Should I tell my grandparents I'm gay?
January 21, 2007 6:53 PM   Subscribe

Should I tell my grandparents I'm gay?

Some background: I'm a sophomore in college, out of the closet at school since soon after I arrived and out at home, in varying stages, for 1-8 months. My close family is supportive and kind, and the members of my extended family who I've told have acted similarly.

I've got one grandparent still alive on each side of my family, both over 80; one has increasingly severe (but still early-stage) Alzheimer's, and one has annoying, undiagnosed adult ADD but is otherwise healthy. I don't really know how open- or liberal-minded they are; and while I assume they'd would be fine with me being gay, I really have no evidence to believe that. And I don't know if telling them is worth the risk of them possibly not approving. I've discussed this really briefly with my mom, and she couldn't tell me what to expect.

Do I have any moral obligation to tell them, as a part of my family and as someone I should be able to trust and be fully open with? (Does it matter that one of them is supporting my college education on the order of $4000 per semester?) Or is it just a kind gesture I should extend to them? Should I tell one grandparent and not the other? I don't even know if my grandfather would remember that I'm gay the next time I see him.

I hope I'm not missing something obvious here; it's not something I worry about very much, just a constant minor nagging at the back of my mind.
posted by the_arbiter to Human Relations (41 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
play it by ear I would think...
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 6:58 PM on January 21, 2007

If your grandparents are so old, and one wouldn't even remember, I guess I can't see any possible reason to explain this to them.

If they're over 80, is it a safe assumption that they'd at all be liberal enough to not freak out? Are they too old not to freak out? Are they open-minded and wouldn't care? If you're not sure, why's it really matter?

I guess I don't see what you stand to gain here, unless it'll kill you to know that you never came out to them when they're no longer here. Does it bother you that your deceased grandparents never knew?
posted by disillusioned at 7:01 PM on January 21, 2007

I personally don't think that you have an obligation to tell them. While I am very open with my mother and immediate family, there are things that I don't tell my grandfather who is in his mid 80's. He's quite mentally sharp , but has a tendency towards anxiety.

Recently, I was laid-off and unemployed for five months, but we all kept that from him to spare him undue stress. Even though I was financially fine, it would have caused him no end of worry. Then there are other long term issues, like my spiritual leanings that I've never disclosed either. As a Southern Baptist, it would cause him a lot of grief to know that I am not a Christian.

In your situation, it's a bit trickier because if you choose not to tell them that you are gay, then there are entire parts of your life that you may have to keep from them. If you ever find yourself in a long term committed relationship- it could make things like attending family gatherings with your partner difficult. Although if you are separated by distance (as I am with my grandfather) this may not be as big of an issue.
posted by kimdog at 7:12 PM on January 21, 2007

I'm a gay man. My grandparents died either before I was born or when I was a very small child, so this question never arose for me. With other relatives, I've come out with some and not come out with others.

I'm not a fan of making a big "announcement" out of it. Basically, I just live life as if people already know I am out and act accordingly. And, if some situation arises that requires further clarification about my sexual orientation, I handle it. But I don't see any "moral obligation" to tell people, nor to be "fully open" with anyone. That's also a matter of personality, YMMV -- as a shy, private person, there's lot of stuff totally unrelated to sexual orientation which I don't feel a need to share with people.
posted by Robert Angelo at 7:18 PM on January 21, 2007

I think its a bad idea to come out to people who's support you are relying on if there is a chance they might freak out on you and withdraw said support. I'd say wait till after the check for you last semester is deposited before you risk it.
posted by subtle_squid at 7:22 PM on January 21, 2007

as a gay man myself, i don't think you're under a moral obligation to say or do anything.
posted by brandz at 7:26 PM on January 21, 2007

Tell them if they push, or if you get in a serious relationship. Hell, tell them if you really want to for you (as long as there isn't a lot of money at stake. But otherwise, if you aren't that close, why tell them anymore than any other detail about your relationships. (btw, I am gay and out to my remaining granparent since I got into a serious relationship)
posted by crabintheocean at 7:29 PM on January 21, 2007

