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Valerie L

Personal News: I haven’t been feeling so hot the past few weeks, but good news, my pesky uterus and its fibroid passenger “Guillaume” are going to come out within the next several months. YEETERUS AT LAST.

Content Note: Brief mention of kink in the question. If you’re a child and/or the concept of D/s relationships irks you, skip this one.

Dear Captain,

I (they/them) am in a D/s relationship with a trans woman (she/they) involving mutual service dynamics, and one aspect is me being her “guard dog.” I very much enjoy being the protector, and love to be called her guard dog and such things, but sometimes when I really do need to protect her, I fail to do so. Being brave in terms of investigating noises or taking on situations that scare her is one thing, but I am really useless when it comes to helping with conflict. For example, if someone is transphobic to her in public, I often completely freeze up or say something really milquetoast in response. I am just completely filled with shame that in so many situations where I could actually help her, I’m a useless lump instead.

I am working on being braver and taking baby steps to being more assertive and standing my ground when it’s safe to do so, but it feels like I’m not really making much progress. And, any time I fail, it completely tanks my self image and for a long time afterwards, hearing her call me her guard dog just feels horrible. She doesn’t hold it against me, and she isn’t trying to call me out, but in the aftermath I just can’t help but feel like I’m a pathetic armchair warrior, playacting like they’re brave but hiding anytime things get real.

What can I do to get better at being brave and blunt in the moment? How do I learn in my bones that it’s okay to rock the boat when someone has tried to throw someone overboard? And in the meantime, how do I handle the shame and feeling like I don’t deserve her praise or the title of guardian?

–Big Bark, No Bite

Dear Big Bark,

Good news: Assertiveness in the moment is a skill and a habit that can be practiced and learned over time.

Medium news: If you didn’t grow up with the knack, it takes time and practice to unlearn old habits and social dynamics and acquire new ones. You’re not alone in freezing up during high conflict situations, and it feels hard to push back because bigots (and the misogynist, homophobic and transphobic racist culture that we’re all swimming in) makes it hard to push back.

Bigots assume that most people in the dominant group secretly agree with them, and they rely on pressuring anyone who doesn’t agree with them to remain “polite,” “calm,” “neutral,” “civil,” to “prove you’re the bigger person,” to “rise above it,” to “not get emotional,” or “ruin the occasion.” Everything in quotes in the prior sentence is a code for “STAY SILENT AND COMPLIANT AND DON’T REACT.” Bigots want to be able to say and do whatever hateful stuff they want and treat anything less than total compliance, welcome, and praise as proof that they are being persecuted by rude and uncivil forces. *Any* negative reaction from a non-bigot will be treated as an overreaction, as they try to turn attention away from the vile shit they said and blame you for ruining everyone’s fun when you don’t enjoy it. Does that make sense? You’re always going to feel “rude” when you respond to bigotry because bigots thrive by defining any opposition to their violent views and behavior as your faux pas, and the rest of the culture has been conditioned to police “possible rudeness” harder than outright eugenics as long as the horrible person never raises their voice.

Responding to a rude, transphobic remark can be as simple as saying a word or two: “Wow.” “Not cool.” “Yikes.” “Really.” “Yuck.” “Gross.” “Shame on you.” “That’s unacceptable.” “Awkward!” “How embarrassing.” “What an odd thing to say out loud.” You don’t have to be snappy, slay them with your wit, explain yourself, deliver a footnoted treatise on why it’s wrong, or debate with them (almost always a trap). It doesn’t have to be perfect, eloquent, or suave as long as you say or do *something* that indicates that you’re not okay with whatever is happening. Practice speaking up, practice dealing with the flood of pressure and weird feelings that rises afterward, and practice being very kind and gentle with yourself. It’s a process, but if you keep at it you’ll find your own style over time. If that style is more on the “milquetoast” end of things, but you are consistently able to express dismay and disapproval when you encounter bigotry? Then you’re probably doing great!

It’s not always safe to respond, especially for more marginalized people, and you (both you the Letter Writer and you the Reader) are going to be the best judge of when walking away quietly or other de-escalation tactics are necessary to avoid violence Just know that whenever you are able to say something back to a bigot, you are doing four very important things:

  • You’re returning the awkwardness to sender. The bigot is the one who ruined everyone’s good time with their asshole remarks, you’re not making it weird by responding. [Remind yourself/bystanders of this by re-stating the facts of what the bigot said and did. “Oh, yes, I realize my ‘tone ‘is quite strident, but I’m not the one who casually suggested a genocide at Book Club.”  “Why are you more okay with [the exact horrible thing they said] than with me reacting to it? Weird!” ]
  • You’re removing the bigot’s plausible deniability that their views are acceptable and that “everyone” agrees with them.
  • You’re signaling to any nearby marginalized folks and fellow non-bigots that they’re not alone here.
  • Even if there is no one else there to notice and nobody is on your side, by speaking up you are standing firm in your own integrity. This too takes practice!

