My sister had a homophobic outburst when I gave my husband a quick peck. Can I bring this up constructively?

My husband and I have been together for nearly five years, married for two. Last year at a family gathering, my eldest sister witnessed me giving my husband a quick peck on the cheek and flew into a homophobic-tinged rage, accusing us of “rubbing our relationship in her face”. Being a queer couple, I felt like her anger was disproportionate to the level of affection publicly displayed (this was a quick peck, not a prolonged session of tonsil tennis).

The rest of the family was shocked, but no one came to our defence. It was humiliating. I was left with feelings of internalised homophobia I thought I’d worked through in my early 20s. I feel anxious even holding my husband’s hand in public now.

My sister has not apologised, and I have heard through another family member that most of the family have sided with her, due to her history of depression and recent divorce. They (sister included) are all in denial of the homophobic nature of her outburst and have implied that I am being overly sensitive (they’re not entirely wrong).

My husband thinks I should cut them out of my life, but before I do anything drastic, is there a way to bring this up with them that is constructive for all parties involved?

Eleanor says: I’m sorry you had to go through that. It’s awful to realise the people we thought would defend us weren’t as brave as we hoped.

You asked if there was a way to bring this up that would feel productive. I wonder whether it might be useful, in conversations with your family, to separate impact from intent. Based on what you’ve written, I’m inclined to agree that homophobia was simmering in what your sister did – the old chestnut of “rubbing in my face” sounds a lot like “but why do you have to do it in public?”. Unfortunately, one of the more insidious features of homophobia – like ableism or racism or any other prejudice – is that the people who most enact it often recognise it the least. Right after saying something straight from the homophobia playbook, they’ll insist they don’t have the feelings you’re accusing them of, that there’s no animus; that prejudice plays no role in their mental life. It’s like watching a marionette swear they’re moving on their own.

This makes a dilemma for someone in your position: do you litigate the case that they do seem to have the feelings they disavow? Or do you focus on telling them how they’ve hurt you instead? It’s annoying, but I wonder whether focusing on how your sister’s action affected you – rather than its origins – might help. It could give you something to say that your family could be more able to hear. For instance, if you’re close enough to feel comfortable telling them, you could share the things they don’t know about how homophobia has coloured your life. Things about how people spoke to you, treated you; why it took this much bravery to hold your husband’s hand and why that feels fragile, even now.

If they had a better understanding of why this reopened certain wounds for you, and why they hurt so much in the first place, they might – might – be better able to see why you wanted their help.

Sometimes family disputes fracture along these lines: one side trying to say “you really hurt me” and the other indignantly replying “how dare you accuse me of trying to hurt you”. Focusing on what this meant to you regardless of intention might make it feel less like a battle between siblings over who knows the truth, and more like a request for solidarity and understanding. Your family should want to protect you from things that hurt you – whatever your sister really meant, everyone should be able to agree on that. And whether something hurts you isn’t up to them.

As to your sister’s circumstances at the moment. Lawyers and ethicists sometimes distinguish between a justification and an excuse. To have a justification for an action means it’s no longer wrong; to have an excuse just means you won’t get in trouble although we all still agree it was bad. With a lot of grace you might think your sister has an excuse. But grace has to run both ways – she should handle your pain and history and with as much consideration as she’s asking for hers. If your family can’t respond to either of these points, your husband may be right – at a certain point, the standard you walk past is the standard you accept.

This question has been edited for length.


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