Now that another Thanksgiving has come and gone, I have a chance to reflect on the role it plays in my life as I more fully embrace my LGBTQ identity. It has always been a holiday that deserves looking forward to. There is something special in breaking bread with those dear to me; this act links me to those who have come before me and those who will come after.
Yet in the wake of a disastrous Thanksgiving last year that culminated in a divorce and my mother’s termination of a twenty-year friendship, I elected to spend this year’s holiday at Yale, as far as possible from family.
It was not only the poor conclusion of last year’s gathering that led to my staying at Yale over break but also the mounting issue of not being out to relatives. For LGBTQ people who are not out at home, holidays are of a dual nature. On one hand, there is joy in reuniting with family and giving thanks, but on the other, there is pain that arises from feelings of exclusion from the tradition.
We arrive at a family reunion wanting approval. We wear our best, give our spiels about majors and career plans, and hope that our families will accept what we have chosen for our lives. Lately, however, the gap between the life I lead at Yale and what my family knows of me has grown such that I cannot help but feel alienation.
This feeling of exclusion I describe stems from being unable to participate in the holidays while being my genuine self. We care about the opinions of others, and when family or close friends are involved, that concern is amplified. When we, particularly LGBTQ people, hide crucial parts of our identities from family at holidays, it is difficult to feel entirely present. And on Thanksgiving, a holiday that is predicated on giving authentic thanks and connecting with relatives, I cannot fully embrace the spirit of the occasion when I experience such alienation.
At home, I am known by my legal name and sex. I do not feel free to disclose my queer identity to my family, the majority of whom are Chinese conservatives and Christian. Note that I am no stranger nor opponent of conservatism or Christianity, but their combination generates a family environment at holidays where I do not feel comfortable being earnest about how I am trans. On most occasions, I feel it would be inappropriate to disrupt the established patterns of family life for the sake of a reveal or to impose my identity upon them.
Being known by another name—another identity—without others’ awareness is silencing. I imagine that this kind of situation is not limited to my own experience. Loved ones’ errant words can do great harm to the well-being of LGBTQ people who are not out. Such is the challenge for me and for those who regard themselves as standing outside the perimeters of that promise called unconditional love.
Try as I might to suppress feelings of seclusion, there is sometimes a spontaneous, overwhelming dissociation that arises. Perhaps there may be no way of alleviating suffering for those who are, by choice or by necessity, not with family or friends over the holidays, but compassion in this instance does not require intercession. I, like others who are marginalized, must eventually address the divide between me and my loved ones. But a conscious awareness from others is enough acknowledgment to know that I am not going through the holiday alone.
Nonetheless, Thanksgiving ought to be celebrated. I do miss the days when life was simpler, when I could unequivocally feel at ease in the presence of family, when worries melted away with the cheese on my macaroni. But this cannot be had again. There is only the future to look to in crafting relationships with my family that might resemble what I had during my childhood. It is in this hope, the hope that I may one day be able to fully embrace my family while being my true self, that I cast my efforts and frame my aspirations.
We should cherish every opportunity we can to be with our loved ones. As much as my family has been a source of strain for me, I try to carry on with the spirit of family, which is so intrinsic to who we are and an ideal worthy of preservation.
Thus, my experience (and those of other members of the LGBTQ community) should not serve as a testament to any systematic failure of Thanksgiving, but rather as a reminder that we should have those who face difficulty in navigating family gatherings in our hearts as we reflect on this year’s holiday season.