Sorry, my typing and proofing just sucked. I guess what I'm trying to say is - view as a choice about how you'd like to relate to them, not in terms of a duty of disclosure.
posted by crabintheocean at 7:32 PM on January 21, 2007

I was (pleasantly) surprised when my great-aunt, who was about 85 at the time (a couple of years ago) told me she had made many gay friends while living in South Florida. In some ways, she was progressive for her generation -- she ran a business and was more financially savyy than either of my grandmothers -- but not enough so that I would have assumed she would even acknowledge homosexuality. Turns out she was cool with it. Sometimes the old folks surprise you.

(Her longtime boyfriend, though, was pretty homophobic.)

If you tell them you're gay and they are cool with it, then you will be glad that they got to know that part of you. Maybe you could feel them out a little on how they feel about the topic in general.
posted by Airhen at 7:32 PM on January 21, 2007

"I think its a bad idea to come out to people who's support you are relying on if there is a chance they might freak out on you and withdraw said support. I'd say wait till after the check for you last semester is deposited before you risk it."

Yes, be sure to hide it as long as it's financially rewarding.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 7:42 PM on January 21, 2007

If you have partner that you want to introduce, then tell them. Otherwise, how often do you think your other relatives announce they are straight to your grandparents? Does it ever come up with your cousins who aren't dating anyone? It's not like you're going to be sitting with grandpa and suddenly exclaim 'omg! that guy/gal (which ever way you lean as i'm not sure if you're a guy or gal yourself) has the nicest ass!'. If they ask if you're seeing anyone you can just say no, or that you're sort of dating someone. I don't think you should lie about it, but that's a far step from 'coming out'.
posted by nadawi at 8:11 PM on January 21, 2007

Don't underestimate your grandparents. The aged are said to dissociate. I think there's good argument to suggest the aged are forced into dissociation by being protected from life's more stimulating details. Little wonder they're predisposed to losing brain tone. Tell them. Include them. They weren't born yesterday. I'm surprised your parents haven't told their parents. Good heavens.
posted by de at 8:12 PM on January 21, 2007

Do I have any moral obligation to tell them, as a part of my family and as someone I should be able to trust and be fully open with?

You do not have to FULLY open with either your parents or grandparents.

(Does it matter that one of them is supporting my college education on the order of $4000 per semester?)

Nope. You're going to get an education, that's all that matters.

Or is it just a kind gesture I should extend to them?

They really don't need to know your sexual preferences.

Should I tell one grandparent and not the other?

That's up to you.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:13 PM on January 21, 2007

My parents are nearly that age and while I'm not gay, my oldest brother (RIP) was, and neither freaked, as you would hope. Some older folks get more conservative as they age, perhaps, but others have "seen it all" and are a lot more open than you might imagine.

That said, if it were me, I'd only "come out" if they pointedly ask. I wouldn't let money enter into the equation; if the gentleman supporting you is rabidly homophobic and would deny you support based on your sexuality, there are other places to find the money.
posted by maxwelton at 8:16 PM on January 21, 2007

Given that there is a financial component, I would want to know what I was getting into before I jumped in head-first. No, you don't want to under-estimate the old people, so to speak, but you also don't want to give them too much credit if you know better, just as you wouldn't with any other person. If you have reason to beleive that them knowing you are gay would hurt them, and if it doesn't hurt you, then don't tell them. I don't know, maybe your family is full of long-lived people but 80 is getting up there, so in a few years (not to be crass, but to be realistic) it may not matter.

So, in a nutshell -- unless it was really very important to me, I wouldnt put access to my education nor my future on the line unless I had a good idea of what would happen. I have friends with tons of student loans, and trust me, I don't wish that on you or anyone else. I hate to be this way about it, but if $4,000.00 / semester is a lot for you (and it would have been for me) then I would know the outcome before embarking on the endeavor.
posted by Medieval Maven at 8:24 PM on January 21, 2007

The thing I didn't notice from your question is exactly why you want to tell them. If you want to tell them because they are an important part of your life and you want them to be fully informed about who you are, then I guess go ahead. I can't imagine things would go that poorly.