These four things are true and important whether or not the bigot ever “learns a lesson.” It’s unlikely that anyone – especially a stranger in a public place! – changes their horrible views just because you made the right snappy comeback at the right time.

Now, Letter Writer, I want to delve into the specifics of the relationship a tiny bit here.

If you’re being asked to do something as part of a kinky exchange, and attempting that thing is consistently making you feel awful, then it’s probably time to renegotiate things with your partner. “Can we talk about ways we can both show up for each other and push back against transphobic interactions in public? The ‘guard dog’ role isn’t working for me and I keep freezing up. Can we take that out of the whole package for the time being and focus on [stuff we both enjoy]?” 

You don’t enjoy this particular aspect of your relationship. That is not a failure on your part, and that is a good enough reason to change it. If it’s not working for you, then it’s not working, period.

That doesn’t mean you should stop speaking up altogether when you and your partner encounter transphobes in the wild. Standing up for your partner the way you would do for a friend, a stranger, or heck – yourself! -is still going to be a good idea for all the reasons stated above, and it’s still a good idea to practice and learn. But I think it will work better if the two of you are a team about it, and if your partner’s safety and agency around this isn’t outsourced to you under pressure of performing a certain way. Sometimes you speak up and they back you up, sometimes they speak up and you back them up, experiment! But overall, I suggest that you untangle the assertiveness skill-building from the kink for now, remove pressure, and see how you do.

Valerie L

Hello, it’s time for the periodic feature where I answer the search strings that led people here as if they are actual questions, no context, all snap judgment! 

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, partly because the more I do them, the more the same search terms come up in my search terms as a self-reinforcing cycle. But I finally have enough of a new batch, so, here you go. 

First, as is traditional, a song: 

Technically it is already May, but you know me and deadlines. ;-p

1 “Is it right to return gifts after a breakup?”

This really, really depends. Once given, a gift belongs to the recipient, and it’s probably good to assume that nobody can really obligate or force anybody to return a gift. Exceptions to this are such stuff as first year law school exams are made on. 

Still, off the top of my head, I can think of many examples where offering to return a gift or asking for it back is reasonable, even if it’s not technically owed, and even if the person might refuse. Say, Person A is planning to break up, but Person B doesn’t know and buys a very expensive gift, or gives A an irreplaceable family heirloom, or books a (non-refundable) vacation or big ticket event together. Person A can’t be compelled to give whatever it is back, but we invest in relationships differently when we assume they’ll last, and if Person B had had the same information Person A did they wouldn’t have given the gift. In that case, asking “Can I please have my Grandma’s antique harpsichord back?” doesn’t make Person B a jerk. 

Or, say you break up with someone who gave you lots of things, and now you want all of it out of your house. If the stuff is useful and/or valuable, and you’re still on good terms, giving your ex the right of first refusal before you sell, donate, or regift it *might* be a nice thing to do. But if it’s still useful and valuable, and you want to keep it and plan to use it, then keep it! It was a gift. 

If you’re the gift-er, and you want to ask for something back, treat it as what it is: An ask. If you’re the gift-ee, and you know in your heart of hearts that giving something back is the most ethical and kind thing to do in a given situation, then you know what to do. But there’s no one rule to rule them all. 

2 “Is it disrespectful for a friend to invite themselves on a family trip?”

I love phrasing like this, because it highlights both the uses and limitations of manners and concepts like “disrespect.” 

Is it rude for people to invite themselves places? Sure, maybe, sometimes. I recently read an epic Reddit story where a lady planned and paid for a romantic getaway with her husband, told him explicitly “No, your Mom cannot come with us” after she tried to invite herself along, showed up at the airport on the day, saw her mother-in-law standing there with a bunch of suitcases anyhow, and turned around and went home. I do not think that marriage is long for this world. But there are also many relationships where saying, “I’ve always wanted to ____, can I tag along next time you go?” is a question and “Sure!” The more the merrier!” or “Not this time, but let’s plan our own excursion” are possible answers. 

Much more importantly, do you feel annoyed when people invite themselves along to things you’ve planned? When a specific person invites themselves along for a specific trip, do you wish they hadn’t asked, and do you want to tell them “no”? Are you more compatible friends with people don’t invite themselves along? If so, an “impartial” “yeah, that’s rude” judgment from an Etiquette Authority might help you feel more justified in saying no, but the part that really matters is the part where you don’t want to because that’s a good enough reason to decline.

3 “Feeling not good enough for not being married.”

I hate this for you. The toxic pressure to get married by a certain age or milestone or else you’ve failed is the cause of so much misery in the world. How many people are grinding away in absolutely miserable relationships with someone totally wrong for them because they’re afraid of being single? I don’t know your gender, but when I think about how much of young women’s time, energy, and ambition is wasted on feral cishet dude rehabilitation because of pressure to find The One, it makes me want to scream. 

