Ask Richard: Gay Atheist Insulted and Harassed by Three Family Members April 25, 2011

Ask Richard: Gay Atheist Insulted and Harassed by Three Family Members

Richard,

I’ve been out as gay and atheist for quite a while now. I have a steady relationship with someone, and almost my entire family, which is entirely Catholic, has taken it in stride very well. However, my oldest sister and her husband and my grandfather are the complete opposite. They refuse to acknowledge my boyfriend as my boyfriend (calling him instead that friend I’m always hanging out with), and have both deleted me off facebook. At holidays when I meet my family they always preempt it with a warning to not “talk so much” to avoid political and religious arguments. My grandfather has a personal mission to save my soul and bombards me with Christian and racist conservative emails each week, despite me asking him politely to stop.

I feel like it this is starting to reach harassment levels, with the things my sister says to my face hurting me extremely (once compared my love for my boyfriend as love for a broom). I’m terrified to bring him around any of my family for fear of what they’ll do to him, but my younger sister has invited both of us to her high school graduation. Do I bring him? How can I get them to “respect my beliefs” (they’re not really beliefs…) and stop harassing me!?

Sincerely,
A Friend

Dear Friend,

I think you and your boyfriend should definitely go to your younger sister’s graduation. You should honor both her accomplishment and her excellent character for inviting both of you.

And I think it’s time for you to stand up and assert your rights.

You have three incorrigible bigots in what sounds like an otherwise open-minded and loving family, and they will continue to inject their venom into the whole family as long as all of you let them. You’re not going to get them to “respect your beliefs,” but you can certainly demand that they treat you and your boyfriend respectfully.

You should not put up with any more insults and harassment, and you should not have to fight these three stone-throwing sinners all by yourself. If the rest of your family has been accepting of you and your boyfriend, then they should stick up for you against these hateful three, and you should not feel shy about enlisting their support.

I usually suggest things that might reconcile family conflicts, but I think this situation is beyond that. This calls for a correction. Such confrontations are never comfortable, but often the consequence of avoiding confronting bullies is much worse suffering for many more people. The toxic effects of unchallenged hatred and abuse get worse and spread.

Get as many of the rest of your family as you can to stand with you and your boyfriend. Tell your allies what you intend to say, so that they won’t balk half way through it. Emphasize that the healthy attitude of the rest of the family is at stake here. Be sure to confer with your boyfriend about all this beforehand, making sure that he is also on board with you. I’m sure that this isn’t the first nor will it be the last time that the two of you will have to assert yourselves against bigots who are behaving like playground bullies. But bullies are cowards. They crumble when confronted with superior numbers and resolute opposition.

When you talk to the three, if you can keep your cool and maintain a steady, calm, business-like voice, your effect will be much more powerful than if you descend into shouting and insulting. I can’t overemphasize the sense of command you’ll experience by remaining the adult while your opponent degenerates into an immature tantrum. If they shout, dismiss it with “It’s childish of you to shout.” If they become vulgar, dismiss it with “It’s childish of you to be vulgar.” If they insult you, dismiss it with “That’s a childish insult. I’m not going to fall for that.” Give their tactics no more acknowledgment than that, and stick to these talking points:

1. Tell them that your younger sister has shown that she has more love in her heart than all three of them combined, and that you and your boyfriend will be there to celebrate her graduation and to show gratitude for her accepting and gracious nature. Tell them that if they want to spoil her special day by objecting to you and your boyfriend, then it will be on their shoulders. If they’re uncomfortable, they can stay home, but you and your boyfriend will not be intimidated to stay away.

2. Tell your oldest sister and her husband that avoiding discussing religion and politics is probably a good idea for this family, but that does not mean that they can say whatever they want to you while you must remain silent. Tell them that you will confront them in front of everyone else every single time they even hint at an insult or a dismissal of you or your boyfriend. You will demand loudly “What exactly do you mean by that?” every single time. They will not be able to slip away after delivering one of their insults. Everyone else will have to hear it. If they don’t want that kind of scene at family gatherings, then they are the ones who will have to keep their mouths shut, not you.