On the other hand, if you feel some sort of obligation to do so, none exists. I had only one grandparent still alive when I came out, and I never mentioned it to her before she died. It didn't make our relationship any less, and I certainly don't mind that I never had that conversation with her.
posted by andoatnp at 8:26 PM on January 21, 2007

Could you have a conversation with them about gay people or perhaps gay marriage, as it's the current subject in the news, in general and thus ascertain their opinions on it first? I'm not quite sure how you'd segue into it without great awkwardness, but perhaps while watching a newscast or reading an article about the subject in the paper you could bring it up.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:30 PM on January 21, 2007

They haven't purchased any kind of disclosure from you with their college support. And no matter what crash davis says, I'm guessing he wouldn't see the situation as one that demands complete confession of everything you do that they might not approve of (sex, drinking, drugs, whatever), and more than a straight student should let his bank know every time he or she gets nailed. So the money isn't the issue.
posted by LGCNo6 at 8:40 PM on January 21, 2007

Would you discuss your romantic escapades with your grandparents if you were straight?

If yes, go ahead and tell them. I wouldn't make a big deal out of it, if it were me, I would just slip it in to casual conversation. (e.g. "Oh, yeah, I started seeing this really nice guy recently")

If not, then there's absolutely no reason why you would need to let them know this particular detail of your personal life.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 8:52 PM on January 21, 2007

My close family is supportive and kind, and the members of my extended family who I've told have acted similarly.

And I don't know if telling them is worth the risk of them possibly not approving.

Do I have any moral obligation to tell them, as a part of my family and as someone I should be able to trust and be fully open with? (Does it matter that one of them is supporting my college education on the order of $4000 per semester?)

First and foremost, I recommend that you factor-out the financial support that is contigent upon what you decide to do. If the financial support is cut-off, as a result of you telling them who you are, you have the ability to seek other avenues -- work-study, loans, etc.

You have been up-front with other family members and have found support and acceptance.

While you are unsure about your grandparents, it is up to you to decide if you want to be "true to them" -- particularly before they pass on.

I would hope (as would you) that they will/would appreciate your gesture of sharing your "true self" with them. Whether or not they can accept such at this time will determine their response. At the very least they will likely be happy that their grandchild felt trusting and truly close enough to open up to them.

I came out to my family and friends a few years after having lost my grandparents. I learned from my parents that they -- the grandparents -- always "knew," (as had my parents) that I was gay. I wish I had had the chance to come-out personally to that generation of my family. In the end, though, I, too, realized that they always "knew" that they "knew."
posted by ericb at 8:58 PM on January 21, 2007

Since your grandparents have never said anything to make you think they may be liberal-minded, I'd avoid telling them.

You're lucky you have the one grandparent with Alzheimer's because you can tell him or her and see what the reaction is. If it's unfavorable, don't sweat it because it will be forgotten the next day (or week or whatever). Then when said grandparent asks you how your love life is going sometime in the future, you will already know what the reaction will be and you can tailor your answer accordingly. Sounds to me like a perfect situation.

OK, I know it's more complicated than that. Honestly, I would only tell them if you they'll be lucid--and alive--for at least the next 5 years. For anything longer, it would be really hard to hide it without feeling like you're living a double life. But for anything less, I'd say you should let your grandparents live their remaining years in peace. If you meet someone special and you haven't told your grandparents, you'd have to exclude your partner from your family life. That would be very hurtful to your partner and can cause some serious resentment.

This is a hard situation and I really hope it all works out well for you. Good luck.
posted by HotPatatta at 9:02 PM on January 21, 2007

I think you have an obligation to study hard and do well in school, if someone is helping you pay the tab.

