#1292: “My creep sister is forwarding my queer child’s social media posts to our conservative parents. How to draw a boundary without outing my kid?”

Hi Captain,

I’m (F) a proud bi parent to an adult queer child in college. There’s been precious little drama about identity except for my kiddo’s coming out, which was much less than ideal.  

When my kid was a very young teenager, my younger (adult) sister spied on their social media and outed them to myself and my spouse without their permission. My sister, like our parents, is much more conservative than me, my spouse and child by far. Words like “phase” and “inappropriate” were flung around, and a lot of drama about how this would break our parents’ hearts as grandparents. My spouse and I threw down a hard boundary. I told my sister in no uncertain terms that outing my kid crossed a line, and that no amount of professing to care about their internet future or our parents compensated for that, and that she should leave the parenting of Kiddo to my spouse and myself.

It’s now some years later and my child’s in college. I’ve come to find out that my sister has been subtly pointing my parents at my child’s social media accounts, when my child hasn’t overtly come out to Grandma and Grandpa. This has happened without my kid’s knowledge or permission, and I found out about it only because my mother asked me before going looking at the “inappropriate” (that word AGAIN!) content that my sister brought up to her privately. My sister’s sole response to early questioning has amounted to the infuriating justification that my child is an adult now, and simply pointing my parents at some posts is not the same as an overt outing. 

I’m threading a weird needle here: I trust my kid to handle their own business, but I feel like my sister has ignored my boundaries and theirs alike, and I could use some scripts to address this ugly situation without overstepping or letting my sister off the hook. 

Thanks! 

Resisting My Sister

Dear Resisting,

You are a great mom and I appreciate the work you do to protect your kid’s privacy and peace of mind. ❤

Before I get to scripts, this is where I’m coming from in the year 2020:

When you disapprove of queer & trans people, when you police their lives, when you surveil them, when you out them to family members, when you automatically categorize anything that pertains to their sexuality or gender as “inappropriate,” when you support and help enact policies that oppress them, harm them, push them out of workplaces and public spaces, deny them resources, and curtail their human rights, not to mention when you create media that demonizes them, that’s not being “conservative” or “more conservative,” nor is it being “skeptical” or “questioning,” it’s bigotry. 

“But God!” these people always say. “God commands it!” It’s not bigotry, it’s religious bigotry!

Okay, I’ll bite. Why is this homophobic and transphobic God so small? Why is He so obsessed with everyone’s crotchward activities? Do people actually think He hath commanded His English-speaking followers to use only gendered pronouns, haunt the social feeds of college students and screen-cap their “transgressions,” and send agents of the state to lurk in public toilets like the Fonz in Happy Days, diligently upskirting people who are just trying to dook one out in peace?

Also, God commands lots of stuff. Is every single human who also lives where your sister lives fed, clothed, safe, and housed? Is every social problem solved there, are all her closets organized, does she live in some utopia that gives her free time to be concerned about whether dorm rooms have too many rainbow flags, in which case, is she actually a stack of New York Times Opinion columnists in a “dapper” trench coat?

‘Cause if I die and find out that it was all real, and getting into Heaven truly requires maximally-oppressing queer and trans people to prove how much I love Him? Feed me to the flames. Grind my bones to dust. Break me on the wheel. Send me to the mall food court where all the food is beans, all the shirts are wool turtlenecks, all the jeans are low-rise bell-bottoms, and I’m the only waitress on duty, and a tourbus of demanding old white people has always just rolled up, and I must make them all happy, forever, while an eagle eats my liver, if the alternative is making myself cruel enough to please some capitalist crotch-sniffing little bigot-God.

Of course, people have a right to believe whatever they like.

*Everyone else* has an equal right to think, wow, that’s some really weird stuff to believe in, are you sure you’re okay? That’s what respect would look like – you do yours, I do mine, if we privately think the other person is weird, so be it, but let’s be nice to each other and go in peace!

But…conservative…people don’t see it that way, of course, especially the conservative Christian majority where I live in the United States. Many – #notall, of course, but enough that my bodily autonomy and human rights force me to pay attention to a thing I would otherwise completely ignore, so let’s agree that it’s a fucking fair number – think that respecting their right to believe and worship as they please without harm (which I definitely do!) means that all their individual beliefs, no matter how harmful or bizarre or extreme, automatically accrue not only deference but power, including deference from the people who are being harmed, including power over nonbelievers.

Alas, I cannot change this power dynamic with verbal skill-building alone, but I can discuss it nakedly and without euphemism, and I can absolutely refuse to grant legitimacy to toxic beliefs such as “I believe that sinful queer people are going to burn in hell after they die, therefore I’m going to do the most to ensure their lives are hell while they’re alive.”

