I’m a pansexual gal in a relationship with a straight dude. My partner is 100% supportive of my queerness, and he’s an absolute delight. His parents, however… less of a delight! They have some rather backwards and gross opinions about the LGBTQ community. I’m currently closeted to them, and at the moment, it hasn’t made too much of a difference, as they live across the country and I see them very infrequently. However, this could change very soon. My partner is in the process of applying to grad schools, and there’s a good chance that we’ll be moving to the west coast, very close to his parents. We’ve even been talking about getting married. I think that he would be a great co-parent and life partner, but I’m not so sure that I want his parents to be my in-laws. The idea of them feeding those hateful ideas to my future kids makes me sick, and I don’t want to live my life in the closet to keep the peace. Do you think that an awesome relationship is worth saving if his family might make me miserable?
I think this is unfortunately a really common problem, and I’m glad that you wrote in about it. As someone that spent 11 years married to a straight guy, I know how complicated it can be to navigate coming out to friends and family when you have a partner that hasn’t had to go through those same experiences themselves. It can feel complicated and isolating, and I just want to affirm that you are not alone in this experience, and that it’s absolutely possible to move through this with grace, support, and love.
Based on your note, it sounds like your relationship with your partner is supportive, is important to both of you, and holds space for your individual identity as a queer person. But there are some pieces that you left out that I want to address, because I think those missing bits may actually be part of the key to figuring out how best to navigate this. There are a few different angles that are worth considering, things that you should think about by yourself and things you should discuss further with your partner.
My first, most practical question for you is how aware your partner is about your level of discomfort around his parents. Is this something you talk about together regularly, or something you’ve felt that you had to hide? How does your partner feel about your parents’ opinions, and the ways that those opinions manifest in language and actions? Has he spoken to his parents to challenge their more harmful or hurtful beliefs? When his parents say something that causes you discomfort, do they push back, or stay silent? It sounds like you feel supported by your partner within the context of your relationship, but do you trust him to support you when it comes to conflict with his family? Does he take your concerns seriously, and value your comfort and safety?
Not being out around certain family members is absolutely a valid choice, and I completely understand wanting to protect both your privacy and your safety in this circumstance. When you don’t have to see people regularly, it can feel simpler to hide aspects of yourself, particularly when you feel certain that those people would not react positively to your truth. Yet I want to acknowledge your suffering in this instance, because staying in the closet can be draining and difficult — and in considering a move to be much closer to your partners’ parents, and potentially expanding your family together, I think it’s important for you to honor the weight of that decision. You absolutely do not have to come out to people that you don’t intend to have a close relationship with, but there will be a cost to that choice, and it’s important for both you and your partner to understand that.
Another thing that I want to ask about is how close your partner is to his parents. Do they talk every day, every week, every month, or a few times a year? Does your partner lean on them for advice and emotional support? Does your partner prefer to celebrate holidays or other regular events in person with his parents? Do your partners’ parents provide any financial support, either occasional or ongoing? Since you don’t mention how emotionally connected your partner is to his parents and family, it’s hard for me to know if moving to be close to them would mean that you would be in regular contact with them. But it sounds like you should think about what you would like your personal boundaries around your partner’s family to be, and to clearly identify what you would need from your partner in order to feel safe and supported moving forward.
The most important relationship for you in this situation is between you and your partner, but if your partner wants to have or maintain a close relationship with his parents, you may need to consider how that might impact you in the future. Are you comfortable with your partner still seeing his parents regularly? Is your partner comfortable spending time with his parents if you don’t attend? Particularly if you two are looking to expand your family, it will likely be important for you to be on the same page about your boundaries with this side of the family, and to begin upholding those boundaries before children enter the picture.
But now for the big part, the harder part, the underlying challenge at the heart of your note. Your last question has stayed with me, because it’s one that feels both easy and impossible to answer. You are in a relationship that you call awesome and supportive, but also write about your partners’ family in a way that makes me wonder how much support you can realistically count on. If you are expecting to be treated badly, to be miserable, to be forced to be in proximity to them, and to not have your partner standing up for you or supporting you in keeping your distance — that concerns me. Setting up boundaries around family members can be a complicated and painful thing, but doing so without the support of your partner will likely be even more difficult, and could potentially create some challenging situations for the two of you to navigate. Do you want to build a life with someone that isn’t willing or able to defend you, to choose you? I’m not saying that your partner has to completely cut off all contact with his parents — but I am saying that someone that isn’t willing to confront family about words or actions or opinions that they know are harming you is unfair to you, and will only cause more pain down the road.
It’s been said over and over on Autostraddle, but family is what you make of it — and I firmly believe that as queer people, we do not have to willingly subject ourselves to harm in order to protect the feelings of straight people who do not show us respect or consideration. You should not have to tolerate being treated badly by a loved one’s family. You should not have to worry about your future kids absorbing homophobic or hateful opinions from your in-laws. And you should not have to watch your partner sit quietly by while you deal with these issues alone.
So the real question is — are you alone, or not? Is your partner actually supporting you fully, even if that means stepping back from a close relationship with parents or family? What kinds of boundaries would make you feel safe and protected, and is your partner able to stand by your side and help you uphold them? Only you can decide if the potential pain of a difficult family is worth the joy of your relationship, but I would encourage you to consider how much support you are actually receiving, and if it will be enough moving forward.
Author’s Note 7/25/21: An original version of this post used incorrect pronouns and has since been corrected.