Getting Through the Holidays with Homophobic Relatives


Getting Through the Holidays with Homophobic Relatives

by Julie Tarney

My daughter is 18 and came out to me as gay a couple of years ago. Although I was quite surprised, I’ve never had a problem with accepting her fully as she is. My problem instead is the amount of anger I’ve built up towards relatives who have not been supportive or who are openly homophobic. I can’t seem to get over it and no longer have good relationships with any of these people. I feel so hurt and don’t know how to handle holidays because I don’t want to pretend it’s ok when I have to be around them.
— Anonymous

Julie Says:

If these were my relatives, I wouldn’t want to be around them either! I’m concerned about your emotional state, and I’m preoccupied with how your relatives’ openly offensive comments affect your daughter’s well-being, because family members are supposed to love and accept each other for who they are. Regardless of the season, family gatherings should be safe spaces.

Here is a sad fact: There will always be people whose ignorance, fear, and insecurities lead them to bully and demean others in order to build themselves up. And sometimes those people will be relatives. But here’s the thing: You don’t have to tolerate it or pretend it’s not eating you up inside. While it’s true that you can’t pick your genetic family, you can choose how and when you interact with them. (I’m still horrified that we’re talking about multiple people here and not just one rude aunt, uncle or cousin.)

I get the impression that you’ve tried to ignore your relatives’ hurtful anti-gay comments in the past. I say that because you’re talking about not wanting to face annual repeat offenders again this year. I know that not verbalizing hurt feelings—trying to be the bigger person and not engage with their hate speech—can often embolden family bullies to continue their jokes, snide remarks and insults.

So this year, even though you have distanced yourself from these relatives, I think you still have some options for how you handle the holidays. It all depends on what you want. Is there an elderly aunt you adore who you only get to see once a year at Christmas? Is there a favorite cousin your daughter enjoys hanging out with?

If your answer to either of those questions is yes, and you don’t want to allow the bullies to keep you from seeing even one person you love, then call or write to the family member who’s hosting this year’s get-together. Verbalize your feelings. Tell them who has said hurtful things in the past. Name names. Let them know that if those relatives can’t behave differently this year, you won’t tolerate it and can’t come back. If they’re unable to assure you that everyone will treat you and your daughter with respect, then you may end up not having any relationship with them at all. And you can be okay with that.

Unfortunately, you’re not alone. Many parents and young adults struggle this time of year with the same range of emotions you’ve expressed. In fact, local PFLAG chapter meetings the week before Christmas usually include a conversation on the topic of how to deal with homophobic relatives who say things at the dinner table that are hurtful to both the parent and the child.

On the flip side, maybe you feel as if you’ve already tolerated all that you can from these relatives. Maybe they’re not really important in your life and you’re just ready to move on and create a new holiday tradition for yourselves. Think about inviting over friends who are alone for the holidays. Have a potluck supper. Sing carols. Play games. Enjoy each other’s company. Or maybe order in Chinese food and go to one of the movies opening on Christmas Day.

The bottom line: Christmas is about you and your daughter, about surrounding yourselves with family and friends who care about you and respect you, whatever your differences. What's really important here is your own personal power. Which option makes you feel the best when you think about it? Which gives you the strongest feelings of relief and joy? Choose the option that’s going to bring you and your daughter the peace and happiness you deserve this holiday season. No matter how you celebrate, make it count for the two of you.

Julie Tarney is an advocate for LGBTQIA youth, speaker and author. Her award-winning memoir, My Son Wears Heels: One Mom’s Journey from Clueless to Kickass (University of Wisconsin Press 2016) and blog of the same name are about her experiences raising a gender nonconforming child in the Midwest in the 1990s and what she learned from him along the way about gender identity, gender expression and self-acceptance. Julie is a board member for the It Gets Better Project, blogs for HuffPost Queer Voices and is an active member of PFLAG NYC’s Safe Schools program. Her book won Bronze in the 2016 INDIES Book of the Year Awards. A longtime resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Julie now lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she can often be found cheering in the audience at her creative director and sometimes-drag-artist son Harry’s performances.