If you're like millions of other Americans, there's a good chance you'll be spending at least part of the coming holiday week with your family of origin. And like many of those same Americans, you're already bracing yourself for the inevitable drama that will come along with it. Parent-child dynamics are complicated, to say the least. Throw in a pair of set-in-their-ways grandparents, an eccentric aunt, your stubborn uncle, a gaggle of distant cousins and your little sister's caveman of a boyfriend, and there's not enough spiked eggnog in the world that can relieve the aggravation, irritation and stress you're going to experience before it's all over.
But for many gay men and women, the pain and emotional stress resulting from all this family togetherness can be much more acute. For those of us fortunate enough to have parents and relatives who freely accept our lifestyles -- and our partners, if we're in a relationship -- and love us unconditionally, bravo! You can stop reading now. For many gay people, though, spending the holidays with their families is about as merry and bright as a lump of coal. Instead, it's an uncomfortable, nerve-wracking experience that means repressing their true selves to avoid conflict from disapproving family members, taking a step backward on the path to self-acceptance they fought so hard to forge, and -- at its most extreme -- forcing themselves to go back into the closet.
Coming from a fairly conservative and definitely claustrophobic family, I'm aware of these feelings all too well, and I've spent decades working on finding ways to spend time with my extended family and get to a place where I look forward to seeing and reconnecting with individual family members. While family visits are still far from perfect (and really, are any family relationships ever perfect?), they are more comfortable now than ever. Was it a Christmas miracle? Well, I'm Jewish, so no. But it did require a lot of hard work and taking taking several proactive steps -- some of which I'm sharing -- to get there and to allow my whole self (especially the gay parts) to shine as brightly as a menorah on the eighth night of Hanukkah. Here are a few tips to help you make it through the holidays without losing your cookies.
1. Find a wingman/woman. Chances are that there's going to be at least one family member whom you'll truly enjoy seeing and catching up with during your visit. For me, it's my baby sister, Danielle. Keep that person close! They are your partner in crime, joy and misery, and hopefully someone whom you can lean on if things get weird -- like when your grandmother starts bemoaning the fact that, in her day, "the word 'gay' meant 'happy,' and now it's anything but."
2. Avoid politics at all costs. Some people are capable of respectfully debating issues like gay rights or gun control without passing judgments or alienating others, but chances are that you're not related to any of them. If you're comfortable participating in the conversation, by all means do so, but tread lightly, and disengage if things get heated. Stay aloof, if possible, and simply express your disappointment or disagreement. This is family, not Facebook. Unfriending these people is usually not an option.
3. Pack a touchstone. Between your parents, siblings, in-laws and nieces and nephews, chances are that you'll never technically be alone during your visit, but that won't mean you won't feel alone. Having a personal reminder of your day-to-day reality -- a picture of your boyfriend tucked inside your toiletry kit, a special piece of jewelry, your ticket stub from last year's Black Party -- can help you temporarily find your center and remind you that you are much more than what your family might see you as.
4. Save the children (and yourself). Sure, they might cry, scream and poop their pants once in a while, but you won't find anyone who's more genuinely happy to see and spend time with you than kids. No judgments, no passive aggressive comments and no agendas. Just the way it should be.
5. Get a room. Growing up, you might have been able to find comfort by locking yourself in your bedroom when you needed to escape life's pressures. Now that you're an adult -- not to mention the fact that your mom has since converted said room into a showcase for her creepy Madame Alexander doll collection -- feel free to find a safe haven elsewhere, like at the nearest five-star hotel.
6. Church chat. With so much emphasis put on giving the perfect gifts, it can be hard to remember what the holidays are supposed to be about: celebrating religious traditions. That can mean feeling compelled to attend service at your family's place of worship, even though its views on homosexuality might be diametrically at odds with your own. If you're a person of faith or are content to sit there and roll your eyes for an hour and a half, then by all means go. But if you're not, don't feel bad about taking a pass. You can always repent later. Or not.
7. Take time for yourself. Spending such a concentrated amount of time with people you're not entirely comfortable around can take a toll. Take time to recharge and regroup by taking some "me" time. Go to the thrift store you used to haunt back when you were going through your emo phase. Schedule a reunion with a childhood friend who's also home visiting. Hell, take a nap. If your parents protest ("We never see you, and here you are running off again"), don't allow yourself to feel bad about it. Take the space you need. With love.
8. Visit with purpose. Ultimately, you made the decision to make the trip home. Maybe it's out of guilt or a sense of obligation. Maybe it's because you think it's easier to just suffer through it than to disappoint your family members. Maybe you're just a masochist. Hopefully, it's because, despite all the drama, despair and feelings of disappointment you're subjected to, there's also some good times, too. Focus on these positive moments and realize that each one is a building block for making your next visit even better.
To all of you out there embarking on your journey home this year, I wish you safe travels and the strength to show your family you're an adult who can participate in family gatherings on your own terms. Just as you are.