DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #87: In the Direction of Real Life
I’m twenty-six years old and finally in a relationship I cherish and feel proud of. I want so much for it to thrive.
My girlfriend is thirty and a delight, the whole package of sweetness and spice and intelligence with a dash of Thoreau-loving mixed in. We think well together and respect each other. Last month I moved five hundred miles to be closer to her after a year of long-distance dating and monthly angst-filled goodbyes. I’m very much in love with her.
The only problem: I sometimes feel she is cheating on me, weighing out my love unconsciously against her parents’ love to see which one is worth more. You see, they don’t know she is gay. Well, it would be more accurate to say that they don’t know she is in a relationship. This is only her second time dating. Her father asked her if she was gay several years ago because he and her mother suspected she was involved with the woman who is now her ex-girlfriend. She denied it. She says she didn’t feel ready to tell them the truth.
Whenever her parents come to town or call I feel like we’re having a secret affair. When I talk to her about this, she says it will get better and change, but she never shows me that she’s working on it. She doesn’t take proactive steps or reach out for resources that might help her figure out how to tell her parents the truth. She grew up in a small town with a great deal of conservative church influence that her family is a part of. They aren’t a very emotional family and it seems they don’t have long, deep conversations about who they are in the world or who they’d like to be. But I’m not sure it’s those things. My girlfriend has difficulty articulating what exactly makes it hard to tell her parents that she’s gay. If I understood it was religious fears I could figure out how to be supportive with spiritual resources, if it was losing them then I could encourage her to look to role models. I imagine she’s afraid of the emotional fallout and I suspect she also fears losing her parents’ financial support—they helped her purchase a home a few months ago. It feels like the house is a third person in our relationship because it ties her parents into everything.
I’ve been out for ten years and I make it a priority not to lie. I’m from and currently live in a large LGBT-friendly city. I don’t want to live a life of lying. I want to feel my partner is brave and living from a place of love and truth, too. I admire her kindness and humor and spirit. I suppose I want to admire her bravery and truth, too.
I struggle with abandonment issues and have a history of getting involved with emotionally unavailable people. I know I sometimes pick tiny arguments because I’m feeling alone and like I don’t truly matter to her, even when she does a ton of sweetheart things and tells me she loves me all the time. I feel like our relationship is insecure because the two people who love her dearly don’t realize I’m wildly in love with her and that I’d do anything to make her happy. I don’t think she realizes how limiting this feels, even when we talk about it. She is upset that I’m sad about this, but she can’t bring herself to tell her parents that she’s gay.
Am I being silly putting up with this? Will she ever tell them? Will she ever care more deeply, truly, about us than she cares what her parents think? She is so used to transitioning worlds between her spaces her parents are and queer friend spaces that it’s become routine. I hate to think splitting myself in pieces will become routine too.
I don’t believe in ultimatums. I hate that idea. But I’m wondering, when you know you want to probably settle down with someone how long you wait for her to grow the strength to truly love. Should I wait until next summer? Two and a half years? And then what? I sometimes fantasize about writing her mother a letter, explaining what an amazing woman she raised, how kind and smart she is and what a gift she is to my life. I thought maybe that would help her parents, when she is ready. I’m so scared of that, too. What if they reject me and then my girlfriend does? I want to support her, I do. But if I support her by waiting patiently, I could be setting myself up for a broken heart if I wait another year and she ends up not being able to do it. Or if she does and it goes badly. And I think an ultimatum with make her resent me.
I suppose is my question to you, Sugar: How do you trust your love will be enough to ride out a gathering storm? What should I know? What would you do? How can I swim to the life we deserve? How can I save us both?
Dear Lifeboat Love,
You can’t save both of you, sweet pea. You can only save yourself and hope that your dear love decides to save herself too. Your girlfriend didn’t write to me to ask what I think she should do, but I’m going to tell you anyway. She should come out. She’s gay. She’s in a committed relationship with you. I doubt this will be a surprise to her parents. When her father asked her about the nature of her relationship with her ex years ago, it seems apparent that he already knew—that in fact he was doing some of the work for her. He was opening a door that she slammed shut and hasn’t dared open since.
This is understandable to some degree. We’ve made great progress as a society when it comes to not being ugly homophobic jackasses, but we aren’t all the way there yet. Some people hate people for being gay. Some parents disown their gay kids. Perhaps your girlfriend’s parents would do that if she comes out to them, though your description of them doesn’t convince me of that. We don’t know exactly what sort of parents-of-a-lesbian they are because your girlfriend hasn’t given anyone a chance to see. She doesn’t know if they’d hate the real her or love the real her or be initially upset over the revelation of the real her and then settle into acceptance.
