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Question #38: Guest Post! How do I tell my conservative dad that my fiance is about to become my fiancee?

I have a dream that someday all dads will shine only love and acceptance on their queer kids.

Dear Captain Awkward:

I’m not in an awkward situation yet, but I probably will be soon, and I want to be prepared for the awkward. My current fiance is probably going to be starting to transition into being my fiancee pretty soon. This is not a problem for me. However, I think it will be a problem for my dad, who is kind of controlling and generally bigoted especially about gender and sexuality.

He was NOT HAPPY when I told him I was bi, (I now identify as pansexual, but I didn’t know what that was at the time.) He said a bunch of stupid things, and then mostly seemed to be over it, or assumed it was a phase when my girlfriend and I broke up. He was even less happy when I told him I didn’t believe in his God anymore, but once again managed to deal after much arguing and stubbornness on my part. When I told him I was in an open relationship and had a boyfriend in addition to said fiance, there was less yelling, but he did tell me that he thought I was steering the car of my life into a tree, that my lovers are untrustworthy sluts and implied strongly that this could only end in tears and STDs for me. However, he was magnanimous enough to let me know that when I came crying to him about my poor life choices, he wouldn’t say “I told you so.” (Can you tell I’m still a little pissed about it?) He hasn’t continued to object, but he’s definitely not over it. For a while I thought he was going to stop speaking to me altogether.

He’s also said some nasty shit about trans people in general to me. What I’m saying is, dude has a bad track record. If he decides to out my fiance to people who don’t already know him out of spite or just pig-ignorance and general asshattery, that could be really really serious and a safety issue for him. I feel like I might have to cut Dad off for that reason. Our relationship has never been very good and required many years of therapy to deal with, so if I did cut him out of my life, a part of me would say “and nothing of value was lost.” But despite how crappy he’s been to me, I know he loves me and wants the best for me and all that. He just thinks I can’t figure out what that is on my own. So is there something else I could do that won’t risk my love’s safety? And if I do need to just bite the bullet, how do I tell him to gtfo now that we’ve got an uneasy truce going on?

Thanks for your help,

Daddy Issues

Dear Daddy Issues:   I’ve turned your question over to a trusted advisor who has definitely walked a mile in your shoes, so I’ll just say congratulations on your engagement and let our first ever Guest Poster take it from here.  Love, Captain Awkward

Greetings and salutations, Daddy Issues! I am Lieutenant Trans, a support troop from the Captain Awkward army who has direct experience with transitioning, living poly, coming out to family, and repairing communication with parents after estrangement. Reading your letter, I actually see two separate issues: first, your relationship with your Dad is strained; second, you have a partner who is transitioning, which requires you to now ‘come out’ as well to your family and friends. Your partner is generally absent from this letter, so my first piece of advice is to go to them in a low-pressure manner and say, “Hey, I’m thinking about how to talk to my dad about your transitioning, so I want your guidance on how to go about this – what are your suggestions? What is the best case scenario and worst case scenario, and how will we respond to the latter?” Let your partner marinate on those questions, while you focus on your own relationship with your father.

Leaving the specifics of your situation aside, what I hear is that you are living a life that is politically different than your father and you both vehemently disagree with the other person’s viewpoint. However, you are also having ugly political fights about personal relationships. It is extraordinarily frustrating when a person who is actually living ‘political’ issues comes across a person who either conflates the two or sees no connection, as you’ve learned firsthand. But your father, in his own mean and judgmental way, is telling you something else beyond the words, he is saying: “I don’t know what [your sexuality, your relationships, your gender] means for you or us, because I was never taught about them and they are triggering the few limited ideas I do have, which are mostly cultural bullshit I’ve picked up along the way while living.” You are also saying something beyond your words, which is: “I really want you in my life and I want your approval and support of me, which includes approval and support of my relationships.” This is why you’re arguing, you’re having two different conversations with each other simultaneously, both feeling unheard, both hurting.

Relationship essence can be boiled down to three qualities: presence, support, and approval. I think we often seek approval first, or even second, but the reality is it almost always comes last, if it all. With my parents, I learned I didn’t need their approval to have a relationship with them: we can still learn to accept each others’ presence and support. Now, the support will be limited during the periods of learning acceptance, so things will still be draining for those of us seeking a close relationship with parents, when one day you will reach a point of exhaustion, you no longer will want to focus on what’s not working, you don’t want to beat your head against the wall any more. And maybe during this moment of exhaustion, you show your vulnerability and you say to your father, “When you say those horrible mean things, you break my heart,” and he will hear the crack in your voice and he’ll stop saying those things. It could be a first step. He could also continue to goad you again and again and you will realize he is indeed toxic and you don’t need that in your life anymore, and then you won’t need to bother with outing your partner anyway. Please make sure you don’t use your partner’s transition as a mechanism to end your relationship with your father, this will create a tangled, complicated association that breeds resentment among all parties and could ensure an even longer path towards a balanced relationship.