3. Tell them that you and your boyfriend are a legitimate part of the family, and neither of you will bow and scrape to their ignorance and self-importance. Say, “This is (your boyfriend’s name). He’s my boyfriend. I love him. Grow up and deal with it. Get over your childish, ignorant homophobia, and stop pretending that you’re superior to anyone else. You’re not. No one here thinks that you are. You haven’t fooled anyone but yourselves.”

4. Either at this discussion or separately, tell your grandfather that you have politely asked him to stop emailing you the objectionable material, but he has persisted. So you have already blocked him from your email. It won’t reach you. Anything similar that he sends by regular mail will be returned unopened. Tell him that as a grandfather, he’s in a position to be a good role model for the rest of the family, but his racism, intolerance, and self-righteousness will keep most younger people from looking up to him.

Friend, these three will probably not change their inner attitude toward you, but your goal will be to stop their outward mistreatment of you. This will be an uncomfortable process, but accepting such mistreatment will only invite worse, and it will teach the younger ones that it’s acceptable to mistreat others. Don’t knuckle under and let these pious prigs cheat you, your boyfriend, your younger sister and the rest of the good people in your family out of the love and acceptance that should flow freely between all of you.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.


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  • Steve

    Or instead of confronting them directly, ask other family members to tell them to stop being such assholes. It may actually be more effective to show them that their behavior isn’t just damaging the relationship between you and them, but the one between them and the rest of the family.

    I agree about your grandfather’s emails. Those should be redirected straight into the junk folder or the recycle bin. Very easy to set up.

  • John

    Threatening to resign from the family (and ACTUALLY resigning from it!) is always an option! Its one I have pondered myself for several reasons. Let those who insist on being homophobic, and religiously bigoted be the source of that family division. Its not YOU!

  • anna N

    Telling them to stop is the only possible way. Thanks for the stern response to that. It makes me sick to my stomach every time I hear people being bullied for their sexual orientation.
    Friend, I hope your family has the guts to stand up to those bullies!

  • Digitus Impudicus

    I am not advocating violence, but had my sister (whom I adore) suggested that my love for someone was like the “love of a broom”, I would have been strongly tempted to punch her right in her dirty, evil pie-hole.
    Don’t punch your sister.

  • Rover Serton

    Digitus Impudicus,

    I think a pithy reply would have been “actually, Sis, more like a vibrator than a broom. You KNOW what I mean”.

    Rover.

  • On a case-by case basis, give each family member the respect they deserve.

    Let the words of the “bigoted three” roll off your back like water off a duck. Don’t give their words any value and they won’t stick. Don’t give them power over you.

    Making an email rule to direct their emails to your delete folder is a good idea.

    When they harass you, simply call them a bigot. After a while, they will probably get tired of being called a bigot and stop harassing you (or at least avoid you).

  • Claudia

    You also need to emphasize that your presence as a gay man is not a “statement” any more than your vicious bitch sister’s presence as a heterosexual is a “statement”.

    I say this because it’s likely that by “being quiet” they mean “I can mention my husband, my family, all the things that make me who I am and it’s not a statement, but you mentioning your boyfriend in conversation is a political statement”. Bigots do this all the time; gay men holding hands is “shoving their lifestyle in my face” but a straight couple making out is different. It’s a bullshit double standard and it needs to be cut off.

    Enlist your parents especially. Tell them that you love them and know and appreciate that they accept you for who you are, but that is seems like your sister feels supported in her bullying because they choose not to intervene. Warn them that your tolerance of this ends now and that every single time your sister tries implicity or explicitly to bully you you intend to make it a very ugly, very non-ignorable shit-fest, so “keeping the peace” by pretending not to see/hear your sister being a bigoted bullying asshole is no longer an option. They can no longer pretend not to see to keep the peace, because as long as this behavior persists, you will not let them have peace at the cost of your dignity.

  • The Other Tom

    Friend,

    In general I agree with Richard’s advice. You’re going to have to have a confrontation. It’s probably going to be ugly. You need to enlist support from the rest of the family.