Look, you may be a total asshole, but it’s far likelier that you are pretty great, perhaps downright terrifyingly amazing. If you do in fact want to get married someday (not a given for everyone), the fact that you haven’t met and connected with someone who is compatible enough with you –someone “good enough” for you — isn’t a sign that something is wrong with you. You just haven’t met anybody worth giving up being single for. You haven’t met anybody where the timing and geography and sheer luck of the draw all worked out. Or, more accurately, you haven’t met anyone like that yet. 

This is an encouraging book: It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single, by Sara Eckel 

4 “Best answer for ‘why are you not in serious relationship?'” 

“I haven’t met anyone I like more than I like being single.” “I’m incredibly picky.” “I might someday if I were to meet the right person, but it’s not a goal I have.” “I was in one, but it didn’t work out.” “I’d love to be in one, any ideas on how?” “I’m aromantic, so, not really my thing.” “I’ve already dated all the [people of my orientation] in a 100 mile radius, and they’ve all paired off with each other.” “No clue. Why do you ask?” “Ha, hilarious question, Aunt Nosy! Why are you ________?” [Insert topic she is sensitive about.]

The best answer is almost always going to be whatever is true for you in that moment. Don’t play guessing games about what the person asking this wants to hear, or try to do that job interview thing where you try to rebrand all of your greatest weaknesses as “Oh, I just can’t stop myself from being a team player with meticulous attention to detail who loves to work hard and play hard in fast-paced environments! My problem is that I just love working Too Much!” 

5 “If someone ask you can you be my fuck buddies*? what is an answer?”

A. “Yes, I’d/*We’d love to, at least in theory. Can you tell me more about what you have in mind?” 

B. “Thank you, but no!” 

The truth will either set you free or get you laid. 

6 “I tell an experience and that person tells me theirs.” 

Sharing a story in response to a story can be a very powerful way to communicate empathy and solidarity. “I’ve been there, you’re not alone!”  When there is a respectful peer relationship where everybody trusts that they’ll both be heard and get their say, cooperative story swapping is awesome! 

It can also be really alienating and frustrating when you run into a Story Topper (“Oh, you think that’s rough? Let me tell you about the time something even more dramatic and interesting happened to me!”) or it feels like the other person spent the whole time you were talking thinking of what they wanted to say instead of actually listening to you.

What’s acceptable really depends on the specifics of personality, relationships, and power differentials, but I think you can almost never go wrong with asking people what they need before you weigh in on their story or share one of your own: “Are you wanting advice, a sympathetic ear, a distraction, or something else?”  “Oh, I dealt with something similar, do you want me to tell you about it?” 

It’s also why pauses, check-ins, and resets are so useful. Derails happen, but they don’t have to be permanent. If sharing stories is lively and the mic is truly bouncing back and forth between you, then, great! [Frankly, this is why hanging out with fellow ADHD-ers is so relaxing. Excited “Ooh, ooh, that reminds me!”  interruptions and jumping around to topics three hours or three weeks later is fine, no worries that we’re accidentally steamrolling each other.] On the other hand, if a person tells you something and stops participating when you tell them something in return, it’s a very good sign to change course: “Sorry, I got carried away for a second, your situation reminded me so much of something that’s been on my mind. Please, can you tell me more about ______?” 

If you feel like you’re being talked over, try something like “Oh, thanks for sharing that, but can we go back to my situation for a minute?”  [The dear Commander Logic can say this with words and also with her eyes. ;-)]

7 “Partner insists on lingerie and no socks in bed, controlling.”

I wish this were about your partner wanting to wear lingerie all the time and skip the socks, we could just be like, “Rock on with that, buddy! You’re the boss of you!” and get on with our day. 

That said, you are the boss of you and you should wear what makes you comfortable.If you loved wearing elaborate lingerie, you’d wear it all the time of your own accord. If your partner would stop pressuring you, you’d probably be way more into some occasional dress-up.

Unfortunately your partner has left you no choice: From now on, every time they pressure you about lingerie, add one more of these to your wardrobe and roll on this fetching homage to the Baba Yaga’s hut each night so you can make a quick getaway. 

8 “The guy you are dating his home is disgusting and dirty.” 

I suggest that you do not spend time in environments that you find “disgusting.” It’s either your place or no place.

If the relationship gets more serious, I suggest that you do not combine households with someone who is incompatible with you around cleanliness and housekeeping, unless you plan to sign up for a lifetime of resentment, arguments, “nagging,” weaponized incompetence, and having to clean everything yourself. 

It’s okay to like someone, love someone, be attracted to someone, think someone is a good & worthy person, have empathy for reasons they struggle, and still have standards and dealbreakers about what you need to be happy. Love conquers sometimes; the strict vegan and the carnivore, the ace and the hornivore, the atheist and the devout, the tidy and the un-, and assorted Mays, Decembers, cops, robbers, grasshoppers, ants, nightingales, and larks pair off sometimes and have lasting, happy relationships sometimes. My theory is that when it works it’s because all parties know that they’re signing up to play on Hard Mode and go in with eyes open about what that means. 

