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All About Friends & Family

Can Peace Come to a Family a Brother 'Destroyed' Because His Sister Is Gay?

Almost 30 years ago, my older brother gave my parents an ultimatum — disown my little sister, who had just revealed she was gay, or he would cut himself and his family off from the rest of us. My parents refused to do such a thing and my brother made good on his threat and destroyed our family. I stood with my sister and have not seen or spoken to my big brother or any of his family since his declaration so long ago. Neither has my sister. Time has not healed the wounds of our family. On his deathbed, my dad asked me never to forget what my brother did to all of us and I promised him I would not — and I refuse to forgive him. My mother has forgiven my brother — and I’m glad for her. I also know my mom dearly wishes to have her family together before she dies. My question: Should I honor my father’s deathbed request or my mother’s final wish? –Straight Sister in the Middle

What a terribly sad situation this is, and one, alas, that prompted a significant number of readers on my Facebook page to volunteer painfully similar stories of broken families. Many readers advised some form of “forgive and forget,” which would put them in the camp of having you follow through on your mother’s plea:

“Forgive, forgive, forgive! 30 years ago was light-years away from where we are today in terms of attitudes about gay people. You simply can’t remain frozen in that very backward and discriminatory moment in time. We must be willing to open the door to a new experience and provide leadership to effect the change we want. We can’t wait around for others to do it for us. It’s tragic your father had to pass with this sad situation burdening his heart. Why make your mother go through the same experience? If she can forgive, so can you. Make the move and give peace a chance. Nothing is won by remaining in this hurtful place.”

Others had a more hardened view, although no less passionate, urging some variation of “never forgive, never forget” (which would be more consistent with your late father’s wishes). Wrote one gay man:

“The brother needs to remember that he chose to leave and destroy a group of loving people. He should not return, not ever be allowed to. He must reap what he sowed. You don’t get to destroy people and then come back as if nothing happened, regardless of the sorries.”

As regular readers of this column might guess, I’m inclined to suggest one more effort, if only because your family seems to remain trapped in this old pain.

Three decades is such a long time that it’s possible your brother’s attitudes have changed; perhaps, in the heat of the moment, he made a decision that he now regrets and is too stubborn or embarrassed to acknowledge. One way for you to try to move things forward would be to invite him to your family’s holiday gathering — while making it clear that your sister will be present. Let big brother make the decision whether to attend. If he chooses not to, you’ll know that you tried your best.

Still, I wonder if there isn’t something more going on here than first meets the eye. Your father asked you “never to forget” and you agreed, but then you upped the ante significantly by also refusing to forgive your brother. Forgiving and forgetting are two completely different things, and it is tremendously difficult to forgive someone who hasn’t acknowledged a wrong, much less apologized. It occurs to me that that simple “acceptance” may be a better strategy for your family instead.

There is an important distinction between “forgiveness” and “acceptance,” as Kenny Levine, a social worker in Durham, N.C., explained to me this week. As he put it: “Forgiveness would require active participation on the part of the older brother, to express very genuine sorrow and regret about how his behavior affected the rest of the family.” In other words, he must first say, what for many are the three most difficult words in the English language: “I am sorry.” “Acceptance, however, is a decision on the part of the family that they will cease fighting reality, move beyond the anger, and not continue to let the family be destroyed by one bad apple.” He added: “Acceptance is not easy, but it can be achieved — without the participation of the older brother.”

In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death earlier this month, I’ve been reminded repeatedly of what it means to truly seek peace: Instead of practicing recrimination or revenge, President Mandela preached reconciliation and tolerance, which not only disarmed those who sought to undermine him but also gave him moral and spiritual authority. With the holiday season upon us, it’s a fitting time to consider rising above the conflicts within our families and around the world. Someone in your family should extend the olive branch and give peace a chance, and it sounds like that someone is you.

Originally published in The New York Times, December 16, 2013

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