    However, you may wish to consider that this event is not the venue for an ugly argument. Your little sister deserves better than to have her siblings and grandfather having a screaming match at her high school graduation.

    So, my advice: Have the unpleasant confrontation well in advance of the graduation. Make plain that you are not going to argue with them at the graduation, but that if they misbehave you will quietly leave and your little sister will be told that it is their fault that you had to leave. Make plain that AFTER the graduation, you will do exactly as Richard recommends.

    Then on the day of the graduation, bring a beautiful card for your little sister. In it, write her a note telling her how much you love her and how proud of her you are not only that she graduated high school but that she is such a wonderful caring person. Explain in the card that you were forced by family members to leave to avoid an angry family spat spoiling her graduation, but that you love her and wish you could have been there. Seal it in an envelope and write little sister’s name on it. Put the card in your pocket, and if your sister or her husband or your grandfather give you or your boyfriend a hard time that day, either hand the card to little sis and tell her you love her and will talk to her soon and then depart immediately, or if she’s not free and present hand the card to one of your parents and ask them to give it to little sis for you and then depart. And if the family members don’t misbehave… take the card home unopened and throw it away.

    One other bit of advice: You need to be very blunt to the rest of your family that your continued presence at family events is contingent on civil behavior from your sister, her husband, and your grandfather. Tell them outright that if those three can’t behave either they’ll have to be uninvited (or asked to leave) or you will stop showing up, because the family’s failure to back you in this would be a sign that they have no respect for you.

  • Larry

    A really, really long response when all that needs saying is “kiss my a**!” and cutting ties to those people. They have a right to their opinions, no matter how bigoted, but you don’t have to hear them. The big problem here is that people are always looking for the easy answer instead of taking care of the ‘problem.’ You are willing to let the person you love be exposed to this crap? If you can’t say ‘shove it’ I guess you can always write for advice on how to accept responsibility for your own life.

  • WebHybrid

    Pardon the theist-sullied derivation of this word, but: hallelujah! Thank you non-jesus!

    I was getting very very close to deleting the RSS feed for this blog when this entry appeared. At last, some assertive advice for somebody.

    A rigid, stupid, controlling person who demands silence and lives to suppress diversity does not respond to polite acquiescence. That only reinforces the misguided belief that such demands have been successful.

    I say the entire idea of what “success” means needs an upgrade.

  • Miles

    If possible, maybe you and your boyfriend could offer to host the next family get together? It’s a lot harder to turn your nose up at someone when you’ve accepted their hospitality.

  • Tony

    Every time you get an offensive email off your grandfather you should reply with one featuring gay porn. If he objects tell him that if he stops sending you emails you find offensive, you’ll stop sending him ones back.

  • Tim

    Don’t put up with it. A few people might be saying “Don’t let them get to you, don’t let their words hurt you…” well I know as well as you do that words hurt like hell, no matter how you slice it. Chanting about “sticks and stones…” may work in 4th grade on the playground, but this is real life. Those 3 people aren’t going to stop just because you pretend it doesn’t hurt you. You have to confront them, and deal with it. I agree fully with Richard’s advice.

  • Matt H

    The rest of your family might not want to rock the boat. Definitely speak to them and tell them just how much you are being hurt. If they are true family, they will back you up after you tell them your feelings. If they still don’t back you up, they aren’t worth being called family.

  • I went through this drill recently in support of my brother and his partner of 20 years. My cousins voted to strip away their rights to marry and “we’re not helping them come to a different decision by being vocal about it.” My entire immediate family stood by them and did not attend our family reunion/picnic last year. These people have been bigots this whole time and we never stood up to them. When we finally did it was very ugly and we ended up having a lot of FB confrontations I’d rather not have. It would have been worse still to share potato salad with bigots who don’t know what real love is.

  • Chris Seguin

    Simple solution – carry on with life as if these 3 little piggies do not exist – just because they are family does not obligate you to respect or love them . . . people who deserve respect and love do not act this way – ignore them – look right through them – treat them like strangers – politely and without a hint of anything else that may resemble a real relationship. Excise them from your life – they are not required – the rest of the family and your friends are all you need. . .

