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.

Q. Telling a Friend About His Ex's Engagement: A couple of years ago one of my friends began dating one of my wife's friends. Things got serious fast. Then things got seriously bad and they broke up in a spectacular fashion. My wife's friend cut off all contact with my friend, banning him from seeing her Facebook page and other various social-media accounts. Cut off from keeping tabs on her electronically, my friend often asked me for updates on her life, gossip that I always found a way to dodge (I didn't want to be involved). The one thing he asked, though, was to tell him if she ever started seeing someone new so he could have "closure." Well, she's recently engaged, and my wife and I are invited to the wedding. Prudie, it's been more than two years now, and though he appears over her, I'm afraid he'll go into a funk if I mention her pending nuptials. I'm going to have to mention it at some point, but how do I tell him?

A: Your friend sounds somewhat wacko on this subject and you should not give him any information about your wife's friend. I'd be afraid the "closure" would involve something along the lines of, "If I can't have you, no one else can." So don't volunteer anything. If he hears something through the grapevine and comes to you, just tell him, "You two broke up years ago, so I'm not having conversations about her anymore."

Q. Abortion: My husband and I have been together for eight years, and we've been married for four. We have one daughter, about to turn 4, we both have stable jobs and a small, but nice house that we can afford. We live paycheck to paycheck, but through budgeting and a little outside help, we are relatively stable financially, barring any unforeseen circumstances. Well, I was just handed an unforeseen circumstance—I'm pregnant. I'm on the pill, but my period is one week late, which is exactly what happened four years ago when I got pregnant with my daughter. I don't want to have another baby. I had a difficult pregnancy, and while sometimes I feel bad for my daughter growing up as an only child, I was an only child and turned out fine. If I were single and this happened, I would have no problem going to Planned Parenthood to end the pregnancy. We might be able to afford another child, but things will become more difficult, both financially for our family but also emotionally for me. Even though my husband says he doesn't mind having no more kids, if I tell him I'm pregnant I'm afraid he may never forgive me if I have an abortion. My question is, should I tell him that I'm pregnant? Or should I simply go to Planned Parenthood and keep it to myself?

A: Think of what it says about the quality of your marriage that you would consider keeping something so profound from your husband. I hope on second thought, you will be able to conclude that your husband is the kind of partner who can talk this out fully with you and that you two can mutually arrive at a decision. That doesn't mean that if you have an abortion there may not be regret and sadness for each of you. But it would seem crucial that your emotional intimacy requires you to be able to support each other through this. Whatever you decide, tell your gynecologist it's time for a different form of birth control.

Q. Re: Grandma's Secret: Perhaps the LW should show copies to her mother, not the originals. That seems like the sort of secret her mother might want to keep hidden—possibly to the point of destroying the evidence on Grandma's behalf.

A: That's a good idea. Showing the mother a sheaf of copies will ensure grandmother's story does not end up in the fireplace.

Q. When to Tell?: I am a mother of three kids and my husband and I are now expecting No. 4. This was planned. I am still in the very early stages, so I won't be announcing for a while. Getting pregnant has come easily to me and we have been blessed with smooth pregnancies. My question stems from a possible situation. A dear friend has been trying to get pregnant for a while and has had multiple miscarriages. She has been working with her doctor and with that, we are expecting an announcement pretty soon from her. If this happens we will be delivering children within weeks of each other. I have concerns as to when to tell her that I am pregnant. I don't want to rain on her parade, and what happens if she miscarries again? She has been very sweet and helpful through the other pregnancies and loves my children, but I don't want to be insensitive to her plight.

A: Good for your friend for being able to celebrate your good fortune in the midst of what must be terrible pain for her. What you do is continue to act like a normal person around her while being sensitive to what she's going through. If you usually wait until at least the third month to announce your pregnancy, then do so again. Whatever your friend's pregnancy status, you keep the news low key without acting as if you're sorry to be so lucky. If she does have wonderful news herself and does deliver about the same time as you, do not worry about raining on her parade. Just delight that your baby and hers will be playmates.

Q. Re: Overbearing parents: My mother can be exactly as you discussed, although luckily she does not live nearby. Now that I have a child, it's actually a lot easier to stand up to her when she questions/nags, etc. I just say my husband and I have decided this with regard to our child and that's final. And in a way, now that I have a child, it's made it a lot easier to blow off the other forceful comments from her because I tend to point out to myself that it doesn't matter. I've told her now several times that I will terminate conversations on certain topics, and I'm starting to actually do it.

A: Good to hear. Although it's crucial that if you say you're going to terminate conversations you then hang up the phone when the abuse starts. People like these mothers needs constant enforcement. Better to be too strict than too lax.

Q. Teenage Boys and Their Lack of Drive in the Classroom: I have a 16-year-old son who is wonderful, loving and kind. My only concern about him is his lack of drive in the classroom. He is an average student. I've never been a "helicopter" parent and I've always believed that he will land where he needs to be, college-wise. But I wonder if I could be doing more to help and guide him. He's just happy and he's absolutely fine with B's. Actually thrilled. Should I just be pleased with his school results or should I push? That's what I can't figure out. I don't want to make him feel bad about himself when he has such great other qualities. I know I'm not the only parent who is dealing with this. I'd appreciate any suggestions.

A: There are plenty of great colleges for the B student, and I'm sure many parents dealing with children who lack drive in the classroom would be ecstatic to have a kid who gets B’s. But not hovering doesn't mean you don't want him to have the best choices. While praising the good work he does do, you can talk to him about classes he is particularly interested in and ask if there are ways he can put in some more focused effort, particularly in the coming school year. Say you know grades aren't the be all ("B" all?) and end all, but you think he'd be gratified to see some extra effort recognized by his teachers. Then it's up to him to implement your suggestions.

Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.

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Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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