Dear Prudence

Help! My Son’s Boyfriend Is HIV-Positive. Am I Allowed to Be Concerned?

Read what Prudie had to say in Part 2 of this week’s live chat.

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Danny is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.

Q. My son is dating an HIV-positive man: When my son came out a few years ago, I struggled at first but have since come to a better understanding of what this means for him and his happiness. All I want is for him to be in a stable, secure, fulfilling relationship—with someone of whatever gender he would be happiest with. However, he recently Zoom-introduced us to his new boyfriend, “Alec.” Alec is HIV-positive. My son announced this on the Zoom call (I didn’t have time to process it) and then became irate with me when I asked some questions to better understand what that means.

Prudie, I remember the ’80s and actually had a close friend die from AIDS. My son claims I’m being ignorant, but I was alive during this time—he wasn’t! I’m scared of what will happen if they stay together and have children. Will they have to live the rest of their lives in fear that Alec will accidentally infect the children via a small cut? It seems like the relationship is quite serious, and I’m trying to read up on ways to be supportive.

My son is now threatening to cut off contact for a few months if I can’t immediately get on board with this new development. I love my son and Alec seems lovely too—but I can’t help feeling anxious about the risk of transmission. I’m not homophobic. I just need some processing time without the threat of “I’m going to cut you off if you can’t understand that love is love” constantly hanging over my head. Am I being unreasonable? How can I handle this?

A: Yes, you’re being extremely unreasonable, not to mention invasive, intrusive, rude, homophobic, and cruel. If you don’t knock it off immediately, your son is absolutely going to stop talking to you and you’ll have no one to blame but yourself. Your son is still qualified to make his own romantic decisions despite not having been alive in the ‘80s. Simply because you knew someone living with HIV more than 30 years ago does not make you an expert on medical best practices now, and it certainly doesn’t give you the right to demand private, sensitive medical information from your son’s boyfriend the moment you meet him. Your attempt to disguise your cruelty as “concern” is absolutely reprehensible, as is your attempt to treat Alec like a ticking time bomb whose mere presence around children—children you have no idea whether your son and Alec are even interested in having!—is a possible death sentence.

If you have general medical questions about transmission and treatment, consult a doctor or the CDC, which has published a number of pamphlets on the subject and addressed many common myths. You don’t need to “read up on ways to be supportive”—you know exactly what you need to do to be supportive. Apologize for your conduct, treat your son and his boyfriend like adults who are capable of making their own decisions and safeguarding their own health, and don’t ask rude personal questions under the guise of “anxiety.”

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Q. MIA wedding gifts: My husband and I had a destination wedding in Hawaii two months ago. Both of our families attended the wedding. My husband and I footed the entire bill for the wedding with no financial assistance from our families. Our wedding was fairly extravagant (over $200 a plate per person with an open bar serving $24 cocktails). Many of our guests gave us gifts of money along with cards. My brother and parents did not give us gifts or cards, and neither did my sister-in-law. My parents and brother have the financial means to provide gifts. It is not as though my husband and I expected to pay for the wedding or honeymoon with the wedding gifts (my husband and I both do very well financially), however, I am disappointed that I do not have keepsakes or at least cards from my family members to look back on in years to come. Since we got back from the wedding my family has been social distancing, so I am hopeful that maybe they will provide gifts once we can all be together.

My husband wants me to ask my family if they intend to get us a gift and keeps telling me how rude it is that we haven’t received anything from them. (Never mind that his own sister never got us anything.) I feel like I am in a difficult spot. Is it rude if I raise this subject with my family members? I worry that, if I don’t, this will cause a silent rift between my husband and them.

A: It is never polite to ask someone if they are going to buy you a gift, or why they didn’t buy you one two months ago. Even if you decided to spend a lot of money on your wedding, it remains impolite to ask someone if they are going to buy you a gift. Throwing an expensive wedding does not suddenly entitle you to call up your friends and relatives and ask “Where’s my present?” Perhaps you can take comfort in the fact that your relatives spent hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars flying to and from Hawaii and paying for accommodation while there. A gift is a gift, not a requirement; it would have been nice of your relatives to write you a card, certainly, but they flew to Hawaii and fêted you, and that will have to suffice. In years to come, when you look back on your wedding, remember that your family members attended and celebrated with you

You and your husband both “do very well financially,” recently had an expensive destination wedding in Hawaii, received a great deal of cash from many of your guests, and yet have still managed to come out of this experience disappointed. Rather than calling up your siblings and complaining about their conduct, my best advice to you is to jot down four or five things you enjoyed about your wedding, moments you’re grateful for, and to focus on those.

