Coat, scarf, keys, card, wallet, phone. I give myself the regular pat-down while hopping down the stairs, my door still swinging on its hinges even as I descend to the floor below. I walk up to Q’s room and knock twice with a gloved hand, waiting to be called in.
“Ready?” I ask Q, sitting at their desk with the lamp on, with open books, screens, and papers arranged in front of them.
“You’re the one who’s late,” they remind me. I grimace and step aside as they grab their things. The ground floor of the dorm is busy. We can smell it more than we hear it, the turkey and gravy and pumpkin pie wafting up as we descend to the dorm’s annual Thanksgiving dinner, held by and for students still on campus over the break. Stopping at the last stair, we pause to take in the din: the murmuring chorus of tarrying voices, the scraping of plates and places being set, and bubbling of pots from a busy kitchen.
And since we’d have to cross all this to make it to the front door, Q and I silently nod and continue downstairs toward the basement exit. The evening air is frigid, and we brace our faces against the cold as we step into the twilight. Banks of snow-burnt orange line the lit college town road.
“You’re sure they’re open today, right?” Q asks, referring to the Indian restaurant we’re heading to.
“Yeah, I called to make sure.”
We hold hands as we make our way across the ice-crusted street, a pair of international students away from our countries of origin, to spend a Thanksgiving filled with spiced curries, ice creams on hot cookies, $10 wine, and slippery hills. It’s one of the times and places when I still felt at home.
Three years later, in a different country, I peel away from a family that still refers to me by a name I no longer use, and duck into our hotel. I make my way upstairs through well-lit hallways lined with decorations. Firecrackers and festivities rage outside, filling the skies with color and smoke. The festival of lights mark a cheery time of year. Almost everyone is outside, watching the show or reveling in some way.
I slip into bed, crack open my laptop, and send some messages to friends abroad. I send Q a short email, and expect a response to arrive in a week or so. I send YH a Facebook message to inquire about their Thanksgiving week.
“I have mixed feelings” comes the reply, given the history of the holiday. Hard not to enjoy wholesome time off from work at their partner’s home, though. “By the way, I am drinking a rum-mixed drink, so here’s to you.” I am touched, given their hatred of rum.
The rest of my evening is spent in this manner, catching up with friends that I can’t be with. As sparks dance across the night, I focus my eyes and my thoughts on the blinking of pixels and bytes, bringing me tales and well wishes from people who may not be present—but at least, they know my name.
Vivek Shraya and Janet Mock (Photo credit: Janet Mock/Instagram)
To be trans is to be isolated.
It’s a bold statement, but society is trans-antagonistic enough for me to say it without qualifiers. Existing as a trans person puts you at odds with a lot of people, although class, racial privilege, or the sheer luck of having a supportive social circle can make life a little more bearable and safe. Families, in the traditional sense, are largely a cis thing with a father, mother, children, and perhaps a pair of grandparents or two—all identifiable as women or men, straight as the patriarchy intended, and without the temerity to argue with their own birth certificates. For trans people, loving parents, Christmas cards, and safety are pretty hard to come by.
This isolation makes holidays somewhat fraught. A lot of society is already organized around an isolated social group: namely the binary, het, nuclear families that replicate a patriarchal power structure, expected to be the principal group you spend your time with. It is a construct that, by design, cannot include queer folks. The veneration and centrality of the “traditional” family in kyriarchy is meant to marginalize those who do not fit in.
So what does a trans holiday look like? Finding your own sense of family and belonging with other people like you, who can empathize and don’t look upon you as an aberration. Trans and queer folks tend to find their families more than being born into them, and must also create their own traditions, rituals, and ceremonies to celebrate being together. Our holidays are more communal than familial, often on a budget and designed to be inclusive, yet private. We eschew gift-giving in favor of shared activities that multiple people can contribute to—potlucks, game nights, and so on—drinking together is a timeless classic.
Not all of these traditions involve a physical presence. The internet has been very important and revolutionary for the LGBTQ movement. Queer folks have used cyberculture in ways different from other people because they offered safer spaces for queer people to learn about our own histories and sexualities, fight suppression, and combat misinformation. It’s no coincidence that the advent of the net coincided with an uptick in the ongoing struggle for gay rights. Digital spaces have become more than just a space to communicate, inform, or organize; they’ve become a first life for many of us.
When we’re online, we’re not geographically isolated; we’re able to find community, commiseration, and even affection and companionship. The internet has done a lot of things, but one of the remarkable things is how it enabled queer folks to survive—by decentralizing queer culture. We can see ourselves represented, meet others like us, and put our real names, pronouns, and personalities on display—and we can do so without the risk of violence or ostracization. Anonymity, ironically, allows us to be our authentic selves. Though not a perfect substitute, it’s a marked improvement over being forced to exist entirely alone, without contact with anyone else like us. Given how difficult it is for queer folks to secure professional help or find acceptance among normative social structures, it’s no exaggeration to say that the internet has saved many, many queer lives.
It may be difficult for me to truly be as at peace with myself as I was on that Thanksgiving, feeling for the first time that the holiday was like a celebration. But in a lonely, disorienting place where being true to myself carries harsh penalties, there’s holiday cheer enough in my pocket to keep me warm. And that will suffice for now.