You Need Help: You’re Getting Married, Grandma Doesn’t Know

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Q:

So recently my girlfriend and I announced to the world aka social media we’re OFFICIALLY OFFICIALLY engaged. She and I were going over our guest list when we came across my dear sweet grandmother. I asked if we should invite her and to our surprise we really didn’t know the answer. I mean how do you tell your 88-year-old grandmother you’re gay let alone the fact you’re getting married to another woman? I honestly think SHE HAS NO CLUE and I believe she’s at that age where her beliefs are basically set in stone. I mean I don’t think my grandma would judge me or say something bad but there’s still a real possibility she could. I asked my mom who suggested I should start the conversation by saying ‘sorry’…which I’m NOT…I mean I’m not sorry for being me and I believe I shouldn’t be sorry for wanting to marry the love of my life. Autostraddle Team, do I still invite her? Should I give her the talk? What are your thoughts? Has someone on the team encountered this before? I would really appreciate any insight.


A:

Hello, friend, and congratulations on marrying the love of your life! That’s excellent! If you look at it that way, this is a pretty wonderful problem to have. The other good news is that there are several different things you could do and all of them are the right answer! That’s a wonderful set of solutions to have.

I want to let you know, before I continue, that I’m answering this question from a very particular place in this world. First, I’m getting married to the love of my life too. We’re planning our wedding right now, and everyone in my family is (so far, and as far as I know) okay with this. All of my grandparents have kicked the bucket and I never told a single one of them that I was gay. Mostly this is because they died when I didn’t know I was gay, save for one. My grandmother. Let me tell you why I didn’t tell her I was gay. We were sitting in our living room and some gay marriage news or another was on the front page of the paper she was reading. Apropos of nothing, she blurted out, “Why can’t they just stay in the closet like they used to?”

I raised my eyebrows. “Gay people?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied. “We didn’t used to have to know about it.” Her eyebrows were all slanty-angry and she shuddered. So. I never told her I was gay. Now I’m sure you, friend, will try to comfort me by saying, she probably wouldn’t have said that if she’d have known. I’m sure you’ll comfort me that way because you’re a good person. But there are two things you need to know about my grandmother: a) she was mean and b) she probably did know. I had a very masculine-of-center girlfriend at the time, and both of us were living at my parents’ house. My grandmother was many things; stupid wasn’t one of them. I assumed this was her way of telling me that, regardless of who I was, she didn’t want to talk about it — which sort of sucks. But I didn’t sweat it because she was 96 and unless all my brains leaked out of my ear and I married that at-the-time girlfriend against my better judgement, Hades would’ve had to freeze over for my grandmother to have made it to my wedding.

I tell you this story because we’re going to use it as a jumping off point for some advice and for some follow up questions. First, a question — have you ever had a conversation like this with your grandmother? I’m assuming not, because I’m assuming the anecdote would’ve been in your question. But it is worth noting that, if you have, my answer would probably change a bit. If you have reason to assume that it’ll be a big hairy deal, well. Then you have to weigh things out — what’s heavier, the possibility that it’ll be a big hairy deal, or the possible joy you’ll feel at your grandmother being at your wedding? What’s worth more? Whichever is, that’s what you should pick if your grandmother has given you cause for concern.

Now I’m going to move forward and assume that you haven’t had a conversation like this with your grandmother. Your grandmother is probably very different from my grandmother in that she’s not mean — you even use the words dear, sweet grandmother in your question. So probably, even if her beliefs are set in stone and they’re different from yours, she’s not going to be rude and terrible about it like my grandmother would’ve been. A dear, sweet person has better manners and a stronger compassion muscle than my grandmother (badass, though she was) could ever have had.

Your grandmother is probably much the same as my grandmother, though, in that she might already know. Queerness isn’t new, though it can seem that way because our clandestine survival mechanisms have made our history difficult to record. Even in the days it wasn’t talked about, euphemisms blossomed. “She changed horses mid-stride,” said a writing professor of mine who is a couple generations away from me in the historic direction. Or, “well he was that way.” Talk to my mother about it, and she says, when she was growing up, the telltale sign was a very Catholic woman, married, with only one child. Gay people were a part of your grandmother’s world, too. And they’re part of her world now, because you’re in it. I know you say she honestly has no clue about you, but I’d lay money on her having a clue about others at some point in her life, if not you at present. I feel like that might make coming out to her easier— you’re not springing something on her that she hasn’t heard about all through her life. It’s not like introducing her to an xbox or virtual reality or the phrase YOLO. She might have a few questions, she might get the language wrong, but she’s almost definitely seen a gay person before, or at least heard about them.

I agree with you that you shouldn’t say sorry about who you are because you’re not sorry, but I also think there are other reasons not to say sorry. First, if your grandmother has no opinion, if she comes into the conversation entirely neutral, you don’t want to put it into her mind that it’s something one should feel sorry about. It might alter the way the conversation goes, should you choose to have it; go in with total positivity, and your attitude will rub off on her. Second, your grandmother is a grown-ass woman and doesn’t need to be coddled. I feel like we have this notion that we need to tip-toe around old people, especially old women. We don’t. They’ve lived through a bunch o’ shit. They’re strong. They can take change because they’ve been adapting their whole lives; that’s how they got to be old. In my experience, when we stop expecting old people to roll with it, they stop rolling with it or they get angry because they can still, in fact, roll with it. If you choose to have a conversation, don’t open with sorry. Don’t close with it either. But be understanding that her idea of you might be changing very quickly (or maybe not, see above!); that’s hard for anyone.

