How To Go Home For The Holidays, When Home Has Lost Its Meaning
For the LGBTQ+ community, the holidays are complicated
Home is not my parents’ house.
“Are you going to Minnesota for the holidays?” my coworkers ask. I work at a start-up in New York City that’s basically a small town in microcosm; everyone in everyone else’s business, coworkers more friends than colleagues. So they know where my parents live and that my sister is my best friend and that I broke up with my partner in August, so she is not coming home with me for the holidays this year.
Are you going home? Are you going home? Are you going home?
The question bounces off the office walls like a ping-pong ball. For every person who comfortably expands on their holiday plans, there is a person who shrinks into their desk, who puts on their noise-canceling headphones, who gets up and moves to the couches.
Don’t ask me what I’m doing for the holidays. Don’t ask about my family. I don’t want to talk about it.
Going home for the holidays—or going to see family—is a fraught enough enterprise on its own, but if you are LGBTQ+ in Trump’s America during the holiday season? Fraught is an insufficient word.
Being LGBTQ+ shouldn’t be a big deal, we say. And, of course, we know this. In the community, we know it shouldn’t be a big deal. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t be a big deal, but our lived reality demonstrates that it, very unfortunately, is a big deal for far too many people.
It’s a big deal for our president. It’s a big deal for the Republican party. It’s a big deal for evangelical Christian leaders. It’s a big deal for many—too many—of our family members. It was a big deal for my paternal grandmother, for whom I was named, with whom I haven’t spoken to in three years due to her treatment of me and my ex-partner during Christmas 2014.
Being LGBTQ+ shouldn’t be a big deal, but it is. And because we in the community know this, we prepare for it. We prepare to cope with it. Many of us put our armor on. Especially during the holidays.
I spoke with eight other LGBTQ+ identifying folks about their experiences of going home for the holidays. These folks range in age from their mid-20s to early-40s, live on both coasts of the United States and in the Midwest, as well as in the U.K. Some still live close to home; others don’t. Some go home for the holidays; others don’t. All have different coping mechanisms. In a culture validated by a president who seeks the dismissal of transgender troops, who has rescinded workplace protections for LGBTQ+ employees, who selected the most homophobic and transphobic of politicians as his running mate, we are all doing the best we can.
The fact that “family” has been co-opted as a “traditional” value by the conservative right is a damn shame, considering how deeply it is valued by pretty much every human community on the planet—queers included. Many LGBTQ+ folks choose to go home to their natal families, even when there is a certain level of risk involved.
“I do go home,” L, a 28-year-old genderqueer lesbian, emphasized. “I'm from rural Appalachia, and family is a big deal.” Even if some family members are difficult, many of the folks I spoke with rattled off family members to whom they were close, who they did not often see due to having moved away, who they were motivated to visit during the holidays: siblings, cousins, and the next generation, for whom exposure to older LGBTQ+ family members was key. “I have lots of nieces and nephews, which makes going home a must,” Nathan, a 30-year-old sexually fluid, bisexual person, said. “I love those little monsters.”
Some folks cited strategies that made going home more manageable. One method is finding allies among extended family. “My generation of cousins, we're all ‘alternative’ in our own ways—gay, unwed mother, working in the marijuana industry, genderqueer, substance abuse history, and we all date POC,” L said. “So we, cousins, made a pact a while back that if anyone else gives any of us shit for who we are, what we do, or who we love, that we'll all boycott the family gathering. Since then, none of the older folks have said jack shit to us about our ‘lifestyle choices.’”
But sometimes, managing the holidays is a solo venture. BT, a 29-year-old white cis gay man, said, “I usually go home, but I am very careful to be clear with myself that I have the option not to. Another fail-safe I developed is to stay at an Airbnb. My family showed a lot of resistance to this and initially took it personally. Of course, the full truth is a little more complicated than that: I often feel unsafe and uncomfortable in the same house as my family members. But that's none of their business. Having these options—to go home or not go home, to stay with my family or not stay with them—has had the interesting result of me going home more often rather than less, and of having less tension and conflict when I do go home, because the time I spend with my family is 100 percent intentional.”
Concern for physical safety was cited by a number of individuals as a common reason for either not visiting home often or for ceasing all visitation, period. “The last time I went home, my family decided that I was a prostitute because I went on two Tinder dates during Christmas in Atlanta,” said TLM, a bisexual, genderfluid black person who isn’t out to their family. “My brother attacked me because I wouldn’t let him search my things. I ended up being put on muscle relaxers for my back and leg. Months later, I think I’d had a concussion the whole time because I couldn’t drive and keep the car straight. I was losing my sense of time, had headaches every night, couldn’t sleep.” While they still go home sometimes, motivated by the desire to see their younger siblings, this Christmas is different. “I don’t want to go home. Thankfully, these days I don’t feel homesick—or the holiday pressure.”
Stephanie, a 41-year-old queer, non-binary trans woman, echoed concerns over physical safety as contributing to her minimization of home visits. “Before I realized I was transgender, I had very strong feelings around identity suppression and my family and was uncomfortable going home for holidays. I went home for holidays once whilst I was living in my gender at home, but before I came out to my family, and that was incredibly hard.” Now, when Stephanie does return home, she is sure to bring her partner along. “I don’t feel comfortable or safe in my hometown and have little to connect me to my family. I cannot discuss things with them.”
