Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Should I Tell Mom I Think Dad Was Gay?

January 17, 2016 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicists, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, “Should I Tell Mom I Think Dad Was Gay?


I think my father, who died 10 years ago, was gay or preferred men, but I have no proof. I base my suspicion mostly on the way he looked at people, some magazine subscriptions and one conversation.

I came out to my parents in the 1970s, while home from college. That same night, my father took me aside and confided that before his marriage he had an affair with a man but got psychological help and was ‘‘cured.’’ He hoped I would do the same. He said, ‘‘Promise not to tell your mother — it will break her heart.’’ I promised.

Some time later, I asked him to tell me more about that man, but he denied the whole story, and we had a bit of a fight. However, many years later, in a brief autobiography he wrote for his grand­children, he referred to a high-school friendship that he would ‘‘rather not talk about.’’

He grew to be supportive of my sexuality and was gracious to my boyfriends, but his backtracking on his confession made me stop trusting him.

Am I obliged to tell my mother any of this? The thought that I have been complicit in hiding the truth from her makes me uncomfortable. But it’s possible that he invented his ‘‘confession’’ in a misguided attempt to help me, abandoning the strategy after it failed. The only thing of which I am certain is that he let me down.

I’m hard-­pressed to think of a way my story could benefit my mother, who is now in her 80s. Even if my father really was keeping a secret, there’s no way to know whether he broke a commitment to her. Plus, she may have already figured it out and resolved it in her own way (though, if that were so, I expect she would have mentioned it to me, her gay son). Name Withheld

My response: Where does your idea of obligation come from? You’re only as obliged as you feel. You’ll probably feel more free in your life the more you understand the feelings of compulsion that lead you to ask such questions. You don’t have to tell your mother every time you blow your nose. Since you can’t tell everyone everything all the time, you must have some threshold of importance. If something is below a that threshold, what’s the point of sharing it?

I suggest instead as considering abstract concepts of obligation, you consider the results of your actions. Do you expect you’ll improve her life?

The New York Times response:

First, you can’t be guilty of ‘‘hiding the truth’’ unless you’re in possession of the truth. What you have, it seems to me, is a hunch. Human sexuality is complicated; one high-school crush doesn’t settle the question. You’re basically relying on your ‘‘gaydar’’ here. But evidence shows that it is pretty unreliable, and my guess is that it’s not likely to be more reliable when applied to your father.

Second, you promised not to tell your mother what he told you. Promises don’t cease to be binding because the promisee is dead. So there would have to be some substantial moral reason against continuing to keep your word. The only reason I can think of is that a truth is sometimes important to a person’s understanding of his or her life. Which brings us back to my first point. You don’t know that your father was gay.

And if he were? There is no conversation your parents can have now that would allow your mother to work through her feelings about his sexuality. Many men of an earlier generation committed to a heterosexual marriage while having same-sex desires; many would say their relationships with their wives weren’t undermined by those desires. In your father’s absence, though, there isn’t a way for your mother to talk about issues like these in a way that would bring her a better understanding of her marriage. In any case, if she wanted to talk to you about the possibility that your dad was gay, she would have brought it up.

I’ve been struggling to decide whether to watch the growing number of videos of police shootings. As a taxpaying citizen and voter, I view these men and women as working on my behalf. But it seems invasive to the victims to impose myself like some snuff-film viewer. I feel an obligation to witness what the police are doing to (primarily) black families and communities, but I also don’t want to further violate what little posthumous humanity these victims have left. Jordan Weil, Hastings, Minn.

My response: Did the New York Times edit this message to remove a question from it? Because I don’t see one and haven’t found it productive to solve problems that don’t exist.

Thank you for sharing your perspective and feelings.

The New York Times response:

Watching videos of abuse isn’t itself abusive, although, like your snuff-film viewer, you can certainly respond to them in morally discreditable ways. You would be failing to respect the humanity of the victims only if you responded to the images without sympathy or outrage. I tend not to watch these things — I have never watched the video of the planes hitting the World Trade Center either — because I have the sense that such images penetrate my consciousness in ways that dull rather than sustain my moral feelings. You don’t have to watch to ‘‘stay woke.’’ Yet many people say these visual experiences lend urgent reality to something that might otherwise have remained vaporously abstract. Just remember, images are often better at showing the what than the why. Don’t let their power foreclose conversation and inquiry, and remember that not everything that matters is caught on video. Historical patterns of underpolicing, too, can cost lives. Still, whether or not you watch these clips, you’re right to think that responsible citizens need to keep an eye on what is being done in their name.

