The first Thanksgiving after I transitioned was tough for me. I had recently come out to my parents and not yet to the rest of my family. I spent a lot of time in my room feeling anxious and depressed. I also made the mistake of complaining on Facebook about people not using my new name– my family members saw and were offended.
I’ve learned a lot since then about how to survive and thrive during the holiday season if you’re transgender, not out to your family, or trying to keep your distance from non-supportive relatives. I’ve coached many transgender people to help them through family dinners and other anxiety-producing holiday situations.
As the holidays approach, TV shows and commercials advertise warm family gatherings full of presents, food, laughter, and fun. But for some queer people, the holiday season comes with a side of anxiety and depression.
If that’s you, don’t panic! There’s a lot you can do to survive the holiday season, from declining uncomfortable invitations to making your own holiday traditions. Here are some personal suggestions from me to you to help keep your season happy, safe, and bright, however you wish to celebrate.
Decide if it’s worth it.
One of the biggest problems for transfolk (and everyone else, too!) during the holiday season involves having to see relatives that we’d rather do without. For trans people in particular, this can be difficult if some relatives are actively anti-trans, discourage us from transitioning, or refuse to use our chosen names and pronouns.
Before figuring out how to deal with this type of behavior, take a deep breath and ask yourself if you NEED to see these aggravating relatives. Sometimes the best thing to do is keep your distance. Your parents might rationalize that you only see Uncle Bob once a year so surely you can put up with him for a few hours. But it’s your life and if the best way for you to have a peaceful holiday is to stay away from negative relatives, you can and should do so.
Of course, if your parents are going to pressure you to see Uncle Bob, or if the people who are causing the most trouble are also the ones you used to be closest to, this might not be your best option. Weigh all the pros and cons before making a decision.
Consider your safety.
In some cases, spending time with transphobic relatives isn’t just detrimental to your mental health. It could also be dangerous.
When I lived in North Carolina, I had friends who couldn’t come out to their families because of transphobia. None of their family members were violent, thankfully, but one of my friends had an aunt who disowned her upon learning that she was transgender.
If you’re going to spend time with these people, think carefully about how to protect yourself. Whether or not you’re out to these people, you need to consider whether dressing as your true gender could get you into a verbal argument or worse. In addition, consider how it will affect your mental health to deal with these relatives’ disapproval of who you are or to have to constantly explain or defend yourself.
If going to a holiday party as yourself is going to create a ton of stress and anxiety, you have two choices. You can either go as someone you’re not (your birth gender) or skip the party. Many trans people would rather skip a situation where they can’t be themselves, but if you feel obligated, think about how you can affirm your identity despite having to hide yourself for a few hours.
When I worked on the Trevor Project crisis line, I often advised trans people who are in a situation where it’s not safe to be out to wear a necklace under their clothing, a hairpin, or something else small that helped affirm their identity without getting them into trouble.
Create a game plan.
If you do decide to go to holiday dinner or otherwise visit family during the season, don’t go in unprepared! Create a strategy for dealing with family before you set foot inside the house.
I wish I’d done that before my first Thanksgiving as an out trans person. It would have made my life a lot easier and I probably wouldn’t have spent so much time in my room feeling miserable.
Find out who will be in attendance and plan to spend the majority of your time with the people whose company you enjoy. If it’s a big party, it’s okay to spend time with one or two people instead of everybody, and chances are people won’t notice.
You should also think about how long you want to stay at any family events. You might want to do a quick hello or pop in for dessert at an event that’s full of people you don’t want to see or plan to leave before dinner if you know that’s when certain people are going to start up with you.
Finally, consider having an early exit strategy. Is there a friend you can text if things get bad who can give you an excuse for leaving? Alternatively, if you feel comfortable enough with just walking out, do so if you find yourself stuck in relative hell.
In some situations, you might not be able to leave easily. If you’re staying over at a relative’s house, you may feel stuck there. You can still find a way to take a breather. Your plan can include things like going into the yard for a minute, walking the dog to get away from the house temporarily, or going into another room to destress. Make sure you have videos or games on your phone you can use in such situations to help you calm down.
Make plans to celebrate YOUR way.
Whether or not you end up celebrating with your family, make sure to take time during the holiday season for some celebrations in which you can be fully yourself without judgment, arguments, or anxiety.
Some LGBTQ+ centers host “Transgiving” parties where transgender people who don’t have family to turn to during the holidays can get together and have a good time. You might also find support and help from LGBTQ+ organizations such as PFLAG, which offers advice and guidance for your family. You can also Google “LBGTQ+ Thanksgiving events near me” to find out what’s going on in your hometown.
If this option doesn’t appeal to you, throw your own party with friends who totally accept you. One year I had a pre-Thanksgiving party with two friends and it was the most fun I’d ever had, so I strongly recommend this option.
But what if you’re totally isolated, without any local friends who support you? In that case, there’s still things you can do. Find online groups or gatherings that you can participate in. Some people also enjoy spending holidays by themselves. Make a favorite meal, watch a favorite movie, or take the time to do other things you enjoy that you don’t get to do during the regular year. If you live alone, you can also decorate for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or whatever holidays you celebrate.
Holiday time can be frustrating and difficult if you are transgender and don’t have a supportive family. But it doesn’t have to be impossible.
Take control of your holiday! If you follow the tips above, you can have a peaceful, happy holiday season without the need to sacrifice your happiness or hide who you really are.