A Debutante With Lesbian Moms: How Does She Come Out?
My wife and I are mothers of a lovely and accomplished 17-year-old daughter, who has been invited to have her debut this year at our annual cotillion. I was fortunate to have a debut as a young woman in the early 1980s and view it as a significant rite of passage that I would like my daughter to also experience. What, if any, are the special considerations for the daughter of same-sex parents who are female? We have many male family members and friends who have offered to present her, but is this necessary? — Boomer Debutante, Dallas
Indeed, this is not the kind of “coming out” issue I usually address, but what an interesting question — and one that on second glance is much more layered than it first appears. For the 99 percent of us who are not a part of “Society,” your query is really a stand-in for all the other situations where a daughter with lesbian moms might lack a dad for certain rituals, like "father/daughter" dances and being "given away" at her wedding.
Boomers may be forgiven for needing their memories jogged on this one: cotillions have gone in and out of favor over the decades (and the centuries), and they weren’t hot tickets when we were coming of age. But they're back again. Cotillion and debutante parties are milestone events, akin to a quinceañera or a Sweet 16 party, at which parents present their newly adult (and thus marriageable) daughter to the world. While they are a link to a time when society was highly stratified, 21st-century debuts are much more likely to highlight their charitable aims than ever before, part of a new public relations spin to make them seem more modern and relevant. Still, the crux of the evening is a father’s “presentation” of his daughter to "society," and to potential husbands. Traditionally, the deb would do the first dance with dear old dad.
My first question goes to your daughter: Does she want to be part of a tradition that to many seems old-fashioned, patriarchal and better forgotten? My Facebook readers were even more emphatic, with one crying out, "SO BOURGEOIS" (yes, in caps) and another, sardonically: "Cotillion? 2013!!! My darling, wake up." Regardless, this is her decision.
Let’s assume your daughter’s answer is "yes." Then she has more decisions to make: Who does she want to present her? With whom does she want to have that first dance? Does she want to acknowledge her two moms as part of her debut? That might make for a double "coming out," even if her family’s makeup is known to the community. One lesbian mother of two girls told me: "I would be sympathetic to a teenager who doesn’t want her moms in the cotillion." Agreed, that’s a lot of social pressure and visibility – and in Texas, no less, a state with no protections for L.G.B.T. people.
Now for you: How do you and your wife feel about the possibility that one of you may be rendered less visible (even invisible) by having a male friend or relative step in? Or, depending on your point of view, how do you feel about playing the role of father quite so publicly? Either way, as Cornelia Guest, named Debutante of the Decade for the ‘80s and now known as a promoter of veganism and marriage equality, told me over the phone: "They’re going to need to have some really strong backbones to do it." Agreed.
In some ways, your situation is not without precedent. After all, there have been many young girls whose fathers were absent — in the military, deceased, divorced from the family. In those cases, protocol was straightforward: another male stepped into the role.
But there’s a huge difference between a young lady with a departed dad and one with two moms and no dad. Ms. Guest agreed: “I think it’s completely 'unetiquette' to have a male step in,” she said, adding about the mothers, “How dare people treat them with disrespect.” Your situation is very different than a family with an absent father; as times change, so too must our social institutions, even debutante balls.
As your daughter has been invited (which makes it pretty much a done deal), the "committee" must be well aware of your family situation, which gives your debutante-in-waiting various options. The three of you should talk it over and decide whether one or both moms will present her. Whether she chooses one of you or prefers a threesome, walk in proudly, arm in arm with your beautiful daughter. Just as you’ve no doubt done for her whole life, show your daughter you are proud of her, and of your family. (By the way, I would give the committee a head’s up on any unorthodoxy.)
As for the "father/daughter" dance, I wouldd suggest that one mother start, and the other finish. Or, as a 1976 "double deb" (she came out at two balls) suggested: "The two mothers could walk hand in hand to the dance floor, do a twirl with their daughter and then let the first escort cut in."
Sure, this may be awkward but such is the nature of changing social mores. As Ms. Guest said: "It’s very important that children are shown that their parents step up for what’s right." And consider this practice for the next set of rituals that are likely coming your way: figuring out who will play the father-of-the bride role at her wedding and all the attendant rituals. I’m sure you wouldn’t outsource that to a male friend or relative.
Update: My previous column came from an Army sergeant who asked for some help introducing his girlfriend to his commander and his new husband. Specifically, he wondered whether to refer to the spouse as a husband. He e-mailed me an update this past week: "When Jennifer and I met with them it went off without a hitch. The introduction went as follows: "Jennifer, this is Colonel Smith and his husband, Mr. Andrews." And since Colonel Smith knows that I call Jennifer "My Hot Blonde Girlfriend" he said, "Hun, this is Sgt. Taylor’s Hot Blonde Girlfriend, Jennifer." It was so nice and a great ice-breaker and they both really appreciated that I took the initiative to say "Husband."
Originally published in The New York Times, October 8, 2013