Weddings, Meeting the Family, and Public Displays of Affection


Weddings, Meeting the Family,

and Public Displays of Affection

by Alyse Knorr

Hello! I have a question about PDA [public displays of affection]. My son is bringing his boyfriend to a family wedding this summer. It will be the first time our extended family sees my son with another boy, although they know he’s gay. They’re very touchy-feely with each other, and I feel really uncomfortable about the possibility that they’ll be that way at the wedding in front of our whole extended family, and in a church. I don’t want to be homophobic, but can I ask them to not do those things just for that one day?
— Anonymous

Alyse Says:

Thank you for your question! The fact that you’re writing in shows that you care about your son’s feelings, and it’s great that you’re seeking resources to ensure you make the right moves here.

The first step to addressing this issue is to explore your own feelings and where they come from. For instance, what do you mean by “uncomfortable”? What is it about the church environment that upsets you? Do you still have issues to work through about being gay and religion, or about seeing gay people touch each other in public? What is it about the extended family that makes you uncomfortable? Have you talked about your son’s relationship with any of them yet? What makes you nervous about them seeing your son with his boyfriend? Does your discomfort come from a protective impulse, or could it be that part of you is ashamed of your son’s identity? In other words, are you afraid of your family rejecting your son?

The next big question to address is: what kind of “touchy-feely” PDA [public displays of affection] are we talking about here? There’s a big difference between holding hands and dry humping on the dance floor (which would be rude behavior for any couple, straight or gay). So how do you tell if you’re being reasonable or not? Consider this question: If your son was straight and engaging in these same “touchy-feely” behaviors with his girlfriend, would you still be concerned about it and want him to stop? In other words, are you uncomfortable with the PDA itself, or are you uncomfortable with the fact that it’s gay PDA? If it’s the latter—and you’ve got to be honest with yourself to realize this—then, unfortunately, that does meet the definition of homophobia.

If it is the latter, take heart in the fact that this discomfort probably stems simply from the fact that gay PDA (should we call it “PDGay”?) is something new to you. In your generation, gay people may have been less “out” than they are today; for instance, when you were your son’s age, fewer gay people may have felt safe holding hands during a wedding ceremony or dancing together during a reception. But “new” does not mean “bad” or “inappropriate”—it just means the world is changing!

After you’ve considered your own feelings on this issue, you can take a variety of approaches. For instance, if you’re more worried about your family’s reaction, then perhaps instead of talking to your son, you could talk to your family and give them a heads-up that your son’s boyfriend will be at the wedding. You don’t need to send them an e-mail with the subject line “GAY ALERT” or anything—but when you’re chatting about hotel arrangements or what gifts you’re getting for the happy couple, casually mention that your son is bringing his boyfriend to the wedding and that you’re very excited for them to meet him. Giving them this heads-up might make you feel more comfortable when the big day arrives.

You can also talk to your son before the wedding, but let him take the lead. Ask him how he feels about his boyfriend meeting the extended family—this is a big day for him, too, and he may be hoping for your guidance or comfort. Listen to your son, and ask him how you can support him at the wedding around your family. Be open and honest, but in a way that prioritizes your son’s feelings, not your own. As you listen, try to put yourself in his shoes. Imagine that you went through the tough experience of coming out and now you have to do that all over again at the wedding (where you may be the only gay couple present). You want your boyfriend to like your family, and you want your family to like your boyfriend. You’re at a wedding—a celebration of love. You want to dance with the person you care about, and to hold their hand during the vows. How would you feel, then, if your parent asked you not to do those things because it makes them uncomfortable?

I know it’s tempting to think that, since it would “just” be for “that one day,” it’s not a big deal to ask your son to be a little less “out” at the wedding. But it’s important to remember that, in your son’s eyes, asking him not to hold his boyfriend’s hand might feel like asking him to stay in the closet, to be less gay, to be less himself. Again, that might not be how you see it, but you haven’t had to go through what your son went through in coming out and becoming comfortable being himself openly.

Whatever you do, please don’t ask your son to pretend to be just friends with his boyfriend. At the wedding, don’t introduce his boyfriend as his “friend” or “roommate,” and don’t introduce him vaguely, either (as in just, “This is Juan”). Use the term that your son uses to describe his significant other, whether that’s “boyfriend” or “partner.” In addition, remember that just as you wouldn’t blame a woman for being harassed on the street because of what she was wearing, you wouldn’t want to blame your son for any homophobia he may experience at the wedding. In other words, if Uncle Bob drunkenly insults your son and his boyfriend when he sees them holding hands, then that is not your son’s fault—it’s Uncle Bob’s.

Then again, your son may decide on his own to be less touchy-feely around the extended family, since he doesn’t want to start a fight with Uncle Bob. That’s what’s tough about being gay sometimes. Unlike straight couples, we have to constantly ask ourselves, “Is this safe?” anytime we want to hold our partner’s hand on the street or peck them on the cheek at a wedding. It can be exhausting and sad and dehumanizing, and even if you’ve never had to think about it, or it doesn’t seem like your son thinks about it, trust me—he has. Let your empathy be your guide, then, in your conversations with him before and during the wedding.  

The last thing to keep in mind is that weddings are big, fun events where everyone is having a blast and so much is going on that no one notices much of anything else. Everyone will be watching the couple getting married, then dancing their faces off and drinking champagne all night. In the end, you may be way more worried than you need to be. So put on your dancing shoes and have a great time—I think you’re going to make lots of happy family memories here!

Alyse Knorr is the author of Super Mario Bros. 3 (Boss Fight Books 2016) and of the poetry collections Copper Mother (Switchback Books 2016), and Annotated Glass (Furniture Press Books 2013). She also authored the chapbooks Epithalamia (Horse Less Press 2015) and Alternates (dancing girl press 2014). Her work has appeared in Denver Quarterly, Columbia Poetry Review, The Greensboro Review, Caketrain, and The Southern Poetry Anthology: Georgia, among others. She received her MFA from George Mason University. Alyse is a co-founding editor of Gazing Grain Press and teaches English at Regis University.