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Tis the season for social obligation...

Unfortunately for some this leads to some awkward and uncomfortable situations.

How do you navigate family holiday parties when many family members are uncomfortable with queer people?

Personally I've been finding it more and more uncomfortable to go to my extended family's large holiday gatherings.

It wasn't so bad when I was still married and I could just play it straight, and pretend to be what they expected me to be. But nowadays many, if not most, know that I'm not straight, which makes things more complicated. Some would be convinced that I'm going to burn in hell. Some don't want their kids to hear that sort of thing. Some are accepting, but awkward. Some are really cool about it. It's a big family.

I'm definitely not planning any sort of large scale coming out, or starting a fight about it, but it's awkward to tiptoe around even basic "what have you been up to?" or "have you been seeing anyone lately?" sorts of questions without lying or withholding. Like I've been dating someone who I can't bring to the family gatherings, who has her own holiday family train wrecks to attend...

It ends up feeling a bit like being caught between a rock and a hard place. Be honest and risk a family meltdown, or lie and not have a real relationship with the family.

I know many of my friends avoid the issue entirely by spending the holidays with their chosen family, often because they don't have a choice, but I don't want it to have to be that way.

I know that simple avoidance of uncomfortable questions and sidestepping questions about my relationships and personal life is an option, but I'd rather not. Many of them want to have a genuine relationship with me and I want to have a genuine relationship with them, we're family after all.

So how do you navigate family holiday gatherings as a queer person?

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    What is the range of reactions you expect to meet? Any allies at all? Any extreme homophobes? Or is most everyone just vaguely uncomfortable? – Arcanist Lupus Nov 22 '17 at 17:13
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    Some would be convinced that I'm going to burn in hell. Some don't want their kids to hear that sort of thing. Some are accepting, but awkward. Some are really cool about it. It's a big family... @Arcanist Lupus – apaul Nov 22 '17 at 17:16
  • IMO you'll need to decide on (and specify) the outcome you're looking for yourself, and probably pick a more specific situation rather than trying to include all of family gatherings in the question (I'm guessing the main focus here is a question like "are you dating anyone?", and your main goal is an open answer while avoiding specifying the name or gender of the person you're dating; no broader question would really require you to talk about who you're dating or your sexuality). Although it sounds a bit like you want to have your cake and eat it too, i.e. open up without opening up. – NotThatGuy Nov 22 '17 at 18:12
  • @NotThatGuy it's not so much about wanting to open up without opening up. It's about navigating and/or anticipating how comfortable a family member is going to be with an honest answer to an honest question and trying to be honest without provoking a negative reaction. – apaul Nov 22 '17 at 18:45
  • Since a member asked you in the earlier comment to specify the outcome you are looking for yourself, it might be best expressed by editing your this comment into the question, @apaul: "It's about navigating and/or anticipating how comfortable a family member is going to be with an honest answer to an honest question and trying to be honest without provoking a negative reaction." It will be useful if somebody begins to consider the question is either too broad or 'unclear what you are asking', I think. – English Student Nov 23 '17 at 6:24
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In my experience, people typically ask for two reasons:

  • They're being nosey
  • They're ready to talk about it, or they at least want to try

My mother flat out expressed to me that she never wanted to discuss my sexuality or partners when I first came out. However, two years later, she is now able to acknowledge certain (small) parts of my dating life - but I only give her the details that she asks for at the time she is asking.

I'd recommend starting off with small details. Allow people to ask you for the information they are ready for, without over-sharing.

For instance, if a relative says:

Have you been seeing anyone?

You could say:

Nothing serious, but I've been on a few dates.

You aren't listing names, genders, etc. If they want to know more, they might ask for those details about your dates. If they decide that that's as much as they're comfortable knowing, let the conversation stop there, and discuss something else instead.

Since this kind of delicate approach works best when you're able to gauge someones physical responses to your conversation, I would try to keep this kind of interaction limited to a minimal number of people receiving "new" information at a given time. This way you're able to focus on perceiving their level of comfort via physical responses to the details you're sharing.

