Members of the queer community, although highly diverse, don’t need anyone to tell them how and why holidays (and other family-focused events year-round) are uniquely stressful for them.
But for any straight people reading this, imagine having to come to a family gathering prepared to choose from two painful options: hide or fight. Hide who you’re attracted to, your gender identity, even the person you love. Or defend yourself against hostility and microaggressions.
Therapists who specialize in LGBTQ+ clients have seen it all. Deadnaming. Misgendering. Refusing to believe someone can like both men and women. Dismissing partners as legitimate. Gaslighting—following an insult with “I was joking!” Asking intrusive questions.
“I see an increase in depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation around the holidays,” says Dayne Bachmann, LCSW, of Derby. Most of his clients are trans, and some are gay or lesbian. “A lot of their stories are the same,” he says. They go home and are mistreated. “They feel like they’re on an island all alone.”
The stress begins long before the holiday, says Alexandra Solomon, LCSW, who practices in Glastonbury. “Anticipatory anxiety can become quite severe.”
“For some LGBTQ people, the holidays are very difficult. What it comes down to is the LGBTQ community still faces lots of discrimination,” says Jeffrey Shelton, MD, chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Middlesex Health.
The added stress raises the risk of using harmful coping skills, says Melissa Strauss, APRN, a family psychiatric nurse practitioner at Anchor Health in Hamden. Already, she adds, “There’s a really high rate of depression and anxiety in the LGBTQ community, especially for people who are trans and nonbinary.”
Many people with supportive immediate family have extended family members who are not, which raises the stress level at get-togethers. “To have to pretend you are something you are not is extremely emotionally draining,” says Laura Saunders, PsyD, director of Hartford HealthCare’s Center for Gender Health.
We asked these professionals to share the tips they give clients.
Keep in touch. “It’s an interesting phenomenon that when we feel lonely, we tend to isolate,” says Dr. Shelton. Instead, reach out to someone you know will support you.
Say no. Don’t go home or to that event, not if it will jeopardize your mental health or safety.
Set boundaries. Plan ahead what you’ll accept and where you’ll draw the line, for example when a family member won’t call your spouse your wife? Include your partner in this planning. Strauss suggests asking, “Do you see movement on your family member’s part? Are they trying?”
Make a plan. For many, friends are their true families. Spend holidays with them. Attend a Friendsgiving at your local PFLAG. Bachmann’s clients become friends through the support groups he offers. “The older trans individuals take the younger ones under their wings,” he says. Get friends together and volunteer.
Forget social media. You know those idyllic lives others share aren’t real, but comparing your situation to theirs still hurts.
Don’t come out now. Not at any holiday or family gathering where you don’t know how you will be received. Do it at a quieter time, to a family member or two, and have a supportive friend with you.
Don’t come out by text. “A lot of kids love texting and get anxious about speaking with someone in person,” says Strauss. But texts are easily misinterpreted.
Prepare your phone. Before you go, enter your friends’, therapist’s and hotline phone numbers. Fully charge it and pack your charger.
Have an escape plan. If you need to get out for a couple of hours or for a night, plan where you’ll go. Can you stay with a friend? Can you afford a hotel?
Have an exit strategy. If you’re a cash-strapped student flying home, will you be able to afford a last-minute change of return flight? Don’t go if you can’t guarantee you can leave quickly.
Know what coping skills work for you. Know what calms you. A walk, deep breathing, imagery, yoga?
Take care of yourself. Admittedly easier said than done depending on work or school demands and income, but getting enough sleep, water and exercise, and eating well, will help you.
Talk to someone. Contact a therapist. “Treatment does work,” says Dr. Shelton., adding that what they say is true. “It does get easier.”
For more advice and resources for family members, search for “PFLAG, Going Home for the Holidays … Or Any Days.”