I’m going to share with you a very personal, painful holiday memory. Once upon a time, in a land that now feels far, far away, I came out to my family on Christmas Eve. It seems almost cliche to even type those words. Why is it that so many gays choose the holidays to come out of the closet? I wasn’t aware this was a “thing” at the time, but indeed, it is. In fact, Christmas and Thanksgiving are extremely popular times to break the great gay news. Often, the reason for this is simply geographical; you don’t see your parents much at other times of year, and certainly not your aunts, uncles, and cousins. Everyone is together so it makes sense (at the time). Sometimes, we come out over the holidays because we met someone and we want to share our joy. It’s painful to imagine that we can’t do that just yet, especially during what should be a time for love and acceptance. Sometimes the tension is just too much, with relatives asking about a boyfriend or a lack of one, and we just can’t keep it in any longer. I get it, believe me. If you know your family well, and you have an overall feeling that it will either go well, or be no big deal, then by all means come out. We all should come out, and we must come out, as Harvey Milk famously encouraged. However, if you strongly suspect that your family will have a bad reaction, the holidays are just not a good time, and I want you to wait. Let me tell you why.
The holidays are a time where emotions can run high, especially if relatives are suddenly thrown together who don’t spend time together the rest of the year. You have completely different people gathered who happen to be related, all stuffing themselves with turkey and booze, ready to explode with post-election angst, or their own relationship woes, or because Grandma Mae keeps the house so damn hot. Not a good set-up for a big reveal. Sometimes, waiting until people are more calm, cool, rational and sober, perhaps – will change outcomes. I didn’t think of any of this, and needless to say, it didn’t go well. In my defense, I hadn’t planned on telling anyone then. I had originally planned on breaking the news to my mother and sister before the holiday, or possibly after the Christmas tree had been taken down. Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans. I will never forget the scene.
My mother and I were in the car, driving along the interstate to my sister’s Atlanta apartment with a carload of food we planned on cooking for Christmas dinner. Somehow the subject came up of my ex (I had married a man years before, and we divorced amicably). My mother, with good intentions, asked me why I still hadn’t found anyone, and began to probe a little. She finally demanded, “what kind of man are you looking for?” And that’s what did it. I couldn’t lie. I told her plainly that I wasn’t looking for a man at all, that I never would be, and marrying one those years ago was a mistake. I had been out to my friends for a while at that point, but just hadn’t been able to bring myself to tell my mother, a conservative Christian who I suspected would not take the news well. I was right; she didn’t. When she asked, bluntly, “Are you a lesbian?” I said yes with both relief and dread in my heart.
We didn’t speak for the remainder of that car ride, nor did we cook Christmas dinner. I don’t think anyone ate much of anything, actually. I’m going to skip over the miserable conversation that darkened the rest of that not-so-festive day and night. Yes, you could say I ruined Christmas. It’s what lesbians do. In fact when I signed up to be a lesbian, they told me to come out precisely on Christmas. Or, you could say that religion, patriarchy, bigotry, homophobia, brainwashing and years of repression ruined Christmas. Either way.
I was fortunate, because my mother did eventually come around, and because I have a supportive sister. More importantly, I was an adult when I came out, with the ability to take care of myself, and leave the scene if it got ugly. I had my own apartment, and my own life. This is not the case for everyone. There are countless stories of LGBT youth being thrown out of their houses when they come out to their families. According to the Williams Institute, 40% of homeless youth in America identify as LGBT. During the holidays, the numbers go up. I don’t want anyone reading this, or anyone at all for that matter, to become one of those youth. I know your emotions are running high, and a closet is no place for anyone to thrive. But neither is the cold. I cannot in good conscience encourage anyone to come out if it means risking their safety. If you think there is even a remote possibility of being shunned by your family, coming out can wait until you have a safe place to go in a worst case scenario. Plan. Have friends you can call. If you’re reading this and you are a teen, find and tell an adult you know you can trust. It will all get better, I assure you. Remember that time is in constant motion. Nothing lasts forever, and that includes you being in the closet, and the sweater you have to pretend to like because your aunt is just so thoughtful. We are all biding our time in one way or other, and you can donate that pink cardigan to charity on the first day the snow melts.
Note: The Ali Forney Center is an excellent resource for homeless LGBT youth in New York. Reach out to them for help or to donate during this holiday season.