Because I remember your last question I feel somewhat comfortable saying that it seems like you definitely have members of your family willing to try. Obviously, everyone reaches acceptance at different rates. I feel this approach will help you to not feel like you're hiding your life while also allowing your family to decide how much they're willing to learn.

  • I see what you're saying but I can't defend hiding who you are because you're afraid someone might not like the answer. We'd never suggest a straight person do this. – user3306 Nov 30 '17 at 17:15
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    @thumbtackthief I'd love for you to point out where I ever suggested the OP hide who they are. All I suggested was offering up precisely what was asked for, because those are the details people are ready to hear. As a queer myself, I'd also be interested if you have any experience in coming out, and if you're aware of the likelihood of alienating people by forcing them into 'surprise' ultimatum situations of "be comfortable with me sharing 100% of these details or else". Especially since that's not at all what the OP asked for. – Jess K. Nov 30 '17 at 17:30
  • I didn't mean to make you defensive. I am a gay man and have come out many, many times in my life. Hiding a pronoun to leave your orientation ambiguous is not helpful. Every time I have to meet someone new and wonder whether I should say "spouse" or "husband", I face this dilemma. I almost always come down on full honesty--regardless of my relationship to this new person--and the times I don't, I end up being ashamed. – user3306 Nov 30 '17 at 17:36
  • The best way we can advance our cause as a community is to live openly and honestly and not treat the fact that our partner is the same gender (or whatever) as something different or unusual. I'm not going to pretend it's easy. – user3306 Nov 30 '17 at 17:39
  • @thumbtackthief Sorry for my defensiveness - it's difficult to read text sometimes and fully grasp a tone. However, everyone is at different points in their journeys. My personal preference, which is reflected in my answer, is to first say 'yeah I've been seeing someone' and allow family members (who may or may not know of my sexuality) to then ask me about the person. If they assume with the incorrect pronoun, it's at this point which I correct them. – Jess K. Nov 30 '17 at 17:46
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I think you've answered your own question

It ends up feeling a bit like being caught between a rock and a hard place. Be honest and risk a family meltdown, or lie and not have a real relationship with the family.

Many of them want to have a genuine relationship with me and I want to have a genuine relationship with them, we're family after all.

If you want a genuine relationship, by your own admission, lying would not be the correct approach.


In detail

How do you navigate family holiday parties when many family members are uncomfortable with queer people?

It depends what you mean with uncomfortable. If you mean it as a euphemism, i.e. they don't like it on principle, there's not much you can do, except omit that part of your life when in conversation with them. I would expect that you wouldn't end up having extended conversations with them, simply because it's hard to avoid talking about what amounts to a significant portion of your life.

If you mean uncomfortable as in not knowing how to respond (but being okay with it on principle), then you can take the lead to help avoid awkwardness.

My uncle is gay, and has been for as long as I've known him. I have seen how he approaches the topic with strangers, and he is generally able to avoid any awkwardness.

  • Don't get caught up on statements that reveal your sexual preference. Don't avoid it, don't use vague language. State it as if you hadn't even realized it could be awkward to bring up. Many people respond to your tone more than the content of your statement.
  • If an awkward silence does occur, either move on to a different topic (again, not acknowledging the awkwardness), or break the silence with a joke. My uncle's go-to joke is "I know what you're thinking, two men in the same house. But it all works out, we take turns being overemotional once a month". Maybe it's his delivery, but it seems to always break the tension.
  • My uncle generally brings his boyfriends to the family Christmas party, and it's often the boyfriend who feels more awkward than we do (some of them weren't used to a family openly accepting it). Some of them felt awkward enough that they introduced themselves as "a friend" of my uncle. Instead of pointing it out, we simply glossed over it and continued with casual conversation, regardless of their sexual preference. More often than not, they would eventually let go of their hesitance without even realizing. I know this is the opposite of your situation, but the principle is the same: someone feels awkward about a particular topic, the other party steers the conversation in a less awkward direction, eventually the awkwardness dissipates.

A lot of the time, when people mean well, they still feel awkward talking about it, because they're afraid of unintentionally oversimplifying or stereotyping it. I think the joke helps open the door to not worrying about being correct and allowing each other to say something funny (regardless of factual accuracy).