So take a good, long look, and remember: People change slow, if they change at all. Don’t bet that they’ll do it for you. 

Comments are on for a change, because, what the heck? Sometimes I really miss all of you. ❤  The spam filter remains as hungry as ever, so if your comment doesn’t show up right away, it probably got sucked in. Don’t worry, I’ll be checking the thread periodically over the next few days and I’ll liberate it as soon as I can. 


Valerie L


I (35, she/her) have one baby and another on the way. I am exceptionally tired these days and expect to be similarly fatigued for the next, oh, 4 years or more. Anyway, I have had to be intentional about my bandwidth and have been ruthlessly cutting out anything that seems optional. I am running into the following issue with my in-laws: we just have two totally different cultural conceptions of time. I should mention: I am white and my husband is not. I was raised in a family where there were distinct start and end times and a high value placed on punctuality. Everyone in my family shows up exactly when they say they will, and this is my preferred way of operating. I bring this baggage to the whole operation, and I am aware of that.

My husband’s family is very loose with time. They will not commit to when, or even sometimes if, they are coming over at all. I have tried to view these as two different and yet totally valid ways of being but for holidays and baby events like birthdays and Trick or Treat, etc. it is just killing me. I do the majority of planning and execution for these events. I buy the food, plan the menu, cook everything, and do the majority of set-up and clean-up plus any Holiday Magic for the baby such as shopping, wrapping, decorating, ensuring the house is clean and all the guest rooms are made up nicely, etc. I do this so the baby can have nice holiday traditions and memories, I am aware I could do nothing at all and order a pizza and lock the doors, but these were fun, magical things for me and I like for her to experience them alongside the people who love her. It is worth a little (not a ton) of extra hassle to me to ensure she gets to do these things.

We always host because for me, as the only ones currently with little kids, it is just easier to have everything happen here. That way, I don’t have to lug everything to two different sides of the family, tiring out the baby and stressing me out. I can be sure she will get a decent nap in her own bed, has a high chair to eat, a play area where I don’t need to watch that she isn’t jabbing a fork into a socket, and our dog will not spend all day alone and have accidents, etc. I can also avoid showing up at 2 for something that isn’t actually HAPPENING happening until 8pm or having one side of the family angrily waiting on us when the other side makes us late. As added fun, they each live about an hour-plus in the opposite direction of one another.

We do holidays open-house style wherein I typically will have some sort of low-effort breakfast or snack available for anyone who comes early and then a dinner in the early evening. Lately, I’ve been more and more tired and am finding that having this “come whenever” policy is the worst because:

1. I have to have enough food for everyone who *might* come, which is not only expensive but also time-consuming to make so much and then end up having to store/freeze/etc. Having tons leftover and no one to send it home with can almost double my cleaning time because I have to find places to store everything or freeze it in portions etc.

2. It’s impossible to do anything because “so-and-so says she’s 10 minutes away” can mean 10 minutes or two hours and sure, I would wait 10 minutes for her but I can’t wait 2 hours, the food is getting cold and/or the baby wants to open her presents etc. It’s always tense and frustrating because it’s always “Just 5 more minutes and then we can start!” and somehow without fail whenever we start without anyone they walk in literally 2 seconds after I finally give up and are peeved that we didn’t wait for them.

3. My own family are not exactly angels, they get frustrated *with me* and also the Whole Situation when they are sitting around waiting for someone and have at times shown their displeasure vocally. Sometimes they are sick of waiting and leave before dinner or whatever and then are icy to me afterwards for “choosing” the people who “couldn’t even bother to tell you if they were going to show up” over them.

4. When husband’s family sometimes don’t come at all despite saying they were going to, they always want a Birthday or Holiday 2.0 wherein I usually have to do the whole shebang over again or travel to them the next weekend after I just kicked my own ass doing the whole thing the first time. My husband is maximally sympathetic to this and always says we should do it despite me NEEDING that next weekend to get my life back together.

5. I am frankly tired and introverted and a FULL DAY of people showing up at anytime, no warning, and needing to entertain them is nightmarish for me, I get no downtime and no breaks to enjoy the day myself. We just did Easter and I have one photo of the day, in the morning before anyone arrived, and no memories at all of the baby’s day. I am hormonal and pregnant and dramatic but I cried when I realized.

I have talked to him about how this impacts me, but he says it’s just cultural, they will never ever change, and that this is who they are. I do believe that but as the one who is having the majority of the difficulty here, I really do think we as a nuclear family could do this better or have each other’s backs to establish some better boundaries to ensure I don’t end up exhausted and recovering for days afterwards. I am pregnant, I have a toddler, and I work full-time so I don’t have a ton of bandwidth.