Sometimes, the primary issue isn’t physical safety, but emotional and mental safety, which can be just as vital. “I recently moved from my home state, South Carolina, to Los Angeles, and since moving out here, I’ve come out to my family,” said Purvis, a 26-year-old black, Southern cis gay man. “My plans were to go home for the holiday, but my admission has created an awkward silence. With the exception of my biological father, I haven’t spoken with anyone since coming out. The combination of silence and my family’s anger and sadness has led to my decision to stay in L.A. This will be the first time I spend holidays away from my family.”
This is important: Everyone comes out—or doesn’t—at different stages in life. Some families, like Purvis’, are in their first year of revelation. Others, like Nathan’s, have had more than a decade to process. “I've done a lot to consciously forgive my family for the hurt I experienced based on how they reacted to my coming out, and I'm happy that we've found ways to define our relationship outside of that time,” Nathan said.
Still, others experience the silence that is the lack of acknowledgment, even when bringing home a partner. Cory, a 30-year-old, bisexual, bigender white person said, “My boyfriend and I both think family is important, and we try really hard to make it home for the holidays to see both of our families. The biggest annoyance at this point is that we aren’t recognized as a couple but are treated as friends on both sides, even though we have been together for more than six years. This has been addressed with my immediate family, but little has changed.”
“I know my mother will flinch when I call myself or someone else lesbian or queer. My family reiterates often that they love and accept me the way I am, and they adore my girlfriend and treat her so well,” said Melissa, a 38-year-old white cis lesbian. “But they are visibly uncomfortable when I talk about queerness and queer topics explicitly, even just casually, so the unspoken message is that they love me, but are super-uncomfortable with that part of my identity. So mostly, I keep a lid on that around them.”
“Keeping a lid on it” can be difficult, especially in this political climate. White queers, in particular, noted increased tension at home between themselves and conservative relatives. Betsy, a 29-year-old bisexual white femme woman, called out the political differences with family. “Last year's Christmas [after the election], I was so damn nervous. It's entirely the ‘who did you vote for’ thing, and while I know for sure how some people stand, that 53 percent number [of white voters who supported Trump] looms really large when I go home. I don't think the election necessarily shifted anything, but it did put into sharp relief some things that I and other Midwestern expats had been avoiding. I'm still happy going home for the holidays, but it's tense in a way it wasn't when I was younger.”
I asked everyone I talked to about their self-care strategies, too. For some folks, like Purvis and TLM, the answer was, bluntly: not going home. Other strategies included maintaining the option to stay elsewhere, only going home with partners, minimizing time at home, being sure to get out of the house, meditating, ensuring alone time, catching up on rest. L noted, “I find it super-helpful to go for a walk about halfway through, get high, and come back. Everyone is much more interesting and enjoyable then, even if they suspect that I've been sitting in the truck with a cousin smoking the 'wacky backy.’”
Several folks noted spending time with their “chosen family” (a common LGBTQ+ term that signifies an intimate friend group, one that grew in parlance due to the rejection of LGBTQ+ folks by their natal families). “Since 2015, I've been heavily involved in a spiritual community that I feel affirms my sexuality. It's helpful to spend as much time as possible with this chosen family around the holidays,” said BT. “Being with them is just about the only time that I'm not faced with our culture's overwhelming idealism about the essential value of family or of the importance of the holidays.”
Notably, several femme queer women cited the importance of reconnecting with their communities and practices both during and after the holidays. “My forms of self-care are usually things that remind me of, connect me to, and nurture my queerness,” said Melissa. “I don't have a queer community/friends around me here, so the internet and texting are pretty critical to me in maintaining those lifelines to my people. That is very helpful in feeling like I haven't gone invisible.”
Betsy echoed this desire to reconnect with queer culture after venturing back home. “While I love going home and spending a lot of time with my folks, it always makes me feel a bit like I'm back in high school. It’s never officially planned, but when I get back to my adult apartment and life, I end up doing some sort of ‘look how very gay and adult I am’ thing, like going to see burlesque.”
There is no right way to go home or to not go home. The right choice is what’s right for you. I have gone home for the holidays, and I have not gone home for the holidays, both when I was out to my family and when I was not. I have been told to “not ruin Christmas” by coming out; I have accidentally ruined Christmas by bringing home my ex-partner when my parents were accepting, but, it turned out, my extended family was not.
One of the ways I emotionally manage my own visits is with language. I don’t call it going home. I call it going to see my family. Because it’s not going home.
Home is safety. Home is where you belong. Home is unconditional. Home is where you are nothing but yourself. And for me, that is not my parents and extended family. I experience love there, but I do not experience home there. Once I divorced “seeing my parents” from “going home,” it was as if a weight had lifted.
Suddenly, “going home” got a lot easier.
There are many reasons that my parents are not home. The physical place, for one. They live in the Twin Cities. The home they live in is not one of the physical structures I grew up in. But I don’t feel any attachment to the towns I grew up in, in Iowa and Wisconsin. No attachment to the physical houses I lived in. For a while, home was Boston, where I spent four years in a Ph.D. program, where I lived with my ex-husband, where I came out, where I discovered myself, where I walked away from the church, where I met my now ex-partner. Then my ex-partner and I moved to New York, and I decided that she was home. And then she and I broke up this last August, and we both moved out of our apartment—an apartment I am still, incidentally, paying rent for even though I now live in a completely different borough.
For a while, home was a place, and then home became other people, and now, finally, it is as though the universe has shredded the final tethers I had bonding my concept of home to others and forced me to look within.
Home is something I carry inside me, and home is something I’m still looking for. A woman read my palms last year, and she told me as much: We are all looking for home while holding it in our own two hands.