As we approach the holiday season, many people get progressively more stressed about finding time to see their loved ones, taking final exams, meeting end-of-year deadlines at work, and conquering the ever-dreaded challenge of finding (and affording) gifts for everyone on their list. A season that, as a kid, was filled with joy, relaxation, and time away from school can seem like nothing but another emotional drain as an adult. The holidays are notoriously stressful, but as an individual belonging to the LGBTQ+ community, the cis- and hetero-normative nature of the season can be particularly difficult to cope with. The religious services, extended time with extended family, and the somehow intrinsic expectation of bringing a significant other to show at family events all constitute a highly-concentrated period of heteronormativity. The upcoming ‘most wonderful time of the year’ can be quite the opposite for anyone who doesn’t identify as straight or cisgender, and is merely an exaggerated symbol of the division from society that LGBTQ+ people experience year-round.
Being the only queer family member can be isolating, especially if you’re in the closet. Photo courtesy of Unsplash.
Graphic by Dyanna Bateman. Background courtesy of Pixabay.
Growing up, the holidays were a huge deal in my semi-religious, fully-conservative family. I used to be obnoxiously spirited, wearing holiday-themed socks and Santa hats a month in advance, and even playing Christmas music year-round, just because I enjoyed it so much. As I got older, I started helping my mom ‘play Santa’ for my younger siblings to give them as special and joyful of a time as possible. But with growing up also came my first relationship--which happened to be with another girl--and the realization that the warm, fuzzy feeling of past holidays wasn’t going to last into the future. I began to understand the blatant divide in just how welcomed my significant other would be if they identified as anything other than straight and cisgender. Starting high school in my small town meant the beginning of the expectation to date boys, bring them around for my family to antagonize them as an ‘initiation’, and to carry on the heteronormative traditions of the holidays. It was one thing to deal with the annual traditions, but quite another when they reinforced the unspoken expectations that we were held to year-round. Every holiday, as my other female cousins brought their boyfriends to family get-togethers, I would hear half-teasing, half-criticizing remarks about my lack of plus-one. Other times, they would inevitably fall back to asking me about one of the boys that I had briefly dated or who had shown interest in me, regardless of whether they were even remotely good “boyfriend material.” It was almost as if they were so desperate to see me in a relationship with a man that it didn’t matter if he were actually a good person, just as long as he was a cis boy.
As I became more seriously involved with my girlfriend at the time, the holidays were especially hard. Her family was even more religious and strict than mine, and there was absolutely no possibility of us spending time together at such a busy time of year. I constantly fought with my mom, as she could never understand why seeing my ‘best friend’ was more important to me than being with family. The hurt, pain, and frustration of having to hide, lie, and attempt to balance a closeted relationship while being surrounded by people that didn’t have to choose between two parts of themself bred anger. What used to be my favorite time of year, when everything would slow down long enough to spend time with the people I loved the most, became just another barrier for the already difficult relationship that was my first experience with “love.” It was painful and isolating, yet I had to put up the front of my happy, energetic self, both for my parents and grandparents, but also for my baby siblings whom I wanted to make sure had positive childhood memories.
Moving from my rural farm town with a high school of 120 students to a campus with 40,000 in the liberal hub that is Ann Arbor was the most freeing thing I could’ve done. With that freedom came the time for me to begin accepting myself and my sexuality. My first year of college was a whirlwind of making new friends, moving on from my high school relationship, and finally getting to feel comfortable in a place where I wasn’t surrounded by blatant homophobia and the expectations my family has for my life. The holidays are inescapable though, and going home for the holidays became a taxing obligation to put myself back into the box that my family made for me. My family has always been more important to me than anything, and the hurt that my aversion to going home caused my mom and young siblings only added to the growing chasm I felt within myself. Reunions with extended family meant that their closed-minded ideals of what I should be doing at college would be reinforced in ‘catching up’ conversations, while homophobic slurs were a constant background noise. It was like getting stuck back in the person I used to be all over again. As college went on, however, I began to build a new community. I started coming out as bisexual to my friends at the end of my freshman year, and my support network grew beyond my family back home. For the first time in my life, I could talk to people without having to censor everything I said for fear of accidentally outing myself.
Now in my third year of college, most of my friends also belong to the LGBTQ+ community. The understanding and support of a friend group comprised of people that have had the same isolated experiences has been such a blessing. I no longer feel that I have to go home in order to feel like I have a family. This will be my first holiday season being out to my closest family members, my mom and my sister. After the pressure of attending family events last Easter led to a mental breakdown and a dramatic, impulsive few days of coming out to them, I am now privileged enough to enjoy their support and acceptance. While I wish my mom would move past just tolerance, it feels amazing that my sister not only knows the “whole me” but actively tries to make me feel less alone in my family. Although I haven’t come out to the rest of my siblings or to my father, let alone my very conservative extended family, I feel much more at ease heading into the holiday season. Yes, I will likely hear some homophobic comments, some criticisms on my lack of boyfriend, and have the lingering memories of the more painful past holidays. However, I have a loving, accepting, and queer ‘family’ on campus, and I know that regardless of what happens over the holiday season this year, I will be able to return to the home I have created for myself here.