Thursday, October 11, 2012

10/11 - Breaking Protocol

As much fun as it might be to compare L1, in which LW1 does better going for an immediate divorce than signing a postnup, and H1 is pushing LW1 into divorce by threatening it as a consequence of failing to sign, to Mr Savage's advice to a LW, who wasn't sure she could continue a relationship with an otherwise progressive boyfriend who didn't think abortion should be banned but believes that life begins at conception, that she should tell him she's pregnant, thus insuring the end of the relationship one way or the other, I am going to break tradition and concentrate entirely on a letter from earlier in the week. I present a copy of the printed version:

David and I have been best friends since we met in undergrad. When we were accepted to grad programs at the same university, we got an apartment together. Two days ago, David was killed in a car accident. I have been devastated ever since. When I looked up David's online obituary, I was shocked to see myself listed as his fiancée. As close as we were, there was never anything romantic between us. David was gay. The only person I really know in David's family is his brother, and I called him to ask him why I was listed as his fiancée in the obituary. His brother explained that his parents are ultraconservative and very religious and, even though they knew David was gay, they never quite accepted it. I guess people in his hometown town knew he was living with a girl, and his parents explained away this "sin" by saying we were engaged, rather than saying we were just friends or even just roommates. The funeral is Tuesday, and I don't know if I can go or not. I know David would have hated the lie his parents told, but I also know he loved them very much and wouldn't want them to be hurt. I'm not sure what people would say if his "fiancée" didn't show up for the service. But I am also not comfortable accepting condolences from people for something that is a lie. I know how much David struggled with coming out to his parents and how he fought for acceptance. There is a part of me that would like to demand a retraction and correction of the obituary. Another part of me says to let it go because David is beyond hurting now. What should I do?

And away we go. I shall start with a look at Things We Don't Know:

* Was David dating? If so, how seriously? It seems reasonable to presume that he was not engaged (although who wouldn't want to see the follow-up letter, "An hour after I proposed to my boyfriend and he accepted, he died in a car accident. His homophobic family called his female roommate his fiancee in the obituary. What should I do?"). The LW would likely know if he were dating, and it does change the equation a little by adding a party directly being hurt by the deception. Certainly his  feelings and wishes ought to carry considerable weight with the LW.

* How gay (though that's badly phrased) was David? He could have been bisexual-rounded-to-gay, as happens to many people, some of whom round themselves for convenience or to avoid anti-bi attitudes, some of whom are rounded by others, either taking a lengthy run of same-sexer expression for exclusive homosexuality, or for reasons of their own; even the LW herself could have a personal motive for wanting to bump up his Kinsey score to a perfect 6.0. This is largely a side issue, but it could affect the credibility of the lie. If it will be only too painfully obvious at the funeral that the family's presenting any woman as David's fiancee is clearly wishful thinking on their part, the less the LW might have to do by way of clarification.

* This is potentially a tough one for the LW, but what, in an ideal world, would have been her relationship with David? There are many such pairs that are just genuine best friends with no interest on either side. In others, she would date him in an instant and there's a serious power dynamic in play. There could probably be a complete sliding scale set out. I bring this out as a sort of variation on the Lucy Angkatell Theory (applied to her kitchenmaid's volunteering testimony to the police in a murder case) of how confusing it can be when the right thing to do is pleasant in a not necessarily good-for-one way. Although the LW appears to have her head screwed on properly, making David's wishes her top priority, it could be trickier if there were a glimmer of attraction that she only half-acknowledges to herself.

* Who exactly was responsible for the obituary being printed as it was, with the lie? Even if everything David's brother told the LW were true, the obituary might have been drafted by the parents jointly, one of them acting more decisively than the other, or by the brother himself without consulting them. It is entirely conceivable that the brother could be presenting the parents as unapproachable because of their being really more accepting than he'd want them to be. For all the LW knows, it's possible that the brother had even been filtering communications between David and their parents to keep up the estrangement.

* Had the fiancee lie been spread before David's death, or was it a sudden inspiration? The LW's guess is plausible. If it were so, and people in David's hometown had been fed that line about her for some time, it would make the assumption stronger. But it is not confirmed that it was general knowledge David had a female roommate. Then again, it is a general rule of Evangelica that heterosex or the possibility thereof trumps homosex.

* What exactly is the familial expectation of the LW's role at the funeral? She seems to think that sparing David's parents pain as she thinks David could have wished is pushing her into going, but for all she knows the family could want her to behave exactly as the Prudecutor has advised - being "too distraught" to confirm or deny the engagement. As a side to this question, how unanimous are the parents and brother in what they want her to do? The brother presumably hasn't requested that she confirm the lie, but he might be assuming that she will do so. He might even think she will be happy to do so - for all we know, David might have told his family that she was attracted to him, or said something that they interpreted that way.

* How much of a gay social circle did David have, and was the LW a part of it? He might have had a mostly straight-appearing life with few gay friends (which would make the funeral look a good deal more straight than it might), he might have had two circles, in which case she might have been part of either or both, or his social life apart from visits home might have been predominantly in gay or mixed company.