Acting straight is a lie, but if you want to let the grandparents believe you're straight, to keep them happier, that's not a big deal. If you stop acting straight, and stop hiding your orientation, maybe they'll surprise you with acceptance, and that would be a nice thing.

My Mom is 85 and my nephew is openly gay, although I don't think he ever officially announced it to her. I think she had some private moments of unease, but got over it fast, and has been supportive of him.
posted by theora55 at 9:08 PM on January 21, 2007

the age divide is interesting. i work with many aged people - now alone - some of whom led gay life styles and this same no tell, protect the aged from reality, attitude forces them straight back into closets, pun intended. it's discrimination.
posted by de at 9:21 PM on January 21, 2007

Would you tell your grand parents that you are seeing a girl? Do you talk about that kind of thing with them? If not, then there's no reason to tell them you are gay. If you talk about stuff like that, or they ask about it, then you have some reason to think about telling them.
posted by magikker at 9:49 PM on January 21, 2007

the_arbiter, I was in a similar situation in my early twenties. I'd come out to my dad and brother, but my grandmother was in a rest home with fairly serious Alzheimer's and I didn't know what to do, although my gut was telling me to just go ahead and mention it. My dad argued against it mostly, I later realized, out of his own initial discomfort.

To this day, I regret not casually mentioning that I was gay to my grandmother before she died. I used to imagine how she'd have reacted, and finally decided it as something along the lines of "Eh, so long as you date Jewish men." Then she would have forgotten the conversation. But at least I would have known I shared an important part of my life with her.

I don't think you have any *obligation* to do so, but if the hesitance you're feeling is just normal coming-out jitters, I'd say that generally speaking, in the absence of obvious evidence of homophobia, our worries about reactions of loved ones are almost always more negative than the reality of those reactions. Do what your heart tells you to do.

Yes, be sure to hide it as long as it's financially rewarding.

Don't be so glib, mr_crash_davis. I've known plenty of folks whose homophobic parents would have immediately cut them off and/or kicked them out of the house without a cent if they found out the child was gay. Everyone I know understands that in those situations the best thing to do is shut up about it until you graduate high school, have the bachelor's degree in hand, etc.
posted by mediareport at 10:26 PM on January 21, 2007

Should I tell my grandparents I'm gay?

Does it matter?? Will it in any way change the way you are towards them??

I can understand you wanting to share something very personal about yourself with them, but if it doesn’t have some sort of a context it would seem weird and out-of-place.
posted by hadjiboy at 10:33 PM on January 21, 2007

Does it matter??

Of *course* it matters. Coming out to our families matters a hell of a lot to many of us, hadjiboy. Are you gay? If not, it might be a bit hard to understand how often little assumptions about one's supposed heterosexuality come up in family conversation, and how quickly playing along can start to feel like lying to people you love.
posted by mediareport at 10:37 PM on January 21, 2007

Of *course* it matters

No, I meant if it matters to tell someone who might not be able to comprehend it (with the Alzheimers and ADD), and the_arbiter telling us that he's not sure how they'll react, and your mentioning that they might pull his college tution as well.
posted by hadjiboy at 11:11 PM on January 21, 2007


My grandmother also has Alzheimers. I came out to her for the third time today; she reacted differently each time. At the very least, it makes for a good story.
posted by awesomebrad at 11:19 PM on January 21, 2007 [2 favorites]

Do I have any moral obligation to tell them, as a part of my family and as someone I should be able to trust and be fully open with?

NO. Your grandparents are one generation removed from you and it is not their place to hold any opinion about your sexuality. This is the 21st century we're living in. You wouldn't try to reinforce your straightness with them if you were, would you? At this stage your grandparents probably just want you to visit, act nice, do well in school, and then go home.

As bleak as this sounds I can't see any reason to rock the boat for relatives who obviously don't have a lot of sway over your life (due to their advanced age, etc.) and frankly aren't going to be around that much longer anyhow...
posted by wfrgms at 12:30 AM on January 22, 2007

Reality bites! First priority, finishing your education.

