Dear Prudence

My Teen Niece Wants to Out Me and My Partner

Prudie’s column for June 13.

Photo collage of an edgy-looking teenage girl next to two women holding hands.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by lisafx/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Wavebreakmedia/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence,
I’m from a large, close-knit, religious family in the American South. My parents and grandparents have repeatedly said that if any of us were gay, it would break everyone’s hearts, but that person would have to be cut off for the sake of the younger family members. However, my “roommate” of six years is welcomed at every family function. My mother refers to her as “my third daughter.” Grandma buys her Christmas presents. My uncle, a church leader, reserves us seats at the family table at homecoming. And my partner has really bonded with them—she doesn’t have much family and always wanted siblings. We’ve both talked about the future, and we’re both content to keep living an open secret. She works at a big religious organization and would likely lose her job if we came out. We plan to get married in another state and become the Ambiguous Spinster Aunts Who Own Too Many Tiny Dogs.

The problem is one of our teenage nieces, who’s quickly becoming the black sheep of the family. She’s going through an “alternative” phase in high school and does shocking things like dying her hair, using cuss words, and criticizing her father’s church. I am not so shocked; she’s just finding her way in life. But now she wants me and my partner to come out. Our last conversation, she basically said we are cowards and hypocrites and hurting the cause of LGBT rights. I am pretty hurt and also angry. My partner and I chose our life together and accepted the cost of staying partly closeted. That’s our decision. My niece has no right to hijack our life because she’s going through a rebellious phase. I’m worried that she might out us to the family, either on purpose or by making snarky comments. How do I talk to her about this? Make her take this seriously?
—Comfortably Closeted

Oh, man, the loop of “so progressive you threaten to out people against their will and self-interest” is a pretty bewildering one. I wouldn’t be surprised if she did say something publicly and your homophobic uncle rushed to your “defense,” so you have the power of collective denial on your side. But it will also help for you and your partner to figure out in advance what you might want to say in that situation, so you have a quick script you can refer to if you’re ever put on the spot. I’d also go back to your niece and tell her that you don’t want her to discuss your personal life either with you or when you’re not around and that she doesn’t have to like any of your choices but you do ask that she respect them. I don’t know if you two have been close, but you might want to put her on an information diet if you’re worried she’ll try to use details about your personal life against you. I hope she’s able to realize sooner rather than later that if she wants to fight homophobia, she’s haranguing the wrong family members.

Dear Prudence,
I accidentally called a black co-worker another black co-worker’s name. I said hello when I saw my co-worker out of the corner of my eye and apologized when I realized my mistake, but oh, my God, I’m part of the problem. How do I make this better? What advice do you have for me to try to make at least my corner of the office a place that can be free(r) from shitty microaggressions? Should I just jump into a lake?
—Help! I’m the Worst.

There’s a limit to how much you can apologize to a single person. If your first apology was brief, you might have grounds to revisit this once, but no more. Find a way to do it that’s private, and don’t subject your co-worker to rambling or make a big production out of being “the worst.” Over-apologizing can sometimes be almost as bad as under-apologizing, because it puts pressure on the recipient to make the apologizer feel better, and that’s the thing you want to avoid here. Apologize in a way that acknowledges what you did wrong, communicates your sincere (but not overwhelming) regret, and commits to changing: “I wanted to apologize again for calling you the wrong name the other day. I’m so sorry, and I won’t do it again.” If your co-worker wants to keep a bit of a distance after that, then respect it and follow their lead. Remain friendly, but don’t go out of your way to be overly solicitous, since this will make it clear that you need them to make you feel better about yourself again.

Then, set aside some time after-hours to deal with your regret and self-recrimination so that your co-workers don’t have to. It may feel difficult to acknowledge you did something racist without consciously intending to, in part because white people often think of racism as individual, intentional malice rather than something systemic, often unconscious and ingrained, that reflexively resists analysis. But acknowledging that you did something racist doesn’t mean you have to throw yourself away as a bad actor. It’s the first step in dealing with reality and making sure you act differently in the future.

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Dear Prudence,
I have a 17-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son. They used to fight a lot, mainly because she was always bossing him around, but lately, they’ve been getting along better. I have recently found them sleeping in her bed together. They sometimes stay up watching TV together, which I and my husband are OK with if it’s not a school night, and he will just stay in her room. She says it’s because sometimes he falls asleep during or right after the show, so she lets him stay because she doesn’t want to wake him. Should I be concerned? There was a time I wouldn’t have thought much about it, but nowadays I’m not so sure. I’ve never caught them doing anything other than watching TV, and they’ve always been fully dressed, so I’m wondering if there is actually cause for concern.
—Sibling Bed-Sharing

I think it’s weird, certainly! I don’t want to immediately jump to the worst-case scenario, but it’s completely reasonable (and within your purview as a parent) to say, “Hey, guys, if you’re going to stay up late watching TV, it needs to be in the living room. You’re too old to sleep in the same bed.”

