This piece is part of The Passing Issue, a special package from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.
Last month I sat in silence, listening to my tía and abuela discuss quintessential Latino preoccupations: marriage and babies. I silently dipped a crisp tortilla into the dollop of frijoles on my plate, hoping to distract myself from discussion about my cousin’s new fiancé. “Still no boyfriend, mija?” my abuela asked me, pulling me back into the conversation with a mischievous grin. I laughed the question off, beads of sweat collecting at the nape of my neck; it was the same thing she’s asked me, without fail, every time I visit Guatemala. For the sixth year in a row, I pretended to be single; for the sixth year in a row, I was in a committed relationship—with a woman.
Six years before this moment, I sat on a mossy park bench and came out to my mother. “Promise me you’ll never tell my family,” she said, though she couldn’t have known then that these words would haunt me for the rest of my adult life. In the years since, I have slowly come to terms with my identity and, in doing so, have dug an emotional trench between myself and my relatives—most of all my eighty-five-year-old grandmother. And today, our relationship persists solely due to the fact that she believes me to be straight.
For many diasporic queer people, passing to family members is a necessary—albeit fraught—tool for preserving relationships. The rampant homophobia and machismo that plague Central America and many parts of the developing world have, over generations, helped shape my grandmother’s internalized attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community. I condemn her beliefs, but then again, my abuela is the only grandparent I’ve ever known.
On several occasions, I have listened as my abuela gingerly discussed her disapproval of the queer community between sips of coffee. Each time, I have softly dissented, urging her to consider the most basic tenets of queer acceptance and, at times, even memorizing and citing Bible verses with the hope that I might nudge her towards a place of increased understanding. But she has not budged.
Preserving my relationship with my abuela has forced me to exist as two antithetical versions of myself: One is a queer, second-generation American unafraid of her truth, the other is a shrunken caricature of herself desperate to pass as straight in her grandmother’s eyes. For the majority of my life, the former version has reigned supreme; I am out, outspoken, and predominantly unapologetic about my identity. But, once a year, as I board a plane for my routine pilgrimage to Guatemala, I feel myself begin to shrink.
For some in similar circumstances, survival means cutting ties with unsupportive family. And, while I support and applaud others’ ability to make choices—at times very painful ones—in order to protect themselves, for me, cutting ties with my grandmother has never been an option. Navigating this chasm has not been easy; it has been one of the most painful things I have ever experienced, and I am still learning how extract my own self-worth from the heavy expectations of both my grandmother and my culture.
To be clear: My decision to pass as straight to my grandmother is not rooted in shame, but instead in a very real desire to safeguard the remaining time I have together with her. In spite of everything, my abuela is a thread that connects me to my ancestors and grounds me in a cultural identity that I have always felt somehow outside of. I have chosen to live my life quietly for fear of losing this connection with her.
Still, I long to share my life with my grandmother. For years, I’ve wished I could tell her about my life and how happy my partner makes me. But, instead, I’ve woven an intricate, mythological life in which I’m too busy building a career to date. Sometimes, I wonder whether I’ve made the right choice—it’s entirely possible that I haven’t. But, as my abuela nears the end of her life, I am working to make peace with the fact that she will never fully know me.
At the end of our lunch, my grandmother took my hand and gave it a tight squeeze. She told me she was proud of me for working so hard to build a career I love. “Don’t worry,” she added. “One day you’ll fall in love, too.” I smiled and nodded, convinced I couldn’t speak without my voice breaking. In that moment, I would have given anything to be able to tell her I already had.
Read all of Outward’s special issue on Passing.