So my suggestion is basically this: in your arguments with your father, have you tried a different tactic, which is to say, no tactical strategy at all? Relationships with parents are loaded and difficult even when we agree with them politically, so it is hard not to habitually put on armor and suit up for a play.  Have you ever tried no role? Imagine sitting down and talking to your father in the exact same way you would a friend or an acquaintance who is a father having problems communicating with his daughter, showing the same honesty and vulnerability to him. (I used to tell my parents any big news last, because I was scared of their reaction, not realizing that my actions unintentionally perpetuated the cycle by hurting their feelings that they were always the last to know about my life.) It will be scary, no doubt, to put yourself out there, but the moment you can be present with yourself and present with him simultaneously, that fear will go away, I promise you. You may even feel lighter. Tell him the love story of your partners. Tell him about your struggles with coming to terms to your sexuality and how scared you were during parts of it, but how joyous the process has ultimately been. Tell him about friends and co-workers of yours that are supportive of your poly queer family.  Do it all in a letter if in-person is too daunting right now, maybe your father would appreciate that form as well, it would ease his burden of needing to react to you in the moment – we forget the pressure on parents to respond perfectly for their kids, which can drive them to instead act so imperfectly. And while your father might be ignorant about queer counterculture, he knows as well as you that you don’t have a relationship, that you are not close. What you need to determine is if he also wants to go beyond what you currently have. If so, spend time focusing on positive interactions, things you have in common. Talk about food, the weather, start following his favorite sports team, tell him about TV shows you’re watching. I’m not suggesting swallowing or ignoring the bad parts, I’m emphasizing work on building up the good (and mundane) parts with just as much as energy as you use on the bad parts.

It sucks when our parents aren’t being the parents we want them to be. And for a long time I was really outraged that I had to take up the mantle of responsibility in showing my parents how to relate to my situation and how to support me, how to be the grown-up, until one day I just got over myself. So what if I have to parent them a little bit? They put in a lot of energy to raise me and I wasn’t giving back much to them the first few years of my life. I can continue to be a child who expects to receive more than I give, or I can decide to be an adult who gives not with focus on equality, but instead on equanimity.

It will feel counter-intuitive to our ego, to ‘reward’ your father’s bad behavior with openness and vulnerability and compassion, but tell your ego you’re doing it for yourself as much as – or more – than for him. Because when you face your father fully as yourself, show it to him and invite him in, he may wake up from his own view and surprise you. He also may seem to ignore you. Keep at it a little while: He might need to watch you before he can start modeling himself after your behavior. If he never steps up to the plate, you can honestly say you did everything you could and walk away with great sadness, but at least not with that nagging feeling in your brain of what-if.

By now your partner has probably come back to you with a plan for how to come out to your father. Listen to it. Go with it. Input suggestions, of course, as you are more of an expert on your father, but as much as possible, default to the spirit and the letter of your partner’s wishes. We trans people have to come out a lot, and it’s different every time, so trust the expert in your own life on this matter.

Lieutenant Trans lives the civilian life as A. Raymond Johnson and blogs about pop culture for I Fry Mine In Butter and Pop Morsels.

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15 comments
  1. monsterzero said:

    Given that it’s potentially a safety issue, I’d go with “cut him off and check back in five years.”

    • I was estranged from my family for 9 years, cutting parents off is not necessarily such a glib matter for everyone. and it’s up for the partner to decide what’s safe re: outing and the transition, not for us to assume what’s best for her based on assumptions and fear.

  2. zayquana said:

    Hi, I’m the original asker, and I’m still kind of processing what you’ve said, but I think maybe first, there’s some background that I probably should have included in my original post which I didn’t. Firstly, my fiance, for the moment, prefers he rather than she, because he’s very much near the beginning of this process, he says. And I definitely won’t be planning on trying to do this on any timetable or any way other than his, if at all, because there are a lot of issues generally with my dad. Also, the specific thing(s) that required all the therapy involving Dad were: alcholism (til I was 10, when he got sober) and the general dysfunctionality introduced with my stepmom being verbally/emotionally abusive towards me and my stepsisters. So, I guess I feel like I’ve spent a fair bit of time parenting my dad already, along with parenting myself. And we both worked on that, Dad and I. But it’s been so many times that I’ve said or tried to say “this hurts, you are hurting me please don’t” and so few that it seems like it mattered. I don’t know if I can do it again. Or if it’s worth doing again, when it could hurt more than just me. I also am not quite sure what it means to play “no role”? I think I’ve always had to have a role. Thanks for the help Lieutenant Trans and thanks to Captain Awkward for taking my questions!