Any thoughts on how we can do this better?

Hello, I am exhausted reading this!

I have opinions and recommendations. Many of those involve getting your husband to do his share of hosting & family wrangling, but one principle extends through all of it:


Right now, while the baby is a baby, and will only vaguely remember how much Holiday Magic there is, it is time to scale the hell back on all of this. Plan a holiday or two you celebrate just as a nuclear family without inviting the whole clan and without schlepping anywhere. Outsource a lot of the work when you host. Order the pizza, already!


I think you’ve been smart to try to do things Open House style, where people can drop in and out as they wish. But it is time to prioritize the people who actually show up, not the ones who might. Yes, there are some cultural issues at play here, but your husband married you, meaning that your joint celebrations don’t have to 100% match his family’s expectations and habits for the rest of time. When you are on your parents’ turf, let their culture take the lead. When your husband’s relatives host something, go with their flow. For example:

  1. If you drive, take separate cars or make plans around trains/buses/rideshares. That way you can show up in the afternoon with the baby, visit for exactly as long as you feel like it, and then head home when you are ready, freeing your husband up to stay however long he wants. Plan snacks/your own mealtimes so you don’t get hangry waiting for things to get underway. As a pregnant woman and new mom, you have both a duty to yourself and the authority to make your own schedule right now. Use it! “Lovely to see you all, I need to get this one home and into her jammies. Have fun!” 
  2. Plan on dinner being at 8:00 and roll up at 7:00 or so. You know by now that this is how things tend to go, so there is no reason to wait around for hours in advance. Nobody in his family is going to hassle you for being “late,” and if they do, you are free to openly laugh at them. “Hahaha, really? I’ll keep that in mind!” 

But when you host things at your home, with all the work that entails, it’s time to make it work for you. You have four years of experience that tells you that there’s no way to make everyone happy, so at least make yourself a little bit happier than you are now!

What happens if you decide, for the rest of 2022, you are having exactly one [Insert Holiday] celebration,. If you host, that’s it, that’s the one. If you don’t host, consider alternating celebrations with the various sides of the family vs. running yourselves ragged or making plans that require some to wait and others to show up on time and thereby setting everyone up for a bad time. I know there is probably a ton of pressure for everyone to SEE THE BAAAAAAABY right now, but as the baby’s parents, you have a lot of power to dictate how and when that happens. You do not have to see every relative or every set of relatives on every single holiday. It’s okay to invite just one set of in-laws some of the time, to see some people on Holiday Eve and others on Holiday Day, and it’s okay for you to miss events now and then. You and your husband might also have better luck seeing smaller groups of your various family members more frequently in more casual settings so there isn’t so much pressure for big events to be the be-all and end-all.

Before you host the next event, hash out what’s most important to you. Is it to have everybody together under one roof? Is it to decorate the place up and serve really great, special food as a treat for yourselves and your guests? Is it to make sparkling memories with and for your kids? Is it to catch up with relatives you don’t get to see very often? If you know your priorities, you can adjust your plans so you’re getting more of what you actually want. For example, if party photos are important to you, but it’s been too chaotic  for you to get good ones, maybe hand your camera off to someone who reliably shows up and has a decent eye, and ask them to take some for you. This can be a great job for teen & 20-something cousins and for shyer folks who are happier when they have something tangible to do, and it also means that you can be *in* more photos.

When you plan the next event, you could try making the schedule explicit in the invitation, and include an end time:

“We’re hosting [Holiday] from [time] to [time] on [date]. Doors open at [time]. Meal served at [time]. Cake/Presents/Etc. at roughly [time]. Baby has nap at [time], so if you plan to see her, come before then. Doors close at [time]. Let us know by [date] if you can make it so we have enough food. Can’t wait to see you all!”  

Make the total window smaller than you usually do. Say, 4-6 hours or so instead of The Entire Day, and based around one meal-time, not All of Them, Question Mark? The more open-ended you are, the less important it is that people show up at any specific time, the more the “whenever” feeling perpetuates itself. If it doesn’t matter when people show up, and they know you’ll come to their planned thing the following weekend, why should anybody adjust anything? I know you are trying to be maximally flexible, but consider that a lunch/brunch with a set start and end time frees people up to make their own evening plans and frees you up to nap with your feet up in an empty house once everyone has gone. 4-9 pm drinks/dinner window gives everyone the whole early part of the day to do other stuff. Breakfast to ??? is WAY TOO LONG an interval for people-ing!

At least 24 hours before any event, mentally convert any and all “maybes” to “no” and assume they aren’t coming. Make a generous amount of food for the people who said they were coming, which will leave a much more comfortable amount of leftovers, and don’t be afraid to ask people to bring a dish of something to share or storage containers for taking leftovers home with them. If a swarm of unconfirmed people do actually show up after all, welcome them with enthusiasm and let that go down in history as The Time You Ordered Supplemental Pizza And Nobody Died Of It. Treat it like a good, happy thing that they were able to come vs. “You’re late, again.” If people are jerks to you about not waiting for them to start things, it’s as good a time as any to say, “I’m so glad we were able to see you after all!!!!” and give ZERO apologies.

