The cheery queer’s guide to surviving family gatherings

More and more, the holiday season isn’t about celebration—it’s about survival. Whether you observe Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Festivus, there’s always enough anxiety during this time of year to ensure that nobody goes without. For many in the LGBTQ community, every day is Christmas: When “differences of opinion” reach the point where someone’s family has a fundamentally different worldview, a different set of values, and attitudes that determine whether they see someone as a human being or not, agreeing to disagree isn’t an option.

Figuring out how to navigate the landscape of complicated or uncomfortable relationships we have with our families becomes increasingly difficult during the end of the year, when pumpkin spice plagues and creepy plastic elves start reminding us that it’s time to start bracing ourselves for obligatory reunions with relatives we can’t relate to. For those who don’t live in a Norman Rockwell painting, here are a few strategies to make it through the winter with minimal discontent.

The Vanguard spoke briefly with Melanie Altaras, office manager at the Queer Resource Center, to discuss the concept of chosen family and how people all across the gender and sexuality spectra can find and identify people who they can trust and rely on to stick up for them when the going gets tough.

“The concept of chosen family has been around a long time in the queer community because of parents’ tendencies to not fully embrace their kids if they come out as queer and trans,” Altaras explained, “and I think queer communities have long operated in a familial sort of way.”

Altaras went on to say that queer and trans individuals aren’t the only ones learning the limits of traditional family structures.

“Particularly in this political climate I think a lot more young people are breaking up with their biological family over things that are about politics, but are also very personal to us,” Altaras said.

Finding people who share your values and are willing to stand by your side as you get tear-gassed or beat up to defend those values is certainly one way to integrate yourself into a supportive community, but it’s also important to recognize when you’re in a place where you can get engaged and when you simply need to take care of yourself. “Sometimes political action is not what we need when we need self-care,” Altaras explained.

Curating a new family is no simple task, especially in a college environment where your values and identity are often in a state of flux. Maybe those people are the only ones standing between you and crippling debt. Perhaps you have family members that mean well but just don’t get it, or whose attempts at saying something nice inevitably turn out wrong. It’s possible you’re just a well-adjusted person in a family completely free of idiosyncrasy or dysfunction (why are you reading this?). So what can you do when you find yourself begrudgingly attending family functions you really don’t want to be a part of?

First, seek out the sanest and least judgmental of family members: usually the pets. “Find an animal…hang out with the cat or the dog,” Altaras wisely advises.

She goes on to suggest that when and if you do decide you’re in a place where you’re willing to engage the people who have a track record of getting on your nerves, make sure you set boundaries for how much time you’re going to spend. Taking time for yourself and arranging phone dates with sane friends to unload can also help.

SHAC Director of Counseling Services Marcy Hunt says her best advice for tackling holiday stress is to set good boundaries in your relationships and then work to maintain those boundaries. “Boundary setting can be challenging,” she explained.

Hunt provided four strategies for healthy boundary setting:

1. Decide what you want
2. Be calm and direct in stating what you want/setting the boundary
3. Remember you are not responsible for the other person’s response
4. Keep breathing and know that setting and maintaining boundaries is a lifelong process

Whether family members are far from you geographically, ideologically, or both, there are resources on campus where you can talk out any lingering emotional hangovers with professionals, find communities to get involved with, and get more information on how to stay safe and sane this holiday season.

SHAC will be open over the holiday break, M–F, 9–5, except on Monday, Dec. 26 and Tuesday, Jan 2. Students are welcome to walk in and get support from the counseling services staff. Additional resources are available through campus Cultural Centers (2nd floor of Smith Memorial Student Union), Queer Resource Center (4th floor of SMSU), and the Veteran’s Resource Center (SMSU 401).