The first time I introduced a same-sex partner to my parents I was terrified. I come from a suburban neighborhood where hockey reigns supreme and everybody is married with children by their mid-twenties. As someone who didn’t play hockey and was attracted to members of the same sex (which always felt related), I felt like a disappointment.
I’d come out to my parents 2 years prior, and we resolved I wouldn’t introduce them to a boyfriend until the person in my life was significant and they were both comfortable with my sexuality (it took my dad longer than my mom).
In the end, the introduction went remarkably well — my parents loved my boyfriend. They even surprised him with gifts so he could join in on our Christmas morning traditions.
Meeting the folks is especially significant for many queer people, since the stakes are higher. If they don’t like your partner, this could have a negative impact on how they view your sexuality.
Before I introduced my boyfriend to my parents the journalist in me thought it would be a good idea to do some research. When I went to do so, I was disappointed to find information was scarce. With that in mind, I decided to reach out to therapist Peter Andrew Danzig, to help ensure this prodigious occasion goes off without a hitch.
If you’ve recently come out to your parents, give them time to process things before introducing your first queer relationship. The time will vary by individual, but will usually take longer than you’d like. It took my folks 2 years to be comfortable with my sexuality and things can still be a little tense at times.
Use your senses to gauge how they’re feeling (ask them if you’d like) and, based on these perspectives, agree on a date that you’re all comfortable with. You don’t want to make your partner uncomfortable by rushing an introduction.
Before the introduction, try putting yourself in your parents’ shoes. If they’ve never spent time with ~openly~ queer people or aren’t familiar with queer culture, they may have preconceived notions. Some hand-holding might be necessary. Remember, these are the people who gave you life, so be respectful. They’re nervous too.
At his practice, Danzig encourages clients to speak with their loved ones about queer history and experiences. “Sometimes, people can warm up to an idea through a macro concept before having to think about their interpersonal lives and children,” he says.
That said, you don’t need to sit your folks in front of a Stonewall documentary straight out of the gate. I personally exposed my parents to queer culture gradually through media.
Just the other day, my father, a brawny hockey coach, watched an episode of “Drag Race” with me. He didn’t like it, but watched regardless. Though it may seem insignificant or small, I viewed this as evidence of how far he’d come in accepting me as a queer man.
From the moment I came out, I’d do this regularly. At the beginning, their answers were not as progressive as I would have liked, but things gradually got better.
Once everybody’s feelings are on the table, then you can start to work through what needs to happen for the introduction to go as smoothly as possible.
If they cannot discuss queerness or accept anything that strays from the binary, it may be a good indication of potential dissonance in introducing a partner.
As the first queer partner being introduced to the folks, your partner is taking on a big responsibility and may feel an overwhelming pressure to be perfect. Your job is to ease this anxiety as best you can.
If you’re worried about something in particular, let them know. Describe what your parents are like, what their interests are, and what they like talking about. Let them know what kind of wine or gifts to bring. Set them up for success!
“Discuss with your partner what the introduction means to them, how they can engage, and check in with their comfort level,” Danzig says. “Most people don’t like a surprise introduction, so establishing comfort with your partner [beforehand] signals that you also value their insights and boundaries.”
Agree on a safe word
Danzig recommends this in case the introduction isn’t going well, and you realize you need a swift exit, or a change in conversation.
As a proud queer man, I grappled with the idea of being affectionate with my partner in front of my parents. Ultimately, I decided not to, out of respect. I thought it best to let them dip their toes in these uncharted waters before using the diving board.
Keep in mind, being verbally affectionate might also be hard for your parents initially.
“This is a hard topic for me, even as a therapist,” Danzig says. “I’m genderqueer and very affectionate, but remember that being hard for my parents at the start, so I think creating a safe expectation around affection for all is a good approach.”
To do this, Danzig recommends establishing a “ground rule” that neither couple will be affectionate on meeting day. This will level the playing field to create an equitable space versus a hierarchy. “It signals to a parent that if they are having a hard time not showing affection to their spouse, you may have a hard time with it too,” he says. “It creates a dialogue over a shared experience of the loss of affection, which may help them understand your relationship better.”
The ideal location will vary by individual, but meeting the parents is usually tense, so you’re best to offset that energy in an environment that encourages being social, like a cooking class, painting class, or coffee before a jaunt through the park.
“As social creatures, conversation is key. We read others’ facial expressions, tone,” Danzig says. “If there is an activity that doesn’t allow for some connection, it can be hard for all involved to grow their experience into something more.”
It may be best to ask everybody what they would like to do and meet in the middle. “Something that encourages laughter is always good for everyone,” Danzig says.
My parent’s place proved a good meeting spot. When we arrived, my mom had plenty of finger foods and cocktails which eased the initial tension and created a welcoming environment.
Having a space to escape to is something I would definitely recommend (thankfully, my parents have a sizable guest bedroom). If your parents’ place doesn’t offer that, consider booking a hotel or Airbnb, so you can have your own space to debrief and decompress.
If things are going well and you both want more engagement, you can always schedule a follow-up or make the decision to stay in the moment. It’s best you aim to keep things short and sweet and decide from there. It can be draining!
“Say something like, ‘I’m bringing my partner around noon to meet you over lunch.’ This creates an expectation that all can agree to,” Danzig says. “And stating you have another engagement right after allows for a hard out.”
Talk about hobbies, music, and experiences that are unique to each person’s culture. For instance, I knew both my father and boyfriend liked lifting weights. By the end of the night, they’d challenged each other to a bench press competition.
“[That] does not mean there is no depth to the conversation, it means allowing people to share in discussions that are safe from scrutiny for their beliefs,” Danzig says. “When a solid ground is built in the relationship between your partner and family, then conversations can grow organically and survive disagreement.”
In planning for this massive moment in our lives, we often get caught up in idealizing our partners, our parents, and the idea of how the meeting will go. But this way of thinking may set you up for disappointment. Instead, accept that perfection cannot be expected, and do your best to make everybody comfortable.
Be patient and don’t rush things. Let the mood and energy of the room determine the pace. If things don’t go great, that doesn’t mean it’s a wash. Maybe your folks weren’t as ready as they thought they were, or maybe your partner let their nerves get the best of them. These are all perfectly valid.
First impressions, while important, have no bearing on what the relationship can look like in the future. Take it as a learning experience and apply these lessons when you connect again. Don’t be too hard on yourself. It happened. And that’s worthy of celebration.
Bobby Box is a journalist whose work on sex and culture has been published just about everywhere. Coming out as queer halfway through his career, Bobby has amassed a considerable and respected audience and has become recognized as a studied and shameless voice in the community. Follow him on Twitter at @bybobbybox.