Dear Prudence

Straight Trippin’

I think my daughter may be gay, but I hope not.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg

Sam Breach

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Dear Prudence,
My oldest daughter is in college, and she’s always been a great kid: quiet, respectful, great grades, never gets in trouble. Her father and I told her that we’ll pay her tuition as long as she attends church weekly, and she agreed after offering a little more resistance than we’re used to with her. She’s sent us links to the websites for the churches she’s trying out, and I’ve noticed a running theme: They’re all “open and affirming” to the LGBTQ community. She also shuts down whenever I bring up boyfriends or boys in general (and she’s never dated a boy, as far as I know), and seems bothered by anti-gay comments and sermons she hears. I’m worried that she might be gay and doesn’t feel comfortable telling us because of some comments her father has made in the past. I accept that I’m to blame too, because I never spoke up when her father said something derogatory, but it’s never something I’ve had to worry about. I’m not sure what to do. We’re already at odds over the election, but I still love her even if she is gay. The thing is, I really don’t want her to be. How can I be supportive of this?

—Daughter Might Be Gay

You acknowledge that you’re partially to blame for your daughter’s distance. That’s an important first step. You must realize you cannot make your daughter one whit less gay by wishing she were straight. Nor can you make her less gay by keeping quiet when her father or pastor says something homophobic or by repeatedly asking if she has a boyfriend. These actions have likely left you with a daughter who avoids you, who keeps you at arm’s length, who thinks of you as someone she cannot trust emotionally, and who, if you aren’t able to find a way to be supportive of her, will keep her head down, get her degree paid for, then move across the country and take your calls only a few times a year.

Your daughter may be gay or bisexual, but she may also be straight and merely disturbed by the anti-gay sentiment your church espouses. It is entirely possible that she is heterosexual and has simply not dated any boys and wants to belong to a religious community that affirms LGBTQ personhood. Even if that’s the case, you would still need to take further steps to earn back her trust. Do not let the only thing you ever say to your daughter about homophobia be nothing. Tell her that you regret never speaking up in the past when you’ve heard anti-gay slurs, that you were wrong to let homophobia go unremarked-upon, and that your love for her is not conditionally based upon her presumed heterosexuality. Support your daughter by overtly telling her that you support her, not that you would still love her “even if she is gay.” When you tell someone, “I still love you even if you are gay,” what you are really saying is this: “Obviously being gay is worse than being straight. It would be an obstacle in the way of my love for you, but I am willing to overlook it.” Say, rather, “I love you, and I’m so sorry that I’ve let you infer by my silence, that I would love you less if you were a lesbian.”

There are many resources available to you as you figure out how to parent in a way going forward that repudiates compulsory heterosexuality and anti-LGBTQ sentiments: consider the work of Mel White, Soulforce, PFLAG, and the Gay Christian Network, among others. If you want anything resembling a loving, honest relationship with your daughter, don’t perpetuate the silence and avoid speaking directly about sexual orientation. Be clear, be direct, and be affirming. Your daughter deserves it.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My former sister-in-law will be moving to our town from across the state and has two children, a 10-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy. My niece has a neurological disorder that requires her to be in a wheelchair part of the time. She is a bright, affectionate girl, but I am worried about how the move will affect her socially. My own girls are 11 and 12, and we are heavily involved in the Girl Scouts. I want to extend an invitation to my niece, but my husband is hesitant. We are serious about the great outdoors—a good chunk of our activities involve hiking, hunting, and sailing. Also the divorce was acrimonious at best. We have several members who don’t join in the harder activities, but I don’t know how my ex-sister-in-law would take it.

—Uncertain Aunt

The acrimonious divorce is a red herringyou did not divorce your former sister-in-law, and you are still aunt to her two children, and owe them at least the politeness of an invitation. Ask them over to dinner, and if she accepts, then you can invite her daughter to join yours in Girl Scouts. If she declines, that’s her decision but don’t let the fact that her marriage to your brother didn’t last keep you from showing kindness to your young niece. A federal appeals court ruled in 2015 that the Girl Scouts are bound by federal anti-discrimination statutes and cannot discriminate against members with disabilities. Many regional chapters of the Girl Scouts have inclusion resource specialists as well; if there is one in your area, contact her and find out what steps your troop can take to accommodate girls with disabilities. If there is not one, consider speaking to an inclusion specialist further away and figure out how to create the position in your own neighborhood.

It seems that your concern exists on two levels: that your sister-in-law might take offense if you invited her daughter to join Girl Scouts because of residual resentment from her divorce and that you might have to alter some of your troop’s outdoor activities to accommodate a member in a wheelchair. In the first instance, you should not let uncertainty about how this gesture might be received lead you to exclude your niece. In the second, you should not let your resistance to change (or preconceived notions of what your niece is capable of) keep you from making sure you have room for all girls in the Girl Scouts.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My philosophy regarding the existence of God or gods is largely indifferent; regardless, I’ve been considering converting to Judaism, primarily because of my family’s history. My great-grandmother’s Jewish family converted to Catholicism when they immigrated to the U.S. during World War II. There’s also a large and accepting Jewish community in my city. My younger brother tells his friends that he’s Jewish (he’s not), which really bothers me, because I suspect that he’s only doing it out of an urge to be “unique.” He seemed oddly impressed when he saw that I was the only white person in my group of college friends, and he speaks of his one black, gay, Jewish friend like he’s some rare collectible. I told him he could convert to Judaism if he wanted, but he said he doesn’t want to and continues to claim he’s Jewish. My question is twofold: 1) Is it right for me to convert to Judaism if I don’t really worship any higher power, and 2) how should I address my brother’s behavior?

