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Boundaries, belonging, & surviving the holidays

December 22, 2021

By Dr. Kayti Protos, DSW, LCSW

Have you noticed how the holiday spirit swirls around us from every corner of life during the month of December (and too frequently long before)? The sounds of the holidays can be heard in the background of the convenience store, the plot lines of our favorite tv shows, the endless series of cis-hetero-normative Christmas specials, and the red and white hats on sports announcers and news broadcasters. The message is a universal reminder of the mainstream experience – a Christian-normative, love-time-with-your-family-of-origin, Eurocentric holiday season – without acknowledgement of the financial, familial, trauma-induced, or other barriers towards celebration.

As someone with more than 15 years of experience working in the mental health field, I can tell you that the holidays bring a heaping helping of depression, anxiety, disordered eating, substance use and abuse, trauma responses, and family conflict. These struggles are often magnified for members of the LGBTQQIA+ community. Crisis lines and community mental health resources witness the ever-growing demand for help as we struggle through another holly-jolly time of the year.

Here are a few thoughts to ponder as finalize your seasonal plans:

  • Names matter. If you are hanging stockings, sending out holiday cards, or giving gifts with the classic to-from sticker, remember to use the most current name for each person. Avoid using dead names and incorrect pronouns. If you are uncertain whether or not the person is out to everyone who will be together, ask the person ahead of time for guidance around their name and pronouns.

  • Recognize misgendering and mistakes. Encourage others to practice the name and pronouns of transgender, nonbinary, and gender expansive people (and their partners) before they arrive. If someone makes a mistake, correct them quickly and move on. If you make a mistake, correct yourself and move on. If someone starts to over-apologize or make the situation about themselves, interrupt them gently and ask them to stop. Acknowledge the mistake and keep the conversation going. Whenever possible, ask the trans person prior to attending how they would like you to address situations of misgendering. Same goes for sexual identity If you are being misgendered, you have the right to decide what to do – you do not owe anyone an explanation and you are not responsible for their feelings. You have the right to take care of yourself and to set the boundaries you need in the moment.

  • Ask questions that open meaningful conversation. As a queer woman, I cannot express enough frustration at the age-old question “Do you have a boyfriend?” First, do not assume anyone’s sexual orientation, or that they are interested in dating anyone at all. Rather, ask more open-ended questions that allow for a celebration of the diversity of the LGBTQQIA+ experience. For example, you could ask: “Have you met anyone interesting lately?” or “What books/shows/songs have been bringing you joy at the moment?”

  • Compliment the person, not the body. Bodies are a tenuous topic for many of us. We live in an ableist, fatphobic society that privileges certain bodies over others. Avoid comments about physical appearance. Many people struggle with negative body image, gender dysphoria, and/or body dysmorphia. If you want to greet someone with a compliment, try out things like: “I love the way the kids get excited whenever you walk into the room” or “You have an amazing smile” or “I love how you tell stories – you have a gift with words!”

  • Reminisce with intention. Telling stories about past holidays can be a harrowing experience for many. Avoid gendered descriptions of someone or commenting about past clothing choices. Unless otherwise instructed, always gender someone based on their present gender identity – not their sex assigned at birth.

  • No is a complete sentence. If you need to set a boundary with anyone during this time, remember your right to say “no” as needed, without explanation. Do you want your homophobic relative at the party? No. Would you join us for a religious service in an institution that admonishes gender or sexual diversity? No. Is it okay for me to tell this transphobic joke? No. You do not need to subject yourself to traditions that could be harmful to you or your loved ones.

  • Activate support systems. Take a few moments before the holiday begins. Who are the people who help build you up? Who do you turn to when you are feeling hurt, vulnerable, sad, or angry? Talk to these people ahead of time and create a plan of support to help you navigate more challenging interactions. This is the time of year for family of choice to show up for one another. Need someone to help? Check out supportive, affirming resources – such as Trans LifeLine or the Trevor Project – and put their numbers in your phone ahead of time.

  • Plan your escape. Identify at least three ways you can escape challenging situations. Can you get out of the house if needed? Are there movies or television shows you could binge watch, or books you can read, to escape the real world for a few hours? When do you return to your own home and/or reclaim your space from visiting relatives? Are there pets nearby to offer distraction?

If you or someone you know is struggling this holiday season, please reach out to supportive community members for help. LGBTQQIA+ spaces such as For Them are excellent resources for those needing to connect, belong, or remind themselves that they are not alone.

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