As we kick off a brand new year, I want to take a moment to reflect on going home. We can go home—back to our families of origin—for a number of reasons, including significant birthdays and anniversaries, high school graduations of younger siblings, Mother’s and Father’s Days, and other holidays. Going home for the late fall and early winter holidays over the last two months may be uppermost in the minds of many, whether or not you made the trip. Many complex and conflicting emotions may accompany going home for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community. As I think about going home as a queer person, three pairs of concepts come to mind: presence and visibility, authenticity and identity, love and acceptance. By exploring each of these tandem concepts, I hope to offer some insight and affirmation on why going home can create so many challenges for LGBTQ people.
The year-ending holiday period is perhaps the most intense and fraught with emotion. From Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve (with Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa in between!), a flood of icons representing family, religion, gluttony, and materialism are apparent to even the most stoic Scrooge. Heralded by the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and saluted by the ball drop in Times Square (yes, I’m a New Yorker who believes that New York City is the center of the universe #noapologies), at some point during those six weeks, millions of people took to the roadways, railways, or airways to share some family togetherness, usually featuring an ostentatious and extravagant meal with their relatives. Those family gatherings likely included extended family—cousins, play-cousins, and relatives twice removed—who aren’t a part of our daily lives. Whether still salivating at the memory of Big Mama’s banana pudding or cringing while recalling Cousin Pookie’s predictable, drunken political rant, many people approached this holiday season joyfully and with few reservations—except for how many pounds their New Year’s resolutions have committed them to shed.
And yet, this narrative excludes the lived experiences of many in the LGBTQ community. For some LGBTQ people, this past season was anything but joyful and the rate of suicide attempts during this period climbed as it does every year. Some queer people couldn’t go home for the holidays because the distance they would have had to travel was too great. And I’m not talking about geographic distance, either. These queer sons and daughters have been effectively disowned and removed from family gatherings as too shameful, too perverted. They are like a living scarlet letter that a parent just doesn’t want to have to explain to Big Mama, Cousin Pookie, or some other distant relative.
Some who couldn’t or didn’t go home used the holiday season to establish new traditions with a family they have chosen and created. In the absence of biological children, some “adopted” queer youth who have been disowned by their biological families to share in the ritual meals and other traditions that mark this time. Family was thus created anew, complete with matriarchs (sometimes in drag), wild stories, too much food, and raucous laughter. After all, family is what you make it.
For LGBTQ folks who spent the holidays with their biological families, the time at home may still have been rocky. Being out to your immediate family is one thing; being visible as a queer person to relatives you haven’t seen in several blue moons is a whole ‘nother situation entirely. Some queer people prepared for months to get everybody’s mind “right” in advance of their visit or the introduction of a same-gender lover or partner. Family traditions may have included religious rituals, like going to church, that invited the potential for spiritual violence and put some queer people in religious spaces that they have actively rejected—and that have rejected them—or from which they have distanced themselves. Staying with parents also sets one up for spontaneous conversations that may be, at best, awkward, or at worst, abusive and trigger negative emotions and memories. Understanding how the complex interplay of presence and visibility, authenticity and identity, love and acceptance in these families may help LGBTQ people maintain emotional and spiritual health when going home.
“Why do you have to be just SO gay?”
“Oh, you’re just so normal and fit in so well; I don’t even remember you’re like that.”
Is my presence alone sufficient to make who I am visible in this space? Like a tree falling in the forest, if my queer self comes to dinner but no one sees me as queer, does my queerness affect the space around me? Not just a question of appearance, visibility also speaks to how single, childless queer people answer those inevitable questions about when they are getting married and having children or last talked to that old boyfriend or girlfriend (of the opposite sex) that their parent or other relative liked so much. I can be present in the conversation and choose to either be visible by discussing my current same-gender lover, or I can render myself invisible by giving rehearsed, throwaway answers.
Further, for those whose gender presentation or identity is transgressive, showing up authentic may bring hyper-visibility when invisibility would have been preferred. Not wanting to become the center of family conversation over that glistening fried turdunken, some gender transgressives choose to conform to expected norms or ask their partners to do so for the sake of making everyone (else) “comfortable.” This exchange of visibility for presence is made for a variety of reasons. Issues of respect, for one’s family and whoever’s house one is in, often come up as reasons for putting one’s gender or sexuality temporarily back in the closet. We must count the cost of this exchange however. Are we keeping the peace while failing to guard our peace of mind and integrity? Choosing to be present is not the same as choosing to be visible, and both must be considered.
