When a person is in a bad or abusive relationship, friends will often encourage their loved one to leave. When a person has a childhood or long-time friend who is toxic, dramatic, or exhausting, other friends will ask why the person puts up with it.
However, when it comes to bad, toxic, or abusive family relationships, people will often encourage their friend to work through it. Friends will sometimes use metaphors like, "Blood is thicker than water." When a person says they want to cut off all ties with certain family members, people might even assert, "But you're family!"
Why don’t we encourage them to walk away from their families too?
Hear me out. I'm not talking about walking away from family after minor disagreements or typical conflicts that arise between family members; those are relationships that are important to work through and can lead to even stronger bonds. I'm talking about the family relationships that are painful, neglectful, or abusive - the ones in which family members hurt you consistently (and sometimes intentionally). I'm talking about the conflicts that occur because you have differences in core values - because the things that you believe in with all of your heart are the very things that a family member despises, dismisses, or invalidates. I'm talking about the family relationships in which an individual feels consistently disappointed or unheard, or in which a person feels treated like a second-class citizen. I'm talking about the family relationships in which a person starts to question if she or he is insane or delusional - because she or he is unable to attain simple needs like understanding and validation.
A lot of my LGBTQ friends and students have shared with me how hurt they have felt by their non-LGBTQ family members who voted for candidates with a platform that would take away LGBTQ rights. While many have experienced subtle and overt homophobia and transphobia throughout their lives, they feel extremely unsafe after the election results were announced. They worry about seeing these family members over the holidays and are distressed about what to do. They are fearful in returning to their hometowns and having to step back into the closet. They are worried about being attacked as they walk down the street, as they take public transportation, and how they live their everyday lives. Some students hold onto the hope that their family members will change, while others have shared that they want to cut off ties, but that they can’t “because they're family!"
If people are beaten by their spouses, many of us will tell them to never go back; some of us will often support that the violent partner does not get a second chance. But what about an LGBTQ person who is metaphorically beaten up, over and over again, by their families? Why do we continue to give their family members second chances?
If battered wives or husbands tell friends that they believe their spouses will change, some of us might be less forgiving. We may look at our friends sternly and declare that their abusive spouses are never going to change. Some of us might be more forgiving. We may encourage that their partners seek psychological help, and that they will need to demonstrate that they will change or have changed. Hopefully, all of us will tell our loved ones, "You deserve so much more than this!"
So why do we hold onto the hope that abusive or neglectful family members of LGBTQ people will change - especially when they have not shown any indication of open-mindedness, accountability, humility, or remorse? Why don't we tell LGBTQ people that they deserve better than the families they were born into?
The truth is that there are so many types of families in the world. However, because most of us were born into biological families, we learn that common genetic makeups are what make up a family. But what about families with adoptive children and parents, or blended families with stepparents or step-siblings? Are those not families? And what about the friends who turn into families - the chosen families that people create because their families of origin are absent or abusive, or because their birth families are on the other side of the country or the world? Are those not families?
To my LGBTQ friends and students (and anyone who can relate), please give yourselves permission to not go home for the holidays. Please give yourselves permission to cut off those ties (temporarily or permanently) if you don't feel safe, or if family members continue to make you feel bad about yourselves. Please give yourselves permission to find a safe space where you feel accepted and celebrated. Please give yourselves permission to be with the people who have always loved you and who have supported you to be the fierce queer or trans person that you were put on this earth to be.
To people with LGBTQ family members, I challenge you to ask yourselves what you are doing to make your queer or trans relatives feel safe and accepted. If you voted for candidates who will negate their civil rights, then you don't really care about them - at least not as much as your own interests. If you do not overtly tell them that you will fight for their rights, then you are probably not fighting for them at all. If you do not do everything in your power to make the world a safer and more inclusive space for them, then you are part of the problem.
Finally, to my own family - some biological but most who are chosen - thank you for standing by my side and continuing to fight for me. I see you. I hear you. You are the true definition of family. And I will continue to stand by your sides and fight for you too.