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Home for the Holidays: Navigating Family Gatherings As An LGBT Person

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For the LGBT community, the holidays can trigger feelings of loneliness at family gatherings.

By Januari Leo

The holidays are a time that generally evokes warm feelings: the smell of pine needles and sugar cookies, sitting around the fire exchanging gifts with family and friends, and reminiscing about past escapades. For the LGBT community, though, the holidays usually involve family gatherings where they are the only gay or transgender person in the house, which can lead to feelings of being different and alone.

“I remember seeing a book on a bookshelf titled The Sin of Homosexuality in our church bookstore when I was 11,” says Jaime Cryer. “I snuck back in to read it in the dark, trying to figure out how to get rid of what was wrong with me.”

Cryer came out in 2012, after two marriages and four kids. “Five years ago, I would have never thought I’d be here; I would have laughed in your face,” he says.

But he reached a point in his life when he had to make a decision to either live or die. “I was miserable, and I wanted to end my life,” he says. “I even had a plan. The day I planned to do it, I was pacing the floor and crying, and my phone rang. It was my favorite aunt, calling to let me know that I had been on her mind. When she asked me what was wrong, I told her I couldn’t tell. After she finally got it out of me, she said that she didn’t care.”

After he told his aunt, Cryer was faced with the difficult task of talking to his sister, his twin brother, and finally his wife. While his sister and aunt have remained supportive, his mother has struggled, and his father doesn’t want to be confronted. “I used to talk to my brother a few times a week. Now we can go months [without speaking],” Cryer says.

Raised in a large, fundamentalist Christian family where holiday celebrations are a big deal, Cryer feels the tension when he goes home and doesn’t generally feel welcome. Therapist Tony Aucoin, LCSW, says that this is not unusual. “When returning home for the holidays, people who are LGBT often wonder how much of themselves they need to hide. There can be a lot of shame associated with going back to a place where you can’t be yourself.”

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), factors such as verbal and physical harassment, negative experiences related to coming out when there is little family acceptance, substance use, and isolation all contribute to higher rates of suicide attempts among gay men and youth. Multiple studies have shown that depression and anxiety affect gay men at a higher rate than the general population. Lesbian and bisexual women were 2 to 2.5 times more likely than heterosexual women to experience suicidal ideation in the past 12 months.

Mental-health issues can be compounded during the holidays, when expectations about family gatherings are particularly high. According to Aucoin, “There is always an influx of calls to my office immediately after the holidays. Even when families are accepting, there can still be a loaded response. Just because you come out doesn’t mean the baggage goes away.”

Last year, when Cryer went home for the first time since coming out, he experienced first-hand how difficult the transition could be. “It felt awkward; I could tell things weren’t right with my mom,” he says. “My dad wouldn’t even come. Everyone knew why he wasn’t there, but no one would say anything.” His father also made it clear that Cryer’s boyfriend, Jonathan, was not invited. “I was faced with either having to go alone, or dividing the family,” he explains.

Because his partner is not welcome, Cryer finally decided not to attend family holidays. “I missed my twin brother’s daughter’s high school graduation,” he says. “I said if I can’t be myself, I don’t want to go. I just don’t care anymore.”

Aucoin notes that seeing a therapist before the holidays to develop a self-care plan can be helpful in staving off holiday-related mental-health issues. “First, remember that you always have a choice of whether or not to go, even if it doesn’t feel like it,” he says. “Second, it’s a good idea to have an exit plan. The freedom of knowing that this isn’t going to last forever is helpful.” Other suggestions for a smoother visit include:

• Before your visit, make arrangements to call a good friend who can share your concerns and pump you up. After the visit, ask your friend to help you process what took place.
• Stay at a hotel rather than in the family home.
• Set limits on the amount of time you are willing to spend visiting.
• Shorten the trip—quality time can be more important than simply hanging around.
• Set your own expectations—trying to manage others’ issues can cause anxiety.
• Find a family member who you really enjoy spending time with, and use that person to help blow off steam.
• Spend time with your “family of choice.” Have a second Christmas or Thanksgiving observance with your friends, where everyone brings leftovers from their family holidays to share and unwind.

Another issue to be aware of during the holidays is overuse of drugs and/or alcohol. According to SAMHSA, LGBT individuals use alcohol and illicit drugs at a higher rate than the general population. Aucoin warns against relying on substances in emotionally charged situations. “Often, the whole family is doing it, so it is socially acceptable,” he says. “But when we use drugs and alcohol to manage an emotional state, we’re opening up a box of worms.”

Substance use can make you feel better, which is both a good and bad thing. Aucoin says to ask yourself, “Am I having a drink to celebrate with my family, or to manage anxiety and depression?”

While Cryer has found a great level of acceptance from Jonathan’s family, he still feels a general sense of sadness around the holidays because he is not included in his family’s holiday gatherings. “I feel ostracized, because holidays were always a big deal,” he says. “I actually dread the holidays, because it is so different from how it was. It’s hard when you see pictures of everyone together. It stings.”

Januari Leo is the director of public affairs for Legacy Community Health. You can follow her on Twitter at @januarileo.

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