With the holidays approaching, I ask people in my therapy office what they are doing. They tell me about going to visit each other's families and friends together. However, my lesbian and gay couples often tell me how each goes to his or her own family gatherings and not to the other's. In other words, they do things separately. When I ask why, they tell me that one or both of the families don't fully accept their relationship, so it is just easier that way.
Though I understand that going solo to one's own home for the holidays might make it easier for the family and even for the lesbian or gay person who doesn't want conflict, it still betrays the relationship. Imagine straight couples going solo to their respective family holidays. Some of my straight clients have told me jokingly (and some seriously, even) that they would rather go separately if they could, because they don't enjoy their spouse's family, but they compromise with each other for the relationship. Some couples spend one year with one set of in-laws and the next with the other set, while others choose time limits so that they can visit both. Regardless, most straight couples navigate the holidays as a couple, not separately.
My lesbian and gay clients talk about how they dread going home to their families and not being able to (or feeling able to) be out and open with them about being gay or lesbian. They call it depression, but I say it's trauma. (Trauma refers to emotionally charged and distressing experiences in which individuals have no outlet to release and express their emotions.) Over the past few years things have become so much better for lesbians and gays, but with that comes public messages from those who hate and criticize gays. I've listened to clients shout and weep, expressing their hurt, pain and fear at knowing that they live in a country that still passes laws against them and gives haters a microphone and a voice in the media. They wonder who among the people they pass on the street might be supportive and who might not be. They wonder, as I do, who might betray us. Are there betrayers in their own family, or among friends of the family sitting right there at the holiday dinner table? So, to avoid all this, it is easier to just go home alone or not at all. They really want to express their dismay at work, in their families and to their neighbors, but many don't dare, out of fear of rejection, alienation and abandonment. They do not want to experience the betrayal all over again.
This holiday season, download your emotions. Don't remain silent about being gay or lesbian and living your life. Even doing one thing differently with one institution, one group, one person, can relieve your depressive symptoms and help you feel more empowered. Taking action is our one antidote to internalizing the hate and oppression coming our way, and to treating ourselves and others badly as a result. Avoidance, as in hiding, fleeing, freezing or submitting, or, conversely, fighting, shouting or being irrational, will only keep you traumatized.
Here are some tips to keep yourself from being depressed during the holiday season, when many feel guilty for not feeling joyous:
If you are not completely out, tell at least one family member, colleague, clerk or friend that you are gay. I recently bought flowers for my husband. The clerk told me my wife was "one lucky lady." I came out and told the clerk it was for my husband. She corrected herself and said, "He is one lucky guy." This brought positive energy into my relationship.
If it's safe to do so, take your partner home with you for the holidays; don't go separately to your own families. If it isn't safe, then do something to counteract the betrayal to your relationship, to prevent it from affecting you as a couple.
Talk about LGBT issues with one group of people, be they friends, family members, colleagues or fellow students. You don't have to get personal in terms of telling them you're gay yourself; you can just express your feelings on the issue. Whether or not you've come out, that's a step in the right direction.
Volunteer for an LGBT organization, or donate to help them fight for our political and social rights over the holidays. Volunteer organizations always need help, and the LGBT person who is unable to be home with their families will appreciate your help immensely.
Seek professional mental health help from an LGBT-affirmative therapist. Talking to someone about how to create safety for yourself while coming out can help you remain objective and supported.
Read books on marriage equality and LGBT rights, and be informed.
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