It seems hard to believe, but Halloween came and went, so now we’re in the throes of the holiday season. This week, Thanksgiving is already upon us, bringing with it turkey, stuffing, potatoes, and pies. And, most likely, the awkward and uncomfortable dinner table talk with your extended family.
I’m no stranger to uncomfortable family dynamics. I never came out to my extended family, officially. Instead, I allowed those I hadn’t blocked on Facebook to glean facts about my personal life here and there when I posted. As a kid, before I was really out to myself, I spent the most time around the holidays with extended family. In recent years, my small and tight-knit nuclear family has made the decision to just stay home together, as opposed to stressing ourselves out and driving in bad weather or traffic to visit relatives we don’t even like that much. So we have smaller celebrations now, giving thanks for the love and authenticity we’re able to have with each other. (And being grateful for the fact that we don’t have to share my mom’s award-winning pecan pie with a bunch of jerks.)
But even though I wasn’t out as a kid (or as a young adult) at Thanksgiving, I did have to learn how to navigate setting boundaries with my conservative relatives, who were often rude and outspoken about all the ways my family— particularly me and my brother—offended their traditional sensibilities. With my short hair, tattoos, and piercings, I often fell short of the feminine ideal that my aunt’s military family had in mind. My brother, with his long musician’s hair and even longer guitarist’s nails, was also an affront to their rigid (boring) sense of gender roles. While they targeted my brother—who is a more sensitive and easy-to-pick-on person than I am—both of us had to learn how to set boundaries and practice self-care during long hours of hanging out with people whose last names we didn’t always know, but who we felt obligated to kiss goodbye with a half-assed, “Love you.”
With love from me to you, here are some of the ways in which we protected ourselves at Thanksgiving.
Identify your allies.
If your family Thanksgivings are anything like the Thanksgivings I had until I was about 22, they’re full of people you don’t know well and like even less. My Thanksgivings were held at my well-to-do aunt and uncle’s house, where family members from all over the East Coast showed up. My brother and I—and one of our cousins—have always been the weirdos in our family: my cousin and I with our so-called “alt” style (aka, the tattoos that shock no one except for the conservative sticks in the mud); my brother with his sensitivity and empathy, despite the fact that he is—gasp—a man.
As we got older, the three of us relied on each other. We hovered together during idle chit-chat with family, retreated to the basement or the backyard to make fun of ridiculous things that were said, and created our own ‘kids’ table’ at dinner—long after we could be even remotely considered kids. We served as each other’s ports in the storm against the judgment, lowkey homophobia, and misogyny that were part and parcel of Thanksgiving in my family. And that made the time fly faster and smoother, in my opinion.
Opt out of political discussions.
Especially since the 2016 presidential election, I’ve seen posts on social media about the importance of using holiday family gatherings to change minds and rally conservative relatives to social justice causes—or even just a passing understanding of basic empathy and ethics. That’s fine if you’ve got the stomach for it. But, particularly if you’re a marginalized person, I tend to think that Thanksgiving can be a time to practice harm reduction and diligent self-care, in terms of how you interact with hateful family members. I remember when Trump was running for president, how I’d begged my conservative uncle and cousin to reconsider who they were voting for. I’d implored them as someone who is the daughter of an immigrant, as a queer person, and as a survivor of sexual assault—and yet my family members did nothing to defend me from one of their hateful Facebook friends who told me, in light of all that I’d shared, to “go buy a latte.”
You don’t have to spend the holidays trying to change people’s minds if they’re the types of people who play Devil’s Advocate (or worse) in the face of vulnerability, trauma, and pain. Those relatives simply don’t deserve the gift that is you. You don’t have to open up painful memories or the vulnerable parts of your identity, especially if their reactions are only going to be callous and potentially triggering. There are 364 other days in the year for you to dedicate your time and energy to activism—as well you should! So don’t be afraid opt out on Thanksgiving to safeguard your sanity.
Give ‘em hell.
On the other hand, sometimes giving a hateful, ignorant relative the what-for while wielding an electric carving knife (or maybe just a turkey baster) can feel liberating and empowering. Especially if you’ve got your arguments down pat and can talk them into a corner consistently, leaving them sputtering with all their fake news “alternative facts.” If you’re a supremely angry person like me, getting mad—with your identified allies to back you up—can taste like a revenge sweeter than yams topped with marshmallow fluff.
Just keep checking in with yourself to make sure that your righteous anger doesn’t take a turn into overwhelmed panic. And take a break when you need to. Arguments in which one party lacks the basic ingredients of logic and common decency can quickly devolve into the absurd, which is exhausting. It’s okay to not have the last word with a bigot if you need to take care of yourself.
Watch the dog show.
Yes, I know, I know. Adopt don’t shop, and breeders (like landlords) are the scum of the earth. I totally agree. But regardless, the National Dog Show comes on after the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, so you might as well zone out staring at all the puppers.
Check in with friends.
If you don’t have any relatives who can side with you or keep you company on a chilly November walk around the block (preferably with some spiked hot cider), checking in with friends can be a lifesaver. One year, I spent the entire day live-tweeting ridiculous things my relatives said in a group chat with friends, and I was rewarded with responses in the form of gifs that made me laugh out loud. Sure, my relatives all thought I was rude—and a little nutty—for ignoring them to laugh alone in a corner with my phone. But who cares what they think?
Bring a good, comforting book.
Speaking of disappearing into a corner like an antisocial Disney princess, when I was a kid, I was a total bookworm. I used to take out stacks and stacks of books from the library. One year, I even paid down $25 of late fees by reading about seventy books over the course of a couple of months. But at no time of the year was my bookwormy nature more on display than during the holidays—especially Thanksgiving.
Although, as a kid, I wasn’t out to anyone, I was still perceptive enough to be deeply uncomfortable with the dynamics that I observed among family members at Thanksgiving. So I found a quiet space to read during the long hours between stuffing myself to the gills with food. And since others in the family weren’t big readers anyway, they tended to leave me to my own nerdy devices. If you need a very pointed recommendation for this year’s reading material, I would go with An Indigenous People’s History of the United States.
Just don’t go.
The holidays are an incredibly stressful time of year, partly because of the way we suddenly seem to be even worse at consent than we usually are in this country. Obligations abound, and it can feel totally impossible to get out of unhappy—yet somehow enforced—family time. But if spending time with relatives will be so stressful to you that it is unhealthy to spend even one day with them, and if you need permission not to go—this is it. Here I am, a grown ass femme who is very nearly a therapist, giving you permission to tell your crappy family to go to hell. Roast your own turkey. Hell, buy some take-out and sit on your couch in your jammies all day. You don’t owe family members—those who make you feel sad, stressed, angry, or invalidated—a damn thing.
Take care of yourselves, loves. You owe it to yourselves to do so.