Why LGBTQ+ People Often Gravitate Toward Chosen Families During the Holidays

'Tis the season for navigating the holidays with whatever family you choose

Krystina Edwards. Courtesy photo

As the festive season approaches, many people eagerly anticipate joyful celebrations with their loved ones. For many members of the LGBTQ+ community, however, this is not the case.

The holiday season can be a challenging time, marked by feelings of social exclusion and trauma. In my role as Community Engagement Manager at Ruth Ellis Center, which serves LGBTQ+ young people of color who are at risk or experiencing homelessness, the struggle of abandonment is clear for those who walk through our doors every day.

My role is to be informed on community resources, to improve access to critical resources, and to connect young people and their families to helpful programs and services. In my role, I see firsthand how they navigate this time of year and I work to alleviate some of that pain, by collecting gifts and arranging holiday dinners on our campus. Helping them learn how to navigate those feelings and to find joy and connection within the community is a big part of my job.

How do I advise our community to navigate holiday trauma? I encourage them to value relationships not determined by pure coincidence and to acknowledge that the friends you made along your journey into being your authentic self are, in fact, your real family. A chosen family is who you make it, like your childhood friend you often introduce as your cousin, unclear on potential blood relation, or the longtime friend of your mom who you have always known as your "aunt." The people we choose as family hold great significance due to the relatable environments, common interests and random acts of kindness and support. 

But why? Why do we need chosen families? And why do many LGBTQ+ folks have a stronger bond with friends and chosen families?

Social exclusion, which refers to the act of marginalizing or isolating individuals from social networks and activities due to their identity or differences, leads to trauma; trauma that can be associated with the holidays if abandoned by family. Many LGBTQ+ individuals face rejection or lack of acceptance from their families, which can be particularly painful during the holidays. Festive gatherings may serve as a painful reminder of strained relationships or the absence of familial support, leading to heightened feelings of loneliness and exclusion. The time that is traditionally spent reconnecting with family can open old wounds and be triggering to many.

When it’s time to face family during the holiday season, LGBTQ+ people are often asked about or hit with feelings of heteronormative expectations. Society often emphasizes heteronormative ideals during the holidays, such as traditional family structures and gender roles. This can further alienate LGBTQ+ individuals, as their identities and relationships may not conform to these expectations. The pressure to conform can lead to feelings of inadequacy and a sense of not belonging.

Let us not forget my favorite reason for changing holiday traditions — discovering discrimination and prejudice among family members during the holiday season. Holiday events and gatherings spent with family may expose LGBTQ+ individuals to insensitive comments, microaggressions or outright discrimination. Such experiences can trigger trauma and reinforce feelings of exclusion and unworthiness.

The presence of chosen families is the best way to curb the triggers and negativity, but there is a lot that allies and friends can do to uplift and bring joy during a troubling time. Reach out and offer support to your LGBTQ+ friends, co-workers, and neighbors. Offer them support, a listening ear or an invitation to inclusive events. Simple gestures of inclusivity can make a significant difference. For those who wish to mend relationships with their LGBTQ+ family members and those looking to invite over their LGBTQ+ friends, colleagues and neighbors, be sure to create an inclusive space. Avoid assumptions about gender identities, relationships or family dynamics. Encourage open dialogue and respect for diverse experiences. 

For those who do not have supportive networks and have yet to find a chosen family, reach out to local LGBTQ+ networks, look online and build your own family. 

Small acts of kindness are what the holiday season is all about, so I encourage us to embrace that spirit and spread joy during this time. Don’t be a scrooge; be a grinch and steal Christmas, but only to return it better than you received it.