Q. My creative partner was an abuser: I am a singer-songwriter. (It’s not my day job, but it is the biggest part of my life and identity.) For almost five years I was in a band with “Casey.” We were creative partners and our collaboration brought my music to a new level—until a few months ago, when I discovered he was abusing his wife. I immediately ended our partnership and have not spoken to him since. Though it was the right decision, I am devastated. Nearly all of our songs from that period were written collaboratively. Musically, they are my favorite songs I’ve ever written, but now I feel disgusted at them, knowing that they were co-written by an abuser. I have tried to write new music but everything comes out as shit. Even though I know I’m not the real victim in this situation, I feel intense grief, betrayal, and anger at Casey that overwhelms me every time I try to write. Can I ever play those songs again? Do I even want to? What if I can’t play the past five years’ worth of my music? I have no idea how to process this. Where do I go from here?

A: I’ll assume you’re not asking me about copyright issues and that you already know (or can discover) what you’re legally allowed to do with creative material you co-authored with someone else. The fact that you’re not feeling wildly prolific a few months after losing your creative partner and discovering he was secretly abusing his wife is not surprising to me, and I hope you can relieve yourself of the pressure to be productive at the moment. Nor does it surprise me that you feel blocked by grief and anger right now, either. That seems like the right response.

Before you worry about when you may—if ever—feel up to playing some of these songs again, I think there might be some unfinished business to attend to. Have you been in any contact with Casey’s wife and current victim of his abuse? Do you have a way of safely and discreetly getting in touch with her and offering her your support? If that’s not possible, do you have any mutual friends who can act as a go-between? Cutting contact off with Casey was, I agree, the right thing to do, but if there’s any chance that his wife is still with him and in danger, I think your first order of business is to see if there is a safe and confidential way you can offer her your support. Leave the music to the side for a while, and don’t pressure yourself to “get over” this quickly. It will take a long time to process, and you will need to do it with other people who love and support you; don’t try to hurry yourself along because you think you need to become immediately creative and productive right away.

Q. Cohabitation conflict: I have a 20-year old daughter. She will be a junior in college next fall. My wife and I love her very much and want nothing but the best for her, but we feel as though she is making the wrong decision. She has chosen her boyfriend to be her suitemate next year. She never once discussed this with us prior to making the decision. My wife and I feel blindsided by this as we are always the last to know of anything she does. This is not the first time she has done this to us, intentionally or not. We feel that she needs to have her own space separate from her boyfriend, for when tensions arise or just even some alone time. We see too many red flags in this arrangement. She says her boyfriend is her best friend, that they support each other’s strengths as well as each other’s weaknesses, and that their disagreements are talked about in a calm, rational manner. She says, “Besides, my boyfriend’s parents are OK with it.” I don’t deny their love and support for each other, but we don’t feel like college is the place to practice post-college living arrangements. Education should come first, with nothing in its way. She says it’s too late now to make changes and that we should just accept it. We responded by saying,”OK, then you need to find your own financing for college because we are not paying for it anymore.” Adult decisions require adult responsibilities. Are we being unreasonable for not compromising with her? Are we making too much of a big deal over this and just being a little old-fashioned?

A: It might be helpful to start from a position of agreement: I agree the college years are often a challenging and complicated stage of young adulthood, since the young adult in question may be independent in some ways and not in others. That said, I don’t think wanting to live with one’s boyfriend at 20 constitutes a “red flag,” a term usually reserved for clear indicators of abuse. You might think it precipitous or unwise, but it does generally fall into the remit of questionable decisions 20-year-olds make. I do find it a bit amusing that you and your wife want your daughter to learn how to behave like an adult after throwing a tantrum yourselves: abruptly withdrawing funding because you’re angry she didn’t ask your permission when it came to picking roommates, something you had not previously made a stipulation when it came to paying for college. It’s a slightly whimsical choice on your part, no?

Better to be honest with yourselves about your motives, I think: You are scandalized that your 20-year-old daughter wants to live with her boyfriend and fear that she’ll be so lost to a haze of sexual intrigue should they share a suite together that she’ll forget to go to class. You hope to use the threat of withdrawing funding in order to get her to back down. You might win the battle in so doing but lose the war, as your daughter will learn not to tell you anything of significance about her personal life. I think I can offer a better strategy: Apologize to your daughter for using the threat of withdrawing funding in order to get her to cave. If you do have certain conditions you expect her to uphold in order for you to pay her tuition, be clear and consistent about them, but don’t use college as an opportunity to try to micromanage her choices. Lay out your concerns about the two of them living together, then say, “Thanks for hearing us out, even if you decide not to take our advice.”

