It's perhaps no surprise that holidays can be a very complicated time of the year, but it seems to be especially true for us queer folks. Choosing to go home for the holidays, where our families might not understand our LGBTQ+ identities or appreciate the political issues that are often associated with them, can come with such a heaping portion of judgement and misconception that it can displace the turkey as the main course.
For me, being asked a barrage of questions like, “What does 'queer' mean?", "Why or how are you queer?", or "Don't you like men?", was exhausting. The feelings of embarrassment and anxiety that these comments could elicit would linger for weeks after, like an emotional hangover I couldn’t escape. The emotional labor of having to cope with what they couldn’t seem to deal with was a lot. In fact, it was too much.
That's why, over the years, I have chosen to limit my exposure to my blood relatives and spend the holidays with my chosen friends and adopted family in Brooklyn. This has meant practicing a tremendous amount of self-care on my end ("radical self-care" as Audre Lorde called it), not defending my decision to my family, and being embraced by the people who know me best.
Within the LBGTQ+ community, the practice of “queer kinship" or "family making,” has been ongoing for decades. As Deborah Duley, MSW, licensed psychotherapist, and owner of the specialized counseling practice Empowered Connections, explains: "Queer kinship grew out of the LGBTQ community’s realization that participating in family, within the traditional context that we all were raised, was lacking. Most of us realized that our family of origin were not always supportive or accepting of who we are—most were the complete opposite—which created a lack within ourselves."
Essentially, queer kinship harkens back to choosing a family—one that isn't your blood relatives. Often with blood relatives, there are many complicated family dynamics to work through and, sadly, sometimes when people come out, it can be very hard for their relatives to accept everything that comes with that new identity. Your chosen family, queer or not, are people who are not directly related to you, but with whom you share a deep personal connection and are a part of your inner circle.
"The holidays can be painful reminders that our bio families are not there for us or that we are alone in the midst of this construct that we are 'supposed to belong.'" —Deborah Duley, MSW
"Finding each other in the world at large and realizing that we could create a family that we needed full of people who got us, who saw us, who loved us for who we were then and who we were becoming, was revolutionary," Duley continues. "It became a much-needed source of emotional empowerment, support, and a soft place to land when life was too hard to navigate alone. The holidays can be painful reminders that our bio families are not there for us or that we are alone in the midst of this construct that we are 'supposed to belong.' Thus, having the family we created can be the balm to our pain and help us remember that we are good enough."
When I first made the decision to stop going home for the holidays, which happened a little over eight years ago, it was hard. Growing up in a large family (there are five of us in total, including my two siblings, plus my extended family), the holidays were always a hugely celebratory and festive time of year. They were filled with big rooms full of people, delicious food, beautiful decorations, and presents. But as I grew up, my relationship to my family began to change, and my mounting leftist political beliefs and queer identity usually became the topic of discussion over the Thanksgiving table.
Making the sometimes four-hour journey via public transportation from New York City to central Connecticut was already exhausting. (I'd stuff myself and my belongings onto a train for what felt like an epic-poem-worthy journey home, complete with transit delays and battles with the army of people also fleeing the tri-state area.) But the constant family chatter about my lifestyle and outlooks that I knew would greet me at the end of my long commute filled me with dread. It was the source of so much of my anxiety. Turns out, those exhausted and anxious feelings were my body's way of telling me something.
"Warning signs that indicate you might need a break, or to skip a gathering all-together, are an increase in behaviors or feelings that feel harmful to yourself," says Claire Costello, Qualified Mental Health Professional and Gender and Sexuality Diversity Program (GSDP) Coordinator for MindPath Care Centers. "That could look like heightened anxiety, perhaps in the form of an accelerated heart rate or a sinking feeling in your stomach, increased consumption of alcohol to cope with the present stressors, or increased irritability. Checking in with yourself and your body will be the best guide to determine whether you are in a situation from which you need a break."
So finally, in graduate school—after multiple therapy sessions and discussions with friends—I decided not to attend Thanksgiving. My sense of self had evolved and it felt like my family had not caught up to that point.
The long commute combined with the constant family chatter that came about my lifestyle and outlooks started to take a toll on me. It was the source of so much of my anxiety.
It was hard in the beginning. I would get phone calls from my mother and sisters not understanding my decision not to come home and spend time with the family. They would lay on massive guilt trips and I would get caught in the cycle of explaining myself. But I held my stance. Eventually, I began to feel strong enough about the decisions I was making. I stopped offering explanations and eventually the phone calls stopped. I did what I needed to—I set my own traditions and prioritized my sanity.
"In families that have less respect for, or familiarity with, boundaries, it is essential to remember that it is not one’s responsibility to sacrifice individual well-being for others’ happiness or comfort," says Costello. "This is a very difficult lesson to learn when one has internalized the opposite for their entire upbringing, so you deserve to offer yourself compassion as you rewrite a new script for relating with your family." (That can mean completely avoiding holidays, or just limiting time spent: "If your family has historically not been as affirming as you need, I always recommend small doses: Can you go just for breakfast and stay for a couple of hours? Or could you bring a loved one to give you invisible support if your bio family is difficult?" says Duley.)
The first Thanksgiving I spent away from my family home, I also decided to host one at my Brooklyn home. I invited close friends from my graduate program and a couple of people in my neighborhood. I planned a menu, shopped, and cooked. The busywork of preparing the meal and gathering all the elements for it was soothing. I took solace in being able to concentrate on the task at hand and also in the fact that I was creating a beautiful meal for people in my life I cared for deeply. It was such a wonderful experience to cook delicious things and spend the day with like-minded people.
The experience grew from there. Some friends who had spent the original Thanksgiving at my apartment eventually moved out of the state, and some I just lost touch with, but my traditions carried on. In the years that followed, I was welcomed into other people's homes and met their friends and loved ones and made new friends along the way. Through this process, I was able to build my own community of people—my chosen family—and that helped make the pressures of the holiday season easier on me. I would think back on how much anxiety this time of year used to cause me, happy that it has now become something I look forward to.
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