Dear Captain Awkward,
I’m a 32yo non-binary (they/them) pansexual who is planning to visit my family for the first time since Dec 2019. I could use your help with developing some scripts and strategies to get my mom and other family members to respect my boundary of avoiding a transphobic/homophobic cousin.
Shortly before my last visit, I came out to my family as non-binary. Very recently I came out to my mom (she/her) as pansexual and gave her permission to tell other family members. She’s personally been very supportive even if not always understanding.
In a recent phone call, my mom casually shared that two of my cousins got in a fight about the fact that a trans woman Rachel Levine was appointed assistant secretary of health in the US. Apparently Problematic Cousin (he/him) thinks that people are trans and/or gay only because they have a poor diet and that they should fix this by “eating cleaner.” So of course I would like to nope the fuck out of any future interactions with this cousin.
I had to explain to my mom that no, actually I can’t hangout with this cousin and just “not talk about” the fact that he believes my gender and sexuality are things to be “cured” with a “better” diet. She eventually said she understood and that she would not make plans with him while I’m in town.
So, currently she sees my point of view and is being supportive, but generally my mom is bad with boundaries and tends towards the view of “but they’re family!” For example, my brother cut off our emotionally abusive dad several years ago. It took my mom almost a year to stop trying to convince my brother to have a relationship with our father even though my parents are divorced and don’t particularly like each other. She just felt for a long time that my brother “needed” a relationship with his dad because that’s how family “should be.” So I am anticipating that my mom and other family members will pressure me during my trip to see Problematic Cousin for the sake of family.
I have zero interest in trying to convince Problematic Cousin that actually my gender and sexuality are real. And I know if I did see him that he would bring up his ignorant world views cause he always does. (One of his greatest hits is that it is “unnatural” for humans to eat red meat because we can’t kill a cow with our bare hands…) So how can I help explain to my mom and other family members that no, I will not have any contact with Problematic Cousin, and please don’t try to tell me that I need to because he’s family.
Dear Anxious Enby,
Sorry to be meeting you like this, at the intersection of garden-variety bigotry and nonsensical bro-trition as they form some kind of Bullshit Voltron, but I appreciate the question.
You’ve told your mom that you don’t want to hang out with your cousin, you’ve told her why you don’t want to hang out with your cousin, and you want to know how to “explain” how you feel to other family. Seems like you’ve got it covered! “He’s transphobic and we don’t get along” sums it up pretty well, right?
You: “I’m only going to be home for a few days, I’d like to spend the time having a good time with you and not arguing with Problematic Cousin.”
Your Family “Oh, but that’s just how he is.”
You: “Right, I know, he’s transphobic and we don’t get along, so I’m trying to avoid the part where I yell at him or storm out of a food court. Help me out?”
The time you spend arguing ABOUT said cousin is going to possibly be even more painful and annoying than arguing WITH him, since you have zero expectations that he won’t suck, but you’d like to hold onto a few illusions about everybody else. “I don’t want to argue with him, and I don’t want to argue with you, about him. You can see him any time you want to; it’s not mandatory that it has to be on the exact four days I’m in town. Why are you making this hard?”
I’m so curious; when your mom pressures you to see your cousin on your visit, what does she imagine will even happen? Next time she gets going on this topic, I vote that you ask her to spell it out. “Call your cousin and invite him to negate your lived experience over pancakes so you can ‘make up’ and no one has to feel weird about this anymore!” Easy! You’re never doing that.
More probable: “Uncle wants to make us all dinner and that means Cousin will be there because it’s his house (and because I don’t want to fight with my sibling about excluding his kid when everyone else is invited.”) Welp, howabout, you’re happy to invite your uncle out for coffee or drop by for a quick hug and chat, but you have other plans for whenever this dinner is, plans called, “I plan to not be there.”
I’m also curious about what, exactly, your family’s version of pressure entails. Some families use money, others use more immediate forms of violence, but often what constitutes “family pressure” is the threat that other people might be disappointed if they don’t get their way, while omitting any possible connection between “their way” and your disappointment. My personal epiphany around setting boundaries involved realizing that I could live with a family member’s deep and abiding disappointment, but I would no longer show up to participate in my own mistreatment. Shutting this kind of pressure down is less about preventing people from trying it, and much more about deciding that come what may, you’re not rewarding it, and everyone will have to get used to some disappointment.
That’s why, when someone weaponizes their disappointment (or their projected fears about other people’s disappointment) at you, I suggest weaponizing it right back, like, “I know Uncle Drosselmeyer will be upset if I don’t want him to make me sexually menacing nutcrackers anymore, but also, I will be very unhappy if I have to sword-fight rats in my dreams all winter, again, so, I’m going to risk a ‘no thanks’ here.” Chronic peacemakers sometimes need gentle reminders that your disappointment is just as real, just as unpleasant, and weighs just as much as anyone else’s, as in, “Mom! I want to see family, I flew here on a plane to do just that, but I don’t want to fight about how ‘freeganism makes people not be gay,.’ Are you *really* asking me to sit through this much nonsense in order to spend time with all of you, and then making like *I’m* the ‘disappointing’ kid?” Today, your beef is with Problematic Cousin, but if your mom insists, you can always increase your grudge herd to include her tomorrow. Is that what she wants? Her choice!
