(brotherly) pride and (anti-gay) prejudice and (avoiding sibling rivalry issues returning like) zombies
September 14, 2010 10:14 AM   Subscribe

Calling adult younger siblings with older siblings who sometimes annoy them (and anyone else with an opinion on said matters): I'm proud of my gay younger brother for a stand he's taken (some would say finally); should/how I express this to him without accidentally being patronizing? Long details within.

My brother (who is about 4 years younger) and I have had, in the past, a fairly contentious relationship, having, in large part, to do with the age he was when I came out and how a lot of the process happened (even longer long story), which was made more complex by the fact that he is also gay. Those problems have worked themselves out, and as much as I love him, no one would consider us close. (We both live with our partners in the same city, but rarely see each other - or even talk - unless another family member is visiting.)

One of the odder parts of our relationship is his 'closet status' with our family. While I have always been open about who my ex and current partner were, and my immediate family has, for the vast majority of that time, been incredibly welcoming of these men, in his relationship with his boyfriend/partner B., my brother has always been closed about in strange ways. Even though they have lived in multiple apartments together and gone on many vacations together that he has shared openly with us all, he has treated him as his roommate and friend, even going so far as to act as if they slept in separate rooms when my parents were visiting. My family is of the stereotypically repressed white Protestant variety, so it is very easy not to talk about these things, but he was fooling no one, and to me, who had, for most of my adult life, been welcomed to share this part of my life (or as much as the repressed share), it seemed sad that he felt he had to act this way. However, I never called him on it, partly because I wanted him to do what he felt comfortable with and partly because for some of the time, our relationship wasn't such that it would have been possible. My partners (ex and current), who were both far more emotionally in touch with themselves and had family's that, if anything, overshared, tended to pick at the issue when it was just the 3 of us, and my brother tended to have multiple reasons, all as valid as something like that can be, so I left it alone.

Fast forward to this weekend... but first a little background, we've always had varying degrees of 'outness' beyond the immediate family. I've brought boyfriends to Thanksgiving or other family events, and again, while it was never fully stated who this guy with Mike was (at first because I was doing a favor to make my mom comfortable and eventually because it didn't need to be made), our family has reacted across a wide spectrum. On the first overnight holiday, my paternal grandparents set me and my ex in one of the few rooms with one bed, when there were plenty of other options, long before even I was ready to make such an obvious statement like sleeping with someone under the same roof of my parents. (The look on my face when my grandmother asked if we'd be comfortable in a bed of that size was apparently priceless.) On the other hand, my mom's side is far more conservative. Though two of my mom's siblings and my grandmother have been fine, even going out of their way to be awkwardly inclusive, the only experience we've had with my mother's asshole brother was a Thanksgiving 10 years ago, when I had no idea he and his brood were showing up. This is a man who, in my teenage years, I heard preach a sin on the evils of homosexuality, so I knew what I was getting into. But because I was young-ish and because I wasn't prepared for him showing up, I didn't handle it as well as I should have. There was no conflict; in fact, though he and his family barely spoke to me, they basically did not acknowledge the existence of my ex, who at the time I'd been with for 5 years and lived with. They just looked right through him. He was a trooper, especially now looking back on it, because I'd really thrown him in the proverbial lions den, and though we've since broken up, I've made it clear to my mother that, though I'm not going to start shit, I won't be treated that way, and I'll be picking my family functions more carefully. This was met with understanding (from my mother) and light praise (from my father, who doesn't like my mom's brother anyway.)

So this weekend, my mother sends an email to my brother and I , telling us that though we're 'probably not interested', it would mean a lot to my grandmother (which is what she says when she wants us to do something for her) if we would reach out to our cousin who is (somewhat) local in the military and through with training, waiting to be stationed and incredibly bored and wouldn't it be nice if we could make familial contact., yadda, yadda. This cousin is, as you may have guessed, the son of the aforementioned rude uncle, and though he was just a kid when last we saw him and won't be held responsible for the rudeness of his father and mother, he's someone who's 10 years younger than both of us and who, despite 1/8th shared genetics, someone we have nothing in common with, as well as someone whom other relatives -- from my even much younger teenage cousin to my sister to occasionally my own grandmother, have labeled not the most pleasant person to be around. I ignored the missive, as is typical for me. My brother, who is in more constant contact with my whole family because he is strong enough to make the effort as well as, in the past, being more flexible about what he would tolerate, sent a reply this morning, cc'ing me on it, giving his reasons why. He clearly and politely explained to my mom that he's considered making the effort for my mom and grandmother's sake (this apparently isn't the first time this has been brought up to him, despite it being new to me), he really feels he has nothing to offer this kid. But in the most important part of this letter (to me), he said that very clearly that though he may have been willing to do so in the past, he has reached the point in his life where he has no intention of presenting his relationship with B. as anything less than what it truly is and such issues have definitely been a 'point of contention' with this branch of the family in the past.

