How to survive the holidays when your family doesn't know you're gay

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No one wants to spend Christmas in the closet, but for many people, it’s a fact of life. Even though I am very publicly queer, some of my extended family members have opted out of processing that message. I rarely see them, but when I do, everyone pretends I’m not gay. While I’m a big fan of coming out, for some folx, coming out can be emotionally or physically dangerous. Trying to spend quality time with people who don’t acknowledge your identity can be alienating and painful. I asked some of my most trusted mental health experts how we can deal with spending the holidays with family who don't know you're gay.

Identify what your choices are

The first thing you need to know is that you have choices. “I think one of the most important things is to decide whether or not you want to spend time with family members who don't know,” says Stefani Goerlich, a Detroit-based psychotherapist. “Not everyone is ready to come out to their relatives, but for those that are ready, being forced back into the closet for the holidays can be an incredibly painful experience.”

“It's okay to choose not to participate in faux straightness."

“It's okay to choose not to participate in faux straightness,” Goerlich continues. “It's okay to say — if only to yourself — that if you cannot be your authentic self, you're going to stay home. It's okay to decide that you're unwilling to lie about who you are or to hide your partner from your relatives. Give yourself permission to opt out of this paradigm.” It may run against status quo norms, but you can opt out of family gatherings.

Get in touch with your feelings

I’m not saying you’re definitely going to have a terrible holiday with your aging homophobic fam, but most of the experts I spoke with suggested that it’s important to remember that you are walking into a stressful situation. The good news is that this is an opportunity for self-inquiry. “Check in with yourself about your feelings about family members not knowing,” says Matthew Mutchler, psychotherapist and associate professor of counseling psychology at Delaware Valley University. And be honest with yourself.

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Mutchler suggests asking yourself some questions in advance. Why don’t they know? Is being closeted your choice or somebody else’s? How does that sit with you? Think of this as pre-work that will help you get to know yourself better and also help you develop a healthy plan for coping. “Some people can play the game without much difficulty but for others it can be soul crushing,” Mutchler says. Know thyself, gay fam.

Set up a support system

Mutchler suggests reaching out to a friendly family member in advance or setting up someone you can text or call during the event. “What can you do to maintain a sense of mental health during your visit? Will anyone who is supportive be present? How can they support you during the gathering? Develop a sense of what you need to be okay and ask for it from those who can or will give it,” he says. I have folks on speed dial who are ready to download with me about our respective holigays and it really helps to know they’re there even if I don’t have to call.

Make a plan for how to deal with triggering moments

“Thinking ahead of time about when and how to build in periodic breaks for private alone time can be helpful ,” says Dulcinea Pitagora, an NYC-based therapist who works with sexual minorities. She suggests things like taking a walk or a bath, reading a favorite book, or watching a favorite TV show. This may seem like overpreparing if you’re just going for dinner, but think about it, there’s an escape plan for even the shortest flights.

One of my coping mechanisms is to watch something really gay when I’m spending time with my family so I can be reminded that the world is big and full of other queers. There’s a new season of The L Word. Bette’s back and she’s running for office. Everything’s gonna be okay.

But how do we deal with the inevitable hurtful remarks when we can’t excuse ourselves? Pitagora suggests having a plan, but a flexible one. “Usually we know who will be the one to come up with a hurtful comment, so make a point to spend time connecting with allies, and to try to be near those people whenever the family member most likely to say something hurtful is around,” she says.

This is true to my experience. My mom’s ex-boyfriend once told me a super-gross "fag" joke over pumpkin pie. I didn’t know it was coming, but I could have predicted who it would come from. I wish I had known then how to make the space feel safer for myself. At the time, I just laughed along with the table and then cried in the bathroom later.

Sometimes it feels like it’s our responsibility to speak out, but we have to be in the right frame of mind to be effective. Pitagora agrees: “Decide in the moment — based on how much energy you have or how safe it feels — to either take a stand or change the subject. Nobody is obligated to take a stand if they don’t feel up for it.” In case you didn’t catch it the first time, it is not your job as a "good gay" to try and change anyone’s mind. Your first responsibility is to take care of your own wellbeing.

Sometimes it feels like it’s our responsibility to speak out, but we have to be in the right frame of mind to be effective.

“It can be helpful to have a response for either direction scripted out, and role-played in advance with a friend or partner if possible,” says Pitagora. “If hurtful comments happen regardless of precautions, and if a productive discussion about it with the offending person doesn’t feel safe or available, it can be helpful to have a journal handy to write out feelings, and things you’d like to say to that person someday.”

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I really love this advice because there have been so many times when I’ve thought of a response long after the hurtful comment was made. It feels at least a little redemptive to get it out, even if I can’t direct it at the person who made it.

Schedule time to take care of yourself after you’re back home

“I recommend talking to friends and partners ahead of time to schedule phone calls or video chats for processing and commiserating about respective experiences, and validating and affirming each others' identities,” says Pitagora. “Even if it ends up not being necessary, knowing you have the time set aside for yourself and for connecting to others in the same boat can help offset stress and anxiety caused by feelings of isolation and identity erasure.”

When I go visit my family, I often tell people that I’m going on vacation as another person. That may sound fun, but it’s not really a person that I enjoy being. Even if nothing dramatic happens, I always end up feeling a little confused about reentry. Having people who know a more real version of me definitely helps me feel better.

No one should come out in unsafe environments. If you are going to be subject to any type of abuse, your physical and psychological safety has to come first.

Goerlich also recommends using this time to consider whether you want to stay in the closet post-vacation. Keep track of how it makes you feel so that you can make an informed decision about whether you want to feel that way again. “Coming out is a deeply personal thing and no outsider can tell you when to do it,” she says. “If you genuinely want to be out to those you love, are prepared to have that conversation authentically, do it.” Again, though, no one should come out in unsafe environments. If you are going to be subject to any type of abuse, your physical and psychological safety has to come first.

Another reality is that coming out isn’t one and done. It’s a process. Everyone in my family knows I’m gay except my 100-year-old grandmother. Ten years ago, I tried to come out to her in a letter. When I told my aunt about the letter, she took it out of the mail and told every member of my family that my grandmother would never know I’m gay and that if I ever tried to tell her again, I would be “disowned.” I opted to keep my mouth shut to keep the peace. That’s where I am in my process: mid-cliff-hanger in a badly written soap opera.

Maybe someday I will feel ready enough and safe enough to have that conversation with my grandma, but until then, I’m practicing harm reduction and following Pitagora’s advice, which is to "contribute to an atmosphere of love and acceptance" — whatever that means to you.