12/15/2010 08:59 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Coming Home -- And Coming Out -- For the Holidays

This article first appeared in Susan's Parent Dish column at AOL

It's amazing how much can happen over a simple holiday meal. Heartfelt toasts can be offered, jokes shared and old stories delivered with a gusto that revitalizes warm and loving familial feelings.

Or, something else can happen.

Subtle -- or not so subtle -- judgments can be aired, old resentments can rear their ugly heads, or dirty looks can be shot across the table, all while doing something as harmless as asking someone to pass the salt.

Family gatherings have the potential to nourish the soul or inflict the kind of psychological pain that can take months to heal. In other words, big holiday reunions are not for the faint of heart, and not the place to come out if you're gay, or to introduce a same-sex partner to the family for the first time if everyone isn't at least a little prepared.

Here are a few things to keep in mind if you're planning to bring your same-sex partner home for the holidays:

  1. Make sure you and your partner are truly ready. I don't care how much in love the two of you are, introducing your boyfriend or girlfriend to Uncle Fred or Grandma can be awkward, even if they've known for years that you're gay. Be prepared for unspoken tension at the table, and let your partner know a bit about each family member so he or she has some ice-breakers or conversation starters to help grease the wheel as everyone adjusts.
  2. Give yourselves and your family space. It may be easier to stay at a hotel for your first visit home together, both to give you two a place to reconnect, and to give your family time to regroup. Let your parents know in advance that you prefer to stay nearby where you can participate in family events without being underfoot 24/7. If you decide to stay at home, allow your folks to propose whatever sleeping arrangements they're most comfortable offering. Don't make it your cause to demand that you and your partner sleep there together; your goal should be to help everyone get to know one another comfortably.
  3. Do not come out at a holiday gathering by appearing out of nowhere with a same-sex partner. As tempting as it might be to boldly announce your sexual orientation to a family that has refused to recognize who you really are, the holidays are not the time and the place. If most of your family is aware but, say, Grandpa still doesn't know you're gay, talk with him in advance so he isn't caught off guard.
  4. Be yourself, and keep it light. Introducing a loved one to family should be carried off with joy and celebration. While your family members may show varied reactions to your new partner, give them time and don't take things too personally. Have fun with the relatives who are at ease, and be patient with those who aren't. And most of all, enjoy your visit. For better or for worse, there's no place like home!