When Parents Interfere with Friendships
When Parents Interfere
by Whiskey Blue
Thank you for sending this question. It’s a complex, difficult one, rife with potential for hurt and confusion. What a tough situation! How disheartening and alienating! How bleak the world can be! These were my initial thoughts as I sat in a coffee shop, reading your question over and over again, struggling to conjure some kind of poignant wisdom with which to synthesize the situation. I racked my brain for the most accurate sources to draw from – gender theory, feminist mantras, stories of homophobia, accounts of resistance to homophobia?
Then I tried to get to the heart of the situation by focusing not so much on the systemic oppression and pain of people with non-normative sexual identities, but on the simple facts of this story: your daughter is a 15 year-old girl whose best friend’s mother is interfering with her longtime friendship. This is hurtful and confusing. Coming out as a lesbian is also confusing. And being 15 is confusing.
So I tried to think back to being 15 myself, which was quite a while ago. Then I looked around the coffee shop at the three young, bright-eyed baristas buzzing around behind the counter. I asked if they might help me, and it turns out all three of them had a good deal of queerness in them, so we talked for a while about how unfair everything is, how absurd and unreasonable your daughter’s best friend’s mother’s reaction is, how homophobic and ignorant people can be. Then one of the baristas, a young woman with glasses and a brilliant vocabulary, took over the conversation. I found myself no longer speaking but listening, taking notes, and generally admiring how eloquent and bright this generation of millennials can be.
She began to talk about hetero-normativity, and how perplexing it can be when someone does not conform to dominant ideologies of gender and sexual identity. She spoke interchangeably about how difficult it is to navigate identity, not only for queers, but for everybody. That’s the thing about hetero-normativity – it doesn’t only hurt queers. It hurts everybody. She said, “the hetero-normative perspective we grow up with leads us all to become deeply self-conscious about expectations that women fall in love with men, and men fall in love with women, for instance.”
Okay, I thought. She knows the word hetero-normative. I certainly didn’t know the word hetero-normative as a teen. I certainly didn’t have language for the confusion and general sense of alienation I felt at 15. Gender, sexuality, identity, and everything in between were all potential sources of hurt and confusion then. And thanks to my non-normative identity, I didn’t really have a choice but to seek out a vocabulary with which to begin to tell stories about girls like me: girls who grow up fearing their best friends, or their best friends’ mothers, will all of a sudden perceive them as predatory lesbians just because they’ve found the courage to assert their own non-normative identities.
The thing is, girls like me are not raised to impose our desires on other girls or women. Girls like me spend most of our formative years clutching at the slightest shred of evidence that our desires are valid, and not evil or impossible or disgusting. I won’t try and be politically correct about this: lesbians have a long legacy of being perceived as predatory and deviant, so the impulse to think of this when presented with a real-life lesbian is really, honestly, just predictable; easy. And girls like me think more about desire and about how others will perceive us than most people ever will, so whether or not your daughter has any feelings for her best friend – which seems not to be the case at all, but which also does not matter in slightest – the important thing here is that your daughter has felt safe and validated enough to know and accept, at the tender age of 15, that she is a lesbian. The rest is someone else’s mess of prejudice and ignorance and fear. And the annoying part is that this mess affects you, but here’s the other thing: you and your daughter are leaps and bounds ahead of your daughter’s best friend’s mother because you’ve had to face these prejudices before. Over time, while they remain hurtful, these kinds of prejudices come to seem banal, like a passing phase, really.
So for the time being, I’m not going to worry about your daughter. I’m going to congratulate you on being a great mother, and then I’m going to ask you to harness your open-mindedness and wisdom, and take a look at your daughter’s best friend’s mother. This will also mean I’m asking you to put your own feelings of hurt – and your feelings of hurt vis-a-vis the senseless rejection your daughter is being subjected to by her best friend’s mother – and be the more mature person here. It’s a cliche (read: banal!) that queers are expected to figure out their own identities and then spend the rest of their lives educating others. It’s a cliche and it’s also the plight of many of us with non-normative identities and desires, whatever that means. Sure, this is a disheartening, unreasonable, and downright annoying reality, but it continues to be the reality, so let’s take some comfort in the de-escalating power of this banality, and let’s go with it.
