Early in November, I spoke with queer people about the concept of chosen family, and what it feels like when you don’t have one. The piece resonated, and since then I’ve talked with several queer people from across the United States and beyond about how they navigate being queer during the holidays. Do they participate in traditions with their family of origin? Do they adore the holidays and everything that comes with them, or do they feel like the season isn’t for them at all? Do they celebrate with chosen family instead, or take to the holiday season solo?
The story of queer loneliness and queer acceptance among family has never been either/or. For some of us, it’s one or the other, but for others it’s yet another fluid thing: being accepted, but on specific terms; or being accepted by some family members and not others; or being accepted, but only if you hide a piece of yourself. Some queer people, like me, are lucky to have a core family that sees and accepts their queerness, and wraps them in love. I get rainbow socks for Christmas and help my mom make sauce from a family recipe for the lasagna she makes every year because I’m a vegetarian. Sometimes I bring my partner and no one bats an eyelash. The family members who don’t accept who I am are the ones who get booted from our holiday festivities—it’s their bigotry, not my identity, that’s the inconvenience.
Here, 9 queer people with varying identities and varying relationships with the holiday season share how they choose to celebrate (or not), and how who they are impacts their relationship with this time of year.
Gabrielle Drolet, age unspecified, a queer writer based in Ontario
I’m an undergraduate student, so I get a few weeks off for Christmas break. For the second year in a row, my girlfriend and I are going to visit both of our families together, spending a few days with each. This is obviously a huge privilege. Both our families are pretty conservative, which can make things a little tense sometimes, but they’ve been really open and receptive to our relationship. My mom even knit my girlfriend a stocking this year because she’s “part of the family,” which is ridiculously sweet. We only spend a few days with each [of] our families because it does get to be pretty taxing.
During exam season my friends and I all get together for ‘pre-Christmas.’ We have breakfast (pancakes!), and we do a ‘holigay’ swap: We all bring clothes/books/anything we don’t need anymore, trade with each other, and whatever no one wants we bring to Goodwill. We also come [back to school] in time for New Year’s Eve so we can spend it in our city’s only gay bar, which has been a really fun tradition.
Caitlin Hobbs, 23, a queer individual and archivist based in Georgia
I’m a bisexual nonbinary individual (as well as non-Christian) who lives in North Georgia; Needless to say the holidays are a little tenuous and stressful for me. I celebrate with my family, but I’m not entirely out to them. My parents know about me, but they’ve left it up to me to come out to the rest of my family, with the vague promise of supporting me; but considering a lot of my family is hardcore, originally-voted-for-Trump conservative, there’s [a] background anxiety about coming out in the South that a lot of queer individuals are familiar with. . Having to deal with othering talk during family visits can be incredibly anxiety-inducing and straight-up hurtful. And unfortunately, [in] the area [where] I live in—about 45 minutes north of Atlanta—there’s not a huge queer community around me. It’s just not safe. To cope, I turn to the online community, listen to them talk about their experiences, lend my support to them and hope that one day it’ll be better for all of us. When it’s really tough, I basically retreat into my own space and curl up with my cat and turn on The Great British Bake Off and try to ignore the fear and anxiety that my family and location brings. Sometimes that’s easier said than done.
Julia Dressel, 25, a queer software engineer based in San Francisco
[I’m] a queer who eats turkey with her parents. My parents divorced 6 years ago, and I have found that as soon as our conception of the nuclear family was blown up, we got to define for ourselves who we considered “family” and who we wanted to have around the Thanksgiving table. Since then, our Thanksgiving dinners have become an incredible, open, welcoming space. I’m one of the very few lucky children of divorce who has parents that still get along. We haven’t had any separate Thanksgiving dinners since the divorce. My mom has since remarried, and every year we have Thanksgiving dinner all together (mom, dad, my three sisters, stepdad, stepsister, [and all] grandparents are welcome).
Most years, we have people from more than 5 different “families” all sitting around one (very long) table. We often take in people who don’t have other Thanksgiving dinners to go to (divorced dads without a place to go, a distant cousin who lives [far] from their parents). My sister’s boyfriend has joined, my best friend from Chile has joined, even one of my other sister’s kind-of-close-friends from college [has come]. I haven’t had a significant other join yet, but when the time comes I know they will be welcome. We invite the people that we care about and the people we know could use a place to go. I am very fortunate to have a home and a nuclear-ish family that I am excited to be with and feel welcomed by.
