring them that everything was OK with me and The Spouse, and that I just needed them to know who I am. There was then a long, tearful phone conversation in which they grabbed the wrong end of every stick possible, and I had to explain it all over again (thank goodness for The Spouse, who sat cuddling me throughout). The only way to make it more traumatic would have been for it to happen in the middle of a big family get together.

    The whole thing finished up with them assuring me that they love me and are proud of me – and, “You’re not going to tell people, are you?”

    That was nearly 10 years ago. They still behave like they never heard it from me, as if being monogamously married to a person with boy bits means they can ignore it forever. Every now and then, I say something and they wince like I slapped them. But now I live in the same country as them, and we see each other a lot. And I can’t just let it slide like I did when I had limited time and no desire for drama to spoil it. But now, no-one can say I haven’t given them time and space to consider it. If they have pushed it aside, it is because they wanted to, and I have not called them on it.

    Where I live, there’s precious little in the way of Queer community. I have to go into the nearest city for that. But I have mentioned my Queerness to people and not had a bad reaction at all. After all that tension with the parents, I’d been expecting others to implode, but they haven’t. What a fucking relief. It’s the aunts and uncles I worry about. The cousins will just say, “OK” and not worry about it – just as my sister did (after telling me that I’m going to be responsible for her kids’ sex and religion questions, as she feels I’m more comfortable talking about that stuff than her – which is groovy, no?). But the aunts and uncles? Scary. Thank goodness 3 grandparents are dead and one has dementia.

    This year, I’m going to Pride. I’m also attending an LGB conference for my workplace. I’m engaging with a Queer activism group in the nearest city. My parents will worry themselves sick. I’m pushing 40, and still scared how they’ll take it.

    Sometimes, I think it would be easier if I was partnered with a woman, or single. My Queerness couldn’t just be ignored. And being mistaken for straight makes me so acutely aware of how important it is to be out, to challenge assumptions when you don’t fit the stereotype of Queer Person. Now the depression has been dealt with, now I’m living in my home country, I am running out of excuses. I find myself teetering between fear and relief.

  4. 4 Aviva
    8 February 2009 at 5:07 am

    K — wow, thanks for all your openness. I think it’s really hard to claim and live a bisexual identity from the context of a monogamous relationship, let alone get the world around you to acknowledge one. And it sounds like you’re being really brave about it, especially with your family. Often parents are the hardest, and everyone else is way more ready to accept it. And it sounds like queer community is accessible, even if not convenient, and that helps. I wish you the best of luck.
    And that’s so awesome about your sister! Good for her.

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