    • JenniferP said:

      Sorry about the pronoun! I think Lt. Trans tried to use “they” and “them” and I’m the one who changed that on a quick proofred.

      Hearing the additional info (which is helpful):

      You can take a break from your Dad. You can be with your partner and help him with this transition and enjoy being in love, and you can communicate with your Dad just in a very superficial way. You don’t owe him an update on your love life.

      You may never get the love and acceptance you want from your dad. What Lt. Trans is describing in his own life is a decades long project of trying, failing, and forgiving, and trying again, and eventually achieving some kind of peace. So I think what he means by “try taking no role” is…maybe stop trying. Stop calling your Dad for a while, and let him be the one to call you. Stop updating him on your news. When he calls you, talk about the weather and safe topics for a few minutes, and if it starts to get weird, then make a polite excuse and get off the phone.

      What struck me the most about your letter is that you talked a lot about your dad and not much about your partner, and I think this is a good area to let your partner take the lead and do what is safe and right for him. You tell your Dad when your partner says it’s okay, and in a way that your partner says is okay, not to present just one more aspect of yourself that your Dad will disapprove of, but because your partner is becoming part of your family and the time is right.

      Maybe give yourself permission to say nothing at all about it for now. There is nothing wrong with keeping yourself and your partner safe and sheltered in the new family you are creating.

      I really wish you luck.

      • zayquana said:

        That makes sense. Thank you for explaining a bit more. I just want to say again that I am definitely not going to do anything or say anything without having big long talks with my fiance(e) about how, when he says it’s the right time. And it will probably not happen for a few years at least. Thanks again!

      • I think the point about never getting the support, love or acceptance from family is an important one. So many of my friends seem to be on a fool’s errand with regard to that all mighty parental approval. It’s a hard dream to abandon, but sometimes it’s vital to safety and emotional health.

        • JenniferP said:

          It’s not necessarily unhealthy to take your relationship with your parents to the “We can talk about the weather, Law & Order, and other safe topics” place while you’re figuring out your own life, especially around big decisions and questions of identity. For a lot of us it’s a rite of passage, and having to say uncomfortable things out loud, like “When I tell you my life news, it’s not because I’m looking for critical feedback from you – I’m just sharing what is going on.”

  3. I second the captain in saying you can take a break from your dad, space is a valid need in long term relationships of our life as much as intimacy, and it seems like from what you’re saying that you haven’t had much space from them to heal with all the heavy and hard stuff that’s happened in your family. sometimes we need to not see or talk to people in real-life, but still have lots of conversations with them in our head to work out what’s in our heart, and this might be a good time for that in your life.

    what I meant by “no role” is more exploring small situations where you are as nonreactive as possible, that you approach an interaction with fresh eyes on everyone – including yourself. parent-child interactions get stuck in habits, patterns that we adapted to keep us safe and sane at some point, but stopped working for us and we don’t realize it.

    i think my concern with your situation originally was how I would feel if my partner cut off contact from their parents because of my transition – it would add emotional pressure to both of you, on a journey that already has some intense ups and downs built in. I’m glad you’re thinking things through with care so early in the transition process and wish you luck and compassion along the way!

    and for the record, in all my writing I am reclaiming a centuries old practice in English of using they and them as gender neutral singular pronouns – it’s original grammar! never doubt a trans person’s language choice. ;)

    • zayquana said:

      Thank you for clarifying too. I think those things together will really help. And singular they for the win! It’s just so useful in all kinds of situations.

    • JenniferP said:

      “never doubt a trans person’s language choice. ;)”

      TOO TRUE. Sorry, I wiped the egg off my face and changed your pronoun back. I wish we had the French “on” in English.

      • piny said:

        Weeeeeelllll…

        That’s a good general rule. I can see that the original poster is totally respectful of their partner’s decisions and word choices, but many partners of trans people are not that respectful. Sometimes they’re transphobic, or just dealing with their own shit–like the OP’s dad. Their pronoun choices are not always reliable indicators of what the actual trans person wants.

        So, while it was inappropriate to edit without asking, it’s not disrespectful to ask.

        Also, I think that third-person neutrality is a great idea, but it’s sometimes used to misgender trans people. “This person” when the person clearly identifies as female; “they” when they themselves prefer “she” or “he,” neutral gender when the subject under discussion is a gendered problem like misogyny. So it’s complicated, and it’s not always unreasonable to read into it.

        • good point – asking is always the number one preferred method in determining what pronoun to use!

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