Help! Should I Tell My Homophobic Family That Grandma Was Gay?

Advice on manners and morals.
April 2 2013 6:15 AM

Grandma’s “Best Friend"

In a live chat, Prudie offers advice on whether a conservative family should be told their matriarch was actually gay.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

Q. Grandma's Secret: My grandmother passed away recently, and as my mother and I were cleaning out her house I came across a box of photos, letters, and other mementos. I haven't shown my discovery to anyone because it's a shocking revelation that would forever change the way my (very conservative) mom, aunts, and uncles remember their mom. It turns out that "Maude," who also passed on a few years ago, was much more to grandma than a close friend. Although everyone in the family knew that they were childhood friends, we had no idea that they were lovers. It seems they both got married to conceal their true sexuality and lived their secret double life together for over 50 years. It makes me so sad that Grandma felt she had to live that way pretty much her entire life. And it also hurts that much more whenever I hear my mom, aunts, and uncles using homophobic slurs at family gatherings. Should I ever let them know what I found?

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A: Your grandmother's name wasn't Pandora, was it? What would novelists and filmmakers do without the box of mementos left behind by the buttoned-up relative? Since your grandmother got to be an old woman, she had plenty of opportunity to discard the evidence of this lifelong love. Though it's understandable she couldn't bear to toss these memories, she must have known that leaving such a box behind would almost surely lead to the revelation you have now stumbled upon. Consider that that may have been your grandmother's intention, conscious or not. I think that without commentary you should tell your mother you found something interesting of your grandmother's and you'd like to go through it with her. It will be something to watch her face as she comes to understand the story in the box. There's a possibility your mother will want to discard the contents, so tell her since you discovered the box you feel obligated to make sure it is preserved. I think it would be fine at the next family gathering, when a disparaging comment is made about homosexuals, that you explain there's a dear, departed family member who knew too well the high cost of spending a life in the closet.

Dear Prudence: Drama Queen Mom

Q. I Don't Wanna ...: I have been dating Gina, a beautiful, smart, accomplished woman for the past three months. We agreed to get to know each other before getting sexually involved and I have developed strong feelings for her. However, I have a feeling Gina and I may not be too compatible in the bedroom. She has lately been alluding to her sexual interests, and frankly, I doubt I share them. She makes comments that lead me to believe that she is very interested in domination and prefers her partners to be submissive and take orders. Prudie, I have never thought of myself this way, so I am unsure how to bring this up with her—I'm crazy about her, but not enough to be her whipping boy. How do I tell her I don't want this?

A: You certainly don't act meek and mealy-mouthed. I keep advocating that people with sexual fetishes reveal these proclivities early in the relationship, so good for Gina for letting you know that she likes you so much she's feeling you need to be punished. She's dropped some heavy hints, so be assertive in picking up on this. Tell her you want to understand exactly what she's saying, then have an open discussion about what role domination has in her life. From there you two can figure out if the relationship can progress or she needs to find someone who feels he's been very naughty.

Q. Re: Grandma in the Closet: If she hadn't married, she wouldn't have had children or grandchildren either. That's also something to think about.

A: It is an irony that the suppression of grandmother's true nature was good news for her homophobic descendants.

Q. Single Using Surrogate: I am a man in my 40s who found himself unexpectedly single after my ex left me for somebody else. We had no children (she had fertility issues) and after much thought and prayer, I decided to peruse single fatherhood with an egg donor and a surrogate mother. I'm happy to say I have a son on the way! I knew that this was an unusual choice for a man in my position and that I'd get lots of questions. What I didn't anticipate is that many people now assume I'm gay. It shouldn't bother me, but it does, and they don't ask me directly. I only find out when they ask someone close to me. Is there some way I can say “Oh, and I'm still straight” when talking about this to people or does it sound too defensive?

A: Saying to people "Yes, I'm thrilled that I'm going to be a father, a straight one—please pass the word on" will be so bizarrely defensive that everyone will think you're a gay man who can't deal with that fact. If people don't bring this issue up to you, you don't bring it up to them. If friends indicate others are asking or they are wondering, you just say, "No, my sexual orientation hasn't changed. I'm just lucky there are ways to make it easier for single people to become parents."

Q. Overbearing Mother, New Baby: I recently had my first baby. It is a magical time for me and my husband. My parents, who live relatively close by, were elated by my son's arrival and are very doting grandparents. My mother and I have had a very rocky history, and I was hopeful that my son could have a relationship with his grandmother, separate from my own issues with her. As she is with everything in my life, my mother is extremely overbearing. She never gives me a compliment and constantly questions and criticizes every decision I make. She is very concerned about appearances, and tries to constantly push her wishes for how to dress and feed my child, etc., on me. I accept and welcome suggestions—but my mother will force her will. She nags, belittles, and insults my decisions until I replace them with her own. She constantly interferes in our decisions. Ignoring her is impossible, as she will nag until you agree to adopt her decision. My father tells me that she is my mother, and although she is very difficult, she will not change, so I must. This has been the song and dance of my whole life. I am tired of having to be the one to roll over just because she won't change or accept my decisions. I feel an obligation to my son to let him have a relationship with his grandmother. How do I draw boundaries with her when she refuses to accept any decision but her own?

A: Your father is partially right when he says your mother is the way she is, she's not changing, and you must. I agree that you must change the way you deal with her. But if you do, it's just possible she will modify her own behavior. I've said many times to new parents dealing with an impossible parent that this will be good practice for child-rearing. Start now by explaining to your mother that a few helpful suggestions are fine, but that verbal battery is not and if she can't be pleasant, your visits will be brief. Then strictly enforce this. Instead of letting her come to your house, go over to hers. If she starts getting abusive, pick up your baby, take your things and say, "Bye, Mom. I've heard enough." Keep doing this without fail. Either she learns to tone it down, or if she doesn't, you hardly see her. If her horrible behavior means she's not much of a presence in her grandchild's life, that's the price she pays for being a miserable person. If your mother will not stop berating you, you wouldn't want your son to learn that it's OK for people to treat each other that way, anyway.

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