When you are out and proud, with a loving and supportive Rockwellian family, the holidays are a face-stuffing good time filled with presents, merriment and drinking for good times.
If you are not out, or if you come from a judgmental and conservative family more akin to something out of Tennessee Williams, it can mean eating alone, receiving gifts with strings attached or depression and drinking just to get through it all.
When it is not all carols and good cheer, there are ways to make it better.
For many LGBT people, the holidays become a time filled with the self-pressure of “just do it already” to come out. There is often something equal parts appealing and terrifying about the idea of all of the family being together and just ripping off the rainbow Band-Aid.
There is no wrong way to come out — as gay, bisexual or transgender — because there is nothing wrong with being LGBT. Anyone who tells you otherwise is suggesting there is something potentially negative about the information you are revealing, and they are wrong. Completely wrong.
There is not a right time to announce “I like pizza,” or “I’m a real estate agent,” or “Taylor Swift might be the anti-Christ.” (OK, that last one could start a fight.) You are just revealing a previously unknown piece of the puzzle that is you to the people who love you.
That said, considering the potential responses can make it easier for you and those to whom you are coming out. If there is any potential physical danger in the response to your news, your personal safety should be the only factor in your decision. There is no benefit to your journey from putting yourself in harm’s way.
Outside of physical danger, if you are likely to receive an extremely negative reaction based on the prejudices of your friends or family, have a pre-determined exit strategy. If it’s important to you to come out and you know it will not go well, have someone with you and somewhere to go after the conversation to protect yourself from being stuck if it becomes an emotionally harmful situation.
Beyond the worst-case scenarios, giving some consideration to those you are telling will make it the best for everyone. You may receive the “Oh, honey, we’ve always known” response, or the “Umm, we had no idea!” surprised reaction. The first can be relief for you and amusement for all and then “pass the stuffing…” followed by joking innuendos.
The shocked response could cause that lapse around the table where you can hear everyone chewing as they revise their internal understanding of you while thinking of something to say. Being understanding of any initial surprise or shock, rather than resenting it immediately, can allow a conversation of love and understanding to continue over entirely too many kinds of pie.
Most of those in the closet have had a great deal of time to come to terms with their own identities before sharing them; allow others a moment to gather themselves and sitting down to not watch the sportsball game afterward will be easier for everyone.
It can also be all in the timing. It’s just possible that if your family is hosting a holiday dinner or party with a large group of guests, asking for a huge helping of meat and coming out by saying, “Because that’s what I like in the bedroom” might go over like vegan stuffing in the South — not because you should not be proud, but because asking for respect means giving it as well.
Of course, if your family is going to be absolutely fine, and you know that, bringing sushi to the potluck and announcing “Because I’m a lesbian” can be fun for the whole family!
Coming out is about you. The holidays as a time of love and gift-giving can be a wonderful time to do so. The time and manner should be what makes you feel most comfortable first. Remembering to be considerate of the feelings of the friends and family will help you choose the best moment for all of you.
Of course, the holidays can be challenging for those who are already out if family relationships are complicated. It can be a ballet of compromise for those who want to see and be involved with family members in spite of negative attitudes surrounding sexual orientation or gender identity.
In these situations, it is still important to remember that how, and how much, you are involved in the family holidays is up to you.
If your family loves you “in spite of” something about your orientation, there are many approaches to participating with them, and one that will fit you best. Some LGBT people choose not to be with their blood family at all and to focus on the new family they have built who embrace all of who they are.
For others, in spite of ongoing disapproval, cutting ties or issuing ultimatums would be too painful and a tenuous middle ground is reached. There is the “We talk about everything but that” approach. Or the “You are welcome here, but your partner is not” offer. And the ever-popular “We’re praying for you and just want you in church with us” guilt trip that is unfortunately popular in the Bible Belt.
And on and on and on.
However you deal with a less-than-completely-accepting family, do it on your terms. If you feel like you may lose out on time with them, remember they will also be losing out on time with you. Make compromises if you are truly comfortable with them, but do not agree to anything that makes you feel “less than;” don’t let them have their perfect holiday by sacrificing yours.
If holiday compromises involve your significant other, ensure that you are considering their feelings as well. They love you unconditionally and should be treated with more respect than those who do not.
If you make sacrifices, be open and vocal about what they are so your family is aware of them. Do not let them off the hook. That love they have for you, and their desire to have you for the holidays, should ensure they compromise at least as much as you do.
However, if you agree to a compromise, do not begrudge them the terms you agreed upon. If you do not like how it ends up, you can always leave. Or make it different next year.
For many in the LGBT community, the holidays are equal parts wonderful and challenging. The line between loving an imperfect family without sacrificing personal pride is a tight line to walk. There is no correct way to navigate it all beyond ensuring that you are not making any choices that you cannot live with.
Do not let anyone make you feel less than you are for their perfect meal, perfect holiday or perfect photo opportunity. Whether coming out or coming home, make sure those you give them to are worthy of your gifts during the holidays, and always remember there are no greater gifts than your time, your presence and your love.
Emerson Collins is one of the hosts of The People’s Couch on Bravo.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 21, 2014