How do I tell my family I’m really happy (in a way that’s way outside their experience)?

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Dear Bear,

I don’t mean to sound like a Tumblr post but all of this info is relevant to my question so I’m 26, nonbinary, assigned male at birth, and asexual. For a long time I really thought something was horribly wrong with me. I wasn’t interested in girls even though I tried to fake it, and then when I decided I must be gay that wasn’t right either. I couldn’t get excited about boys the way other gays I knew described.

Last year I found the world of puppy play and it was like a dream come true. I had never known or even thought to be honest that anything like that existed. But when I was in a puppy pile for the first time, or when I lay down on a man’s lap and he scritched my head and told me I was good it was the most amazing feeling. Like people described being intimate to be. I was so happy and wriggly and I felt tingly right down to my toes.

So in that way I’m very happy. But I am from a big and traditional family. We’re not conservative politically really (I have a Trump uncle but he’s the outlier) but they definitely expect that I will get married and have babies and be… that kind of person. I have two out gay cousins in the family and they’re definitely accepted but also there’s definitely the same expectations of them. Gay is okay but we need you to follow the same basic life path, have a wedding, figure out some babies, buy a car, complain about the lawn, and whatever. They’re all nice people and a couple of times my aunts and even my grandma have said basically in so many words that it’s fine if I’m gay and they will love me no matter what.

But I’m not gay like that. I’m not even a dude (not like that). And somehow when I’m being a pup my gender doesn’t matter, and the guys I meet doing pup stuff are mostly allosexual but they don’t mind that I don’t want to play like that. The thing is, though, mostly I want to tell them I’m really, really happy. I think they think I’m lonely and miserable without a partner and being sort of femme in some ways (I think they think that’s why I don’t have a partner). So Bear, how do I tell them I’m really happy but that I am definitely not going to be doing any of the stuff that shows happiness (or adult-ness) for them?

Dear Brave Correspondent,

First please let me say that I am over-the-moon happy for you that you’ve found a way to enjoy intimacy with other people in a way that’s so joyful and safe for you and make you feel “wiggly and tingly.” That’s so great. And I especially love that you kept seeking and found a community that welcomes and accepts you and your wants and needs, without trying to get you to be somehow different. That’s just lovely, and I am enjoying a swoon on your behalf.

I also want to say that this is a super-common issue for those of us who find some or all of our intimacy, connection, and belonging in sexually-liberated communities. There can be a complex dance in trying to explain this to concerned straight people who definitely have your best interests at heart but who are just as certainly Not Ready to look at butt-plug pup tails (or similar) online. Many friends who participate in BDSM communities, polyam folks, and so on have this issue but honestly, sometimes so do the SCA/Pennsic people and the LARPers and the cosplay folks and people with very real but primarily digital communities and, basically, all of us who may sometimes get dressed in our fancy costumes and go engage in activities that seem… a little peculiar to the mainstream. So simultaneously, I want to say that your issue is definitely real and valid and you are right to feel concern and also you are absolutely not alone in this, not at all, which makes me wonder – have you discussed this in non-pup-space time with your fellow pups, Brave Correspondent? Maybe some of them have advice or at least support to offer while you navigate? I also wonder whether reaching out to your gay cousins for some strategy and support might be valuable to you. What have they learned from coming out to your family? What went well? What might they have done differently that you can learn from?

But also, nothing you’re doing is new to the world – we have always had nonbinary people, we have always had asexual people that preferred to live in intellectual or religious community instead of being romantically partnered, and we have always had people whose preferred orientation to family life is what I’d call the “grey whale spot,” because grey whales mate in threes – a male and a female to do the deed, and a second male whale who steadies the female and keeps and eye on things. The small, self-contained nuclear family is a lot newer to the world than the idea that some people are not oriented toward marriage and reproduction and instead serve community in other ways.

As to the issue of discussing your identity and community with your family-of-origin (or FOO), in my experience there are 3 categories of parents who have trouble welcoming and celebrating their children’ sexual orientation or gender identity. They all have their own plusses and minuses, and I’m pretty sure I know that your situation falls somewhere between #2 and #3, but since we’re here and discussing this let’s cover them all in case I’m wrong about something.

1. They think Gd doesn’t like it and will punish you (and/or them) about it. Good news is, that doesn’t seem to be an issue in your family, based on what you’ve written – it’s more an issue of following a particular, marriage-and-family, man-woman-that’s-all path. The hardest part about this kind is that making an argument against Gd is not the sort of thing people accept easily, but the good news is that there are a lot of affirming religious folks of various vestments who are already making thoughtful, cogent, theologically sound arguments that being LGBT2Q isn’t against Gd at all (I know and like some of these people a lot).

2. They’re worried about being judged by family, friends or other people in their community that they’ve raised a kid who doesn’t confirm to gender or sexuality expectations. This is a hard one, because they might indeed be judged, and not kindly. A further complication in this case is that while it’s your gender and sexuality we’re talking about here, they’re the ones who probably will have to hear about it and either defend you or let things pass. So when your Great-Aunt Petunia asks how you’re doing and if you’ve met anyone nice or if you’re ever going to “settle down,” someone has to either tell her that you’re nonbinary and asexual and finding great sweetness and love in a pile of men wearing leather or neoprene dog masks, or say something like “Oh, well, you know our Alex*. He just likes to do his own thing.” Which isn’t untrue, but it’s also not actually what dear beloved Petunia was asking, which is “is Alex happy?”