It may very well turn out to be a mistake! I don’t mean to suggest your reaction is an awful one, merely that the way you’ve gone about trying to get your way has been too heavy-handed. Consider the options available to her if things don’t work out: They may not end up living together after all if in-person classes don’t resume in the fall due to social distancing. She can go to the office of student housing and request a transfer. She can move in with a friend on campus in the short term. She might even reach out to you for advice if you’ve left that possibility open! But consider this time in her life as one when she is free to make more mistakes than she might have when she was still underage and living at home. She hasn’t announced that she plans on skipping every class in the foreseeable future or a desire to become a monster truck driver. This is not yet a life- or education-threatening mistake. Don’t treat it as one.

Q. My family won’t learn to pronounce my baby’s name: I’m married to a Korean man, and we’re expecting our first child. We’ve decided to give our baby a Korean name. When my parents and sister’s family heard the name, they quickly came up with an Americanized nickname because the name we’ve chosen is “too hard for them to pronounce.” I’ve pushed back and asked them to use the next four months to learn how to pronounce our baby’s name. This matters to my husband and me. It will take some effort to learn how to pronounce the name, but plenty of Americans have learned how to pronounce Jung Ho-seok and Jeon Jungkook. They can also pronounce words like Tchaikovsky and Marseilles, so it doesn’t feel like a lot to ask them to spend the next four months learning our baby’s name. Are we being unreasonable? My mom also worries that choosing a Korean name will “other” our baby. How much can you ask of other people when it comes to pronouncing unfamiliar names?

A: Choosing a Korean name for your baby will simply mean that your baby has a Korean name. I’m not quite sure why your mother thinks it’s a “gotcha” to point out that not all babies have Korean names. Your request is not unreasonable, but your side of the family is certainly signaling well in advance just what they expect from you: to downplay and minimize your husband’s and your future child’s Koreanness. Giving a group of adults four months to learn how to pronounce a single unfamiliar word is not asking too much. Now is a great opportunity to make it clear to your side of the family just how little time and energy you plan on expending as a new parent on their racial comfort. Your child is going to have a Korean parent, a Korean name, Korean heritage, and Korean culture all as a part of their life; that’s not a “difficulty” you’re inflicting on your non-Korean family but a core part of your child’s existence.

Q. Emailed sermon from staff: I work for a large department (several hundred employees) of the state government in a Southern state. I’m used to being around conservative Christians and it’s fine most of the time, even though I am not Christian but pagan/spiritual. I am not especially vocal or obvious about my beliefs but it’s not a secret. I don’t have a problem with anyone’s belief as long as no one tries to convert or condemn me. My immediate co-workers are aware that I’m a pagan and it’s no issue, though they don’t share my beliefs. I truly adore my team and count myself extremely fortunate to have them as my work family. Today an email notification popped up from the No. 2 person in the entire department that included a message forwarded from the chairperson of the board. Prudie, it was a straight-up sermon about the death of Jesus and the scary time between his death and resurrection and a correlation (I infer) to the scary situation of this pandemic. I understand that it was intended as a comfort and support during this time but it made me very uncomfortable. I feel that it was an inappropriate email for a state organization. I don’t want to be that easily offended “snowflake” stereotype, but I am sorely tempted to inform the sender that I think it was inappropriate. In the grand scheme of things it’s not a big deal, but it seems like one of those things that people let slide until there is an avalanche of a problem. Am I blowing this out of proportion?

A: Given that your proposed course of action is to speak to the sender of that email and say, “I think that was inappropriate, please don’t send an email like that at work again,” I don’t think you’re blowing anything out of proportion. Given that the person who sent it was very high-up in your department and the message they were passing along came from the chairperson, you’ll want to speak carefully and be prepared for pushback, but it’s not at all unreasonable to object, and you certainly have grounds for arguing that it was inappropriate at work. Since you’re so close with your own team, you might consider speaking to them (or your boss) first about your concerns and trying to get a sense of how much support you can expect from them if you raise the issue. But as long as you remain polite and matter-of-fact, you’re in no danger of blowing anything out of proportion.