Hopefully, needless to say, I'm incredibly pleased that he's taken this action, as it was something I worried he'd never do, and while it may be clear that my next action should be to tell him how proud I am, it feels not quite that easy. Though our relationship is far better than it was in the past, we have the tendency, like many siblings I think, to rub each other the wrong way. When we get together as a family, even though we're all adults and now all in our 30s, my brother and sister and I fall immediately into old roles, and my brother has been really sensitive to me being his pain in the ass, know-it-all older brother, and I really would like to avoid that happening. Looking back, I can see situations where I've done this (like me giving sage advice when I wasn't in any sort of position to do so) and understand how I've been at fault. But at other times, I've rubbed him wrong and don't know why. I'm obviously bean-plating what should be a quick response but because of our history this feels both like a big deal and an opportunity I don't want to fuck up.

tl;dr: My brother has responded to a difficult situation with a eloquent, strong statement and I am very proud of him. How do I best express this without pressing some hidden "little brother" buttons?
posted by MCMikeNamara to Human Relations (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
In a similarish context with my own sometimes rivalrous sibling, I've gone with two beers and an attaboy, in that order.
posted by PMdixon at 10:19 AM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Right on, [brother.] I couldn't have said it better."

I would avoid anything along the lines of explicit "I'm proud of you," because that feels somewhat parental.

If you feel like it, this might be a good time to extend an invitation for brunch or whatever.
posted by charmcityblues at 10:23 AM on September 14, 2010 [4 favorites]

I've gone through some stuff like that in the past and I feel like a quick "Liked the note you wrote to Mom, good for you." I'm also an older sibling and I feel that if I'm not in a situation where direct conflict with my younger sibling is at issue, saying "way to go" is almost always appreciated, even if other helpful advice on things the two of us butt heads on is unwelcome.

I think keeping it short and not-too-schmoopy, supportive but not "it's about time," and positive without being "you have always wanted my support and now you have it" is the way to go. I have a hard time saying "I'm proud of you" without feeling patronizing, but I'm frequently surprised how it's almost never heard as patronizing.
posted by jessamyn at 10:25 AM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would go with something short and simple like, "I completely agree with you, and I'm glad you said that to mom. Thanks for doing that, and I'm really happy that we're on the same page on this."

In other words, don't make it a grand statement of your pride about his embracing his true self. You're happy about his specific actions in this situation, and you want to let him know that you endorse his course of action and are glad about it. I suspect that any big gestures designed to acknowledge the long road it took to get to this point may be uncomfortable for him, for a variety of reasons, so I'd stick to just this situation and that you're happy about the way it turned out. He'll get what you're talking about, and he can pick up on as much of it as feels right for him.
posted by decathecting at 10:26 AM on September 14, 2010

"Dude, that was awesome," or "Well spoken, well said." Depending on which level of casual you feel more comfortable with. Trust me, he can pull in the context himself.
posted by KathrynT at 10:34 AM on September 14, 2010 [5 favorites]

Reply back to his email with:

Dear Brother:

Thank you for the email to mom. It expressed my feelings on the situation exactly. I really appreciate it. I hope to see you soon.


Older Brother
posted by RajahKing at 10:40 AM on September 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

> "Right on, [brother.] I couldn't have said it better."

This is perfect. I have a younger brother with whom I have had similarly awkward relations (though things have gotten a lot better in recent years—age has a usefully mellowing effect), and I would have grabbed that wording gratefully if I had been in a similar situation.
posted by languagehat at 10:57 AM on September 14, 2010

I would reply to him only with a simple, "Well played."
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:13 AM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I was in college, I got arrested at an anti-war protest. For complicated reasons I won't go into here, my grandparents found out independently of me telling them.

They sent me a card in the mail telling me how proud they were to have a granddaughter who stood up for her beliefs in that way.

That card meant more to me than any other correspondence I have ever received.

Like your story, this was also the set of grandparents I'm not very close to, from the side of the family that is less tight-knit. They are Good Country People who I would have thought would disapprove mightily if they found out their granddaughter was arrested in connection with radical leftist politics.

That said, it sounds like your thing is slightly less of a big deal. Unless you are the snail-mail type, an email or phonecall stating your pride in him is probably a better idea.
posted by Sara C. at 1:26 PM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you don't want to email him directly or take him out for a beer (both of which seem like great ways to handle it) another option might be to reply-all to his original email and say something like "I wasn't planning to respond to this request, because I wasn't quite sure how to articulate my objections to seeing [cousin], but [little bro] said it all perfectly. Consider all his points seconded." That way your pride and agreement is clear, but you don't have to take it up with him privately.
posted by dizziest at 1:45 PM on September 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

Thanks everybody for your great answers and calming me down. As I re-read my post and the responses, I realized I was maybe estranging my brother and I more than we are. (Just because we've had issues in the past and have not much of a relationship now doesn't mean we have an actual bad relationship now.) So I just went ahead and shot him an email that felt right and ended up being pretty much what was recommended (All answers could be best but I selected the one I did because it was the closest to what I actually ended up writing.) His response was appreciative and allowed him to vent at my mom's expectations to an obviously understanding ear.

I'm still proud of him, but I just kept that to myself.

So while I doubt either one of us is going to be hanging out with our cousin, the whole thing has achieved a different family closeness. So score one for my mom in a roundabout way1 and one more for AskMetafilter -- thanks again.

1 This may have been my mom's plan all along. "Manipulative" has too evil a connotation to be accurate; let's just say if Lost was real and I was one of the island's chosen, I would have ended up there when MCMomNamara was ready for that plane to crash and not 108 minutes sooner.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 7:03 PM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

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