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,
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.