How do I support my awful coworker’s daughter?

Dear Gentle Butch,

I work in a small office of only a few people. My least-favorite coworker (I’ll call her Susan) has a teenage daughter (Hannah), who is queer, but is not out to her family. (It’s complicated how I came to know this.) And, while I have met Hannah a few times, we don’t have a close relationship. My coworker frequently laments her daughter’s rejection of boys (chalking it up to immaturity) and tells us her plans for “socializing” her daughter (with or without her consent). Hannah is involved in drama club at school, which seems pretty social to me, but Susan is dismissive, saying Hannah is too introverted to be good at it (which is not necessarily true).

Most recently, Susan told us about Hannah bringing a boy home. Susan was glad that Hannah is making friends with boys, but disappointed that her interest in him is only friendly. On top of that, her husband freaked out and went full-on patriarchal. He insisted on meeting the boy first to see if he “looked scary,” imposing time limits on visits, making sure she keeps her door open, etc. Susan told this in a smiling dads-will-be-dads kind of way. I wasn’t sure if she wanted me to laugh or what, but it was all I could do to contain my horror.

Susan always sounds exasperated when she mentions her daughter. I hate to hear Susan sound so down on her daughter all the time and I am never sure how to react. I don’t want to accidentally out Hannah, or make it sound like I’m telling Susan how to raise her children. But they way she talks about her daughter, queer or not, is appalling to me.

I should mention that I am also queer and quite out about it. My wife and I have casually offered to spend time with Hannah after she and my wife bonded a little bit over a shared enthusiasm for YA fiction. Hannah is very shy about reaching out and when we have made tentative plans, Susan tends to make it inconvenient so that Hannah cancels. We have not persisted, afraid it will look like “recruitment.”

I really want to be an ally to this girl, but I don’t like her mother at all. How should I respond to my coworker’s stories and comments about her daughter? Do you think we should try contacting Hannah again?

–Coworker Didn’t Get the Memo

What a heartbreaking letter.

It’s so incredibly hard to watch a parent pull this crap when you are helpless to intervene.

Well, mostly helpless.

I think you have done what you can with Hannah. You have made it clear you’d be willing to hang out. Her mother has made it clear that she is going to passively resist this as much as possible, but Hannah will eventually have more mobility and freedom. I imagine she will learn to drive or take public transportation, for instance. If her father allows it. (I HOPE I am joking about that.)

I assume Hannah knows you are a couple. She knows who to turn to if she needs to, when the time comes. And that is so, so important.

Now, the next stuff I’m going to say is fully optional. You are hereby cleared by me, as a queer and a parent of a queer, from any other responsibility. You can back away quickly when she talks about her daughter. You can change the subject or put your fingers in your ears and hum. She sounds like a very irritating person, on top of everything else.

But.

As a parent, I’m feeling like I need to at least give this damn lady a sliver of the benefit of the doubt.

To be clear: I think she is just a thoughtless parent who believes its her job to control her kid’s life and that there is only one way to be happy and she knows what it is, so she’s going to try to force her daughter into the shape she thinks is best.

Oh and that she thinks her husband believing that he owns his daughter’s sexuality and body is funny.

But.

On the off chance she is sharing this with people because it was a bit unsettling to her and she wants to see a reaction to gauge how weird some of this is, responding naturally might be just what she needs.

And she might be deeply frustrated with her daughter’s refusal to fit into the shape she’s trying to jam her into, and talking a little might help her see how ridiculous she is being.

You don’t have much to lose — she is already passively-aggressively keeping you from her daughter, so it’s not like you have a connection to her that will be in jeopardy.

So there are two ways to go, and this probably depends on how comfortable you are with confrontation.

One: I think she needs to see that some people are horrified by her husband’s behavior. I think she needs to see you recoil and say something like: “Actually, some of the best actors are introverts.” I think she needs to see you narrow your eyes over her bemoaning over her daughter not having a boyfriend already and looking skeptical. And if you can have a natural, honest reaction to what she says without telling her off, you will probably empower others around you to do the same.

Two: you can be empathetic. Or mime it. When she starts talking about her daughter in that antagonistic tone, you can say in a warm and kind tone: “It sounds like you’re pretty frustrated with her.” If she is, and wants to talk, she can — and increased intimacy might give you a chance to offer her other insights. If she isn’t, and hadn’t realized she’d taken on this tone — well, that’s information for her, as well.

I get it. I want to save all the queerbabies with parents like this (and worse, of course), too. But you have truly done what you can right now for the girl, and you’re continuing to be. And for her mom . . . showing her that it’s possible to have a happy life and a stable relationship even if you’re queer might help her to stop frantically attempting to force heterosexuality on Hannah. 

Good luck. And remember it’s always an option to just change the subject or walk away, for your own mental health.

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