Dear Imprudence: Group Needs Don’t Trump Individual Needs

A somewhat old column from Carloyn Hax brings up a common source of family conflict:

Dear Carolyn:

My conservative, mid-80s grandma literally had a heart attack the day she learned I am gay and marrying my partner. This sounds like sitcom fare, but it isn’t. I know there’s some reason I shouldn’t feel as guilty as everyone is causing me to feel . . . but I figure you’ll be able to articulate it better than I could.

Don’t Laugh

Carloyn’s response is right on the money:

Well, no one is “causing” you to feel guilty, any more than your big fat gay wedding “caused” your grandma to have a heart attack. Your guilt comes from you, and her shock comes from her.

You both have your closely held beliefs. Hers is that couples of the same sex should vanish, not marry. Yours is that good descendants don’t do things they know will displease their elders.

If only because of their negative effects on your and her health, both of these beliefs need to go. In fact, they’re strikingly similar views, at their foundations: You both seem to believe, to different degrees, that group needs trump individual needs. Your grandma believes heterosexuality is the only acceptable sexual orientation (at least in public) — and thinks it’s your duty to set your needs aside to reflect that.

And she rubbed off on you a bit, as will happen in families. You feel that responsibility, and feel bad that your choices didn’t reflect it.

But your choice reflects a reasonable calculation, one I believe society makes now with increasing frequency: The benefit to her peace of mind in your staying closeted is minuscule compared with the harm to your peace of mind in staying closeted.

On a typical day, unless she’s in a homosexual relationship herself, she doesn’t have to think about what gay couples are doing with their lives. On a typical day, if you weren’t allowed to share an honest life with the person you love, you’d think almost of nothing else.

So there’s only one tenable solution: You marry, and she deals with it. I’m sorry the latter possibly involves a cardiac event, but her heart and mind are far more responsible for that than yours are.

We’ve singled out Carolyn Hax for praise before, and this response increases my liking for her. She recognises that many people want to respect and honour their elders, but points out that concealing your identity is disrespectful to yourself, and hiding your relationship is far more damaging than offending your family members with your very existence. That ‘calculation’ so many people make to decide that their needs are less important and less valuable is a common one, and a false one. Like Hax says, being closeted is far more difficult than having to deal with the fact that some of your family members may have a sexual orientation that differs from your own.

We are trained to perform for the group, to smooth things over for the comfort of others. Breaking out of that mindset is hard, but important. We do ourselves no services in pretending to be people we’re not simply because other people are uncomfortable with us, and one of the best ways to shift social attitudes is to refuse to hide, for those who are able to expose themselves that way. Allowing your needs to be subsumed by the needs of the group can have far reaching consequences, including in social justice movements, where people are often told to wait their turn or to set their needs aside ‘for the greater good’ by people who refuse to recognise the urgency of their needs.

Don’t Laugh is under no obligation to make his grandmother more comfortable with who he is. If she can’t deal with it, well, so be it. And he’s also, as Hax points out, not responsible for how she reacts to his identity (although for her own health, I hope she doesn’t have future heart incidents). Bigoted family members aren’t owed anything, and he’s not required to treat her with ‘respect’ if she can’t treat him, his partner, and his relationship with respect.

With time, either she will get over it, or she won’t. The letter writer isn’t responsible for either outcome.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

4 thoughts on “Dear Imprudence: Group Needs Don’t Trump Individual Needs

  1. I like this column, except that it fails to point out that many factors cause a heart attack, and it may have nothing to do with Dont Laugh’s coming out. While stress can agravate the risk of cardiac events, it is not hte only factor, so it is entirely possible that grandma would’ve had a heart attack anyway. I’m sorry about that, but that’s the way it is.

  2. I’m glad you highlight good responses as well as bad ones in the Dear Imprudence column; the good ones are so heartening.

  3. Very good advice indeed—nice to see a good response for a change.

    Evidently, the general principle of this article (refusing to suppress your own identity for others’ comfort) is one that’s very pertinent to the disability community as well. I had to butt up against this concept myself earlier this summer; when I revealed to my parents—albeit indirectly, through my blog—that I was beginning to self-identify as autistic as a sign of solidarity in response to anti-Aspie Supremacy articles posted on Square 8 (I have AS and am considered high-functioning, but it is still very prominent in my behavior), they kept emphasizing how I wasn’t “really” autistic since I wasn’t like “those other” low-functioning autistics that are showered with faux-sympathy in the media. This reignited to a certain extent the constant solidarity vs. appropriation debate that is still being waged in my mind, and since then I’ve had to work on a precarious balance of trying to understand where my parents come from and asserting my own identity. My parents are baby boomers, and since when they were my age mental illness was very taboo and hushed-up, they might find it scary to a certain extent to see an increasing number of people get diagnosed with various conditions. I do not come from that background, and so have become very vocal in talking about my AS (and OCD) since my diagnosis. There are definitely compromises to be made in the process, but I refuse to back down in how I identify. Bravo to Don’t Laugh in doing the same, although hir* grandmother’s reaction no doubt has left hir with a sense of grief and confusion, which I hope ze can handle comfortably.

    *I found it curious that you referred to Don’t Laugh as “he,” considering there’s no indication of gender in the original post and plenty of lesbians refer to themselves as “gay” as well.

  4. Very belated, but I just had to come back and say thanks. I have been struggling to deal with a couple of issues, and I keep coming back to this post to clear my mind.

    So thank you – this was a timely reminder for me and continues to be great advice more than a month later.

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