  • CelticWhisper

    This is a great example of the difference between family and relatives.

    Family will stand by you and love and care about you for who you are. Some family are relatives and some relatives are family, but the overlap is not absolute.

  • mike

    @Tony

    Best idea ever!

    You can even set this up automatically. Fill a folder with interesting files. Make a script that returns a random file. On receipt of an email from grandpa, auto reply with a file returned from the script, and delete email from grandpa.

    Problem solved.

  • Richard Wade

    Tit-for-tat is never a good idea. Don’t base your level of behavior on the level of someone else’s behavior. That process will always spiral downhill. Follow your own standards, and keep them above reproach. Never do what you condemn in others. Always take the high road.

  • What I don’t understand is what business it is of theirs who “A Friend” falls in love with. If they don’t like it then they have the option to stop associating with him. What they cannot do is tell him to love someone else. That is plainly ridiculous.

  • I have had to cut off family members, including my grandfather, for precisely this sort of thing. In my case, I am not gay, but I am an atheist, I work in the environmental compliance industry, and am generally just not Tea Party material.

    Several years ago, my grandfather, after years of bullying behavior, started ranting at me about the allegedly horrible nature of environmental law, and by extension of me as someone who makes a living with these laws. I asked if he had read any of the relevant laws, and his response was that he didn’t need to read them in order to know that they were terrible. When I pointed out that every statement that he had made about them was factually incorrect, he threw me out of his house. He was cheered by some cousins, but most thought he was a bully but tolerated him anyway, and these latter ones figured I’d come back eventually.

    Seven years later, and I am still not back. When family members try to talk me into coming back, I point out that he was the one who had behaved poorly (and had been doing so for decades) and that I would return if and when he apologized. When it is pointed out that he would never apologize (to the best of my knowledge, he has never once admitted to being wrong about anything, no matter how small and no matter how much evidence has proven him wrong), I respond that this is his problem, not mine. I’m perfectly happy without him and his ally family members.

  • JustAGuy

    @Richard

    You got me. If I had been drinking coffee, I would have actually done a spit take.

    Love the advice!

  • Ron in Houston

    Friend

    1. There is a lot of truth in the “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” In theory nothing anyone says can hurt you. It only hurts you when you let it. Notice I say “in theory” because it’s difficult in practice. However, one of the reasons to practice with these situations is to not take what someone says to heart. So, I second the advice to go to the younger sisters graduation.

    2. Ideally, we have compassion for everyone – even bigots. Our ability to change people is really quite small especially if they don’t want to change. I think that if you can find it in your heart to have compassion for even bigots you’ll be much happier and more adjusted in life.

  • LisaR

    I’ve experienced some of this kind of treatment with relatives over religious and political issues. I finally came to realize, years ago, that while you can’t pick who is on your family tree, you can prune off some diseased branches. My life has been much less toxic as a result. Surround yourself with people who love and support you for who you are and leave the rest behind.

  • Ibis

    @Friend If you don’t have a chance to confront your family ahead of time, keep in mind that you don’t have to sit with them at sis’s graduation. You can sit by yourselves to avoid the conflict ruining her big day.

    If you take Richard’s advice and confront them, make sure to point out that no matter how much they bully you, you aren’t going to change, so they’re bullying you for their own pleasure not for any “higher purpose”. Only immoral people bully others for the pleasure of it. (Maybe this will get them to feel ashamed of themselves, if not then, perhaps later.)

  • littlejohn

    My wife and I are liberal atheists in a conservative state (Indiana). One of my wife’s cousins put us on the list of people he emails racist, moronic anti-Obama “jokes” to. I politely asked him to stop several times. He played stupid and claimed not to understand why pictures of the president with a bone in his nose is racist, not funny.
    So I offered to beat the shit out of him. The emails stopped.
    This might not work for everybody.

  • Live for yourself!!! Not to the expectations of others.

  • I agree with Steve (first comment) – you have to find some alliance inside family. It’s sickening how much this is a common theme with gay person’s family. Trust me things are much worse in 3rd world countries, I heard some horror stories.