The only awkwardness I've seen occur was with people who disagreed on principle, and there's not much you can do to avoid awkwardness with them, to be honest.

It's only awkward if you let it be awkward.

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I'm not sure if my answer falls under a "large-scale coming out" or not, but here's what I have:

I'd engage people on a one-on-one basis out of earshot of others - probably contacting them individually before the event.

If you expect someone to be queer-friendly and you're comfortable-ish with this with them, talk to them about who you are and what you do. Come out. If you want to avoid certain topics around certain people, mention that, and mention why. "Man, I hate it when Aunt Linda asks me when I'm gonna find someone to have (more?) babies with since that's obviously not going to happen - I just want to avoid any kind of topic like that altogether around her and maybe also Cousin Phil. I wish they were more open-minded and I didn't have to skirt around things."

I might also try to do that with people who might not be strictly queer-friendly but would also not cause a scene.

If you expect someone not to be queer-friendly, or you're not willing to come out with them, instead discuss with them topics that you don't like talking about. That is to say - discuss that you don't like talking about them. "You know, I really hate it when you ask me about my dating life. It's just not something that I like talking about, can we avoid that?" Or, "Aunt Linda always asks me about the people I'm seeing, and it really makes me uncomfortable, so can we try not to steer the conversation that direction so it doesn't come up?"

Meanwhile...it pains me to say this, but I really can't imagine that there is a solution to the "what have you been up to?" awkwardness that doesn't involve being evasive.

Ultimately I feel like this answer won't satisfy you, but I think that's because you really can't both engage in a deep and meaningful way with people who want to know and share intimate life details, and avoid disclosing intimate life details...especially if you are also avoiding coming out to most of them. Like you say, absolutely between a rock and a hard place. Your fears are reasonable and valid, and by rights your family should be supportive of who you are, but many are not.

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You have two options: Lie and hide about who you are to avoid making people feel uncomfortable, or be honest and realize that if someone has a problem with that, it's their problem, not yours.

The LGBTQ+ community has made the greatest strides in the past few decades not by demanding legislation from elected officials or by marching in the streets (although those are important) but by changing hearts and minds of their loved ones, one by one, by saying, "You love me and this is who I am. I am not a deviant and I am not going to hell. I am a normal person who is just a little different than you are." I'm not pretending it's easy... it is frustrating and exhausting and infuriating. But it's crucial.

In addition... there are undoubtedly children in your family questioning their own identities. I can't think how much easier and happier my childhood and adolescence would have been had I had an adult in my family living life out and proud. I assume you were the same. Be that role model for the children in your family who need you. Open the doors that they cannot.

1

When people ask about an uncomfortable topic, they are often trying to familiarize themselves with it. Gradual familiarization is much easier than sudden immersion, so they usually ask about peripheral issues that avoid the most uncomfortable subjects.

In these cases, I find it is usually best to answer questions honestly but minimally. You don't know what makes the other person uncomfortable, so the interaction is likely to remain relaxed if you remain outwardly relaxed while only touching on the specific information they addressed.

There is a difference between discretion and hiding things. You can be perfectly willing to share more information---and still decide to hold back some details out of consideration for others.

There is more at play than sexuality alone. If you've been closeted for a long time, you've hidden something fairly important from your family. This can cause some confusion as to how much of your past behavior was "really you"---or even unstated trust issues. Perhaps these ideas can be allayed by a casual hint or two that you're relieved to have your "big secret" out in the open after all this time.

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There are many decisions we make during our lifetime that might not get the approval of our family members. That can be a job, a line of work, a city to live or pretty much anything else.

Disagreements always will occour. That's life. That's family. But one thing we can do is to try to understand those decisions and respect them even if they don't make any sense to us. That goes both ways. They don't get your decision and you don't understand why this is a problem to them. Despite that, you love each other and love is the properly response to that.

In your case, you can take the understanding that you can't please everyone with the decisions you make and from that just build the relationships you want to build. Talk about the things you want to talk about. Answer the questions you're asked and act naturally.

Just be cool with them remembering of mutual respect and the love that bond you all together.

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