The holiday season tends to bring out anxiety in all of us — braving congested airports and roads, being in a crowded kitchen with your mom, and trying to navigate conversation when the small talk fades with your long-distance cousin are just a few causes of above average heart palpitations. And when you’re LGBTQ, there is often a whole other layer of complications.
When, at age 22, I went home for the first time as a fully out queer person, I felt incredibly vulnerable. Instead of dodging the, “So when are you getting a boyfriend?” questions, would I now be navigating misplaced assumptions about my sexuality? I was terrified of how my extended Irish Catholic family would react or that my parents would ask me to “tone down” my queerness for the week.
Luckily, I have made it through my share of holidays living in my truth and authenticity. So, if you are headed back to that twin-sized bed in your childhood room this season to fill your belly and make nice with Aunt Kathy, here are some survival tips.
1. Set boundaries ahead of time.
“Be aware of your boundaries, and plan on how to set and maintain those boundaries,” says Jesse Kahn, LCSW, CST, director and sex therapist at the Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center. When you clearly let your family know what will allow you to feel good about coming home, you are giving them a chance to respect those things. Some boundaries around the holidays might be attending a family dinner but letting your parents know you’ll be leaving by 8 p.m., or asking to avoid the subject of your gender identity.
“I usually stay with a friend so that I can leave family gatherings when I want to. Staying at my parents is far too overwhelming,” says Katie, 27, who lives in Detroit. Remember that “no” is a full sentence, and you don’t owe anyone an explanation about well, pretty much anything.
2. Bring a buffer.
If your family, like mine, is not outwardly homophobic but has a few stray aunts and uncles who might subtly murmur, “I’m fine with it as long as she doesn’t get married” under their breath, then bringing a buffer might be a good idea. Invite along a fellow queer friend who can distract you from the homophobic uncle who loves to ask invasive questions about when you’re going to be done with this “phase.” This allows you to see the family you love while having the built-in support system necessary to deal with any not-so-wonderful extended family members.
3. Have a chosen family group chat.
Staying in touch with people who will validate and support you throughout the holiday season can give you a much-needed outlet. “Connect with people that you feel loved and supported by,” says Kahn. “If there aren’t people where you’re going, stay connected to them via technology.” Simply being able to receive an eyeroll emoji from your queer bestie can give you the strength to make it through dessert.
4. Take time for yourself.
Even if you don’t have access to a car for a drive around the neighborhood, bundle up and go for a walk or close the door and watch Netflix in your childhood bedroom. “I will go downstairs to help my mom start cooking holiday meals and then go back upstairs for an extra-long shower, allowing myself ample time to get ready for the rest of the day,” says Jordan, 29, who lives in New York City. It’s entirely reasonable to crave some solitude so you can decompress. Personally, I’m all about taking the family dog for long walks.
5. Remember the good.
“Create a list of reminders that you keep on hand during particularly stressful times. These could be about your boundaries, self-worth, family dynamics — anything that you want to hold on to,” says Kahn. If your family invalidates your queerness by saying it’s “just a phase” or ignores your identity altogether, that can be incredibly painful. A note in your phone won’t cure everything, but might help ground you when you feel overwhelmed.
6. Do what you gotta do.
Engaging in that debate with Grandpa about your septum piercing may just not be worth it, and it actually could be less hurtful for you to let it slide. Getting angry takes a lot of energy, so if it feels better, fill your mouth with food, smile, and nod. Not letting your family get under your skin doesn’t mean that you agree with what they’re saying. “Your family member’s beliefs are their beliefs — they are not truth, they are only how that family member sees the world. Your truth is valid and worthy of belief,” Kahn affirms. And remember that you can leave at anytime — even if you need to make up an excuse, like claiming you have a migraine.
7. Practice aftercare.
Once you make it through the holiday visit, check in with yourself. Journal or think about what worked for you, what felt good, what didn’t feel so good, what boundaries you might need next time, and whether there will even be a next time. “It’s an opportunity to give yourself the time and attention you need to return to a place of feeling grounded, safe, comfortable, nurtured, and taken care of,” says Kahn. “Aftercare gives you the opportunity to return to your reality outside of the recent experience.” This allows you to shake yourself out of survival mode and remember that you’re back in your real home, the one you are nurturing as an out-and-proud adult.
8. Know that opting out is always an option.
While I love my family, I have chosen not to go home for the holidays for the past few years. It has been less stressful and anxiety provoking for me to simply opt out and host a wayward queer holiday dinner at my tiny Brooklyn apartment. I call my parents on Christmas and usually visit them after the holiday craze has died down.
“I’ve spent the last five Christmases [with my friend’s family] because flying to the East Coast is not worth the time, money, or energy, and my fam is actually fine with this and used to it at this point,” says Theo, 30, who lives in Oakland, California.
You are not obligated to expend energy, time, or money to travel anywhere during the holiday season. If you’d prefer a quiet week off of work with your pets and hot cocoa, go for it. And if there is a sense of lingering shame when you tell your family you’re not coming home, it’s OK to stretch the truth into an excuse. Tell them you got hit with too many bills this year or already agreed dog-sit for a friend. If being with your family is too much for you right now, that’s OK. You deserve to prioritize yourself and your needs.