Q. What to tell a co-worker: I’ve worked at a small nonprofit for about three years. Just after I (straight man, 31) started, a woman (straight, 26) started, and I developed a crush on her. She is cute and smart, and this was her first job. I never acted like or told her that I liked her. She is leaving to move with her boyfriend of 10 months to go to grad school across the country. Should I tell her how I felt this whole time even though it wouldn’t lead to anything, or should I just let her go and never say anything?

A: Let her go, and never say anything. Telling a co-worker (who has never given any indication that she’s interested in you) you have a crush on her, just as she’s about to move across the country with her boyfriend, would turn out exactly the way you’re afraid it would. Don’t do it.

Q. Re: My son is dating an HIV-positive man: The key to the letter is in the first sentence: “When my son first came out a few years ago, I struggled at first.” I have a hunch that this is why the son reacted the way he did. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for those of us who lived through the horrors of the AIDS crisis in the ‘80s and ‘90s to have that knee-jerk reaction, although I would hope that I could bite my tongue and do some reading about how HIV is now essentially a manageable chronic condition like asthma or diabetes. (Even some cancers are manageable chronic conditions.) It is almost curable now, given how effective some of the treatments are. The world has changed a lot since we were your son’s age. You do owe him a big apology and need to try to see the world through something other than the lens we grew up with. This is not the last time he will present you with a different way of living or being that is threatening to you.

A: I agree that the letter writer’s own admission of past homophobia is the key to their current expression of homophobia. One of the primary purposes of politeness, of etiquette, of social niceties is creating a buffer between one’s initial “knee-jerk” reaction to something and one’s public acts of speech and behavior. (Nor are “knee-jerk” reactions necessarily the most “natural” or “unguarded” ones—often they are the result of learned prejudice. Conflating an instantaneous response with a “natural” or “obvious” one goes a long way toward justifying things like racism and homophobia.) Yes, it’s true that treatment protocols have advanced significantly in the past 30 years. But even if HIV were not “manageable,” it would still be rude, cruel, and dehumanizing to say, upon first meeting someone living with HIV,  “Oh my God, I’m so upset about this—if you have children with my son, won’t you live in fear that you’ll infect them and they’ll end up like you?”

Q. Re: My son is dating an HIV-positive man: I can’t help but wonder whether the mother has been living under a rock or something. Has she not heard of PrEP? Or of how someone can have HIV and be undetected? I am fully on board with your response, but maybe these pointers could help the mother get started on how the landscape has changed since the ‘80s?

A: That struck me too. I didn’t want to get too lost in the weeds of how far behind she seems to be on general HIV-related news because her behavior is objectionable on other grounds than simply “Oh, don’t worry, this is safer than you realize.” But it is also true that there’s a great deal of information about HIV treatment and management that may set some of her fears to rest.

Q. Re: My son is dating an HIV-positive man: “If you don’t knock it off immediately, your son is absolutely going to stop talking to you and you’ll have no one to blame but yourself” is not a helpful thing to say at this time.

Everyone is afraid that they or someone they love is going to die from an invisible virus that has stopped the world. Now add in a known risk (and, yes, it’s a risk, just like diabetes or a heart condition) coupled with the mother living through the experience of losing a friend from this illness. She is flashing back to her experience. Good lord, I am having PTSD from being trapped in your country during 9/11. Instead of being helpful and supportive to a woman who has distanced from her family member, learning news over Zoom, living in a frightened time, you chastise her and call her cruel. You are the cruel person to throw such words out at his time.

A: I think it’s helpful to acknowledge reality, and I disagree strongly that all fear ought to be treated as reasonable justification for all types of behavior. It is true that her son is prepared to cut her off if she continues to insist that her fear of seropositive people justifies rude and intrusive questioning. The very problem in this woman’s life is her belief that, if she’s afraid of something, she’s allowed to treat other people as obstructions, as potential contaminants, as people whose very existence threatens her safety. Coddling that fear would be the worst thing I could do for her.

Danny M. Lavery: Thanks, everyone! See you next week.

If you missed Part 1 of this week’s chat, click here to read it.

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From Care and Feeding

Q. My 13-year-old daughter is suddenly obsessed with Instagram models and shallow teen shows: Needless to say, we don’t like or support any of this, this is not whom we raised, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that we were a little disappointed in her for going in this direction. Read more and see what Carvell Wallace had to say.

Danny M. Lavery’s new book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, is out now.