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Guess Who Came to Dinner…



I originally thought of titling this: “Introducing your Latina girlfriend to your Trump-backing, homophobic Boomer parents during a birthday dinner for your 18-year-old son who is currently dating a pansexual.” But then I figured by invoking a 1967 film that squeezed, as one insightful LA Times critic described, a “revolution into an evening glove,” I could convey in far fewer words the same sense of an equally problem-plagued dinner during which (hopefully) major ideological differences could somehow be put aside—complete with white cloth napkins. Here’s the thing, those white napkins when confronted with fingers stained in “Holy Habanero” wing sauce, don’t stand a chance.


After approximately a year into our relationship, my partner was finally going to meet my parents. An anxiety-filled situation for many—an emergency double session with my therapist, eye my high-strung shihtzu’s trazodone kind of situation for me.


Some backstory…


I am a newly minted middle-aged lesbian and unfortunately not in that rah-rah “we can all do dyke!” way in which Glennon Doyle lays out newly minted middle-aged lesbianism. My coming out was all about stuttering explanations and the uncomprehending looks I got when telling those closest to me that I’d spent the past forty years successfully hiding behind “My White Picket Fence Life,” made all the more Hallmark-movie-esque by my high-school sweetheart marriage.


Long story short, marriage crumbles, some problematic years intervene and then one Chardonnay-soaked evening I muster up the courage to text my MAGA hat-wearing parents something along the lines of guess what…I’m gay.


And so here we are, my partner and I, about to face a firing squad comprised of two septuagenarians, both somewhat hard of hearing and both toeing the party line: we love you even though…you know… but you have to understand the way we were raised; it just wasn’t acceptable back then. I sometimes want to old people-shake them and scream aren’t you of the hippy generation? Am I mistaken or does that Sly and the Family Stone album you once so coveted not contain a song with the line: “I am no better and neither are you / We’re all the same, whatever we do.”


The official occasion for this dinner is my son’s birthday—my 18-year-old son B. whose main interests are football and dating. Perhaps my greatest fear about coming out when I did was the impact that it might have on the fragile psyche of a teenage boy. B.’s initial shock however eventually segued to strategic thinking inasmuch as he recently informed me that the confession “my mom is a lesbian” helped him secure boyfriend status with his now girlfriend, a pansexual who thinks having a lesbian mom is “so cool.”

My partner squeezes my hand as we make our way into the restaurant. She is dressed in her work clothes, her nervousness hiding out in a blazer and black slacks. Mine is on full display courtesy of sweaty palms and a frenetic head rubbing tic.


Allow me to introduce the evening’s players:

Me: forty-something mom, lesbian, writer, and after this dinner you will be able to add tightrope walker of impossible ideological highwires.

My Partner: Latina history professor specializing in traditions of storytelling, uniquely adept at calming me.

My Mom: South American immigrant, retired administrative assistant, and head-scratchingly enough, an avid Trump supporter.

My Dad: taciturn beekeeper with doomsday prepper tendencies, doesn’t realize the shocking inappropriateness of certain labels.

My Son: afore mentioned 18-year-old guest of honor, obliviously preoccupied with wing sauce choice and watching football under the table on his iPhone.

I will spare you the opening pleasantries that felt like that sweaty, back-of-the-knees itch you got from wearing those 80s cotton tights. I will skip over the initial obsessing over seating arrangements. And I will leave out the awkwardness of deciding whether to handshake, stupidly wave or hug. Instead, I will dive right into the political/cultural/ideological “meat” of the evening. Here are the highlights. You seriously can’t make this stuff up.


The economy. Everyone’s favorite dinnertime topic. We can’t even afford a gallon of milk, thanks to the democrats, my mom warbles. But you can afford a gallon of milk, mom, I say. Things were good when Trump was president…will be again; we could all buy milk back then, my dad chimes in. My partner squeezes my leg.


COVID. Take your pick…How about vaccines and boosters: It’s the government’s way of trying to make us weak, my mom explains. How so? I ask. They don’t know the long-term effects, she says. We might all grow another head, my dad interjects. My partner kicks my ankle. (Starting to sense a theme here?)


Football. Specifically, my son’s most recent game. That touchdown you had last week was amazing! You could play pro one day. So go the beaming grandparental observations. You know they gave him the game ball and voted him MVP—okay, beaming mom observations as well. So we all agree that B. is the football bomb. Thank god for common ground. And then…


Sexuality. I think your father and I are doing pretty well with this…whole thing…considering. Wait. Did she actually mean to say that out loud? Did some deranged interior monologue just manage to escape the confines of her head? Considering? My partner now graduates from under-the-table shushing to speaking. My mom however is undeterred. I mean just look at how “normal” it is nowadays. I saw on Facebook last week that a student at the school I used to work at came out in the middle of an assembly. Walked right on stage in a dress and high heels. You can’t tell me that’s how things are supposed to be, she rants. Is that how it is at your school B.? And then there’s all this pronoun nonsense, she continues (her question to my son apparently rhetorical). You’re born either a boy or girl; there is no in-between.


I roll up my sleeves revealing an arm full of tattoos, a key hallmark of dyke-ness according to my mother’s Book of Butch. My jaw tightens, head rubbing tic now out of control. I want to cry, scream, run out of the restaurant as the wafting odor of oily fish fry dramatically adds to my nausea. I gear up to speak…           


My girlfriend’s pansexual, B. suddenly blurts out, a little louder than I think he intended. Check please!


Twentieth-century poet, novelist and essayist May Sarton, a woman who owned her lesbian lifestyle in private and yet seemed to have a bittersweet relationship with its public acknowledgement, describes the experience of writing about homosexuality in her Journal of A Solitude: “to portray a homosexual who is neither pitiable nor disgusting, without sentimentality; and to face the truth that such a life is rarely happy, a life where art must become the primary motivation, for love is never going to fulfill in the usual sense.”


This made me exceedingly sad. Why couldn’t I be the artist and the lover? Why was Sarton so sure that lesbians are condemned to live a life of exclusion on one front or another? I realize she’s writing during a vastly different era, but the message, nevertheless, stuck. And I suppose that is why, knowing what I knew would likely transpire, I braved this dinner party, my partner beside me…so that I could show them that I am a writer who also has love in the most fulfilling sense.


During a climactic blowout with his father, Sydney Poitier’s character in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner says: “You don't know who I am. You don't know how I feel, what I think…not until your whole generation has lain down and died will the deadweight of you be off our backs!” This is not at all what I want. As life-sapping and infuriating as interactions with my mom and dad can sometimes be, I do long to find that bridge and I do want to be able to enjoy the time we have left together. They are my parents. That statement is enough for me. Unfortunately though, there is no easy takeaway here, no one neat and tidy answer. I suppose it comes down to grabbing onto those rare moments of common ground and also, praying that there is a net beneath the tightrope, so when you do fall off, you can get back up there and try again.

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