And, let’s be very honest: Your cousin is a specific kind of asshole, and the context matters. This isn’t only about your mom’s history of being the family peacemaker directly at the expense of her children’s peace, it’s also because your upcoming visit is a microcosm of trans rights as a “wedge issue,” where the inertia of the people “who don’t understand what the big deal is” gets weaponized by the bigots into “Let’s debate about which inalienable rights are the most alienable!” It’s not just that you don’t want weird arguments, it’s that you don’t want weird arguments about your identity and existence in front of an audience whom you don’t fully trust to back you up or intervene on your behalf.
Removing the fact of your cousin’s transphobia creates a false equivalency between “But we’re a faaaaaaaaaaaaaamily!” versus “But Problematic Cousin’s fringe views aren’t just annoying, they’re actually dangerous, so if you treat me like I’m the problem, I have to wonder how safe I really am here.” (If cis readers need a review of how dangerous, here is a snapshot of the current attempts to legislate transgender and queer people out of public life and existence in the United States at the time of this writing, including bills that would allow coaches to “inspect the genitals” of teen girls before sports matches and bills that require doctors to commit medical malpractice or be jailed. Now would be a very good time to connect with local activists and loudly annoy your elected officials until they make it stop.)
Letter Writer, if your family ever insists that you – and you alone – must honor the principle of “we’re a faaaaaaaaaaamily,” minus the surrounding context, then they’re expecting you to forgo reasonable positions such as “Look, this isn’t that complicated! I’m coming home for the first time in two years, so don’t immediately sign me up for a lot of situations where I’m going to have to ‘debate’ my own existence with someone we all know is an impossible dipshit. I am not the problem here!”
Stay the course about *never* debating human rights with people who don’t think you have them. And, for the purposes of this visit, maybe let go of the goal of convincing everyone in your family about why distance from your cousin is important to you, and focus on getting specifically your mom – and anyone you already know is already pretty “safe” and supportive – to do what you need them to do about that. They don’t have to understand or agree with you in order to take care of you around this, they just have to do the thing. Make simple, direct requests, where there is one obvious, easy path to make you happy, and keep the explanations short.
- “I’m looking forward to seeing people, but can you skip inviting Problematic Cousin this time? Thanks.”
- “Why?” “It’s no fun for me when he’s there.”
- “Why?” “Cousin is transphobic and we don’t get along.”
- “Why?” “I just can’t relax around him.”
- “Why?” “He turns fun events into Debate Club, I’m really not up for it on this visit, thanks.”
- “But it’s not fair, he’s family,” etc. “I hardly ever get to see you, please don’t make me have to have a bunch of arguments in order to do that!”
- “But it’s not fair, he’s family,” etc. “If you want to spend time with him, fine! Using my first visit in years to prove a point about ‘family togetherness’ is really stressful for me. Let’s not!”
- “But how else will he learn?”“Cousin doesn’t listen to me, but he really likes and respects *you,* so probably after I leave, *you* should talk to him about it!” (Yeah, this thankless chore you’re trying to volun-tell me to do? Howabout YOU do that with YOUR precious, irreplaceable time and leave me the hell out of it! )
If confrontation leaves you shaky, practice adapting scripts into your own words and saying them out loud to a trusted friend, and consider cutting conversations short once you’ve said your “no” to give yourself some space to decompress.
Sometimes it works to phrase it as “permission” for chronic fixers to NOT fix the situation.“Cousin and I will have to sort out our own deal, eventually, you don’t have to do it for us. Right now, I just want to spend time with you!” “Eventually” = Even if you (reasonably) expect to ice this cousin out of your life forever, nothing sends a compulsive Fixer into overdrive as the news that something can’t ever be fixed, so if you’re looking to de-escalate, stay in the present:“I know family is so important to you, so thanks for making this visit easier for me and having my back about this right now.” If you’re consistent, visit by visit, people will adapt to the fact of not having this cousin around so much whenever you’re in town. Hopefully some of them will realize how much more pleasant that is, and a new normal will emerge. You don’t have to make it all happen right now, as nice as that would be.
I can give you scripts all day, but boundaries don’t begin or end with with words, nor do your own boundaries for yourself compel other people. Being estranged from this cousin means booting him out of social and digital spaces that you control (your apartment, events you host, your social feeds) as well as absenting yourself from places you know he’ll be when you’re in no mood. Today, it means asking your mom to have your back on your first visit home in a long time, which means, not inviting him to things she hosts and supporting you if you need to nope out of larger gatherings. But in the future, long after this set of awkward conversations is done, #ThisFuckingGuy will still be related to you and you’ll both still be in a “Good Families Do Everything Together!” family. You asked for advice on how to explain yourself in the hopes of decisively preventing a confrontation, but I think it’s even more important for you to answer a different question for yourself:
You’re going to see your Problematic Cousin again at some point, so, if and when he shows up, what will you *do*?
