My wife began hormone replacement therapy just before quarantine started in March. Although my mother-in-law has known about my wife’s gender identity since early childhood, she previously discouraged her from transitioning. She recently called the family’s pediatrician to see what could have caused her daughter to be trans — treating her identity as if it were a malady. Over the past nine months, my wife and I have had limited contact with her and other conservative relatives in our less-than-supportive families.
Queer people are reclaiming space for ourselves this season, establishing new ways to observe holidays or practicing the same traditions with festivities that feel more affirming.
As the holidays approached, I dreaded the negative interactions sure to come at the annual family gatherings. Would everyone stare and ask invasive questions or just avoid and ignore my wife now? I wasn’t sure which would be worse. Thankfully, this year’s social distancing offers my family and other queer people a unique gift: a much-needed and hard-earned break from toxic family members and obligations.
I first sighed with relief when my mother-in-law had to cancel her usual trip to stay with us in November and December because of pandemic travel restrictions. Even before my wife’s transition, my mother-in-law depleted our energy during the holidays. The last visit had included a barrage of passive-aggressive remarks about our failure to observe her preferred traditions, unkind comments about my body and objections to our child’s nonbinary pronouns.
My relatives bring their own seasonal strain. After I spent years attending all of my family’s gatherings, my siblings quickly abandoned the large Christmas meal I cooked last year, showing up late and leaving after just an hour. Later that day, my mom pressured us to attend church despite knowing that it’s triggering for me due to a trauma my wife and I experienced in a religious community.
If it weren't for quarantine, we would be making the same stressful end-of-year attempt to accommodate everyone’s needs except our own. Before transitioning, my wife spent every get-together censoring her behavior — monitoring her speech patterns, mannerisms, posture and other subtleties because she wasn’t out to most family members.
The recent queer-centered holiday flick "Happiest Season" shows how some queer people still feel they need to be closeted when returning home. In the movie, a woman brings her girlfriend to her parents’ house for Christmas but pretends the two are just friends — denying her sexuality to appease her family’s expectations. The fear of family rejection and pressure to conform isolates her partner and jeopardizes the mental health of both women.
Family rejection is a leading cause of negative mental health outcomes for queer people. A 2018 survey of LGBT people in the U.K. found that 28 percent of respondents were not out to family members who lived outside their homes. In addition, 38 percent of negative incidents they experienced were caused by parents or guardians — highlighting the risks of coming out to unsupportive family. According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 1 in 10 trans and gender-nonconforming people experienced violence from a family member because of their gender identity; 8 percent were kicked out of their homes.
Queer youth are especially at risk because they need financial support and shelter from guardians. The Trevor Project reported that 6 in 10 queer youth had someone try to persuade them to change their sexual orientation or gender identity, with 35 percent of those noting it was a parent or caregiver. Meanwhile, 29 percent have been kicked out of their homes or run away.
Family members can also harm each other in less overt ways, such as misgendering trans and gender-nonconforming people or refusing to talk about queer identity at home. In the U.S. trans survey, 18 percent of respondents said they lived in families that were unsupportive of their gender identities, while 60 percent had families that were generally supportive and 22 percent had families that took a more neutral approach.
Even supportive family members aren’t always good allies and can unintentionally cause emotional trauma. Some of my wife’s and my family seem to be accepting — but they have prodded us with inquiries and concerns about my wife’s genitals, our sex life and what our kids think. We’ve smiled and gently noted that commentary and questions aren’t welcome.
Here again, social distancing is saving us from what could have been unpleasant confrontations: Texts, video chats and phone calls offer the ability to simply hang up or not respond when this line of conversation begins. I’m grateful these moments haven’t occurred while sharing a meal around a holiday table.
Queer people are reclaiming space for ourselves this season, establishing new ways to observe holidays or practicing the same traditions with festivities that feel more affirming. Last year, I needed days of rest for post-holiday recovery, leaving little time for personal celebrations. This year, we’ve gathered in the living room to watch sunsets, share snacks, binge movies and play games. These aren’t exactly the sacred rituals I’ve always wanted to keep at this time of year — but it is the space from our extended family that my wife and I need right now.