Every week, Dear Prudence answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. Sister-in-law’s possibly closeted boyfriend: Earlier this year, my sister-in-law started dating a man she describes as “an absolute miracle.” They are getting quite serious and have mentioned they may get engaged soon. She left an unhappy relationship last year and we want to be excited that she found someone who seems to treat her well.
The one issue is that we think he might be gay. Every time we’ve hung out with him, I’ve been unable to shake how much he reminds me of three guys I knew in college who had very similar upbringings. They all got married to women and within 10 years were all divorced and came out. He comes from a fundamentalist family where he was home-schooled until college (which he described as “home-schooling finishing school”). I know his family encouraged conversion therapy for gay people. We’ve never really discussed sexuality with him, but he’s mentioned being a fan of institutions that hold anti-gay positions (and recommend that young men with “gay temptations” get married and have children immediately, which is worrying).
I’ve tried not to make assumptions just because he reminds me of other gay men, but a few weeks ago my husband’s brother also said he thought he might be closeted. My sister-in-law was also raised in a fundamentalist home and has been very sheltered. She’s very naïve, especially when it comes to sexuality. My husband has worked hard to get free of his own upbringing. He and I have both tried to talk to her over the years about some of her beliefs, but she doesn’t seem to think it’s possible for a closeted person to date someone of the opposite sex—basically that if you can “successfully” get a girlfriend, you must not be gay after all.
Is there a way to try to gently broach this with her? I don’t want to interfere with her happiness. But I do worry they may be heading toward a marriage that will make them both unhappy. If I thought her savvy enough to figure out that he may be gay on her own, I wouldn’t bring it up. Is there a way to talk about how fundamentalism sometimes convinces people they have to be closeted so she can make her own observations? Or should I say nothing at all? I want to respect their autonomy, but I am so worried to see more people end up hurt. What is the kind thing to do in this situation? What is the right thing?
A: I don’t think saying “I think your boyfriend might be gay, because he reminds me of other men I’ve known who later came out” is either kind or right, so you can cross that off the list. He may or may not be closeted, but fundamentalism represses all sorts of desires in people (including the desire to simply express one’s own desires without judgment or self-loathing), and “your boyfriend seems gay to me” isn’t information your sister-in-law can do a lot with. She may very well be committed to naïveté as an identity or ethical position—continued naïveté as an adult is often a choice, not merely a relic of one’s childhood. To that end, don’t make “increased savviness” your goal when you speak to her. If she decides to marry him and it turns out to be a mistake, it’s still her mistake to make. It’s not as if you know he’s been seeing someone else behind her back and kept it from her. You don’t have any information that she doesn’t also have, just a different relationship to desire, avowal, and affirmation. Your relationship to desire and human sexuality strikes me as the healthier one, but you can’t force someone else into healthiness, and they have the right to hurt each other along these lines, if indeed they do end up hurting each other in the way you fear they might.
Where you and your husband do have grounds to talk to his sister about is his stated support of notoriously homophobic organizations. You two can state your objections, ask for more details about her positions, and remind her of your support for gay people and opposition to conversion therapy, not merely on the grounds of its inefficacy but also its cruelty. I don’t know if your sister-in-law is still a fundamentalist herself or thinks that you and your husband are fundamentalists, but if there’s an opportunity for you to clarify your values and/or religious commitments, by all means take it. That’s where the real opportunity to do good lies, not in trying to convince your sister-in-law that her boyfriend might be gay.