The holidays are upon us, and in addition to getting the gifts of festive socks and “This is Fine” Dog plushies, many LGBTQIA+ people will be receiving a not-so-healthy dose of guilt and scolding from their families. For those who know this struggle, the season can be a constant battle between the kind, wise voices of friends and the false belief that protecting oneself from abuse is somehow wrong. It’s crucial to remember, especially given the recent election, that refusing invitations from unsupportive family is not only perfectly acceptable but also extremely important to our well-being.
As always, it’s up to each individual to make this decision. No one but you can determine what the right move is for you. But whether anyone else agrees with your choice, it’s important that we understand we have the right to happy holidays, and we alone get to determine with whom we spend them.
The Realities of Being LGBTQIA+ and Unsupported
Around the holidays, LGBTQIA+ people are often told to leave their partners at home, avoid discussing their real-world concerns, or “tone it down” in terms of their appearance and behavior. Coded phrases can be especially troubling because they’re designed to put you on the defensive and make you overanalyze or feel guilty for your own harmless behavior. Regardless of whether this sort of disrespect takes the form of open mockery of you and/or your partners or demands for you to remain closeted, the extent of the damage is never diminished. And though it may be a cold comfort, you’re certainly not alone.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, 26% of LGBTQIA+ youth feel unsupported by their families, and 42% find their communities unaccepting. Given these statistics, it’s no surprise that 73% of these youth are more honest online than in real life. The choice to hide our authentic selves in face-to-face interactions is a direct outcome of the power structures present within families, and it’s indicative of the unique struggle that comes with finding our own strength as we become adults. Being empowered as an LGBTQIA+ person is about exercising enough self-care to not let those we love diminish our energy, even when we recognize the potential consequences in our relationships.
We may have to make compromises. For LGBTQIA+ people, avoiding family can mean further rejection, loss of financial assistance, elimination of safety nets, and enduring criticism across social and familial networks. It can mean watching loved ones demonize you in real time and having to explain to sympathetic relatives why you’re not around. But to understand the value in taking back our power, we must weigh not only the backlash but also the trauma we’re attempting to avoid.
The Legitimate Psychological Impact of Family Rejection
Family is one of those natural parts of life that transcends simple societal norms. We love and revere family not only because of society demands but also because of our innate evolutionary imperatives. Family should be a source of safety. But when family is a cause of strife, as is the case for many LGBTQIA+ individuals, the psychological impacts of that disconnect can be devastating.
LGBTQIA+ people who experience familial rejections or bullying consistently experience increased risks of depression, mental health issues, substance abuse, and even suicide. Conversely, people with supportive families report better overall health. This disparity can affect everything from interpersonal relationships to work performance. Even if the worst your family does is make snide comments or vote against your basic human rights, the effects on your psyche can still do real and persistent damage.
When you’re gearing yourself up to tell your unsupportive family you won’t be joining them for the holidays, remember that this isn’t about spite, anger, or vindictiveness. It’s about psychological realities and exercising the right to control whatever negative stimuli you face. That understanding will help you weather the storm of guilt you may be dreading.
Recognizing Guilt for What It Is
Many people with access to the internet and its bevy of memes are at least casually familiar with concepts like guilt tripping and gaslighting. Both are techniques used by emotional manipulators to get what they want out of someone with little regard for the emotional consequences. They pop up in a variety of phrases you might hear this season:
“You should stop thinking about only yourself.”
“You should just show up for your family.”
“They’re not that bad.”
“We don’t have to agree on everything to be in the same room.”
That last line can be one of the most damaging because it relegates our humanity to a “disagreement.” It creates a false equivalency between legitimate intolerance and the refusal to accept intolerance. It also gives the manipulator an escape hatch when it comes to other members of the group by allowing them to place the blame on you for your own self-preservation.
When these types of phrases are delivered in calm, measured voices, they can seem somewhat reasonable. But that’s exactly why they can be so dangerous. They alter your perception of what’s reasonable to make you believe that your pain isn’t legitimate. The goal of the manipulator is to put your pain in a context wherein anti-LGBTQIA+ discrimination is less significant than the manipulator’s unwillingness to examine their own actions. “In other words,” reads one article on the subject from Psychology Today, “people who use guilt trips are usually entirely focused on getting the result they want and entirely blind to the damage their methods can cause.” In these instances, one of the best things you can do for yourself is offer a firm and focused “no.”
How to Say No
No one should tell you that saying no to family isn’t difficult, especially if it’s one of the first few times you’ve turned down an invitation to a holiday gathering. Nevertheless, it gets easier when you understand why it’s necessary and stick to your decisions. Here are a few tips:
Acknowledge their feelings. You won’t get anywhere in a conversation with an unsupportive family member if you don’t admit that you’ve heard their request. This does not mean that you have to completely acquiesce.
Consider compromise. If you don’t feel comfortable taking the holiday gathering completely off the table, then you can always bargain with them. Telling your family things like, “I’ll come to dinner, but I’m leaving if I feel uncomfortable” or “I will attend, but I refuse to be bullied” and following through can give you the opportunity to participate while maintaining control over your own well-being.
Don’t let them get away with guilt. Part of taking control is showing that you’re aware of emotional manipulation and bullying when it crops up. Your family members may not even be fully aware of their own behavior, so it’s even more crucial that you recognize it yourself.
Trust your own voice. You know deep down whether avoiding family is the right move for you, and you have every right to make that decision. Trust yourself and be aware of what might happen next.
Backlash is an unfortunate but real possibility. You might be confronted with an increase in abusive tactics. You might have to repeatedly explain your absence to extended family and friends, perhaps contradicting the explanation given by your abusers. This is where standing by the decision becomes as important as overcoming the first hurdle. This is also where seeking support can make all the difference.
The Power of Chosen Families
Support structures for LGBTQIA+ people are exceptionally important as we navigate a world that is often intimidating and threatening. Chosen families can be the anchors that keep us steady despite the shocks of rejection, the winds that push us forward when we need to sail forward. Whether you find comfort and solace in friends, partners, qualified therapists, or just your cats and a good show on Netflix, choosing a family can provide an alternative to the abuse you’ve endured and even an excuse to get out more.
“Sorry I can’t make it, I already have plans,” is another great way to get out of a family gathering, especially when it’s true. And maintaining open communication with extended support networks through texting and social media will help you manage interactions you can’t avoid and allow you to be there for others in the community who may be facing similar struggles. By staying connected with people who uplift our spirits, we decrease the power that abusers have over us and strengthen our ability to confront all forms of bigotry.
Whether you attempt to educate unsupportive family members or go no-contact, remember that you’re never alone. Resources like LGBTQIA+ centers and organizations like PFLAG help confront abusive family members with information and reinforce decision-making when communication breaks down. The world is even full of mothers writing letters to LGBTQIA+ people who are alone for the holidays.
We each get to decide who we consider family, and choosing positive influences over negative ones, love over hate, is a gift we all deserve to give ourselves. So if your holiday season is marred by anyone who demands you change who you are, keep quiet on issues of oppression or allow hate and prejudice to go unchecked then stepping away is wholly valid option. You psychological well-being is more important than their ability to throw a discriminatory dinner party. And the people who really matter in your life will never fault you for standing up for yourself.