This is why my advice for you contains zero apology scripts, zero appeasement of your family’s “conservative” wing,  and a lot of “Whoa, why are you being so weird about this? You don’t want everyone thinking you’re a creepy bigot, do you? How embarrassing! ”

When bigotry is what’s damaging a family relationship, bigots have a boring and predictable playbook: First they pretend that it’s having a marginalized identity itself that did the damage (how dare you exist), then they blame the marginalized person’s failure to perform sufficient respect, deference, circumspection, and politeness about the bigotry (how dare you not keep it a secret, how dare you expect me to show basic human kindness about it, how dare you persist in existing Like That).  Then theyy traffic in projection, assumptions, and false equivalencies, like, “I looked at your bathing-suit-area when you were an infant and made assumptions about who you would be and who you would love, your refusal to conform to those assumptions is really hurting me, also, I think that people like you shouldn’t be able to have jobs, or children, or any place to live, or medical care, or any human rights, and basically die, how could you do this to Our Family, can’t you see I’m really suffering here, don’t you know how much I love you?” 

Then they act completely aggrieved and mystified when the people they aren’t nice to and think *don’t deserve human rights* don’t want to schlep home to dance attendance on them at every opportunity (Why do you hate faaaaaaaamily? Why do you reject togetherness? You’re the intolerant one, really!)

Because of the automatic power and deference ceded to homophobic and transphobic bigotry when it’s wrapped in religion or “more conservative” ideology, your sister thinks she gets to treat you and your child like y’all have something to be embarrassed about, something that requires “concern,” secrecy, and euphemisms like “inappropriate,” and she thinks you have to show respect and tiptoe around all of this out of “respect” for your parents.

And because you are a nice person who does respect others, and also because you are yourself a queer person who understands the fragility of rights and power structures in your culture and your family, so far you’ve tried to draw the lines around your sister’s concern-trolling as generously as possible, like, this is an issue about your kid’s privacy (vs. your family’s bigotry) so maybe everyone can co-exist under the illusion that you’re all still together on Team Family.

The reason it’s stopped working is that your sister’s bigotry has grown and calcified to the point that she feels empowered to act up again. There your beautiful child is, still living their proud queer life, still not according your sister’s beliefs, still not providing the automatic deference and compliance she thinks she deserves. So she’s calling in the cavalry in the form of your parents, in the hopes that they can prompt the deference and compliance from you that she, as your peer, cannot. She’s hoping that you’ll be so worried about upsetting your folks, and so afraid to actually have the fight that this is really about with them, that you’ll turn around and roll your parental power downhill onto your child and force them to…what, exactly? (I’m not even sure she knows the answer to that, it’s probably worth asking, so if the answer is “not…be…queer…anymore?” you can give it the reaction it deserves).

Resisting bigotry that’s backed up by power and authority means refusing to accept the bigot’s framing and terms. And it’s a hard thing to do when you’ve been habituated to keeping your head down to survive, when you can expect your family (and rando bystanders) to interrogate everything about you, when every reaction you have is treated as an overreaction, because people who believe as your sister does can never say the words “There is a faint possibility that I am the problem here.” So it’s easy for me to say “burn it all down,” but you’re the one who has to live with and interact your family, so you’re the one who gets to decide your risk tolerance for actually having the conversations about who you are and what you believe, you’re the one who decides what you’re willing to tune out in order to maintain a relationship with these people. This is a tough decision, and it is a decision that I think should absolutely be made in concert with your adult child. You did the right thing to shield a young teen from having to worry about any of this, but it’s time for informed consent: If your child knew what their aunt was up to, they might in fact want to lock down certain privacy settings or generally reconsider what they share online, but even more reasonably, they might want to swiftly and permanently block specifically one interfering damp turd from reading anything they ever post again.

So, yeah, tell your child what’s up. “Have you talked to Aunt NosyPants lately? Does she ever say weird stuff to you online?

I found out that she’s been creepily monitoring your public social media posts and has been sharing them with Grandma and Grandpa, who are ‘concerned’ about [gay stuff]. So, before it gets any weirder, I wanted to loop you in. 

I spoke to her about this once before, when you were a teenager, and told her pretty firmly to stay out of your business, and I’ll happily do that again, but now that you’re an adult, I don’t want to do anything without your say-so.” 

From there, some useful messages to emphasize for your kid:

  • Your sister is WAY out of line, and nothing your kid did caused this.
  • You will not out your kid or force them to come out, but if they want to come out to family so the swirling speculation stops and give your grandparents a chance to come correct, you will gladly help and support them with that, and with managing any fallout.
  • If a rift happens once the news is out, that is sad, it’s sad that some of your family members are so homophobic, bigotry does tear families apart, it’s really hard to love someone when they believe such gross and harmful things and act like creeps.
  • You will never force your kid to be deferential to these people, “tone down” their authentic selves, or maintain a relationship with them if they don’t want to. Smash that “block” button without a second thought, friends.

The rest is going to be up to your child, and your family, though I want to include some advice about setting boundaries with someone as manipulative as your sister.