Some years ago, I flipped a few residential properties. I’m not a Realtor or an agent, but I sold my properties personally. During my open-­house events, I often took phone calls in the presence of prospective buyers from other interested parties. A barrage of calls meant that these potential buyers overheard a steady flow of ringtones, enthusiastic sales talk and appointments being made. This often increased their interest in the property. At times when the number of calls slowed, or at other propitious moments, I would have a friend make bogus calls to me. I would answer with a monologue of sales talk designed to be overheard. I never gave the impression that bids were being offered or attributed these calls to actual customers. One person attending one of these open houses, whom I believe overheard my sales monologue, made an offer a few weeks later, ultimately buying the property. Because the content of the bogus calls was factually correct, their inauthenticity hardly seems consequential, especially given how long the buyer took to make an offer and close on the property. Were these calls wrong? Name Withheld

My response: If you’re asking if they’re illegal, you’d have to ask a lawyer. I’m not one, but I understand there are laws against some sales tactics like bait-and-switching. Maybe someone made your tactic illegal.

If you’re asking if they’re morally wrong, that’s a matter of opinion. You and your friend didn’t think so at the time. You aren’t so sure today. There’s no book in the sky that defines right and wrong, so there’s no absolute answer everyone agrees to.

I suspect you’re more asking, “can you help me sleep better at night?” If so, I recommend learning more about how to manage your emotions and beliefs. You can’t change the past but you can act in the present.

The New York Times response:

Here’s an easy test: If your impostures had been exposed at the time, your prospective buyers would have felt deceived — and your cheeks would probably have burned with shame. That the facts mentioned in the conversation were truths does not correct for the larger dishonesty. You deliberately conveyed a false impression. As you say, the deception isn’t likely to have played a decisive role in the process, and if it did, I’m inclined to say caveat emptor. No serious buyer should make the decision to buy or set the price on the basis of a judgment of the market interest shown in a couple of phone calls. Still, adjectives like ‘‘bogus’’ are generally a clue that you’re doing something skeevy.

I’ve been invited to visit a country in the Middle East for the purpose of evaluating an educational program. This country is known to restrict the entry of those who have visited Israel. I have visited Israel, and so informed my potential host. I was told that it would not be an issue for me, as an invited guest. Is it ethical to accept the invitation? On the one hand, the policy is repugnant; on the other, the visit would benefit students in this country. Last, were it not for this policy, I would like to visit the country. Name Withheld

My response: To call accepting the invitation ethical or not only labels it. Despite the region’s propensity for books prescribing right and wrong, there is no book that defines right and wrong in a way that everyone agrees. Just like you call the policy repugnant, yet the people who created the policy consider it right, many things you consider right others consider repugnant.

I recommend dropping the self-righteous moralizing in favor of considering how your actions will affect others. If you read my blog last month, you’d see my concern for the pollution caused by flying, particularly contributing to global warming. That irreversible effect may hurt more people than the entry issue. Have you thought about other issues like that?

Also, have you considered other options? Can you use the visit to change things or find ways to make your visit not so repugnant to you? Or, alternatively, can you not visit but somehow get the benefit?

You have a world of options beyond just labeling behavior.

The New York Times response:

Only a few countries seem to have a prohibition (sometimes only fitfully applied) on entering with an Israeli stamp in your passport. You would want to avoid many of these countries right now out of prudence, because they’re in a state of civil war. The ones that are safer to visit — Kuwait and Saudi Arabia come to mind — tend to have policies more troubling than their attitude toward Israeli visa stamps. The working conditions of many migrant workers in Kuwait, for example, are indistinguishable from slavery. Human trafficking is a major industry. The state imprisons bloggers who criticize not only its own regime but also that of the Saudis next door. And speaking of Saudi Arabia: There, homosexual acts can be punished by execution, and women are forbidden to drive or even leave home without a male chaperone. And how do you feel about public floggings or decapitation with a sword? I could go on. So if you thought it was O.K. to go to one of these countries before you learned about their attitude toward Israeli visa stamps, I’m not sure this extra piece of information should tip the balance.

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