Grey Matters: Is it ever ok for a gay couple hide their relationship from their family and friends?

Hands claspedISSUE: Couples often face family disapproval. This could be because someone has married outside of their race or religion or nationality, and in many cultures, parents would never want their children to marry a same-sex partner. One option is to just not ever tell the parents about the wedding. But this is challenging and could mean that the relationship needs to be kept a tightly guarded secret. In this week’s Grey Matters, we look at the marriage between a Nigerian man (Daniel) and his American fiancé (Phillip). Is it ok for Daniel to ask Phillip to keep their wedding a secret?

BACKGROUND: Daniel looked down. He and Phillip had already climbed 150 feet and had probably about 100 more to go. He made certain he had a good toe-hold with his right foot and grip with his left hand before he swung to set the cam. He pulled the trigger on the spring-loaded camming device and pushed it into a small crevice. Once he was comfortable with the position, he released the trigger, and the cams rotated to create a hold. He checked to make sure it was solid, and then clipped in a carabiner.

“How’s it going?” Phillip shouted from below. Even though they were only thirty feet apart, it was windy that day, and the conditions were a little less than ideal for climbing.

“All set,” Daniel said. “I’m gonna set two more cams, and then we can keep going.”

The couple had met at the gay rock-climbing club in Los Angeles, and they’d gotten to know each other after they were paired together on an all-day climb at Suicide Rock in Idyllwild, California. They’d been dating a couple years, and after the Supreme Court’s decision allowing them to get married, Phillip planned a special return trip to Idyllwild. He proposed after a particularly difficult climb to the top of Lily Rock.

Today, they were climbing in Moab, in a remote desert area in Utah. Daniel had learned to climb at Zuma Rock in his native Nigeria, and because he was the better climber, he usually led.

Daniel worked his way up the rock face twenty more feet, setting cams along the way. Once he’d fixed the top one, he sat back and relaxed for a minute on the side of the mountain, watching Phillip make his way up the face. Phillip had selected this particular rock to climb because he wanted to make sure they were as well prepared as possible to tackle the best that Yosemite had to offer.

Phillip climbed with his usual precision. “Can you believe that our wedding is just a couple months away?”

“I can’t believe that we can get married! Growing up in Nigeria, it’s expected that I would take a wife and give my parents many grandkids.”

“And you don’t think my momma had the same idea for me?” Phillip answered. “It’s not that being gay and Southern Baptist is any better than being gay in Nigeria.”

Daniel shook his head. No matter how many times, he’d explained, Phillip didn’t get the huge difference between his experiences growing up in South Carolina and what Daniel had faced growing up in Delta state in southern Nigeria. Just because they were both Christian didn’t mean that there wasn’t a difference.

Once Phillip had caught up, Daniel free climbed up to a ledge about ten feet above them. “Just watch that first right foothold, and it’s pretty easy,” Daniel said.

Once they were both on the ledge and could relax for a minute, Daniel brought up something that he’d been wanting to discuss with Phillip ever since Phillip had started planning their wedding.

“Thanks for agreeing to a small wedding,” Daniel said. “There’s one reason I wanted it to be small that I haven’t shared with you.”

“What’s that?” Phillip asked.

Daniel had felt bad that Phillip had been forced to compromise a lot of what he wanted for Daniel, but it was necessary. “We need to keep our marriage a secret.”

Phillip’s jaw dropped, almost enough to reach the 150 feet to the bottom of the cliff. He didn’t say anything and looked away. “And how are we supposed to do that? We’ve invited fifty people to our wedding?”

“We need to ask our guests not to take photos, and you can’t post any photos online. And for god’s sake, don’t post anything about our wedding on your Facebook.”

“I use Facebook to let all my friends know what’s going on in my life,” Phillip replied. “I don’t want them to miss out on the biggest event ever. And as far as not taking photos, I’m a photographer as are many of my friends. I don’t know how I can tell them to leave their cameras at home.” Phillip grabbed Daniel’s hand. “I know you’re worried about things getting back to your parents, but don’t you think they have the right to know you’re getting married. Maybe they’ll surprise you. Maybe they’ll overlook their prejudice and decide to come to our wedding.”

Daniel jerked his hand away and scooted over two inches, the most he could before his rear would be hanging off. He wished that he’d broached the subject another time, but he had avoided it so long. He knew he needed to confront the situation at some point.

“I’ve told you. It’s not that easy. My parents are not going to accept us. They’re not going to accept you. Even if they could get over their prejudice, they won’t be able to get over the judgment from their friends.”

“But we need photos. These are the way that we’ll remember this day forever.”

“I’m not saying that we can’t have someone take pictures, but I’m not comfortable if your friends have their cameras. I don’t trust someone won’t post something.”

“Who in Nigeria is gonna find out? And who would care? It’s not like either of us is famous.”

