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By John Corvino
Dear Gay Moralist,
My boyfriend and I just got engaged, and my brother and his partner generously offered to throw us an engagement party. The problem is my parents. They don’t approve of my brother’s being gay (they’re strict Catholics), and they’re refusing to attend the party. What’s worse, they’re now planning their own separate engagement party for us, to which my brother’s partner won’t be invited. I thought this was supposed to be a happy occasion, but it’s becoming a huge source of stress! What should I do?
Boorish Righteousness Is Dampening Engagement
I don’t normally do advice columns, but in this case I’ll make an exception. First, congratulations on your engagement. Whatever happens with the party (or parties), try to focus on that happy fact.
You mention that your parents are Catholic. If Catholicism is their reason for refusing to attend, they must think that your brother throws rather interesting parties. For unless he is planning on inviting people over for gay sex, I know of nothing in Catholic dogma that would prohibit your parents’ attendance: Catholic teaching is generally silent on cocktails and canapes. (There are even all kinds of wonderful seafood appetizers he can serve on Fridays, but since this is an advice column, not a recipe column, let’s leave that aside.)
Your parents are presumably trying to send a message that they don’t approve of your brother’s relationship. They’re certainly entitled to their opinion, however wrongheaded it may be. But there’s a time and place for expressing that opinion, and your engagement party isn’t it. This party is about your relationship, not your brother’s.
The question is how you should handle their offer of a “counter-party.” I think you should decline to attend, for two reasons–one principled and one pragmatic.
The principled reason has to do with the message your parents’ party embodies–namely, that your brother’s party is somehow not good enough. I assume that’s not a message you want to endorse.
Of course, reading “messages” into parties is part of what started this controversy in the first place, so we should tread carefully here. Your parents think that attending your brother’s party sends the message that they approve of his being gay. I say that it does no such thing: rather, it sends the message that they wish you well in your new life with your fiance, which is what engagement parties are for.
So now I can imagine your parents retorting in kind: “Our party sends no message about our son’s relationship; rather, it sends the message that we wish our daughter well in her new life with her fiance, which is what engagement parties are for.” Damn Jesuit sophistry.
I’d find that retort easier to swallow if they had planned a party for you in the first place, rather than doing so only after hearing that your brother is hosting one. Since I don’t know their real motivations, and since the business of “messages” is tricky, let me instead offer a pragmatic argument for not participating.
The pragmatic argument is that your caving to a “counter-party” sets a bad precedent for future events. What’s next? Two weddings, one that your brother and his partner can attend and one that they can’t? Double birthday parties for each of your children, one with the gay uncles and one without? Acceding to your parents’ bad behavior now will only embolden them for the future; better to nip this nonsense in the bud.
At some point you’re going to have to decide whether your brother and his family are part of YOUR new family–the one that you and your fiance are forming. Then your parents will have to decide whether and how to be a part of that family.
I say this knowing full well that such decisions are difficult. Your parents are your parents, and their refusal to attend your engagement party is doubtless painful for you. Explain that to them, and explain that you understand their disapproval of your brother’s relationship even while you don’t share it.
But then emphasize that family gatherings (especially your engagement party) are not the place for expressing that disapproval; they are instead for celebrating things you all have in common. Tell your parents what it would mean for you to have them attend. It might be useful to enlist the help of a respected family member–maybe even a priest–in winning them over.
Good luck, and again, congratulations!