Whenever someone tries to manipulate family members using triangulation the way your sister is doing here, it can be hard to cut through the fog. This is by design. Triangulators (especially concern-trolls like your sister) dress up their personal prejudices and worries as other people’s concerns to make them more palatable and to redirect attention away from their own bad behavior. She doesn’t hate gay people, what, that’s ridiculous, it’s your parents broken hearts she’s worried about. It’s not that she’s being a busybody, it’s that people online might see your child’s posts and get the wrong idea. She’s just the messenger, really! She’s “just the messenger” in a way that puts her in the center of everyone’s relationship with everyone else and makes her important, somehow: She got in the middle of your relationship with your child  when she outed them to you, in the middle of your relationship with your parents (“You don’t want to break their hearts, do you?”), and now she’s trying it with your child’s relationship with their grandparents by passing on their posts.

Four ways to bust (and bust through) a triangulator:

1. Do not take any concerns they attribute to others at face value. If from now on you mentally translate “People might take it the wrong way” with “My sister is taking it the wrong way” and “Our parents will be very upset” with “My sister is very upset,” how does it change your understanding of the situation? 

2. Kick them out of the middle by insisting on direct communication. “Oh, I’ll wait to talk to X myself, you don’t have to run interference.” “Really? Well, X hasn’t brought it up, I guess I’ll worry about it then.” “Oh, I like to handle things like this directly with X.” “Oh, don’t like to discuss people when they can’t participate.”

3. Refuse to keep secrets for the triangulator or be their messenger. “Well, if you’re so concerned, you should probably ask X directly about that! Anyway…” “Oh, I don’t want to be the middleman, this sounds like a You + X problem.” “Seems like you’ve got this handled, good luck!”

Plus, once you initially alert your child to what’s happening, that’s it, you don’t periodically remind them or pass on more bullshit.

(If you really want to see the color drain out of someone’s face when you suspect double-dealing, cheerfully interrupt their spiel with “Oh, let’s go get X right now, that way you can tell them what you told me!” If they’re full of shit, chances increase they will suddenly have a million reasons why the thing they wanted YOU to pass on cannot possibly be passed on while THEY are on the hook for it. The more sanguine and cheerful you are, the faster they’ll backpedal.)

4. *Never* act on assumptions or fill in the blanks for the triangulator. Make everybody spell out exactly what they mean and exactly what they hope you’ll do about it, then decide what action, if any, you want to take. (We had “do less work” as a blog motto for a while, perhaps the next one should be “make manipulative and shitty people do way more work, make ’em really earn it.” ;p)

What this looks like in practice:

Once you’ve talked to your child, one possible script for your parents the next time they bring something your sister shared with them to your attention is: “Inappropriate? What do you mean? I do not understand?” Assume nothing. Make them spell it out and say the quiet part loud. Do this every single time. What’s inappropriate about it? Your sister assumed, you assumed, but it’s time to know. 

If what they spell out is homophobic, you have an opening to say, “Whoa, you sound pretty homophobic when you say that, you probably don’t want Grandchild hearing you talk like that! They love you so much, it would probably hurt a lot to find out that you feel that way!” 

You also have more than one delicious opening to throw your sister under the same Tattletale-Concern Express bus she tried to mow you down with:

“[Parents], don’t you think it’s weird that Sister is hanging out on my child’s social media like this? She knows she can just call [Nibling] and ask how things are going, right? Maybe say…hello? Why so dramatic?” 

Your parents might say, oh, but she’s just so worried about our grandchild! But, isn’t cyberstalking kind of worrying behavior? “Is Sister okay? Has she been getting enough sleep? How’s her [SORE SPOT THAT ONLY A SIBLING CAN POKE] going?”

See also the one-two punch: “Sister has this idea that supporting equal rights for gay people is wrong, and that you would both be very upset and very cruel to [Grandchild] if you found out that they support equality. I’ve told her repeatedly that you both love Grandchild and you’re not bigots about things like that, but she won’t let up. But I can tell Grandchild that there’s nothing to worry about, right? Grandchild loves and misses you both so much, it would be silly to let something this embarrassing worry them.”

Sometimes if you preemptively reward people you have low expectations of for undeserved coolness, you put them in a position where living up to expectations is the path of least resistance, and they have to work extra hard at being uncool. Maybe your parents are committed to doing the work, but two can play the “Oh, let’s not say anything we can’t take back” game.

Which leaves me with possible scripts for your sister:

1) Every time she tries to bring this up, point out how weird it is, refuse to carry water, and make her spell everything out. What is it she expects you to actually do? When she says your parents will be heartbroken, what does she think they’ll do? Why is she so sure your parents are horrible bigots? When she tattles on your child the same way she did when you were seven and you borrowed her Betsy-Wetsy doll without asking, what does she think will happen?

2) We do so much work and strategizing around the feelings of the biggest assholes and bigots we know, what’s the worst thing that happens if you just say the thing? “I told you to stop cyberstalking my child, you utter creep, what the fuck is wrong with you and why are you so obsessed with this?”