Confront him and shut it down? “Nobody wants to debate you right now, give it a rest.” Stand up and start putting your shoes on? Kick it up to the event host to be the bouncer and enforce good behavior? Skip every event where this might be an issue, including funerals and weddings and holidays and when people make new tiny relatives, for the rest of time? What’s the price of avoiding one argumentative dingus, and what’s the price for your family of keeping him around if it means losing you?
There’s no one right answer, but you’re the world’s greatest living expert on surviving life in your family, so your sense of what’s possible is going to be pretty accurate.
Since this is preoccupying you so much as you plan your visit, I strongly suggest that you channel the anxiety you feel now into brainstorming a series of planned actions so that you know you can keep yourself safe and calm regardless of what anyone else does.
I wrote a piece for Vice about how to handle holiday visits where you know someone’s going to stress you out, and the specifics apply here:
- Know your own risk tolerance. What are the risks to you of having to interact with this person? “Weird shitty evening where everyone’s a little bit mad” vs. “Terrifying PTSD episode” vs. “Pistols at dawn”? You don’t have to go anywhere you don’t want to go. Knowing the risks, do you still want to go? Then make a plan.
- Focus on the people you came to see, and try not to engage so much with known bad actors. Side conversations and alternate programming (Cool Cousins Brunch that you arrange before The Whole Family Picnic) are your friend.
- Choose your battles and conserve your energy; you don’t have to be in activist/educator mode all the time.
- Enlist allies in your family ahead of time as buffers (clearly you have at least one cousin who will fight with him!), and to cover your exit if you do need to leave.
- Control stuff like having your own transportation to and from events, and keep your supportive Team You on standby.
- Implement Rae’s advice to make a ritual to ground yourself on your way in and out of the visit and reaffirm the good life you’ve made away from these people.
You can’t fix other people, but I think that you do actually have a lot of choices and control over iterations of “If the thing I fear happens, then I will do __________.”
I also think you have room to expand your “win” conditions to include more scenarios. If “Cousin is never invited when I’m around, *and* family understands exactly why *and* they agree with me, *and* we don’t ever have to fight about it ever again” isn’t guaranteed right now, consider:
- “The rest of the family is a work in progress, but Mom really had my back this time.” Give her all the hugs.
- “[Relative] would not stop arguing with me about this before the visit, so I skipped making plans to see that side of the family and did an actually fun thing instead.” Your relative will doubtless be disappointed, but sometimes “I meant what I said when I won’t be around that person” and protecting yourself from harm is worth some disappointment.
- “Cousin showed up, I said ‘heyhowareya’ and went into a different room, it was stressful, but turned out fine.” People notice the Cut Direct, and it’s hard to maintain dramatic stony silence for any length of time. Whereas observing the bare minimum of a polite greeting and then finding ways to be Slightly Elsewhere is a highly underrated coping strategy, in my opinion.
- “Cousin tried to start a pointless argument, all the other cousins were like ‘shut up, Kevin’ and then we played Apples to Apples and I won.” This cousin sounds like he’s not just homophobic but also generally irritating, meaning, you have allies in your family who don’t think his views are okay and possibly even more allies on the subject of “Ugh, not this again.” Let enemy of your enemy be your frenemy!
- “Mom invited Cousin behind my back, and it was a shitshow exactly like I feared, so I called my Emergency Rescue Friend to come pick me up and get me the hell out of there like we planned.” If that ends up being the case, congratulate yourself for having a plan that doesn’t involve staying there and quietly taking whatever he dishes out.
- “I made all these plans and then it went…fine? I think they invited Cousin? But he didn’t show?” There can be a jarring feeling of anticlimax when the fight you’re spoiling your vacation for doesn’t happen. I would argue that having a plan that you don’t end up needing to use is its own kind of victory, so take a breath and enjoy knowing that Past You trusted You to take good care of Future You, and here You still are, good job!
You shouldn’t have to work this hard, to fight this hard, to spend time with loved ones. Your relationships shouldn’t be held hostage to the worst people in your family, any more than your rights should be held hostage by the worst people on the planet, a.k.a. a group of rich bigots who can’t solve a single actual social or material problem, but who are tirelessly, endlessly, furiously inventive the moment one of their own elaborate fantasies about up-skirting strangers mid-piddle and “cheating” at field hockey collides with a chance to make real live people suffer for no goddamn reason. “But everyone will be so disappointed!” “But it’s rude to disinvite someone, especially family!” Sure thing, but possibly the reason that learning about your cousin’s views has activated a visceral fight-or-flight response is because transphobia is a violent ideology and *you might have to actually fight him and people like him* at some point in order to continue being alive, so, fuck it, go ahead and skip some awkward cookouts without apology if that’s what you need to be okay right now!
It shouldn’t be like this, but as long as it is like this, the noble goal of persuading and convincing people to do the right thing for once needs a whole lot of contingency planning behind it. Your family has choices about how they treat you, and I hope they make the right one. Please know that I’m wishing you a happy reunion with your family and a sparkly, hug-filled Pride month. ❤