What actionable things could you do? Well, you could sit down with her and have “the talk.” The talk we all know —”I have something to tell you. I’m gay and I’m marrying ________ and I want to invite you to the wedding. How do you feel about that?” That’s the script for the talk. Don’t panic, don’t sorry, don’t sweat it. Practice saying it like you are offering her a bowl of candy. “Here is some candy. I enjoy candy. I am also gay.” But I think whether or not you choose to do it that way has a lot to do with your family dynamic — are you a people who discuss big topics and thoughts and feelings with each other? My family is. My coming out looked a lot like this.

Is your family a good news family? The sort of family that loves to share the good stuff, but generally suffers through the bad stuff alone or with one or two close humans? If your family is a good news family, consider flipping the script. “Guess what, I’m getting married, ISN’T IT FABULOUS! Here is a photo the dress/suit/banana costume I will be wearing and also a photo of my fiancée, her name is ________.” This good news approach has the added bonus of bringing relentless positivity to the table. Her mood will be up because, well, wedding.

Is your family an avoidance family? Information is truly shared on a need-to-know-basis and any other sharing is inefficient? My fiancée’s family is a little like this. Here is how my fiancée came out to her family: she brought me home one weekend. Finished. You could do the wedding equivalent of that and just send your grandmother an invitation. Depending on your family dynamic, though, that could go over like a lead balloon.

If none of these sound appealing, you’re not sure which kind of family your family is, or the thought of jumping in blind truly terrifies you, you could manufacture the same sort of conversation that I had with my grandmother naturally. When you watch television together, watch the Britanna Wedding Episode of Glee or hand her The New Yorker issue with the review of Carol in it. Put the issue in front of her in a neutral context and then talk about the material as it relates to whatever you’re seeing or reading together. She might spontaneously give you a lot of information — a veritable manual as to how to talk about queerness and weddings with her.

So now a second follow up question before I give my real true opinion — what are the consequences if this goes poorly? Will there be a fight? An excommunication? Will she take it out on your mother? Does your grandmother have the opportunity to do something that will impact you or your family’s ability to survive and thrive? I ask because if it is simply that it might be unpleasant, or temporarily unpleasant, then I think you should go for it. Because your grandmother is a dear, sweet full-grown adult who’s lived a long time and definitely has knowledge of gay people, I think you should give her the opportunity to surprise you. I think you should give your fiancée the opportunity to add this dear, sweet woman to her family. And most importantly, I think you should give your grandmother the opportunity to be at her granddaughter’s wedding — she’s probably imagined it for a good long time and would be sad to miss out on the celebration. Remember: she loves you. Good luck and congratulations again!

A.E. Osworth is part-time Faculty at The New School, where they teach undergraduates the art of digital storytelling. Their novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright, about a game developer dealing with harassment (and narrated collectively by a fictional subreddit), is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing (April 2021) and is available for pre-order now. They have an eight-year freelancing career and you can find their work on Autostraddle (where they used to be the Geekery Editor), Guernica, Quartz, Electric Lit, Paper Darts, Mashable, and drDoctor, among others.

A.E. has written 545 articles for us.

44 Comments

  1. My girlfriend thought she was closeted to her old grandmother, but then the grandmother started giving hints: “Have you been going to town with girls recently? I’m not assuming you’re all by yourself all the time.” GOING TO TOWN, for real.

  2. ohgodohgodohgod this could not be more topical for me. A full three years ago, my wonderful girl and I announced to the world that we were getting married. My mother did not take it well. She also told me that if I tell my grandmother that I’m gay, my grandmother will die (yes, die). And, to be honest, she might. My mother was raised in a convent and my grandmother is a staunch Catholic who lives in a tiny village in a faraway country and spends most of her time worrying about the fate of her four grandchildren. Ever since, I’ve been waiting for the right moment to tell my grandmother, but it never comes because I am honestly worried about how she will deal with the news (not to my face, but once I leave the country and she’s all alone going over these things in her head). So, long story short, I am paralysed with fear and still not married while my family sort of silently ignores my gayness. I know this is not fair to my girlfriend whom I desperately want to be with, but I also don’t know how to make it okay in my fairweather family. Do I cut my grandmother out of the most important part of my life? Do I wait for the right moment to tell her? Do I just tell her, her feelings be damned? I know that if my grandmother dies before I resolve this, I will forever feel like I waited for her to die and that is just too horrible. And I can’t not invite her to my wedding – I care about her too much for that. I’m tired of feeling like a coward but how do I cross this ultimate cultural/generational barrier?

    • Im sorry you have to go throuh this. Its hard I know..For me…I think there never is a right time. I mean you can try to plan or whatever but I just find that it falls through..holidays.. a birthday..some sort of family thing..etc etc.

      Maybe a sort of letter? My sister helped me in a way to be more out towards my parents. She went with them to the store and on the way was like..so speaking of the future..it turns out my parents were waiting for me because they felt awkward about initiating that certain convo.

      But like Ali said being gay isnt something that hasnt been around you know..

  3. I think there’s something to be said for intermediaries. They can out you on your behalf after testing the waters with some gay topics, work through the dumb questions, and make sure any terrible shit grandparents say about you never reaches your ears.

    My super cool atheist grandma who I was really close with truly did not want to know. She even complained that my other grandma didn’t have to know, so why did I tell her (she had asked). My mom eventually told the other one (who is Mennonite and who I never dreamed of telling), and she just said she thought as much and she liked my girlfriend. AS FAR AS I KNOW. You see what I’m saying? This is the secret to coming out and keeping your grandparents.

  4. What an absolutely wonderful article! Exhaustive, compassionate and wise – but then hilarious to boot! I was laughing my way throughout. :) Banana costume, what an inspired choice of wedding attire. And since my grandma is also mean, that gave me a big belly laugh.
    I would read a book about those different types of families, too.

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