Big White Secret

Friday, January 29, 2010

Question

Have you ever heard of a straight couple who were in the closet?

My girlfriend's parents immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong. They are very conservative. I am not allowed to meet them because they supposedly would not approve of her having a white boyfriend. We dated for three years before she decided she wanted to live with me. But she is keeping her old apartment. Her parents would only agree to let her leave home because she was in college and was going to be living with a cousin.

Her cousin thinks this is all ridiculous, but she doesn't "out" my girlfriend to her parents. When the parents visit, my girlfriend moves back into her old apartment and pretends to be single. They don't even know she dropped out of college and now has a job!

I want to get married. I have never been so in love. She says her parents have already decided who she is supposed to marry. Friends of the family who are still in Hong Kong have a son who is her age, and she was always expected to become his bride. This makes me very jealous. Lately her parents have been pressuring her to set a date for the wedding. The only reason they are not insisting is because they think she still needs to finish school. But she won't be able to put them off forever.

Is she going to dump me eventually so she can fulfill her parents' expectations? I am worried about myself, of course, but what about her? Won't she be terribly unhappy? My best friend tells me this will only end in heartbreak, and I should get out now.

Answer

Your girlfriend is postponing a very difficult decision. Eventually, she is going to have to choose between making her parents happy and conforming to the demands of her family and culture, or choose a new life that is consistent with western values—one that includes the possibility of marrying you. She must be under a lot of stress. Rather than figuring out what she is going to do, she's increasing her denial and getting mad at anybody who mentions the upsetting subject of her (and your) future.

Is there anybody your girlfriend might trust to discuss this with? Is there an older relative, a friend of the family, a pastor, or a counselor that she would trust? I think she needs the ear of someone who will be objective, someone whose quality of life will not be affected by her decision. I empathize with her. It isn't easy to send yourself into exile. Her parents may continue to have a relationship with her, albeit a disapproving one, or they might close her out of their lives. She has already gone out on a limb by including you in her life; I doubt she wants to lose you. If her parents have been giving her financial support, that adds another factor. Does she feel able to support herself without help from her family?

For now, you can probably do the most good by simply urging her to talk about this with somebody else. Tell her that you can tell she is being affected by the pressure to choose between two very different lives. This is about getting her some support and some relief from the stress, not about trying to affect her decision.

The irony of your situation probably doesn't offer much comfort. But do try to keep your sense of humor and some flexibility. The next few years will probably be a bumpy ride. You haven't gotten a clear signal yet that says she is going to vanish, so if you are in love, how could you possibly disengage? Friends who tell you to do that aren't being very helpful. If your girlfriend won't get help, you should.

I am guessing that the crisis will come to a head when your girlfriend was supposed to have graduated from college. Her parents will want to see graduation photos or come to the ceremony. They'll want to see her diploma. If not, maybe you need to put your foot down and give her a deadline of your own. That would take a lot of courage. You'd have to be prepared to walk away if she wasn't going to "come out" to Mom and Dad. But maybe it would be easier to do that than live with the perpetual tension of keeping such a big secret.

There's a reason why gay people come out of the closet. Some secrets are just too hard to keep. Hiding your love life makes you feel as if you are doing something wrong or dirty. You are constantly reminded that others disapprove of who you are, and would try to punish you if they knew the truth. It's a visceral experience of being a second-class citizen and an outsider. Coming out is a risk. There might be negative consequences. But at least you get to name yourself on your own terms, and stop oppressing yourself. You can become a whole person, one who isn't divided against yourself.

I don't know if any of this is helpful to you. But as a hopeless romantic myself, I really, really want this story to somehow have a happy ending.