Schedule breaks for yourself. Every 2 hours of hostessing requires 1/2 hour of quietly feeding the baby and/or handing the baby to a willing grandparent and putting your feet up for a minute. Speaking of schedule, your baby has one, and it is the boss of you for the forseeable future. Use it! “Oops, gotta get the little one down for her nap.”

Then, deputize your husband to deal with *way* more stuff than he usually does.

  1. Party leftovers are your husband’s job now. He can figure out how to send them home with people, how to store them, all of it. Stackable deli containers where all the vessels use the same lid are your friend. 😉
  2. When invitation emails or messages go out, your husband should call the matriarchs/chief social directors of his side of the family and explain: You’ve both decided to switch it up for this holiday. The times on the invitation are real. If they want to eat/see the baby/hang out, it needs to happen roughly between Start Time and End Time. He is not about to let his pregnant wife throw a 12-hour party right now (not to mention TWO parties, what the entire fuck), and he’d appreciate help in spreading the word. If someone says they can’t commit to that, he can say, “Okay, we’ll be so sorry to miss you, but maybe next time!”  
  3. Your husband always has the option of asking his parents and important family members what would work for them while also advocating for your needs. “Mom, I know we all like to keep things open-ended, but I’m trying to make things easier on [Letter Writer]. She loves seeing you, and she puts so much work into these things. Is there some time window or way that we could arrange things that would make it easier for y’all to commit and reduce some of the ‘ am I cooking for 12 people or 60’ anxiety for her? How did you figure this out with your in-laws when you first got married?”  He may not get a good answer, but it’s not all on you to brainstorm new ways of accommodating his relatives and hope you’ll hit on the right one.
  4. Once the event starts, both of you can put your phones down. He can stop answering the influx of “I’m on my way!” and “We’ll be there in 10” texts, and he can definitely stop relaying that information to you in real time. If he must answer, he can say, “Great to know, drive safe!” and then move on with what you already planned. Y’all decided that lunch was at 2pm, so eat lunch by 2:30 at the latest, and whoever joins you, joins you. Stop postponing stuff for people who aren’t here! Definitely stop doing it because of magical time estimates!
  5. If his relatives are affronted because everyone didn’t wait for them to arrive, let them be affronted, and let your husband handle it, and let him wait on them! “Relative, we’re so glad you’re here!  We didn’t want the food to get cold, so we started eating already, but I’m happy to fix you a plate.” “Relative, so good to see you!  Sorry you missed the baby, she just went down for her nap and there is no way on earth I am going to wake her, but let me get you something to drink.” 
  6. When the scheduled event end-time comes, say goodbye to everyone and take yourself to bed or otherwise off the clock. YOU ARE GESTATING AN ENTIRE HUMAN. YOU NEED SLEEP. If people want to linger, your husband can play host if he wants to, and it’s his job to see them out the door and make sure you have some peace and quiet. Everyone can still have fun without a command performance from you.
  7. If your husband’s relatives miss the celebration and want Holiday 2.0 the next weekend, HE IS WELCOME TO GO OR TO HOST THEM. HIMSELF. ALL BY HIMSELF. He could bring last week’s leftovers and your daughter to their houses and hang out with them there as long as he wants to. Or, he could host at your home while you nap in comfort at your parents’ house or in sweet solitude at the fanciest nearby hotel you can reasonably afford and the expectation that you will return to a clean, quiet house. Up to him! I’m not throwing a second party for your relatives who didn’t come to the party I just threw” is beyond reasonable as a boundary.
  8. Your husband wants and expects you to accompany him to every celebration on his side of the family, and the only real way to break this cycle is if you stop going sometimes. There can be a strong pull in families to have every single person present at every single event or else it’s “ruined,” but personally I think one of the benefits of family is that you’re going to be related to each other forever so nothing has to be solved right now. Will everyone still love everyone a month from now? Yes? Great! “It’s cultural.” “This is who they are, they’ll never change.” “Okay! But I could really use some down time after last weekend, so I’m going to sit this one out. Blame it on your pregnant wife!”  

I don’t really believe in using invitations to try to teach people lessons or communicate anything besides “We’d like to see you, please come,” so I don’t expect that any of your respective relatives will “learn” anything about punctuality vs. flexibility if you and your husband change things up a little. Arguments about whose culture is better and who is technically being “rude” at any given time are also incredibly unproductive, in my opinion. “Punctuality” vs. “A relaxed open door policy for family” are different value systems, and it’s always going to be a bit of a balancing act where they collide. Fortunately, boundaries aren’t really about getting other people to feel or behave differently, they are about carving out what you need and making decisions that preserve your own comfort and sanity. In this situation, the way you defend and maintain those boundaries isn’t based on proving who’s more right, it’s based on “I’ve figured out that this is what I need, thanks for understanding, I’m really looking forward to seeing you!” As long as you’re choosing to host, you can make a few more choices to make all of that easier on yourself.

tl;dr stop this madness and do so much less

Valerie L

Hello, Captain!

