The holidays arrive with the potential for many and varied emotions. Family time, while heartwarming and important, can bring stress. Traveling, breaks in routine, preparing large quantities of food, and buying presents are just a few of the many stressors. And these don’t include navigating relationships with family and loved ones.
For many families, pre-holiday conversations include planning what to do when Aunt Jean and Uncle Joe drink too much, or when the behaviorally challenged cousin acts far from role model status, or when one member of the family needs an inordinate amount of praise for their contribution to the meal. There are the worries about mom or dad overworking themselves to prepare the meals, or the extreme sadness of families who have recently lost a member and are experiencing their first holiday season since the loss.
Being an LGBT person, or a family member of an LGBT person, can bring a unique set of stresses, especially during holidays. Support groups and counseling sessions for LGBT people who are preparing to visit family for the holidays are a common occurrence.
There are as many scenarios as there are LGBT individuals on what family dynamic specifics look like. The following are general scenarios and suggestions about how to approach this holiday season.
The LGBT person is not out to family but is out to themselves: this person may not feel any distress, or they may feel vast amounts of stress about not being out to family. For those in distress, they may be in the process of deciding how and when to come out. They may have a hard time hearing family members tease them about their relationships with members of the opposite sex.
If the individual is gender non-conforming in appearance, they may be faced with family members asking them to dress or act more gender conforming during the holidays. Parents may face critique from relatives about their child’s non-adherence to gender conforming behaviors. Parents may be questioned about their child’s relationships with members of the opposite sex.
Suggestions: as a general rule, individuals will feel better when they are in control of talking or not talking about their sexuality/gender. If the holidays bring questions or comments from relatives, and individuals are not ready to answer or don’t know the answer, they may choose to deflect the question. For LGBT individuals this can bring a sense of guilt for being dishonest, however, because coming out is a big decision, the individual can choose to return to the person when they are ready and let them know why they did not answer the question truthfully at the time.
The LGBT person who is out to some family but is not out to everyone: this may be a case of the LGBT person wanting to come out but their family not being comfortable, or it could be that the family is ready to come out but the LGBT person is not.
Suggestions: although family members outing LGBT individuals is a common occurrence, it is usually best to allow the LGBT individual to come out when they are ready. On the other hand, if a family member is not ready for the individual to come out to extended family, the family member can request that the individual come out after the holidays. It is important that the LGBT individual be able to come out when they are ready, so it is best for family members to work together if they would rather have that time not be the holidays, but soon afterwards.
Note: some family members may worry about LGBT individuals coming out if there are young children in the family, as they are worried about the effects on the children. These are society’s stereotypes and fear about LGBT people. Children are not born homophobic. In fact, the earlier children are introduced to LGBT people, the better. Children learn gender and social rules from a young age. When the adults are comfortable with LGBT people, the children will be comfortable as well.
LGBT people who are out to everyone they know: the ideal situation is an accepting family. The LGBT person and their partner are invited to, and participate in, the holidays. If the partner is not present or the individual is single, the family members ask how their partner is doing and/or how their dating life is going. In other words, the family treats the LGBT individual the same as heterosexual members.
The opposite scenario is the LGBT person is out but the family is very uncomfortable. Partners are not invited to the house and they are not talked about. The family asks the heterosexual individuals about their personal lives, and marriages and children are talked about, but the LGBT individual is never addressed during these conversations. When conversation looks like it might turn to the LGBT individual, there may be uncomfortable silences and/or a quick changing of subject.
These families may notice that the LGBT members leave quickly, or they don’t show up for the holidays. Family members may be relieved that they will not have to deal with their own discomfort. The LGBT individual may prefer to spend holidays with friends and/or they may start a family of choice so that they can live comfortably.
Note: many families start out as the latter example and become the former example. Enormous progress can be made in families who are willing to work towards acceptance and love.
Suggestions: if LGBT individuals or families find themselves in discomfort with an LGBT related issue this holiday season, it may help to take a long range view. Patience is of the utmost importance on everyone’s part. Intentions of maintaining familial relationships in the long term can help individuals and family members make decisions in the short term.
LGBT individuals can ask themselves if their is anything that must be addressed prior to the holidays in order for them to be able to attend and function. For example, if the individual has wanted to come out to family for several years, but other family members are adamantly opposed to it, the LGBT individual may choose to not attend, and communicate truthfully to the family members opposed.
Individual and societal comfort with LGBT people is slowly increasing. Families, like society, take time to become comfortable with LGBT people. In the meantime, LGBT individuals can work on loving and accepting themselves, and living a healthy, happy, and contributive life.