My parents disowned me because I'm a lesbian

Now that they're aging, should I just let it go?

Published March 17, 2006 11:51AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

Ten years ago, when I was 36, my fundamentalist parents disowned me after I came out to them as a lesbian. My mother, in particular, said some incredibly outrageous, mean and hurtful things, including the fact that I was now "Satan's spawn." She ordered my brother and sister to stay away from me and to keep their children away from me. My sister very bravely refused to do that, but my brother obeyed, and I missed out on my nieces' lives until the two, now in college, reestablished contact with me on their own about two years ago. I've established a wonderful life with my partner of 11 years and my "chosen family" and, frankly, don't miss the severely dysfunctional parents who raised me.

So now that my parents are in their 70s, they're having health problems. My father recently had a pacemaker installed, and left a message for me (after not a word for 10 years!) letting me know. I ignored the message, and now I feel guilty. I'm struggling with what I should do as they age. Should I visit them when they're ill? Should I make sure they're getting the proper medical care? Should I attend their funerals? My brother and sister-in-law live in the same city as my parents and I, so they have been the ones handling all of this so far. What are my obligations not only as a daughter but as a moral human being?

Lesbian Daughter

Dear Lesbian Daughter,

I would think on the face of it that a child who has been disowned has no obligations whatsoever to the parents who disowned her.

You are off the hook.

They disowned you.

That doesn't mean you're going to have no feelings! Lord, no.

But disowning a child is not just like being a bad parent or something like that, for which the child will naturally feel obliged to have some understanding. It is a formal declaration of separation and the cessation of obligation. I see no reason why someone, a presumably competent adult, who makes such a declaration should be let off the hook later just because life is taking its most natural and expected course.

As to the sheer passage of time having a weakening effect on the disowning, what would be the point of disowning someone if it just expired after a while? No, disowning a child is meant to be hurtful and permanent.

If your father or mother were to approach you and say they feel they had made a dreadful, stupid mistake and are sorry and want you in their lives -- if they were to, as I presume they are familiar with the concept, repent, then you would then be facing the question of how to respond to them.

But they haven't made any moves in that direction. Or, again, if they were simply neglectful and by nature bumbling and indirect, incapable of formal, declarative speech, and had never made anything like a declaration of disownment, then you might interpret this business about the pacemaker as their roundabout way of communicating. But they have already demonstrated that they're capable of clear speech. So again I think you are under no obligation whatsoever until they can bring themselves to be as clear in their repentance as they were in their disowning.

But, of course, as I said, that doesn't mean you won't have feelings. Hell, you'll probably be torn apart by this for years. I'd get into some serious therapy if you're not already.

But otherwise, you're off the hook.

Now, I would think it would be OK to attend a parent's funeral, disowned or not. Sometimes there is food afterward, and old friends appear.

But I say a parent who disowns a child on such hateful, ignorant grounds gets what he or she deserves.

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