I (28, they/he) have been out as queer for seventeen years, and as trans for twelve. I have had a really difficult time with medical transition due to disability and finance stuff, but I’ve done about 18mo of HRT total and have had gender affirming surgery– this to say that I’m pretty visibly not cishet. I’ve been gay for a very long time, a lot longer than most of my peers and people I’m in community with. While it’s always a little odd to be in an ‘elder’ role when I’m not even in my thirties, I definitely get that my experience isn’t necessarily the most common, and that validation from people you see as ‘experts’ (ha, imagine calling yourself a Queer Expert, how pretentious) feels great when you’re figuring yourself out. I’m generally always down to get a coffee or a beer with someone to talk about gender and sexuality, and I really value getting to be that person. I think it’s really important for everyone to give back to their communities in ways that they’re best suited for, and I’ve always been a very welcoming person, so being sort of a Community Greeter has always been something I’ve found really fulfilling. 

That being said, I’m struggling with the sheer number of baby queers who get crushes on me. There’s six that I know of right now, and I frankly do not know a lot of people! It’s not that I’m unwilling to date someone who’s just realizing they’re queer, but it always ends up feeling like none of them are actually into me as a person– just me as a soft landing space, me as a Knowledge Haver, me as an ‘established queer’ who makes them feel like their queerness has been validated. I’m tired of having the same ten conversations with dates and of not feeling like I get any space to continue exploring my own constantly growing identity. I’d love to, say, discuss my currently evolving understanding of myself as both transmasc and lesbian, but I’m stuck in gender theory 201 explaining for the millionth time to the hundredth different person that yes, you can really call yourself trans even though you’re not sure yet if you want to do HRT. 

I’m pretty new to the city I currently live in, and so far, haven’t really found a group of queer people with more similar timelines to me to hang out with. Actually, most of the queer people I’ve met here have literally, explicitly interrogated me about ‘how’ queer I am, which is extremely weird and hurtful– but that’s a new experience for me, while the gaggle-of-newly-out-people wanting to date me has been the standard for probably the last five or six years. Not having, like– I hate to use this wording here, but not having ‘adult friends’ to balance the quasi-mentorship/fending-off-crushes dynamic has me starting to feel like a new single parent desperate to talk to someone about taxes.

How can I tell all these baby queers to take a few steps back, that they probably are attracted to me mostly because I’m a generally friendly and approachable person who’s making them feel seen and secure, and that while they’re absolutely just as validly queer as someone who’s been out for half a century, I don’t have any interest in dating them til they’ve been out for at least a couple of years?

Thanks so much,

Always The Teacher, Never The Peer

Dear Brave Correspondent,

Phew. What a tiring and familiar email you’ve sent – not because the question is tiring but because I have also had this experience and it’s a lot. I too was out before many of my age peers and I, too, was in queer community while some of the people born just a few years after me were still busy convincing themselves that their crushes on Joan Jett were actually a healthy admiration of her iconic style (both can be true but… in these cases, generally not). I also want to validate and applaud your ability to recognize that people quite a bit younger than you are probably mostly interested in rubbing their identity against yours for confirmation and validation rather than actually rubbing some other part of themselves against you. It can be challenging to understand how these power dynamics come into play, and you definitely get a ton of points for having figured this out so soon and saved yourself a lot of drama (and probably saved some other people some hurt).

But now, what about your friendships and dating relationships? I think we need a two-pronged strategy here: one initiative to position yourself as Not Available to people who are hoping to solidify or refine their understanding of themselves through a little naked jiggery pokery (fine, reasonable, but not what you’re interested in), and then a different one to make sure people at your own stage of queer-and/or-trans life are able to see you as a viable friend and/or date prospect. I also want to say that it’s actually okay if a part of you enjoys feeling competent and helpful and knowledgeable as a resource sometimes, and other times not so much. That’s called “being able to manage your own energy level” and maybe also “sometimes we vibe and sometimes we don’t,” but let’s start there: you’re NOT a public utility. None of these people get to demand your time. It is of course useful and helpful to be a resource, and many of us need someone to help us navigate our business when we first start coming out, but you – a private citizen – can choose your own level of engagement and it doesn’t always have to be the same.

In making friends as an adult, I think a lot about the research of Jeffrey Hall at the University of Kansas, who showed that it takes 60 hours of time spent together to cross the threshold into “making friends.” Then I put my head in my hands and sigh, because 60 hours of volitional time together was so easy in university, and now it feels like a heavy lift – how do you get people you just met to commit to spending a bunch of time together when your orbit doesn’t bring you past each other every day, ten times a day? I mention this not to bum you out but to validate: there’s a reason you’re finding it difficult.