* The main question, presented by a surprisingly small number of posters in the comments, is how David reacted to/would have reacted to the lie. If it was in circulation before the accident, did he know about it? Did he disagree or agree with it? How would he have reacted to finding out, if it were something that would have been new to him? Sadly, the LW probably can only guess about this one, which ought to be what has the most influence with her. It sounds as if everyone were in the process of something that might have ended somewhere on the scale of general acceptance (probably not very far along from the sound of the letter). How does the LW think David would have reacted had he been at home visiting and his parents/brother mentioned her as his fiancee? to company? Would he have left? corrected the statement (with how much force?)? gone along with it to keep the peace? suffered while doing so?


With that out of the way, the Prudecutor's original advice, to attend the funeral, accept the condolences of others in attendance and be too distraught to discuss the situation, was widely condemned as a bit of a stinker. Later, the Prudecutor apparently modified her response (on Facebook instead of Slate) to include correcting that there was no engagement without outing David. One interesting aspect of the letter is how many possible shades of meaning can be attained through slight variation of exactly how the LW might do such a thing at the funeral:

The LW's statement to anyone offering condolences for the loss of her fiance can reflect how they felt, living arrangements and their standing. One has various components:

We loved each other
I loved him dearly
We were best friends
He was my closest friend
We were very close

We lived together
We shared an apartment
We were roommates
We were platonic roommates

We were not engaged
We were never engaged
There was never any idea of marriage
We were not dating
We never dated
Neither of us ever had any romantic interest in the other

with other variations can produce quite a range of possible inferences for those who didn't know David that well to draw. These suggestions from posters could be combined in ways that could make it quite clear that there was never any desire for romance on either side, or leave things so loose that strangers might think the engagement had been only a matter of time with a large number of possibilities in between suggesting partial and/or one-sided attraction on either side. If the LW decided that David would want her to go along with his parents as far as she could, she could easily be technically accurate while coming across as if the two of them had been keeping the contraceptive industry in business almost single-handedly. Or, should she wish just to stay on this side of the line of outing David, she could be quite explicit about that road being closed. One thing I can say in the LW's favour is that she definitely seems to be above the temptation to imply that David wanted her but that she could not return his romantic affection.


Now, as to what to do. The LW is faced with an erroneous obituary as well as the funeral. One possible aspect of the case that I don't think any poster mentioned is that the LW not correcting the obituary could be interpreted as some sort of homophobic gesture on her part. How David's gay friends/boyfriends/exes might take this libel (a strong word, but David's family have put in writing something they know to be false with the intent of getting people to believe an untruth about him that he would clearly have found unpleasant and distasteful; if the truth of a statement is sufficient defence in a libel action, then the untruth of a statement that would have pained the object greatly surely qualifies this lie for libelous status) is not hard to guess. Especially if she had relatively little to do with them, she could come off as implicit in the closeting. Then again, if she knows them all well, while in a way it would make the whole thing sadder, there could be an added dimension that would make the family's deception appear as much a hoot as anything else. It does seem the least the LW can do for David's memory to correct the obituary; if she prefers to do that after the funeral in order to give the family something of a respite, that seems acceptable.

If she doesn't want to go to the funeral because she can't see herself getting through it without outing David and she knows she doesn't want to out David, that seems fair enough. She does appear to feel pressured into attending by the fake announcement because her absence might raise difficult questions. Even if she attends the funeral, a memorial with David's chosen family, even if he had not quite yet gotten to considering them to be such, is a must. It might make things easier for her if she decides to opt for graciousness over loyalty.

I should go so far as to have her contact the brother, who may well turn out to be the source of all the misery in the piece, to warn him that the family had better not mention her as David's fiancee or introduce her to anyone while hanging that label on her. Even if she has no intention of outing David, I think she is fully justified in threatening to do so.

Oof. I get all this way and what we don't know makes it really impossible for me to feel comfortable advocating any particular course. I just hope for David's sake that the idea to call them betrothed was something pulled out of the hat after the death; it is a colossal betrayal as well as a libel.

One of the interesting things about the comments is that many posters, if we give them the benefit of the doubt and accept that they don't want the LW's correction of the libel to be sufficiently flimsy that the deluded will find it easy to interpret the libel as a mere stretch of truth, reveal a considerable lack of familiarity with coming out, from the vantage point of catching on to how people desperate to believe X will grab at any shred of support for their desired belief. Not that there's any reason people ought to be familiar with coming out and its associated ramifications. But it gives me a feeling of validation for complaining about straightsplaining and for thinking that it might be quite becoming for straight people to be just a shade less ready and eager to rush in with all kinds of pronouncements when they'd benefit considerably from letting less privileged voices be heard. And a special thumbs down to the woman who wrote a long post not devoid of eloquence about how she went along with the whitewashing of her late husband's family in presenting the couple as happy and the deceased as only the best parts of his character when he'd been abusive and they'd separated. We've all seen variations on that disgusting comparison before.

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