As a fully out transgender or gender nonconforming adult, we have worked hard to gain a sense of self-worth and confidence, with that we expect ourselves to be able to handle family relationships. But sometimes we are quite disappointed by the reality of a return home which can inflame and re-opened old wounds around being rejected or being only tolerated rather than being fully excepted. Personal and offensive questions, snide remarks that show a lack of understanding and acceptance, as well as the need to hide from some or possibly all family members, are what faces many of us when we return home for the holidays. Now that same-sex marriage is legal in many states, we might start to feel the pressure from our families to find that right person and to settle down. This pressure all mixed in with a frequent regression to unwanted roles that many of us including cisgender folks experience: the favorite daughter or the black sheep of the family and possibly the peacemaker between parents that are always at each other‘s throat‘s and fighting for one reason or another, now we add alcohol. And this all becomes an excellent recipe for the kettle of disaster.
I believe that it is possible to survive and even thrive during the holidays if you are LGBTQ. Here are a few things to keep in mind for the LGBTQ people during those holiday gatherings that I hope will guide you and your families through these sometimes challenging and at times awkward moments that appear at the family dinner table.
First, do the best that you can to set limits and boundaries for yourself and with others during the holidays. Don’t do more than you think you can handle. A lot of things that we do during the holidays are usually centered around an obligation or a tradition, and it can definitely feel like it’s being forced upon us. If your family doesn’t except you for who you are, you don’t owe them a thing, period. Politely but firmly decline any invitation to a family event that you may think that you cannot handle emotionally. If you’re unable to spend time with your family over the holidays, find something that is fun to do and is emotionally nurturing, like visiting a friend, binge watch something on Netflix, like Pose, or read a thought-provoking book. Try not to isolate yourself during the holidays as this can be very self-destructive, and can feed in to that depressive black hole. If you do decide to visit, set ethical boundaries; for example, if you feel comfortable staying at a nearby hotel rather than your family’s home, assert that in a firm but calm way. There’s no need for an argument or a family explosion before the holiday events have even started. If tensions should arise, and you’re feeling overwhelmed and out of control, get up and walk to a room by yourself, like the bathroom. Using the bathroom for a getaway is my personal favorite. Heaven knows how many adopted family gatherings I’ve been to and felt overwhelmed by all the people just milling around, talking about family experiences that are entirely unknown to me. Excuse yourself and take a walk around the block and get some fresh air. Just getting away and collecting your thoughts can help immensely.
Second, try to prepare yourself by acknowledging what the potential arguments or issues might be ahead of time so that you can prepare yourself for them. And let me say from experience that the holidays are never a good time to announce that you are transgender or gender nonconforming. You are just better off hanging on to that news for just a little bit longer. I made this mistake and announced to my sister on New Year’s Day that I was transgender. Big mistake, to the day of writing this column, she hasn’t spoken to me. If you’re already out, try to prepare yourself and predict what the issues may be. For instance, will your uncompromising zealotry religious grandmother start spouting biblical scriptures directly or indirectly criticizing your gender identity or your sexual preferences? Probably. Remember, all conversations about these types of issues are not perfect, and they don’t have to be, and you can’t control anyone‘s behavior but yours. In my opinion, if this conversation starts, and becomes an issue, see my first suggestion. Controversial matters at the dinner table during the holidays do not elicit changes of heart. You can trust me on this one, I’ve made this mistake more than once. I found a soft way to respond and to gently dismiss such comments with a simple response like, can we avoid this type of conversation, please? This is the holidays, and I don’t want to talk about anything controversial. If the family member(s) continue to be confrontational, toxic or is making you feel uncomfortable, the best thing to do is excuse yourself, grab your keys and your coat and leave.
Third, try to have compassion for yourself and your family. Find a way toward acceptance rather than judgment or perfectionism. If you choose to stay in a relationship with your family, even if they are struggling with who you are, try to accept them even though they don’t understand or fully except you. This is not done out of a sense of obligation, but in the long run, arriving at an emotional separation between you and them may be better for your own mental health. For you, you have been who you are all your life, to suddenly change their perspective of you, is something that they have to get used to. Show them compassion even though they might not show compassion for your emotional turmoil and your choice of path. Try to have compassion by remembering that some of the family problems and attitudes you are now having to work with may have been going on for generations. Knowing this may help you gain some perspective and manage some of the blame. Think about the old saying: you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family. This is the family that you have been given, so try to find ways to except them while maintaining your own integrity. Never ever compromise your beliefs and yourself integrity for their benefit. Never ever go with the flow to appease your family members. Remember this is your life, this is who you are, be yourself and be proud of who you are and what you have become.
And to wrap all this up, just remember at the end of the family get together, you get to go home. Holidays do not last year around, so do your best to be compassionate and loving to yourself. This is your holiday memory, try to make it the best that you possibly can.