Forced ExileHow Queer Families Navigate Holidays

“Just remember: This is for you too,” I recently reminded myself.

Visiting family for the holidays is as much about togetherness as it is about rest and respite for me. This revelation came after weeks of experiencing brief bouts of anxiety at the mere thought of seeing certain family members, having certain “conversations,” and once again, being forced to defend my personal beliefs and sexual politics.

Over the years, my philosophical commitments have become more politicized, linking directly to my engagement with the works of folks like Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith and the Combahee River Collective, Assata Shakur, Angela Y. Davis, bell hooks, Toni Morrison, Harriet Jacobs, Ida B. Wells, Ella Baker, and so many others. My understanding of my family has also changed. And in 2015, I came out as queer.

We are a queer family for many reasons. We are queer because I am a queer woman. We are queer because we are semi-monogamous—a fact that still confounds my mother. We are queer because we don’t subscribe to traditional gender roles and are raising our children outside of the norms of our traditionally Christian upbringings. Though we are often read as a nuclear, cisgender, heterosexual couple, we intentionally move throughout the world with a conscious deliberation about the systematic disprivileges and asymmetric power structures that frame our everyday lives and the lives of our children.

At November’s National Women’s Studies Association conference in Baltimore, Maryland, queer political scientist Cathy J. Cohen encouraged the audience to rethink queerness as a way of existing in the world. Cohen theorizes that queer politics are situated outside of white heteropatriarchal capitalist social norms, and that shows up in the ways we live our lives. Outsider status doesn’t necessarily translate to an entire family tree. In most cases, queerness is experienced in isolation, which is especially pronounced around the holidays.

My family sits outside of norms—at times on purpose and other times by circumstance. This outsider status makes going home especially anxiety-inducing, but here are a few strategies that can make visiting family during the holidays a bit easier for queer families like mine.

1. Divest from tradition

Columbus Day march

Photo via Walker Wrackspurt

Photo credit: Walker Wrackspurt

Understanding that the holidays—especially Thanksgiving—are rooted in a colonial history predicated on the mass genocide of indigenous and Native American people is the first step to authentically navigating the holidays. Many indigenous and Native American people see this as a time of mourning for nearly 90 million lives that were taken by white supremacy and American imperialism. It is impossible to traverse the holidays as a queer family without having the freedom to acknowledge and honor these histories and sacrifices.

Underlying the performative stories of pilgrims and benevolent “Indians” are justifications for the power structures that systematically mark Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples as inherently criminal while valorizing white people.

These realizations require a process of unlearning that starts with confronting and challenging one’s own position to power even though, as queer people, we frequently find ourselves at the intersections of multiple oppressions. We start that work by asking questions like: How do I benefit from this country’s colonial history? What am I doing to disrupt the ceremonies and traditions that minimize the oppression and harm against indigenous peoples?

We all participate in multifaceted and interlocking systems of oppression. When we begin moving past the guilt associated with that acknowledgement, we work to dismantle the racism, queerantagonism, sexism, ableism, cissexism, and sizeism that regulate much of our lives. During the holiday season, this means divesting from stereotypes and narratives surrounding Thanksgiving, stories predicated the erasure of the genocide of native and indigenous peoples.

2. Set boundaries

Anna Deavere Smith, Jenifer Lewis, Tracee Ellis Ross, Marsai Martin, and Yara Shahidi in black-ish

Photo credit: ABC/Eric McCandles

Anna Deavere Smith, Jenifer Lewis, Tracee Ellis Ross, Marsai Martin, and Yara Shahidi in black-ish (Photo credit: ABC/Eric McCandles)

I created boundaries that are necessary for my survival.

After I left for college, I would come home for the holidays to a bevy of contending and conflicting obligations. I made an effort to drive to every corner of the Bay Area to see everyone who had ever poured into my life. I felt it was a requirement to attend every event or meet-up held by members of my immediate and extended family—even ones that were happening simultaneously. I would then sit in uncomfortable conversations and environments where I would be questioned about “where I had been at,” “what this whole ‘queer’ thing was about,” and how I felt about the recent abortion debate or whatever other issue seemed too taboo to talk about at the Thanksgiving table. It was this sense of obligation to everyone except myself that left me feeling drained each holiday season.

Since taking steps to acknowledge the harm this caused me personally, and the extended harm it caused my partner and children, I have established firm boundaries around my time and autonomy when visiting family. There are some family members I intentionally avoid. There are some spaces that conjure up trauma for me, and no matter how significant they may be to others, I choose not to attend.

3. Chosen family matters too

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, Shanika Warren-Markland, Anthony Burrell, Jussie Smollett, and Blake Young-Fountain in The Skinny

Photo credit: Patrik-Ian Polk

From left to right: Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, Shanika Warren-Markland, Anthony Burrell, Jussie Smollett, and Blake Young-Fountain in The Skinny (Photo credit: Patrik-Ian Polk)

For many queer folks, the holidays come with the reminder that they are no longer welcome at home. For others, going home comes with conditions that often limit their freedom. These limits and barriers are part of the reason many queer folks create “chosen families” who are supportive of them. Chosen family members are the “fictive kin” who show up when birth family doesn’t. More importantly, they typically share a deeper connection because of their similar outsider status. Staying away from unaccepting, unwelcoming family members can be restorative.

The holidays should be about building up families rather than breaking them down, showing up for loved ones not putting them out. While these tactics can relieve some of the anxieties that are bound to emerge over collard greens and dressing, nothing can substitute the importance of self-care and mindfulness throughout the season. Above all, be gentle with yourself and your loved ones. If that means doing nothing at all this holiday season, that’s okay too.

by Jenn Jackson
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Jenn M. Jackson is a doctoral candidate in American Politics with a focus on race, gender, and class. She is the co-host of That Black Couple, an accidentally funny podcast about the realities of Blackness and adult life. Jenn is also the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Water Cooler Convos, a platform where Black millennials talk. She muses on all things feminist on Twitter: @JennMJack. Or, you can read more at her website

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