“Home is where I can be me.”
Such a simple and yet powerful statement. When spoken by a teenager as it first was, the choices are very clear, very direct. However as we get older, we tend to complicate the issues. Other questions arise:
“What does it mean to be true to myself?”
“If I allow others to assume that I’m straight, does that mean I’m not being authentic?”
“Who I sleep with is nobody’s business but mine and the person I’m sleeping with.”
Home can be a place that honors the full, authentic expression of oneself. However, home can also be a place where authenticity is restricted and the self is expected to conform to and perform certain roles and identities. Sexuality gets relegated to the private sphere, as though it were simply a matter of sexual behavior. As Alfred Kinsey’s research even back in the 1940′s demonstrated, sexuality is more than just behavior; it involves desire, affection, and fantasy, as well. Acknowledging a queer sexuality means having to overcome some pretty intense cognitive dissonance and cultural programming that designates heterosexual, monogamous relationships and families as normal and optimal. I would even argue, as feminists have for decades, that the “personal is political,” even more so for queer people. The systematic regulation and oppression of queer lives and bodies presents an opportunity for queer people to authentically enter the public sphere and stand in their truth.
Unfortunately, some well-meaning straight allies, sometimes including our family members, perpetuate this notion that our queer identities are private secrets that need not be discussed in polite company. We are told, “I don’t care what you do behind closed doors.” Or, one of my favorites, “What two consenting adults do in private is nobody’s business.” Well, let’s be clear, by authentically showing up as queer in public (driving while queer, parenting while queer, grocery shopping and doing the laundry while queer), I am NOT inviting you into my bedroom like voyeurs to observe my sexual behavior. The liberation of queer sexuality from oppressive religious dogma, laws and statutes, and public policy mandates is not about preserving my equal right to privacy. Rather, it is very much about instituting my equal right to claim the whole of my life authentically—to live my life OUT in the open, to be a QUEER lover, mother, child, worker. It is to be SEEN as QUEER in every arena of my life, both public and private.
When queer people go home for the holidays, though, the artificial distinction between private and public identities is present. They are sometimes confronted with the request to not show up authentic in that family space, to keep their queerness to themselves. In other words, to not discuss one’s breakup with a long-term, same-gender partner as though it had the moral equivalency of Uncle Willie’s third divorce. Our families sometimes prefer us to be seen and not heard, like recalcitrant children acting out. This regulation of public authenticity may be internally imposed, as well. Closeting one’s sexual identity while at home may seem to be the better choice. If one’s safety is at risk, then it definitely is the better choice.
One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced since coming out is negotiating the distinction between love and acceptance as reflected in these statements above. The first statement can be especially troubling. Most days I think this distinction is artificial. It seems like a way for people to still feel as if they’re embracing me while yet denying the validity of my queer sexuality. And then other days, I’m in conversation with someone I care about who’s saying some version of the first statement, and I go along with them, accepting their denial of this aspect of my core identity. I want to keep them in my life almost at all costs because to put them out of my life would be too painful.
Besides always wanting to scream and throw something when someone labels my sexuality as my “life choice,” I prefer the first statement to the alternative expressed in the second statement, “I can’t accept who you are now.” At least I’m not being rejected; love is still being extended to me, and I’m still being seen as worthy of love. I’m not a complete disappointment. ”I love you but don’t accept your lifestyle,” does convey the hope on the part of the speaker that perhaps my queerness is not permanent and immutable. However, it is also possible that one day, the “but” will be replaced with an “and” as in, “I love you unconditionally and I agree with your choice to stand in your truth.”
If I am loved unconditionally, then that means that love will not be withheld from me based on what I do or don’t do, the choices I make, or the identities I claim. I won’t get disowned or neglected; I will still be part of the family. I can’t do anything about it, I am loved. Period. I may not be totally understood, but I am yet loved. Sometimes, that’s the best our families can do. And it works both ways: “I love you mom/dad, unconditionally, but I don’t like that you disregard what I know about myself to be true, and I disagree with your religious interpretations.”
The journey home for the holidays and other family occasions may indeed be a long road, but with every passing year, I hold out hope that all LGBTQ people will take one more step toward having both love AND full acceptance, toward being invited to be seen as well as heard speaking the truth of our lives as we know and live them.
Dafina-Lazarus Stewart is a committed subversive and an associate professor of higher education and student affairs at Bowling Green State University. She consults and speaks on issues of diversity, leadership, spirituality, and social justice nationally.
Follow her blog at: http://www.dafinalazarusstewart.wordpress.com