You don't have to come out to your whole family, says this gay writer
Each year, Erica Lenti heads to her mom's house for Christmas dinner. Each year, she brings her girlfriend, Arielle, along. When they arrive, they're welcomed as a couple by Lenti's entire family — everyone except Lenti's paternal grandmother; an 80-year-old Italian nonna, who holds firm to her traditional values.
"We kind of head down the stairs, greet my grandmother, give her a kiss on each cheek. She compliments on how great we look," Lenti said, recalling last year's dinner.
"And then she says, 'Oh you two girls look like two sisters ... you're the two sisters,' and it's that comment that always comes up at every family event."
Lenti's grandmother doesn't know she's gay, and Lenti is choosing not to tell her.
"I never understood how I would do that because [my grandparents] are very conservative," she said. "She has always understood marriage as something between a man and a woman."
Lenti deeply values her relationship with her grandmother, but worries her grandmother would reject her if she learned she was gay.
"I also fear [...] if she decides that our relationship is over, that she will force my parents and my aunt and my cousins to, you know, pick who they want to associate with," Lenti said.
The big Italian family
Lenti is part of a big Italian family and grew up living across the street from her grandmother, who is originally from Calabria. Lenti remembers her grandmother occasionally bursting out the door with a pot of burning food, smoke billowing around her.
"She's very kind of like chaotic in her methods and she's very loud, but she is very adorable," said Lenti. "She's a punchy kind of woman."
Over the years, Lenti has kept an ear out to see if her grandmother might be receptive to changing her attitude around sexual orientation. But close family members say it's unlikely.
Lenti recalls an incident that reinforces the apprehension: one time, a family friend came out to her mother as gay. In response, the mother disowned her. Then, upon learning of the story, Lenti's grandmother said she approved of the mother's decision.
Instead of letting the closet limit us, perhaps we put limitations on what we believe the closet is,- Erica Lenti
"I want to see a scenario in which she is okay with it but I can't," said Lenti.
"I've had this conversation so many times with my mom and my dad and Arielle and my brother. And we try to rationalize ways in which it will be okay, but none of them are really rooted in reality."
Limiting the closet
Lenti doesn't consider the choice to stay in the closet as a necessarily sad one. She said that the current state of affairs gives her "the best of both worlds." She's out to her family, but can keep her relationship with her grandmother.
She feels the ability to make that choice, is itself, a kind of freedom and empowerment.
Lenti said that she has friends from the Middle East and Asia who aren't fully out to their parents, but they don't feel repressed.
"Instead of letting the closet limit us, perhaps we put limitations on what we believe the closet is," said Lenti. "I've taken some solace in knowing that there are other people like that and that there's another way to see it."
The decision does come with consequences, however. While Lenti said her girlfriend, Arielle, is supportive of her approach, it does bother her that she has to hide their relationship at Christmas dinner.
"She can't be physical. She can't show any affection to me. She can't call me any pet names because my grandmother be like, 'Why are you calling her 'babe?'" Lenti said.
It also means limits on telling her grandmother what she does for a living. Lenti is a senior editor at Xtra, a Toronto-based website that covers the news through an LGBT lens. Lenti also wrote about her experiences with her grandmother for The Walrus in an article titled, "Why I won't tell my grandmother I'm gay".
There may be limits to how long Lenti can keep her sexual orientation a secret. If Lenti's great-grandparents are any indication, her grandmother could well live into her 90s — meaning, another 10 years of playing straight in front of nonna.
"In an ideal world, [my grandparents] would just continue enjoying [Arielle's] presence and enjoying our presence once they find out we're a couple — that nothing would change," she said.
"That would make me super happy."
Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.