The holidays are officially around the corner, which for many means navigating frustrating, uncomfortable, and often hurtful interactions with ignorant family members. Spending time with family as a queer person with multiple marginalized identities has the potential to be stressful at any point in time, but the holidays have a special magic of multiplying familial conflicts tenfold. Factoring in the current political climate – although the recent elections were a much-needed ray of hope – it seems just about everyone is headed home anticipating major conflicts but not super confident about how to navigate them. I wanted to take some of the guesswork out of how to handle these interactions in a healthy and helpful way, so I’m sharing these tips and techniques that have been useful to me in the face of conflict for those of you who’ll need to advocate for yourselves in difficult conversations and fight the good fight this holiday season. We can do this. Hopefully one day we won’t have to.
Here’s some things you can do to make your time with family a little less problematic this year.
Lately we’ve been seeing the realtime consequences of what happens when the standard policy is to remain silent and let people with problematic views and behaviors slide. They get stronger and bolder. Silence validates oppressors and in their minds gives them permission to carry on. If no one ever tells the cousin that gets handsy after their fifth beer that what they’re doing is inappropriate and violates boundaries, they won’t just figure it out. They’ll assault someone. We cannot afford to let the desire to avoid momentary conflict and discomfort take precedence over holding others accountable any longer. However, this doesn’t mean that calling your family members racist sexist idiots is the way to go, that will start a long and unproductive fight. A call out can be as simple as saying “what you are doing/saying is not okay.” Sometimes the exchange will stop there and that’s fine; not everything needs to be pushed. Sometimes people will ask questions and you can have an educational conversation, which is awesome. Inevitably there will be times that the reactions are demeaning or explosive, and that’s where step 2 comes in.
Nothing ensures that a conversation is headed for failure like the people involved getting heated. Yelling, insults, and/or attacks immediately shut down effective communication and trigger defensiveness. The best way to advocate for yourself, be heard, and keep the conversation constructive is to stay calm. This is often easier said than done, so if you feel yourself hitting your boiling point, try to have the awareness to express that and ask to table the conversation until a later time. If you are feeling calm and the person you’re engaging with is becoming aggressive toward you, it is completely acceptable to stop the conversation before they say something hurtful to you. You can say something like “I don’t think this conversation is constructive any longer and think it’s best if we take a break.” If for any reason the person does not respect your request or begins to yell over you, physically removing yourself from the conversation is the best option.
Make It About Yourself
If you’ve called someone out on their behavior, everyone is calm and seems open to discussion, and you want to capitalize on this chance to have an impact, turn the conversation toward yourself. Now is the time to clearly and concisely explain to this person what they did, how or why it hurt you, and what you would appreciate them doing in the future. You should be direct, firm, and respectful and use “I” statements. For example. instead of saying “you always act like I’m lazy and purposely choosing not to be helpful when you know I can’t!” Try “I feel hurt and misunderstood when it frustrates you that I’m depressed and can’t be helpful at every moment. It would help me to know what you’d like me to do ahead of time so I can prepare.” Focusing on your feelings and experience of the situation rather than pointing out what others did wrong and blaming will generally lead them to be much more receptive to hearing things they’ve done wrong and allow for a mutually beneficial conversation.
Use The Buddy System
Hopefully you have at least one likeminded family member that also spends the holidays hoping their turkey-induced naps will last four hours. Reach out to anyone that you know is an ally before you head home and make an agreement to have each other’s backs. If you can see they’re bothered by someone but don’t have the energy or ability to say something, help them out and vice versa. Your family might be stubborn and ignore one person trying to pull them toward the light of wokeness, but it’s much harder to ignore two or three or more people expressing that continuing to support this administration is perpetuating racism, homophobia, ableism and sexism among way too many other things. The same logic applies if it’s really just one problematic person and not the whole family. If everyone tells them respectfully but consistently that what they are doing is hurtful, it’s more likely to bring about some positive change.
Have Realistic Expectations
Autostraddle wasn’t built in a day, and neither were your family’s beliefs, culture, and behaviors. Their thought patterns are habits that have had a lifetime of accumulation, so thinking you’re going to show up for the holidays and completely change someone’s views over the course of a week is unrealistic. You’ll be disappointed and waste a lot of good energy because you can’t force anyone to change. What you can do is set expectations for yourself. If what you want is to be respected, set the self expectation that you will spend the holiday communicating how you want to be treated and what you are not willing to tolerate. This may not get your mother to stop thinking you’re less attractive as a butch or assuming you’re unhealthy because you’re fat, but it might cause her to think twice before saying “you look SO much better with long hair” or “do you really need that piece of pie?” You have the right to be respected and to advocate for yourself regardless of your family’s views. It may not happen as quickly as you’d like, but staying firm and being clear on your boundaries is one of the best ways to bring about change.
Above All, Be Safe
None of these tips are helpful if you are in a situation that is life threatening or otherwise unsafe. If at any point for any reason you feel your mental and/or physical health are in jeopardy, get out of that situation as quickly as possible. Nothing is more important than your safety and well-being.