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The approaching winter holidays means a lot of things — mailboxes full of cards, malls packed with frenzied shoppers, raucous boozy work parties, Grumpy Cat in a Santa hat, and the endless onslaught of relentlessly cheery Christmas music pouring from every speaker. (At least I assume that’s what’s playing; I wear earplugs in public from October to January to avoid such things.) For people who still have a relationship with their blood relatives, it also generally means some kind of family togetherness. For us queer folks, even when families are fairly accepting, the cultural divide between us and our mostly-straight families can make holiday get-togethers a little (or a lot) awkward. There’s nothing quite like your weird uncle dropping a slur in the middle of Christmas dinner to liven the mood!
Sure, there are definitely families that are just so open and accepting of their queer and trans family members that the entire occasion looks like a movie on ABC Family. But for the rest of us, there can be a bit of trepidation when the yearly trip to Grandma’s approaches. Over time, we adapt to our particular brand of family weirdness. But the first Christmas after coming out can be a downright terrifying time. While our queerness might not be literal news at this point, Christmas is often the first time we’ve had to deal with the entire clan all at once since our momentous coming out. It might be the first time our families meet our partners. For trans people, it’s not-infrequently the first time our families see us presenting as our true selves. Much of this was the case for me last year. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t comfortable but I survived. Now I want to share my experiences and help all of you survive your first out Christmases, too. So here are ten suggestions for getting through the big day.
1. Start With Self Care
You’re going to be in a much better place to deal with the family complications if you’ve taken the time to take care of yourself first. For a day or two or five before the big event, make sure you take some time to do things you love and that bring you emotional comfort. For some folks, that might be exercise. Take a long run, or do a few good sessions of yoga, or squeeze in a quick buzkashi match (but only if you have a goat readily available). For others, it might be mental stimulation like reading, writing, meditation, or 3-D invisible chess. Recharge your social batteries by either spending time friends you really enjoy (for you extrovert weirdos), or take some quiet time alone (for us introverts). Treat yourself to something nice like massage, a mani-pedi, or a new haircut. If you’re partnered, indulge in some sexytime and cuddles to get your endorphins up, though I suggest avoiding hickies unless you like weird stares from Great Aunt Theresa. In any case, self-care helps put you on good emotional footing. The better emotional state you are in to start, the more likely you are to come out of the day mostly intact.
2. Prepare yourself.
They’re your family, so hopefully you have at least a reasonable idea of what you’re getting yourself into. Try to imagine which relatives are likely to cause trouble so you make a point to avoid them. Put some thought into the kinds of questions your family might ask you and mentally sketch out some answers. Have some witty retorts ready to combat invasive questions from that cousin with boundary issues or passive-aggressive comments from that one mean aunt that everyone has. You don’t to have a canned answer on queue cards for every situation, but taking a little time to be ready for what’s coming can do wonders to boost your confidence. Having that confidence will set a tone for your interactions for the duration of your visit.
3. Form alliances.
This is particularly helpful if you’ve got other queer folks in the family, but really, having anyone around that you absolutely know will be on your side can make a world of difference. Find other people who are likely to draw ire or scorn from the rest of the family and make a pact to stand up for one another if things get uncomfortable. Maybe it’s your cousin Greg who ran off to grow marijuana in Colorado, or your niece Zoey who dropped out of college to open a food truck. If you have family members that you know are super queer or trans supportive, connect with them before hand, too. Civil tongues and cool heads are more likely to prevail when no one is being singled out. Go Team Likely-To-Be-Judged!
4. Set firm boundaries.
Coming out doesn’t mean that your entire life has to be up for examination during the holidays. You are just as entitled to your privacy as anyone else. You are not obligated to give an in-depth recap of your current dating situation, or tell Aunt Marcia all about the ins-and outs of scissoring. Share as much or little of your queer life as your are comfortable, and if things get too personal or too invasive, just kindly inform Uncle Dave you just aren’t interested in discussing how you find dates.