We know only that when it comes to her parents—“the two people who love her dearly”—your girlfriend refuses to be anything but the fake her. The one who believes her parents’ love hinges entirely on the false premise that she doesn’t sleep with women. I’ll guess she believes that because she hasn’t yet managed to shake all the crappy messages she’s carrying around inside her about what love is and what family is and what normal is and who gets to be okay and validated and congratulated for their romantic unions and sexual desires and who gets to feel like a perverted, shameful, skanky freak based solely on who they want to fuck.
This is no small thing, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, LL. And it might be especially difficult for your girlfriend to muster the guts that coming out requires given the fact that she was raised in a community with conservative beliefs and in a family that opts for emotional reserve rather than expression. The entire culture she was steeped in as a child told her it’s not okay to be gay and that if she is she’d best well hide it.
But she’s a grown up now. She’s a thirty-year-old woman living in a large LGBT-friendly city in an age where people who are LGBT generally get to say and be who they are without being murdered and fired and run out of town for it and if she doesn’t owe it to the zillions of LGBT people from decades past who did not have that reality to come out, well then she owes it to herself. She deserves to have a good life. A good life is not presenting a false front to two of one’s closest intimates for years on end.
There are sound reasons to stay in the closet for temporary periods of time—when one is a teenager, for example, and coming out would put one in harm’s way by compelling one’s parents to send her off to a psychopathic conversion camp or beat the shit out of her or otherwise make her life sheer hell. In that case, I say: bide your time, grow up, get the hell out at the very first opportunity, then swim hard and fast in the direction of real life and when you get there shout really loud I’M GAY!
Your girlfriend did everything but the last thing. She needs to shout I’m gay, or least whisper it in a clear and audible voice. She doesn’t have to invite her parents to ride in a suped up Corvette with her at the Pride Parade while waving a rainbow flag. She doesn’t have to sit on your lap and stroke your hair lovingly when her parents come to visit. But she does have to say I’m gay. If she doesn’t do this she will never become the person she needs to be if she intends to live a life that’s not stunted by self-loathing, for this is what’s really going on here. Your girlfriend has “difficulty articulating what exactly makes it hard to tell her parents that she’s gay” because her parents are not entirely to blame.
Last week I was in a hotel room flipping through the channels on the TV when I stopped on one long enough to hear a scientist say that a basic truth about human nature that’s found in just about every study and body of research is that people do what they want to do. The drive to do what we want to do is so strong that we will usually do it, even if there’s a price to pay. Your girlfriend can’t tell her parents that she’s gay because she doesn’t want to tell them that she’s gay, even if this makes you miserable. She wants to be in a loving lesbian relationship with you without allowing the other people who love her most deeply to know she’s a lesbian. This dual life allows her to have sexual and romantic relationships with women, while never having to announce to her parents that indeed she is the perverted, shameful, skanky freak that on some level she believes herself to be.
The question you need to answer for yourself, darling, is how long are you willing to stay in the perverted, shameful, skanky freak closet with her. It seems clear to me—and exceedingly healthy—that forever is not an option for you, so I suggest you have a serious talk with your partner about why this is so important to you and then together come up with a reasonable, loving, fair-to-both-of-you date by which you will leave her if she refuses to come out.
Doing so is indeed an ultimatum, but it’s the best sort of ultimatum—one that has everything to do with a positive change in your own life, rather than your wish to control another. It’s an ultimatum that honors a boundary that’s key to your happiness, your psychological well-being, and your integrity. You won’t stop loving your partner if she chooses to stay in the closet. You won’t stop cherishing the wonderful person she is and treasuring the times you’ve shared. You may not even stop being her lover.
But you will profoundly revise the terms of your relationship. You will stop building a long-term romantic partnership with her under conditions that are patently untenable to you. You will stop having a stake in her lie.
This is the hard part, of course. The part where you don’t get to simply float along in the la-la land of your true love while hoping what’s really not good at all will get magically better. This is the part that numerous others have confronted with their own beloved partners who must change in order for their relationships to survive—people who have said you must stop abusing alcohol to be with me, or you must stop snorting cocaine, or you must learn to manage your anger, or you must not belittle my ambitions, or you must be honest or this just isn’t going to work.
These ultimatums require us to ask for something we need from another, yes, but ultimately they demand the most from us. They require us to acknowledge that the worse case scenario—the end of a cherished relationship—is better than the alternative—a lifetime of living with sorrow and humiliation and rage. It demands that we look ourselves squarely and hard in the eye and ask: What do I want? What do I deserve? What will I sacrifice to get it? And then it requires that we do it. In fear and in pain and in faith, we swim there, to wherever that is, in the direction of real life.