Marisa, 29, a queer enby and writer/editor based in San Diego
Ever since I’ve been with my wife, we’ve been hell-bent on making our own traditions and not falling into the habit of feeling [obligated] to hang out with our families just because it’s an arbitrary day (and oftentimes a colonizing horrific holiday that should not be celebrated anyway). [For Thanksgiving weekend], we went to the desert and camped and explored and read to each other. It was so much better than being stressed about food and family and triggering situations. We are learning to say no to those situations and to intentionally carve out joyful spaces for ourselves. I’m not into Christmas or anything, but I’ve found a way to make silly traditions more fun for us—like now, every Christmas, we watch the holiday episode of Sense8 that involves an orgy. I highly recommend it. I think we are still learning what traditions we want to have long term, and that’s the fun of it. Reinventing what these holidays mean to us.
Brandi Collins-Calhoun, 28, a queer Black mother and writer/birth worker based in North Carolina
My family always had the go-to movies we would binge-watch as a tradition, so it’s something I’ve continued but restructured for myself and my household. My traditions feel affirming and comforting; to know that space exists in families for dysfunction and queerness lets me know I’m not asking for too much. I always feel like I’m the hardest on myself during the holidays, feeling obligated to either seclude myself or not show up as my full self in spaces with loved ones. So I feel like traditions are kind of my act of survival to get through the holidays unscathed.
Paige Walker, 27, a queer woman and educator based in Arkansas
I’ve decided not to do holidays with extended family this year [as] I just came out publicly in the spring. I [celebrated] Thanksgiving with friends who are safe, and one meal with my mother. She isn’t okay with me being queer, but is incredibly kind and loving. I’ll do the same for Christmas: One meal with mom, [and then] most of my time [spent] with friends I feel safe around. It feels odd to make this decision, but [also] incredibly freeing and good. I feel I should mention that most of the friends I feel safe around are straight/straightish. I don’t have many close queer friends (could be proximity, as I live in the rural South) but I’ve just found a lot of love, kindness, and support from people who do not identify as queer.
The story of queer loneliness and queer acceptance among family has never been either/or.
Anna Snonte, 50, a white queer woman based in Seattle
I didn’t grow up with Thanksgiving [as I have an] immigrant mom, and as an adult I usually go to a friend’s house for their friend-group Thanksgiving. For [Christmas], I kind of flounder. Sometimes I go to church with queer friends; I grew up religious, and it still pulls on me some; going with other formerly religious queer people helps. Lately [though], I watch trashy Christmas movies and order Chinese food. In the past I would go to movies with Jewish/other non-Christian friends. [For New Year’s Eve], I usually go to some social event, even if I don’t stay long. I have a huge investment in intergenerational communication [regarding] queer issues, [as] so many of us have to reinvent everything from scratch and we shouldn’t have to.
Shelby, 28, a white cis queer woman in the military, based in Maryland
I am a queer woman married to a queer woman. My partner and I have the privilege of being open and accepted by my side of the family. We are looking forward to my side’s tradition of meeting up a week before Christmas to boozily bake and exchange dozens and dozens of cookies. We’ve sidestepped a lot of my wife’s family functions because the awkwardness can make the air a little thick. But we’re realizing that it’s been a while since we’ve given her family a chance. Maybe the best way to normalize our existence as a couple is to show up as a couple to the normal family gatherings. We’re a unit, and we’ll show up with homemade bread and make small talk while the kids open presents, dammit! I’m not sure when being pleasant turned into an act of defiance, but here we are.
Carol, 43, a public-school teacher based in Florida
I wish my holidays were more queer. My wife and I are middle-aged white lesbians. We feel a heavy sense of obligation to our parents and to my children, so we spend the holidays doing ‘normal’ things with them. In my wife’s family, her brother is married to a man, and her male cousin is also married to a man; but in my family, we are the only queer people. Long story short: We are overwhelmed by traditional family obligations and don’t get to enjoy ‘chosen family’ brunches or get-togethers as much as we would like. We are blessed that our families, both of them, accept us—so I realize I shouldn’t complain. Being queer has changed nothing for us as far as the holidays; we still have to cook, clean, and decorate.