5. Laugh through the awkwardness.
Sometime, families do or say truly bizarre things. It can help to step back from situation mentally so that you can find the humor in what’s going instead of getting upset or frustrated. Giggle at the fact that your cousin with the biology major seriously asked you if you could get pregnant after transition. Laugh at the sheer sitcom-level ridiculousness of your sister’s boyfriend asking if you if you’re the boy or girl in your relationship. In all likelihood, if you’re laughing, you won’t be crying, and that can help you get through the day.
6. Help yourself stay chill.
When all else fails, refill your wine glass (or get another beer, or make another cocktail). Drinking to deal with your family at the holidays is a time-honored tradition, and I see no reason to abandon it now. It gives you something to do with your hand, and putting the glass to your lips is a good way to signal avoidance of a discussion. Plus, the alcohol will take the edge off of your nerves and help you care a bit less about any drama that will erupt. Take care not to become scene-making drunk, though. Leave that for Uncle Ed. (And, definitely do not drink if you need to drive yourself home.)
If you don’t drink, the holidays can be even more stressful, because they often mean you’re surrounded by alcohol and drunk people. You can treat yourself with a festive and delicious non-alcoholic drink or mocktail. Think about what strategies you might need in the moment, whether that’s prescription medication you take for anxiety, calling a sponsor, or pretending to take a phone call so you can step into a quiet room and do breathing exercises for five minutes.
7. Find ways to escape.
Sometimes you just need to get a little air and a little space. Taking a break from interacting can help you center yourself, cool off from a brewing confrontation, or just end an uncomfortable conversation. Pretend to need something from your coat, or just take a few minutes of quiet in the bathroom. Tell everyone you need to take a walk around the block to help your food digest. Offer to make emergency runs for more rolls/napkins/booze. Smokers have a built-in excuse for these situations, but I strongly recommend against taking up smoking for this purpose.
8. Engage only on your terms.
The age-old wisdom is that nothing ruins a party faster than someone bringing up politics. But, it seems like there’s always someone in the family who wants to turn the holidays into a campaign trail debate. You are not at all required to oblige your Republican aunt’s desire to discuss the Affordable Care Act or the merits of repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. If you do choose to engage in political discussions, you have every right to the set the terms of those discussions, especially if the issues being discussed are personal to you (like gay marriage, Laverne Cox, or ENDA). Feel free to walk out of the discussion if things get too charged, or if slurs and bullshit stereotypes enter the conversation. You don’t have to be the queer political whipping post, particularly if you come from a family that leans heavily to the right.
9. Bring a friend.
If you’re comfortable and ready, consider bringing your significant other for moral support. If you’re single or not ready for the big meet, ask a friend to come along. A fair number of people don’t have anywhere to go for the holidays and would be glad for the chance for a little holiday dinner and merrymaking. And Christmas drama is WAY more amusing when it’s not your own family! Having someone there whose support for you is absolute can make a difficult day more tolerable, and it gives you someone to laugh/commiserate with about the experience later on. Plus, in my experience, families are a lot less likely to start trouble when there are outsiders present to judge the shit out of them for their bigotry. Your guest will ensure everyone is on their best behavior!
10. Get the f*ck out when you’ve reached your limit.
Just showing up to begin with is a HUGE victory. You only have to stay for as long as you want to be there. If things start to get ugly, or there are a few too many people who’ve had a few too many, start your goodbye hugs and make for the door. Make an excuse of you feel you need the cover; after all, you’re a busy, important queer person with lots of busy, important queer things to do and you really must be going.
I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t also include some suggestions for folks who find themselves without a family to visit for the holidays after coming out. Getting through this time of year can be especially difficult if you had strong family bonds before your coming out. Focus on taking care of yourself, and connecting those who do accept and support you. If it’s within your means, consider taking some time to host or organize a non-family holiday gathering for the queer folks in your life. Spend some time volunteering with local queer groups. Or just say fuck it and spend your Christmas drinking fruity umbrella drinks on the beach (or in your living room, watching Blue Crush). They taste better than eggnog anyway.