By Jacob Tobia
The holiday season is often pretty tough for queer people. For many folks, it’s the one time of year when we have to go home and deal with our families asking hundreds of questions about our gender identity, sexual orientation and life choices.
Even in the best circumstances, this can mean some pretty awkward conversations; in the worst, it can be outright traumatizing. So with the holidays around the corner, here are some tips for talking to your parents about being genderqueer. May they help you focus more on the cranberry sauce, and less on the impending doom of awkward conversations with your family.
1. Recognize that coming out as genderqueer often takes time — like, a lot of time.
It took me eight years from the time I realized I was genderqueer until I finally sat down with my father to explain my identity. My gender expression, the clothes I wore and the way I carried myself had been changing all along, but I was 24 before I finally said the words, “Dad, I’m not a man, I’m not a woman, I’m genderqueer.” It wasn’t that I was afraid to talk to my father about my gender identity, it’s just that it felt strange to label my gender identity so overtly when my gender expression had changed a long time ago.
2. Coming out isn’t always a one-time thing.
I had always thought about coming out as a one-and-done process, but coming out as genderqueer hasn’t really worked like that. Did wearing lipstick in front of my family for the first time count as “coming out” as genderqueer? Maybe, but that isn’t really the right question to ask in the first place.
For many genderqueer or gender non-conforming people, coming out is a marathon, not a sprint; every act of gender self-determination is a significant step on a much longer journey. Thinking about coming out as a process rather than a singular moment can help take the pressure off around the holidays, because even if this year with your family is awkward, you often have another chance in the future.
3. Sometimes, silence can mean progress.
In my relationship with my parents, some of the most profound moments of acceptance haven’t come in the form of verbalized acceptance — they’ve come as silent affirmation.
I’ll never forget the first time that my mom and I went thrift shopping for skirts for my new job. We had fun, and she helped me pick out a few skirts that we both liked, but the most memorable moment for me was the car ride home when we listened to the radio together. It showed me, more than anything else, that my gender identity was normal in her eyes. Sitting together in silence — knowing we both had figured out this genderqueer thing, knowing we didn’t have to say anything about it because it just was — was incredible.
4. Push back on rejection, but don’t push too hard.
If your family is anything like mine, there will be times when at least one of your parents tries to tell you that your gender identity is not acceptable. It happened the first time for me when I wore lipstick to the dinner table and my dad blurted out, “You can wear lipstick if you want, but not in my house.”
When he said that, I considered getting up from the dinner table and leaving. I considered yelling at him and starting a big fight. Instead I calmly said, “This is who I am, Dad. Now can we eat dinner?” It worked — he gave up trying to change me. When my father tried to reject my gender identity, I very gently pushed back, and that helped him learn to respect me more.
Of course, sometimes rejection turns into verbal or physical abuse, and in those cases it may be best to remove yourself from the situation and deescalate conflict. But gently pushing back on your parents’ rejection can be an important tactic at your disposal as they learn to understand who you are.
5. It feels shitty, but sometimes it’s okay to change your gender presentation in the short term to protect your emotional or physical safety.
There’s a sense among many genderqueer and gender non-conforming activists that if you aren’t expressing your gender identity authentically at all times, you’ve somehow failed the community and failed yourself. But let’s face it — sometimes we want to have dinner with our family and not have it turn into a nasty argument (or worse, into abuse or being kicked out of the house).
As my parents have been learning to accept and love me for who I am, there have been times when I’ve decided it was best for my emotional health not to wear a dress around the house or walk around in high heels. In those moments, I wasn’t abandoning my identity; I was just acknowledging that I was exhausted with fighting all of the time, and I did what I needed to do in order to feel safe and happy at home.
Everyone deserves parents who accept them for who they are, but sometimes steps on that road require short-term compromises in order to make long-term gains. What’s more, if you live in a situation where your family members are emotionally or physically abusive towards you when you express your gender identity, it’s okay to change your gender presentation to protect your safety. It’s not giving up on who you are; it’s protecting yourself from harm.
6. Space away from your family is both acceptable and healthy.
If your parents are not supportive of your gender identity and your home life is not affirming for you, it’s important to find ways to get away during the holidays. It may not be possible to avoid your family completely, but find as much time in supportive company as you can.
Spend time at a friend’s house, get coffee with your one cool aunt or even just go on a walk around the neighborhood when you need to let off some steam. Coming out to or reconciling with your parents can be hard work, and creating space for yourself is critical for your emotional health.
7. Have friends lined up to love you during the holidays.
Being around unaccepting family members or being around your family while you’re still in the closet about your gender identity can be extremely draining. So make sure you have friends lined up who can give you love, support and affirmation during the holidays. Even if it just means having your bestie on speed dial, knowing someone has your back will make a huge difference.
8. You may not get “full” acceptance from your parents, but you might not need that after all.
Often we’re told that, in order to have a loving relationship with our families, they have to accept and cherish every facet of who we are. But for many of us, that may never be possible. Sure, my dad has learned to at least be around me while I’m in a dress, but I don’t think we’ll ever get to a point in our relationship where he can fully appreciate and understand my gender identity.
As I get older, I realize more and more that the affirmation and love that I need is often going to come from my chosen family — from the friends I surround myself with. For queer people, chosen family is such a powerful thing. We owe it to ourselves to be surrounded with friends and mentors who see us as we are and love us fully. Maybe it’s okay if our other family is a little bit awkward about our gender identity, because through our chosen families, we can have all the unconditional love we’ll ever need.
Jacob Tobia is an advocate, writer and speaker committed to justice for genderqueer, gender non-conforming and transgender people. Jacob uses the gender-neutral pronouns they/them and likes to put Sriracha on pretty much everything. Connect with Jacob on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr.
For more on what it means to be genderqueer, head to Look Different.