Daniel picked up a loose rock and tossed it off the side. It pinged down the face of the mountain, and the sound echoed through the valley. He could hear Phillip’s breathing, still heavy from the climb. “Phillip, please. I’m begging you. You don’t understand. There are people in my country who make their living inciting hatred. And there are a lot of people who think that the white Western world is trying to ‘re-colonize’ Africa by imposing their values on Africans. It didn’t help when Obama had the Nigerian President to the White House and lectured him on LGBT issues.”

“Obama is only half white. His father is African.”

“That’s not the point. You don’t know how my family feels about this. . .”

“Your parents are Christian,” Phillip interrupted him. “They’re not Muslim. It’s not like they’d kill you for this.”

“Christians can be just as opposed to gays as Muslims. Just try to understand.”

“Daniel. You need to understand. This is our big day. I fell in love with you the day that we climbed Suicide Rock together on that first trip. You’re funny, good-looking, and kind. And I want to announce my love for you to the world. The haters be damned!”

Daniel looked down at the 200-foot drop. He could imagine his mother telling him that she’d rather him jump off the ledge than marry a man. And his father probably would never speak to him again. He took a deep breath and then looked ahead to the last fifty feet. He pulled up so that his back was to the rock. “Let’s get to the top,” he said. He looked for the next place to get a firm grip, but then stopped. He bent over and kissed Phillip. “I do love you,” Daniel said, but for him, the conversation wasn’t over. He needed to convince Phillip that their wedding had to remain a secret.

COMMENTARY: It’s hard for us to understand the extent of discrimination against gays and lesbians in other parts of the world, particularly in parts of the world that are Christian. Phillip indicated he wouldn’t have a hard time believing Daniel if he’d grown up Muslim, but he didn’t understand since Daniel’s parents are Christian. But even in the Christian parts of Nigeria, homosexuality is not only frowned upon, but Daniel could be jailed if he were to ever return to Nigeria. If one of Daniel’s parents were to get sick, then Daniel would have a difficult choice to make, and unless he wanted to risk jail time, he would not be able to ever return home.

In late July 2016, an American photographer married his Nigerian boyfriend. They told all of their guests not to post any photos from the wedding. They limited whom they invited. And even though they had invited some family from Nigeria, those guests all canceled less than 24 hours before the service. On Monday morning after their Saturday nuptials, the couple was on a brief honeymoon in Niagara Falls. They found out that a Nigerian blogger had obtained photos from their wedding and posted them on her website. The comments were brutal, ranging from the absurd to the profane. For more, click here. Here are a couple of the least offensive and graphic:


Another said. I am very sure their anus is wider than the mouth of cooking pot.

The Nigerian groom had some of his countrymen in the wedding, and the commentators said that they must be gay if they would attend a gay wedding. People criticized the Nigerian man’s looks and said he was too ugly to get a woman. Some said that he better not come to Nigeria or he would be jailed or even killed.

At first, I thought that Phillip should respect Daniel’s request, but the more I thought about it, and despite the inherent risks, I realized that Daniel was asking too much of Phillip. This is the first step in what will be a lifetime of hiding their relationship. I think that whenever something is kept secretive, then that secret develops a coating of shame. I found that if I was upfront when meeting people and introducing in a natural way that I was gay or in a committed relationship with a man, then the person would be more at ease. If I hid my sexuality and/or missed opportunities to correct a person who assumed I was straight, and when the person found out later from someone else, it would be awkward, and our relationship would never be the same.

I would worry that as much as Daniel might want to think that he can live his life with Phillip without anyone finding out, the quest for secrecy would erect a 5.15a difficulty wall in their relationship that not even the best climber could scale.

But that doesn’t mean that Daniel and Phillip need to announce their relationship in the Lagos newspaper, and they can request their friends be selective in what photos to post and where to post them. They do need to be prepared for backlash. In the real-life event that inspired this story, the grooms thought they had taken all precautions, but they were wrong, and they were unprepared for the fall-out.  It’s better for any bloback to happen at a time of their choosing, when they are ready for it, versus another time when they’re both unsuspecting.

I think about a child growing up in the same village in Delta state where Daniel was raised. Without knowing about Daniel’s example, that kid will think that he has no option. Daniel’s example could be very powerful.

Providing these examples will likely be the only way for change to occur. From research I conducted in connection with this Grey Matters, I found that there is strong backlash when Western countries try to tell African nations how to manage their internal affairs, particularly with respect to cultural issues. It is seen not as promoting human rights, but as trying to reinstate a form of colonialism by imposing Western culture and values on Africans. So all of the work that Western leaders may do to try to promote LGBT rights abroad may not only be ineffective but also counterproductive.

Phillip should try to better understand Daniel’s arguments, but in the end, they should recognize that their relationship (whether they want it to be or not) is a political statement. There’s nothing wrong with maintaining their privacy to the extent possible, but Phillip shouldn’t let Daniel hide their relationship. The world is changing, but not as fast as it needs to. Only by sharing stories about our lives can we touch those who don’t understand.