By David Braucher, L.C.S.W., Ph.D.
Marriage equality is touted as the coming of age for the gay community. No question it has improved the lives of gay people and our standing in society. I myself married my partner just last year. But all is not golden: family members who view marriage as a public, decisive proclamation of the individual’s homosexuality sometimes respond poorly to the finality of “until death do us part”. It can be a second—and very painful—coming out.
My husband was shocked his father would not come to our wedding. He always assumed if one of his parents had a problem with his being gay, it was his mother who is a devout Catholic. His father was always very warm toward his boyfriends. But apparently, while having gay relationships was acceptable to his father, the formalization of a gay partnership was not. His father not attending our wedding, a singularly important event in our lives, was a devastating statement about not accepting his son, one that can’t ever be undone.
In some ways, all marriage can be seen as a significant step toward separation and individuation from parents. When we marry we choose to start a new family, one that reflects who we are as individuals, different from our parents. If parents experience their child’s marriage as a reflection of their own marriage, their sense of loss can be offset.
With gay marriage, it may be more difficult for parents to see the similarities to their own heterosexual marriage. The declaration of their child’s individuality feels more pronounced, the sense of separation more painful. If the parents were just tolerating their child’s gay relationships, this may push them over the edge.
Often parents of gay people find ways to abide their children’s romantic relationships by considering them “a phase.” When this is not overtly expressed, it can surface at the time of marriage. A young man who had been out to his parents for over 10 years was dismayed to find his parents were not going to attend his wedding. They offered flimsy excuses, but refused to talk about it in earnest. His sister let him know that their parents had always thought he would eventually choose to move on from his “gay phase” and marry a woman.
With the advent of the Facebook era and public access to our private lives, attending, and thereby sanctioning, a marriage can be experienced as potentially exposing. A young man from a former Eastern Bloc country discovered his parents’ reluctance to attend his wedding for fear of friends in their native country finding out. His parents were afraid wedding photos posted on Facebook would show them in attendance and thus sanctioning gay marriage. The son had to contend with the painful recognition that his parents’ support did not include public support.
Of course, the more all concerned are able to discuss their discomfort, the better the chance of mutual understanding, even if no agreement is reached. A daughter of fundamentalist Christians recently announced to her parents she was marrying her partner of eight years. They thanked her for letting them know, but indicated they could not attend, explaining that gay marriage was against their beliefs. Courageously, she told them she felt judged and condemned. They tried to explain that the judgment was of the sin and not the sinner. She argued that this was exactly why she was feeling judged: a sin is something that we choose to do; she did not experience her homosexuality as a choice. Although no one was converted in this discussion, both sides better understood the other’s position. The parents attended the wedding.
Marriage institutionalizes a relationship. Gay marriage not only formalizes a relationship, it also publically formalizes one’s gay identity. Getting married may thus inadvertently ferret out quiet reservations, as well as secret hopes to which parents of gay children may have clung. In this way, getting married for gay people entails a second coming out process, one potentially fraught with all the difficulties and heartache of the first.
David Braucher, L.C.S.W., Ph.D., is a Candidate at The William Alanson White Institute. He has lectured at the NYU School of Social Work and written on relationships. He is in private practice in Manhattan.