Grandparents have no 'need to know'. Your grandparents are my parent's age (should I call you 'sonny'? :P). Mind, when I was outed to them I was only 13, and that was a year after the Stonewall rebellion. They mostly managed to aquire some grace in the matter, 20 years latter. And my anecdotal evidence suggests my parents were exceptionally narrow-minded.

Beware, some folks seem to decide to come-out to family when they can least afford a traumatic experience, like, when they're in college. For some, this is subconcious sabatage. Question your motives!
posted by Goofyy at 2:46 AM on January 22, 2007

The old folks really can be surprising-- my grandmother (who is 83), has a gay stepson from her second marriage, and I honestly think he is one of her best friends. I NEVER would have guessed it from a fairly conservative Jewish woman, but she is beyond open and welcoming to actively participating in his "gay lifestyle"-- not the sex of course, but she flies up to Atlanta and hangs with him and his boyfriend, goes to the Gay Men's Chorus with him (he's a member), goes to the big parties they throw at their fancy pad, etc. (Please note use of phrase is tongue-in-cheek.)

I think for her it's been a great opportunity to open her mind and heart in ways they were unacceptable when she was younger. Not sure if that is something you've thought about, and if your grandparents are too out of it, might be a moot point-- but how great it might be for them?
posted by miss tea at 3:56 AM on January 22, 2007

You don't have any obligation to tell them, but it could make you feel good about your relationship with them if you are open with them.

Six years ago I told my gran (then aged 78) about a new boyfriend, which was met with complete bafflement. I decided she probably was a bit too old to accept the idea of a gay grandson and decided to drop the subject with her.

Three years later I spoke to my mum, who reconstructed a phone conversation she'd just had with my gran:

gran: What about Michael, we never hear about his girlfriends?
mum: Well... have you never thought that Michael might be gay?
gran: (pause) Well... the idea had crossed my mind, but...
mum: Well, he is.
gran: (long pause) Well, I still think he's wonderful.

When I heard about this I jumped up and down, I was so happy. And since then I've felt closer to her.
posted by creeky at 4:05 AM on January 22, 2007

Why not scout out the territory first? Bring up the subject of gay people, or some particular gay person ("Did you know X was gay?"), and see how they react. If it doesn't bother them, the coast is probably clear. (When my brother came out to me, he started with a general discussion of life possibilities: "How would you feel about me if I were [I forget the various items: a Jesus freak? a soldier?]? How about if I were gay?" When I said I'd be totally fine with that, he said "Well, I am." It took me a moment to adjust to the sudden change from theory to reality, but I was fine with it.)

My grandmother also has Alzheimers. I came out to her for the third time today; she reacted differently each time. At the very least, it makes for a good story.

That is a great story—I'd love to hear the details. You should start a blog, post the story, and send me the link.
posted by languagehat at 6:23 AM on January 22, 2007

Do I have any moral obligation to tell them, as a part of my family and as someone I should be able to trust and be fully open with?

Depends on how close you are to them and how involvement you have in their lives, and vice-versa. Do you feel like you're hiding something from them? It sounds like it's bothering you, and that you want them to know.

I don't think that you need to make a grand pronouncement, but if you feel it's appropriate, just be out around them. At some point, you or your folks will likely be asked to clarify. Hopefully, you will then gain a neat anecdote like creeky's, above.
posted by desuetude at 7:23 AM on January 22, 2007

I've got one grandparent still alive on each side of my family, both over 80

In your shoes (which are quite nice, by the way), I don't think I'd tell them, not unless I had good reason to think they'd not only accept it, but be happy to discover that I'm gay. There's no use risking your happy relationships with people who aren't going to be around much longer and don't really need (and perhaps don't want) to know any particular who, what, where, when, why, or how of your sexual/romantic life.
posted by pracowity at 7:58 AM on January 22, 2007

You have every right not to.

