In the midst of the celebratory atmosphere of the season, the holidays can be an isolating and stressful time. From grappling with old traumas or new relationship conflicts, to being lonely on New Year’s or navigating the financial stress of travel, you’re definitely not alone if you find yourself more stressed than excited by the prospect of the holidays. This may be especially the case if you're not out, or have just come out to your family. Being queer during the holidays, with all their family pressures, can present a lot of challenges, but you can still find joy amidst the potential darkness of the season.
If you’re not out to your family, the stress from hearing your deadname, being referred to with incorrect pronouns, or having to hide a relationship can be debilitating. Even if you are out, you may experience similar kinds of invalidation from one or more of your family members. In these cases, it’s important to prioritize your own mental health as much as you can while you’re preparing for your visit.
“It can be very affirming if family members are supportive,” Amy Stulman, a nurse practitioner with One Medical who is specialized in LGBTQ care, tells Bustle. If you haven't seen the branch of the family you're spending the holidays with in a while, scrolling through your cousins’ social media to see who’s likely to be at least a solid ally can be helpful. Reach out before the holiday to form a game plan with supportive family members. This can include hints to others about subtle reminders about your pronouns, or if you're not out to everyone, the ways they can be supportive without outing you.
In-person support might not always be possible, but it’s also helpful to recruit encouragement or holiday-themed puppy gifs from friends and chosen family over text and online. Ask your friends to check in on you at specific intervals: When your phone buzzes during a tense dinner, knowing that it’s a supportive message from a friend can be a life-saver. If your friends are struggling through their own family gatherings and unable to provide live texting support, it’s a good idea to have an agreement where you can both text-vent extensively — perhaps in those moments when you get to hide in the bathroom — and agree that you’ll respond to each other later. Even writing a love letter (or reading a pre-written one) to yourself during those bathroom breaks can be helpful.
Whether or not you have external support, protecting yourself comes first and foremost as you begin thinking about heading home for the holidays. “For people who are newly out and visiting family, plan in advance,” Stulman says. “Know who will be there, consider the possible outcomes, try to arrange for some private time, and have an exit strategy in case things go poorly.” Thinking through the possible outcomes can include literally practicing how you imagine conversations might go, and what you want to say (or not say) in case certain issues come up.
The most important relationship to maintain during the holiday season is your relationship with yourself.
Self-care strategies for staying quiet are important. Maybe you’ll focus on a mantra about how you're real and valid, or your favorite song, or just tune out entirely. Maybe you’ll wear a sweater with sleeves that you can play with or stim on to soothe yourself under the table. These strategies might help, too, for when you’re trying to remain calm as you assert rehearsed statements like, “I know how much you love me, so I’d appreciate it if you use my name and pronouns” or, “This relationship makes me very happy, and I’d love it if you could respect that.”
It’s OK to back away from even the best-planned conversations when you need to, though. If you’re not being heard, “It’s probably best to disengage or deescalate,” Stulman tells Bustle. “However, change often occurs incrementally, so it may be worth investing in these conversations if it’s someone who genuinely cares about you and has good intentions.” It’s also OK if even thinking about these potential conversations and experiences is painful enough to prevent you from going home.
If you’re not going home but don’t want to be alone, Stulman tells Bustle that spending the holidays with friends can be a great alternative. “If you have a religious background, consider seeking out an LGBTQIA+ faith organization,” she says. She also suggests volunteering to give others much needed services and emotional support, while also giving yourself a sense of community and purpose.
Whatever you do for the holidays, it’s important to remember that the most important relationship to maintain during the holiday season is your relationship with yourself. Taking care of yourself may make you feel selfish, but you are allowed to selfish when that means being true to yourself and asserting who you are and what you need.
“Know your limits, stay safe, find common ground, be generous but don’t let anyone diminish you,” Stulman says. Because you deserve to have a joyful holiday season, even if that means celebrating in your own way, whether with your own awesome self or with your own chosen family.
Amy Stulman, NP, One Medical