Should I tell my daughter her dad is gay?

His homosexuality would explain why we divorced, but is it my place to tell?


Cary Tennis
February 3, 2005 1:00AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

Help! I divorced my husband four years ago. Just after the divorce, my ex admitted to me that he was gay. After 13 years of marriage I was surprised, but not by the fact he was gay ... only by the fact he actually admitted it to me. I had suspected it for some time; the separate bedrooms and the Men's Health mags all over pretty much gave it away.

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Enter the one good thing that came from the marriage: our daughter. She was 10 years old when we divorced and she has resented me ever since, wondering how I could leave such a perfect guy and destroy the family. I've never told her about her dad because I felt that the poor kid should be worried about things like friends and school, not the fact that her dad is gay in a very anti-gay area. (Idaho! Could it get any worse?) He's extremely "closeted," only dating when I have our daughter. He actually drives to another state where they have some gay bars!

I overheard my now 14-year-old daughter talking to her friend the other day. She said, "My dad won't even date until I'm in college, but obviously my mother has different ideas about that," referring to the fact that I am in a wonderful relationship and am planning to marry.

I'm very tired of taking the blame for this divorce in my daughter's eyes. She's a mature kid for her age so I think she'd handle the news OK if I told her, but I worry what this revelation will do to her relationship with her dad. He's a great father and I would not want to jeopardize their closeness.

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So do I or don't I tell her? I know it would greatly improve my relationship with her, but at what cost?

The Wrong Gender

Dear Wrong Gender,

Some questions have short answers, but not quick solutions.

"I do," for instance, is a short answer that contains a multitude of longer questions. You answer the first question in an instant and answer the rest over a lifetime. That's how I think it will be with this. The revelation of the long-held secret is only the beginning.

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So the short answer is this: Yes, your daughter should know that her father is gay. But no, you should not tell her. He should tell her.

Then come the long questions to be answered over a lifetime, among them: Why does life play tricks like this? And why did none of the dearly beloved gathered together to join this couple in holy matrimony till death do them part -- knowing of some reason they should not be so joined! -- not speak but instead forever hold their peace? Did no one know? Perhaps not. Perhaps he did not even know himself. Besides, did you ever hear anyone not "forever hold his peace" at a wedding?

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At any rate, certain truths are clear: One is the odiousness of family secrets, the insidious effect of a lifelong lie. The other is that all parties have at least one common goal, to suffer as little as possible in relationship to each other. These two truths are intertwined: Lies and secrets sometimes act as palliatives in the short term. But big lies, long-term, cause much pain. So it is in the long-term interest of all family members to confront this truth and learn to deal with it.

But how does a family that has lived with a big secret for a decade learn to unravel the lie and live with the truth? And how do you maintain your resolve to confront this secret against the seductive attraction of continued evasion?

I think you should first discuss this with your husband. You might tell him point-blank that you think he should come out to his daughter. Or, depending on what works best for you, you might first question him, hear him out and try to fully understand his position before stating your own. Then you might tell him how painful this secret is making your relationship with your daughter.

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He may fear that you seek to blame him for the divorce and ruin him in his daughter's eyes. For many reasons, he may at first refuse. If he does, at what point, if at all, do you take it upon yourself to tell her? How long do you live with this secret? At first, I would suggest you redouble your efforts with him; if he refuses at first to come out to his daughter, continue to work with him, praying that he will find the courage to tell her. I would not rush it. I would give it all the time a prudent decision might require. But what if, after months or even a year or two, it has become an intolerable lie that he refuses to correct? At what point, if ever, do you reveal the secret of another? I would say that when the harm of his refusal outweighs the good of upholding the ethical principle involved, then you might find it necessary to tell her. Or if his reticence clearly stems from willful destructiveness rather than honest inner struggle, then it might be right for you to tell your daughter yourself. But how does another person judge what is willful destructiveness or spite, or irrational fear, and what is genuine inner struggle?

That's a tough one. Like I say, short answers, not quick solutions.

As to the place and manner of the revelation: I think he ought to tell her privately, in his own way.

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But I do think you ought to call in some kind of skilled counselor after the secret is divulged. This revelation will reverberate in unexpected ways. None of you can be completely prepared for its effect. You and your husband are probably not trained in the art of living with difficult revelations. Your first tendency may be to fall back on old habits. Your daughter as well, if left to her own devices, will probably do what comes naturally to her -- simply lock away this new secret along with others. As we know, secrets have a way of causing later trouble. So I do think an outside counselor would be of great help, especially in the first year after the revelation.

I'm not saying the community has to know! But within the family, it will be important for your daughter to learn new ways of airing out and confronting this difficult information.

Does that make sense? I hope so. To recap, in short: Yes, your daughter should know that her father is gay. No, you should not tell her. He should tell her. No, it's not going to be easy. Yes, you can get through it. And yes, you should by all means enlist the help of a skilled marriage and family therapist to help you cope with the aftermath.

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