One of the difficult things about navigating the "coming out of the closet" thing (and this is, admittedly, from a bi-ish guy in a monogamous straight relationship with a good deal of gay friends) is that there are two major forces involved:

(1) Those closest to you ought to treat you with care and respect regardless of the particulars of your sex life.

(2) You have a right to privacy, and you should never be forced to talk about your sex life with anybody if you don't want to.

Nowadays, we're all pulling for #1 there, which is very important. But what we need to remember is: your private life is your private life. You aren't obligated to broadcast your bedroom stuff, especially if doing so makes you uncomfortable.

I don't know your situation. It may be that you're particularly close to your grandparents. However, unless you could say that you're 'very good friends,' above and beyond your familial relationship, I'd say: you don't need to tell them.

In short: 'coming out of the closet' is something people do in order to ask that their loves and sex lives be respected and that they get the support they need. It's not something you do because 'you have an obligation.' You never have the obligation to share your own private life with anybody.
posted by koeselitz at 8:11 AM on January 22, 2007

I haven't and will not tell my grandparents. We have a happy relationship, but they are the product of another time and place (rural Montana) and I do not want them to feel responsible for mustering an appropriate reaction (even though my family supports my decision to tell them, if I ever do). I feel that the best thing I can do for them is stretch myself back through time and try to understand them and their lives. As elderly people, I do not feel that they should have to do the same stretching for me. Our relationship is about what I can learn from them, and how I can help them enjoy their last few years.

I don't feel sad about this. If they lived in the same city as I do, I might-- but if you come out to someone you ought not necessarily do so to relieve yourself of pressure, especially if it would put undue pressure on a person who is probably not equipped to deal with it.

People of advanced dage who are dealing with intense mental and physical setbacks are easily upset. When I worked as a companion to the elderly, I was encouraged to talk with them about my life, but to be very careful to avoid talking about things that would cause them undue worry. Because when you are very old and are feeling vulnerable, it is pretty easy to stay up all night worrying about things that normally you wouldn't give a second thought to. I always took this as an excuse to talk about myself as little as possible, which became a great way to practice asking people questions about themselves.

Also, even if a person has liberal views about homosexuality, they can react badly to discovering someone close to them is gay. My friend's mother (who is now in her 80's) was a lounge singer in the 50's and had lots of gay friends. However when my friend came out to her, it did not go well. Tolerance and acceptance are two different things, and proximity has a lot to do with it. I don't mind having Republicans as co-workers, but if my sister told me she was one, it would take a long time to come to terms with it.

Anyhow, I say enjoy the time you have with them and don't make an issue out of it. And someday, when you are dealing with the what-might-have-beens, remember that sword cuts both ways and feel satisfied knowing you practiced restraint by way of compassion.
posted by hermitosis at 9:06 AM on January 22, 2007

I'm a hugely pregnant lesbian, and my partner and I just came back from seeing my 88 year old grandmother and my 87 year old great aunt. They have known I was gay for 20 years, so now it's hard for me to imagine that they would ever *not* know. They could care less, they just want to see that baby, and to have a hand in naming her.
It actually depends in part on how close you want to be with them; for me, my grandparents are/were enormously important, and I was willing to take the risk that they'd freak out so that I wouldn't have to lie to them. They all four lived in my hometown and I grew up close to them. You may not have had that experience, but the fact that one of them loves you enough to pay for college tells me they have some desire for closeness or relatedness. I could be wrong.
posted by pomegranate at 9:36 AM on January 22, 2007

They might already know. My uncle -- who was close in age to your grandparents -- had guessed my sister was a lesbian looong before our mother did. As far as I know he was fine with it, or at least knew to keep his conservative Catholic Republican thoughts on the matter to himself.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:55 AM on January 22, 2007

I'm straight and I would feel no moral obligation to tell my grandparents that
posted by Neiltupper at 1:46 PM on January 22, 2007

« Older Certify a funk bass player   |   Birds nesting in our walls - help Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.