—Religiously Included

Your first question would be best directed at a rabbi of whichever branch of Judaism you hope to convert to. That said, Judaism is not a religion that, like Christianity or Islam, requires a universal profession of faith, although you would presumably be expected to fulfill (sincerely!) certain ethical and traditional obligations as a member of a Jewish community. It may be, moreover, if you are descended from your great-grandmother on your mother’s side, that according to the rules of matrilineal descent, you are already considered Jewish and do not need to undergo conversion. Ask a rabbi in whatever branch of Judaism you are considering joining, and decide from there.

If you’re still in college, then your younger brother is presumably in high school and figuring out his identity. Unless he is misrepresenting himself as a person who was raised in the Jewish tradition, if all he’s doing is claiming Jewish ancestry (which is true), then I think you should let him figure out how he relates to his heritage on his own.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I met this man last week who ticks off all the boxes I would have on a checklist for a romantic partner. The unsettling part is that after two dates he said he was tired of casual relationships, and could see a serious relationship with me, so much so that he asked me to move in with him, and talked about kids. He mentioned his dysfunctional, broken family, and how that has made him resolve to be a committed partner and father. He’s a lovely person, but I can’t help thinking, is something wrong? Who makes up their mind about having children in two dates? I don’t remotely feel any of the feelings he claims to feel. I’m happy to work on a relationship, but this doesn’t seem like an organic or healthy way for things to develop. What do you think?

—Too Much, Too Soon?

Yes, it’s too soon to ask someone to move in with you on the second date. That is unreasonable; if the two of you had gone on your first date to a frozen yogurt shop, and gotten one of those little punch cards that say “your fifth yogurt is free,” you would not even be halfway to getting a free yogurt together. It’s fine to be ready to settle down, and to communicate your serious intentions to a prospective partner, but this degree of eagerness (pushiness, really) is a red flag. Don’t go out with this guy again, and add “doesn’t ask me to have his children the second time we’ve met” to the checklist of things you’re looking for in a boyfriend.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
Oh, I need help. My fiancée and I broke up last fall. I was struggling with depression and she was having trouble managing her anger. Things got ugly, even after a year of couples’ therapy, and leaving felt like the only way to save both of us. Here’s where it gets complicated: 25 years ago, my ex was abused by her partner and had a lifetime restraining order issued against him. Last year, he tried to contact her, and she reported him and tried to move on with her life. Now the prosecutor is pursuing the charges against my ex’s abuser, and she’s distraught by the idea of having to go through court proceedings and of possibly seeing him again. My ex doesn’t have a great relationship with her family (though she lives with her parents so it’s not all bad) and only a few friends, none close. She’s pushed them all away with the same angry, hurtful behavior that made me leave.

She’s reached out to me, trying to guilt me into standing by her through this. But even as she’s asking for support, she’s being unkind. I’ve done my best to move forward, and I’m making progress. I worry helping her will come at the expense of my mental health and well-being. But I consider myself a compassionate person so I’m struggling with the idea of turning my back on her. Can I stay out of this without feeling like an awful person?

—Do I Owe Support?

You can stay out of this and feel like a great person. Just because your ex-fiancée was once abused by her partner does not mean she has carte blanche to berate and emotionally manipulate you. She may not have a great relationship with her family, but she does have a relationship with them. She may have few close friends, but she does have friends. She is not alone in the world. There is a very good reason why it is not customary for exes to provide one another with emotional support—they’ve broken up, and any further contact between them is entirely optional. You don’t owe it. Your ex has numerous options for emotional support that are more appropriate than you. Tell her that while you wish her the best, as her former partner you cannot possibly provide her with the support she needs. Then continue taking care of yourself with a clear conscience. You are not turning your back on her; you are refusing to essentially get back together—that’s not at all the same thing.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My twin brother is 32 and ready to settle down. He’s intelligent, fit, good-looking, and has a promising career. The problem is that he keeps dating 18- to 21-year-olds and gets hurt when things doesn’t work out. Most of the time they disappear on him after one date. A few have let him know the age difference is intimidating. He asks me for advice from a girl’s perspective, and I try to be honest. The girls he goes for are just too young. It’s not that all 21-year-olds are immature, but it’s such a different life stage. Most do not have the life experiences we have had, like graduating college, working professionally, living independently, or paying their own bills. My brother wants to get married; his dates are more interested in figuring themselves out and establishing their futures. How can I convince my brother to look for someone his own age? He asks for my advice but doesn’t take it. Should I just butt out and console him next time it doesn’t work out? I just want him to be happy.

—Age Is More Than a Number

You have answered your own question beautifully. You have told your brother repeatedly that dating women who are still in college is not a reliable strategy for finding someone who’s ready to settle down and get married. He doesn’t take your advice, and you’re starting to think that you should just let him suffer the (predictable) consequences of his actions. You should do exactly that! He is perfectly capable of amending his behavior if what he’s doing isn’t working, but no amount of sisterly cajoling is going to convince him that the 19-year-old who’s ready to get married right after her 7 a.m. econ course isn’t just around the corner.

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