Dear Prudence,
I am a 19-year-old lesbian and feel like I have been hiding from myself long enough. So after some help from a local PFLAG chapter, I felt I was ready to come out. I wrote letters to my parents (they’re religious, so I wanted some distance from their reactions) telling them I am gay and that when they are ready, I wanted to discuss it with them. I came out in person to some friends and other relatives who were very accepting and loving. My parents never reacted. I waited for three weeks, then brought it up to them, and that’s when it finally came out. My parents are ashamed of me. They say that they never asked for a daughter like me, they were happier not knowing, and why did I tell them? I ended up leaving the house and staying with my aunt. I will soon leave for school in another state, one that is more LGBTQ-friendly. But for now, what do I do? Do I jump back into the closet for my parents’ sake until I leave? Do I just keep going as I am, keep reaching out, and hope they come around? My aunt has been a rock through this and tells me that I should just write off my parents at this point, but they are my parents—I love them!
—Back to the Closet

Right now you need to play the long game with your parents and try to balance hope with self-protection. It may be the case that they do come around after all, but it’s not likely to happen anytime soon, given the strength and intensity of their initial reaction. I’m so sorry they reacted so badly, and I’m relieved that you have other friends and relatives in your corner and that you’ve been able to stay with your aunt. One of the hardest parts of dealing with homophobic family members is that your love for them doesn’t necessarily turn off just because they say and do unloving things. But sometimes it is safest to love from a distance. You don’t have to write off your parents forever in order to acknowledge that you need time away from them and that their misplaced shame and homophobia are damaging for you to be around. I don’t think re-closeting yourself for a few months so you can move back in with them until college starts is going to be good for you. Keep staying with your aunt if you’re able, and if not I’d suggest crashing with friends until college starts. Let your parents know that you love them, that you’re available if and when they want to apologize, but you’re nothing to be ashamed of and you’re exactly the daughter they’re supposed to have.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“You will probably get your homophobic family members, hilariously, defending your heterosexual honor.”

Daniel Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe discuss this letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,
Our youngest of two daughters has few friends. A neighbor’s granddaughter is her classmate and often bullies her in many ways. Our daughter has shown a pattern of opening up unconditionally, only to be repeatedly abused verbally or physically (kicked, pushed) by her “friend.” At times they get along, but only when it’s convenient for the other girl. It’s a very small town with few options. My wife and I differ on letting them continue to “play.” How can we teach our 9-year-old she doesn’t have to subject herself to abuse to find friendship?
—Daughter’s Mean Friend

The best way to teach her that she doesn’t have to have friends who belittle, kick, or shove her is by not taking her to play dates with friends who belittle, kick, and shove her. She’s 9 years old; she needs her parents to help model healthy, appropriate boundaries since there’s a limit to how much she can set them for herself right now. It’s not like she can drive herself home when her playmate goes on the attack. I know she doesn’t have many other friends, but I think she’d be better off with a good book or exploring your backyard by herself than trying to placate a bully who calls herself a friend. It’s also worth getting on the same page as your wife (it sounds like your wife is inclined to overlook it, and I think you’re right to be concerned) and talking to your neighbor so they’re aware, if they’re not already, that their granddaughter gets violent with her friends and needs to be watched more closely so adults can intervene if and when she does. But you can’t just tell an overly trusting 9-year-old, “Hey, stand up for yourself, and good luck.” The lesson will be likelier to stick if you tell her exactly why it’s wrong to hurt your friends, that you’ll always be there for her if someone tries to hurt her, and that she deserves to be safe, especially if you back those words up with your actions.

Dear Prudence,
I frequent a retail establishment where an employee appears to be transitioning from male to female. They have always been polite and done their job well, and I regard the apparent transition as their business. Recently another customer asked me in line, “Is that a man or woman?” I wasn’t sure what to say, so I gave this nosy stranger an unfriendly shrug. My gut response was to protect the employee from a scene, since I’d had a retail co-worker 20-plus years ago on the hurtful end of a very inappropriate tirade regarding her transition. But I have no idea what this particular customer’s intentions were, so I decided to be rude to shut it down and regret that. What should I have done?
—Retail and Transition Etiquette

A cool shrug is a perfectly appropriate response to an out-of-nowhere question about a third party’s gender from a total stranger. If you’re asked about a stranger’s gender, it’s best not to pretend to know. It’s possible the customer wanted to make sure they addressed the cashier correctly and merely fumbled the request, but I can’t think of many situations where a customer absolutely needs to refer to a retail employee by a gendered term. You weren’t rude, you didn’t scold them, and you didn’t escalate the situation—you simply declined to speculate. “I’m not sure, but they might be wearing a name tag. You might be able to see as we get closer” might have been a friendlier answer, but again, you had no way of reading the stranger’s intentions in the moment. Perhaps most importantly, this stranger did not need the information they asked for in order to complete whatever business brought them to the store that day.

Classic Prudie

“My husband and I have resolved to be more open about our sexual desires after a long ‘dry spell,’ which has really revitalized all aspects of our relationship and made us much happier. We often dress up during sex, which is really fun, but recently he confessed a desire that gave me pause. He wants me to dress up as a casual acquaintance of ours. He wants to call me her name and for me to wear a very particular kind of clothing she wears. I’m not sure what to think. It’s kind of gross and also suggests he’d rather be sleeping with her. Then again, maybe I should be glad he’s not and he’s making do with what he’s got (me). What should I do?