Many consider asking a prospective father-in-law for permission to marry his daughter deeply sexist. The tradition was born centuries ago, when a young woman was considered “property” worthy of a bride price payable in goats. The practice was cemented into the cultural milieu in the 19th century, when couples began marrying for love but daughters were still considered to be under the control of the men in their lives. Aspirational grooms, then, sucked up to their future father-in-laws, calling them “sir” and making a show of losing games of canasta in the drawing room.
So as we gay men complete our third year of legally being allowed to wed, it surprised me to learn that, according to a recent survey from the wedding website The Knot, 42 percent of gay men still cling to this outdated ritual, which you’d think would have no use if both partners are gendered male. Eduardo A. Braniff — editor-in-chief of Men’s Vows, a digital magazine “supporting men who marry” — tells me they do so because many gay men remain committed to tradition. “For the gay grooms we’ve interviewed who ask permission, it’s about honoring what fathers would’ve experienced were they giving their daughter away,” he explains.
But there are nuances to consider: Do both grooms ask each other’s parents? Does the one who proposed do the asking? What exactly are you asking for? If you want to really reinvent the tradition, Braniff suggests, flip the script. “Imagine if the family asked the groom to be the husband of their son, thereby making it less transactional and more about the inclusiveness and the tying together of two families.”
For my college friend Mike, a 43-year-old anesthesiologist in Connecticut, it was more a matter of giving his boyfriend Ben’s parents a heads up. Early in the relationship, Ben’s mom had expressed concern that Mike was trying to “change” him. So Mike didn’t want the announcement of the engagement to be ruined by his groom-to-be’s parents reaction. Since they lived 2,000 miles away, Mike first sent Ben’s parents an email explaining he had something he wanted to talk to them about. When he got them on the phone, he reiterated how close he felt to their son and that he was planning to ask for his hand in marriage. He wasn’t asking for their permission necessarily, but he was hoping for their support. As it turned out, he was right to be wary.
“Wow, this is a lot to think about,” Ben’s mom said methodically. “You guys have to do what you need to do. I’m sure you’ll continue to think about it until you actually do it.”
“It wasn’t a great response,” Mike recalls, which is exactly why he didn’t want it to dampen the couple’s excitement about the engagement. So he gave them a few weeks to process the information, hoping that when the announcement finally came, they could be supportive of it, or at least pretend to be. (He has since remarried; he didn’t speak with his second husband’s parents beforehand because they themselves weren’t on speaking terms.)
“What’s exciting about the idea of gay marriage is that it gives you the freedom to do this the way you want to do it,” Mike explains. “Perhaps more so than a heterosexual couple.” He thinks the “permission” question is also generational, since for gay men who grew up thinking marriage would never be a possibility, the traditional “fairy tale wedding fantasy” likely seemed out of reach. “Now guys can allow themselves to dream about it more, and asking parents’ permission may be a part of that dream.”
“Hell no,” counters James, a 36-year-old gay Englishman I meet on Reddit. “It’s between us. Our parents have nothing to do with it.”
“I’d have been pretty insulted if my husband did that,” agrees Matt Breen, my former editor at the Advocate. “It feels one step away from arranged marriage.”
Likewise, Dino, 35, in New Jersey tells me he would have been nonplussed if his partner asked his parents to do anything. “I’m a grown-ass adult and so is he — we’re more than capable of making our own decisions. As gay people, part of our superpowers is being able to tap out of problematic heterosexual bullshit. We get to write the script for how we interact.”
“We’ve had the right to marry curtailed for centuries,” adds Mark, a 66-year-old gay man in San Francisco. “Now that it’s not, it seems unlikely any of us would hit the brakes if his momma won’t sanction the union.”
“It harkens back to the days of dowries and treating women like property,” argues Alex, a 35-year-old in Atlanta. “It would be weird to apply it to a man because it’s essentially saying, ‘I view your son as the woman in the relationship.’ The whole point of being gay is that no one is the woman.”
But others, like Greg, a 62-year-old gay father from a previous marriage to a woman, are uniquely positioned to consider such a gesture from a parental perspective. “Before my daughter married a Marine, he asked my permission. I was very honored and pleased that he came to me. I think any parent — no matter if their child is marrying a girl, a guy or a goat — would expect that they’d be consulted and would be hurt to not be involved.”
That helps explains why, shortly after gay marriage was legalized, Greg sought the approval of Kris, his partner Dirk’s sister (Dirk’s parents had passed away years before). Dirk was exceedingly close to his sister — the only surviving member of his family — so Greg thought seeking her approval was the right thing to do. “It’s kind of rare for two men to stay together long-term,” Greg explains. “They’re sowing their seed, they’re doing this, they’re doing that. It was important for me to ask Kris because I wanted her to know how serious we were. So I called her up and asked, ‘Are you good with this? Is it okay with you?’”
“I was kind of taken aback,” Kris tells me. “Greg said he respected my opinion as the foundation of our family and wanted to get my okay first. It meant a lot to me.”
She did, however, combine her blessing with some motherly wisdom. “Being married isn’t easy,” she cautioned. “Make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, not just because it’s legal now. This is it forever.”