(special note about #2: sometimes this is because your parent is a narcissist who can’t or won’t care about anything except how it makes them look. Some narcissist parents enjoy having an individualist among their children because it makes them look more interesting or more broad-minded, and so that’s fine. But narcissism combined with this objection is generally a fairly terrible combo because narcissists typically believe their way is always and eternally the correct way, world without end, amen, and they combust when faced with other people’s negative judgements.)

3. Which brings us to: parents/FOO whose objections are largely fear-based; who are worried that no one will ever love you/hire you/approve of you/be your friend/etc. Because of your description of your family, this feels likely to be the most relevant one to you. Good news about this situation is that often, when they see that you are happy and loved and able to have the things they think of as foundational for wellness – friends, job, people who love you – they often find their objections lessening. So my guess is that here what we’re going to need is some good, clear messaging about your wellness, more than anything else.

A question: you don’t mention your gender very much in your letter. Is it important to you that your FOO recognize your nonbinary gender? Is there a name or pronoun change you want them to get on board with here?

So, let’s try some scripts. It feels to me like there are two options here: one that’s a little less specific about the details, and one that’s a full throttle version of Take Me Or Leave Me.

In the first version, the one where you leave some things to the imagination, you might say something like “Great-Auntie, I know you’re worrying about whether I’m feeling lonely, and I want you to know I am so happy right now. I have a community of people who I spend time with and who give me a lot of love and joy, and I hope I can make it happen for you to meet some of them someday. I’m not really looking for a partner right now, and I’ve never really felt like that’s something I’ve wanted, but please don’t worry about me – I’m doing great.”

And then there’s the second version, where you sit everyone down and explain it all – what it means to be nonbinary, what it means to be asexual, what the puppy community is all about (be prepared for them to assume you’re a furry, though you might want to make more of a connection to cosplayers if you don’t want fursona questions), but still, again, make sure to let them know what you told me when you wrote in – that you feel joyful and accepted and loved in the family of pups, that there are people who will show up for you if you’re hurt or sick or sad and for whom you will do or have done the same. That you might never have children (though its not remotely uncommon for ace folks who do want kids to coparent in non-romantic relationships; and this article features David Jay, the founder of AVEN and the person [and lovely friend] most responsible for bringing a lot of awareness to asexuality in modern times).

Regardless, my guess is that what they’ll be most keen to hear is that you still value family, community, and connection with others. What you need to add to that is that you’re finding it in… non-traditional ways, but that you share their value. And that you may not want children of your own but you’re looking forward to being a really great Uncle (or perhaps, if you want a gender-nonspecific title, Sparkle or Big). This isn’t to suggest a tactic of “we’re just like you except for what we do in bed,” which I generally do not love, but rather “I am well and happy and loved, if differently than you imagined, and I don’t require approval but I hope and trust I can enjoy your continuing love and support.”

(A purely tactical note about messaging: DON’T begin by saying “this might be difficult/confusing,” or “I hope you’re not upset, but…” because then you’ll engage their feelings of upset/disapproval. People think this shows empathy for their audience, but in this case everyone will be better served if you can bring your FOO or other relevant people into empathy with you. Instead, engage the connection and values you share and give them a strong positive cue: “I know you’ll be glad to hear that I’ve found a wonderful community of close friends/chosen family who love and support me, and I want you to know that I feel glad every day that you taught me how valuable the love of family is.” Telling people how you expect them to feel about what you’re about to tell them is a great way to help them have the feelings you want them to have!)

In the end, Brave Correspondent, you should do every harmless thing that nourishes you. Everyone should. Making space for yourself to do that and be authentic in your connections to others can be a real challenge in a society that pushes on us so hard to do the regularly scheduled things without interruption. But that makes it even more valuable when you do, both to yourself and to others who may come after (imagine a letter from your eventual nibling, who holds an identity that we may not even have conceived of yet, saying they have a Sparkle who’s a nonbinary, asexual pup and so they hope the family is ready for their disclosure of… whatever it is, bless their heart). Being an outlier doesn’t have to be the same as being an outcast. Not all of this depends on you, of course – you make your choices and make sure you have a photo of yourself in your pup gear where you’re also wearing pants at least, and hope for the best. Meanwhile, I am also hoping for the very best to you.

love and courage,

Bear

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2 comments on “How do I tell my family I’m really happy (in a way that’s way outside their experience)?”

  1. Krista says:

    My favorite thing about any time Bear answers questions is the deep love and care and support that eminates from every syllable of the response. I genuinely think that Bear thinks that we are all Brave Correspondants and wants the best for us and god, that’s a great feeling.

    This is fantastic advice that balances practicality, support, and care. thank you, as always, Bear.

  2. Cicely says:

    i love this column! Bear is gentle and honest. especially when something can’t really be fixed. it’s so important to know that Bear will tell you when it’s time to walk away. and then, he’ll hug you with words while you cry.

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