Let’s take ourselves out of the equation for a moment, and extend a special kind of grace to your daughter’s best friend’s mother; the very kind of grace she is failing to extend. And let’s consider what the young barista at the coffee shop told me when I asked her for some feedback on this whole situation.
“There are all these non-verbal assumptions we grow up with, and when reality doesn’t reflect these assumptions, we don’t know how to react.”
I thought this was a very sober, tolerant way to step back and look at the situation beyond the infuriating realities of homophobia, and of personal feelings of hurt and rejection. On a broad scale, it’s a reflection on being human: difference is unsettling, difference varies from one person to another, and too often difference is used as an invitation to impose ignorance and violence upon those we deem different in relation to our own assumptions of how people are supposed to be. When I think about the situation through the eyes of the wise young barista, I find a deeply comforting forgiveness. It’s natural for this situation to conjure feelings of frustration, hurt, alienation, and confusion, and what struck me about the barista’s response to the question was how calm I felt as I listened to her musings about it. Instead of remembering the countless instances of homophobia and rejection I had experienced myself, I found myself thinking about the whole situation as little more than the somewhat banal story of a mother reckoning with her own unsavory fears and prejudices.
It just so happens that it took a barista half my age for me to see this, so I asked the barista what she would do in a situation like this.
“All you need to do is ask the best friend’s mother to sit down and explain how she feels about her daughter’s best friend coming out,” she said. “Let her talk about her own prejudices until she comes to the realization that she is alienating her daughter from her best friend out of her own irrational fears.”
How high-minded and forgiving, I thought to myself. How clear and simple and wise, really.
“If someone makes a racist joke, for example,” the barista continued, “and you respond by pretending that you don’t understand the joke, the person telling the joke is forced to explain themselves, which ends up bringing the root of their prejudice right to the surface.”
What I gleaned from this is that, yes, sometimes we have no choice but to manage our own hurt in the wake of other people’s hatefulness and ignorance, which is difficult and annoying, but there’s enlightenment to be had when we find the strength to set aside our own (very reasonable) pain and discomfort in the wake of other people’s unreasonable prejudice in order to create a safe space for someone else to explore their own complicated, hurtful feelings and preconceptions. It’s a bit of a conundrum, how minorities are expected to create spaces where dominant, oppressive voices might have a platform to explore their own prejudices, but at this point, I think it’s the best thing to do. Create a safe space for this mother the way you wish she would create one for your daughter. Let her come to the realization of her own fears. When she feels safe enough to face her own ignorance, let’s hope she sees that interfering with her daughter’s friendships has nothing to do with her daughter, or your daughter, or anything to do with gender or sexuality: it has everything to do with her own immaturity.
Beyond the myths bred by homophobia and ignorance, there is potential for forgiveness and understanding that truly transcends ignorance, hate, even brilliant, complex feminist theory. I know it’s unfair to expect queers to educate the very people whose ignorance hurts us, but sometimes all it takes is some maturity and perspective to soften a seemingly awful situation. When the barista responded to my question with such un-phased clarity, I couldn’t help but set aside my own hurt and my own bent for critical theory, and see the situation with the most essential simplicity. I don’t miss being 15, but I’m amazed at the kind of wisdom we so easily unlearn as we get older. Tell this mother you want to have coffee with her, treat her gently, as if she herself were a teenager coming to terms with her own awkward self, which in essence, she is. I hope this works, and I hope you’ll keep me posted on the outcome, so that I can go back to the coffee shop, to thank the barista.
Whiskey Blue is the author of Brooklyn Love. She blogs for Psychology Today and writes an advice column at Everyone Is Gay. She is the nonfiction editor for the Manhattan-based reading series Inked.MFA and interviews editor for In My Bed magazine. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Believer, Tin House, Ms. Magazine, Bitch, Curve, Slice, Hobo, and AfterEllen. Follow Whiskey @topshelferotica.