Okay, so: what to do about it? I’m not sure where you live, and I am sure it’s COVID-times wherever that is even if the people around you are pretending it isn’t, but I know that any solution is going to require that you make some intentional and specific efforts to find the people you want to hang out with. It’s time to join gay book clubs and trans gardening chats and queer dodgeball leagues and whatever else your city has where queers have leisure and recreation. Volunteer at the queer theatre, join a political action group, go gay-camping or whatever the people there do, which will bring you into conversation with a wider variety of people. If you have the capacity, have your new friends over for brunch on a semi-regular schedule (first Sunday of the month waffles in the backyard?). Volunteer in the groups you join, which will automatically mean you spend more time with your fellow rock-climbers or live draw-ers or whatever, and at this point what we’re looking for is that you get enough time with those people to start figuring out which of them might be YOUR people. Also, not for nothing, negotiating COVID protocols with people will give you useful early information about their willingness to respect your boundaries and hear your needs, which will be useful later (especially if naked time begins to seem appealing to you both).

Then, Brave Correspondent, you’re going to have to do something a little scary – you’re going to have to tell people right out that you’re looking to make friends. I completely understand that this might sound awkward, and sometimes it is, but the good news is that basically everyone feels awkward all the time and just naming your own awkwardness is actually… strangely charming? Just say it, “I promised myself if I came to this barbecue I would talk to at least two new people. I’m really trying to make more friends here who have been out a while.” Then, keep saying it. Tell everyone you meet you’re looking for new friends and dates and that you’re interested in people who have been out for a while (you can also phrase this as “been in the movement for a while,”). Then when you find people you vibe with, be clear that you are looking for friends and would like to hang out and do things together. If they’re nerdy, show them the research and tell them you want to see if it’s true – if you spend 100 hours together in the first three months, can you become friends? Schedule hikes, wine-tastings, mini-road trips to the beach or a concert or to eat some exciting food, have them over to watch a new movie (or re-watch each others favorites). Make time. You’ll find that after a few longer hangouts you’ll either be excited for more, or you won’t, but knowing it takes time, being transparent about scheduling time, and making the time to spend will get you on your way for sure. Also queers love good communication, so that will definitely be a point in your favor.

As to the people who need or want your Grown Queer Vibes but are still too young to be interesting to you (and are maybe exhausting you a bit), here’s my counterintuitive suggestion – volunteer to be a mentor with a local LGBTQ coming out group. While it will take a couple hours per week, it also gives a boundaried container for that work – you do it on Thursdays from 7-10, not at other random times, and if people try to waylay you after a lecture you’ve both attended to ask you a bunch of things the answer then becomes “I would love to talk about this during mentorship group time” or even “I’m not in the right headspace for that conversation right now, but I facilitate a group for people at the early stages of coming out if you’d like to join us,” and then just…don’t. Also, although “I’m not interested,” is more than enough of a reason not to get involved with someone, we also know from experience that some people can be hard to dissuade and queer/trans communities are so small that sometimes even when the other person is generating the conflict by not taking no for an answer it can still feel c o m p l i c a t e d to say a plain and unadorned No. To be clear, you should be able to and I want that for you, and also in the real world some people think of No as the opening of a negotiation WHICH IT IS NOT but newly-out people don’t always have the best skills at this yet – which is why this method has a double-helping of utility, because now as an official mentor you can simply say “It really wouldn’t be appropriate for me to date anyone in the youth category” (which can be up to 30 in some groups, though 25 is more common) and if they push it further the answer is “I wouldn’t be able to be a helpful mentor if there was any concern that I might be dating in the same pool as I am volunteering, so this isn’t negotiable within my ethical framework.”

The thing is, Brave Correspondent, as a community we are all hungry for guidance and expertise, since most of us grew up isolated from our culture and our community, in heterosexual and cisgender families, and we have to find our way as adults. That’s fine, and it’s reasonable and okay for people to want mentorship – it’s needed. But it’s not reasonable for you to feel like you have to do it constantly (and instead of getting to be an adult with friends). So a combo of putting some clear boundaries around your helping times – be helpful, yes, but you’re not a Vending Machine of Community Care, available upon demand – and making it very clear that you’re actively looking for other older friends should go a long way here. I hope you have great dates and hot times and actual leisure and community there, and that all the right people compliment your outfits and smile at you across the lobby.

love and courage,


S. Bear Bergman gives advice at Asking Bear. He is the author of five books for adults and four for children, most recently an advice collection titled Special Topics in Being a Human: A Queer and Tender Guide to Things I’ve Learned the Hard Way about Caring for People, Including Myself, with illustrations by Saul Freedman-Lawson.

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