For more holidays than I can count without getting a nervous twitch in my eye, I made the Philadelphia to Daytona Beach, Florida trek with my older sister, her husband and their two kidlets. The trip, often in a compact car, led to the Florida house that my mom shared with her husband at the time, a retired army Colonel everyone including my mom, referred to as “The Colonel.” The house was adorned with a wide assortment of dead animal skins on the floor and a number of historically significant weapons on the walls. It was a fun place.
As we snaked down Interstate 95, past billboards for a Noted South Carolina Racist Attraction and others advertising “Carnivore Heaven Bar and Grill” or “Agorama: The World’s First Agricultural Theme Park” I would find myself sweating more with each passing mile. As I craned my head out the car window, scanning the highways for rainbow bumper stickers or any sign of Queer Life, I would repeat my mantra “I can survive the holidays with my family. I can survive the holidays with my family.”
Many years and thousands of dollars of therapy later, I fancy myself a bit of an expert in the “let’s wrestle some fun out of this dysfunction” arena And despite the warnings of my friends, therapist(s), exes and perhaps even my pets, I still spend winter holidays with my huge—and, yes, hugely alcoholic– family of origin. I have tools now though, don’t try this at home. Or do try it at home, but observe these important survival guidelines to decrease the statistical likelihood of family gatherings ending with tears or blood being shed:
As much as possible, avoid the more intensive family interactions like group meals. These can be a breeding ground for cutlery mishaps, eating disorder relapses and semi-drunken brawls. Taking a job such as firefighter, emergency medical technician, undertaker or nurse practically guarantees that you can always use the excuse “I’m so sorry I can’t make it but–sigh–I have to work.” If you family insists on having holiday meals locally to accommodate your oh-so-busy schedule, clip your little cousin’s walkie talkie to your belt and explain you’re “on call.” Run out right after the turkey is served.
If you’re not able to excuse yourself, at the very least avoid coming out to your family in the midst of holiday meals. At least not spontaneously. That rush of warmth you thought you felt could just be heartburn from your aunt Sophie’s bacon and pepperoni dressing. The resulting indigestion you might experience would probably not be life-threatening, but could indeed feel like it.
You can also feign intestinal disorder that require constant trips to the bathrooms. This is a fail- safe way of avoiding troublesome, boring or even insulting topics of conversation, For example, for many years, every time my family gathered, my grandmother liked to tell the story about how lucky she was to have survived her bout with cancer, since the disease was caught at such a late stage.
“I didn’t go to the doctor right away about the pain in my side,” my grandma would explain, “because I thought I was just sore from carrying Kelli around. She was such a big fat baby.”
“Hey,” my grandma would say, “where’s Kelli.”
You get the picture.
It’s also important to anticipate the end of a conversation before you initiate its beginning. One year I asked The Colonel over pumpkin pie if the bayonets mounted on the living room wall were real. ‘For chrisskaes yes,” he exclaimed, “what good is a bayonet if it’s never been used to kill anyone?” Luckily his question was rhetorical because I was too stunned to speak. I learned something very important that day. If you can’t handle the answer, use all your self control to keep from asking the question.
The corollary to above mentioned rule is plan family-friendly conversational topics in advance. For example, I have a slight suspicion my mother won’t want to hear about my accidental threeway at Atlanta Pride, but I’m sure she’ll love my stories about discovering drag culture in rural Wisconsin. I hope. Commit these safe conversational topics to a 3 by 5 card if you can’t commit them to memory.
Yes, it’s a little awkward to recite “Colonel, would you like to chat about the win to loss radio of [insert name here], a local sports team?” But if the alternative is chatting about “those damn [insert name of ethnic group/ random, allegedly liberal group/ or almost endangered species]” it’s worth both the awkwardness and the effort. It’s a documented fact that the average homosexual can listen to only a limited number of anti-harp seal diatribes before going completely bananas.
Also,–and I hope you are listening closely here–work WITH the family denial system, not against it. Remember what you learned from the friendly neighborhood dyke lifeguard? If you’re caught in a a rip tide, don’t try to swim out of it. The riptide is always stronger than you are, and you’ll tire yourself out before you can reach the beach. Swim parallel to a riptide; however, and at some point a topographical feature on the shore will cause its strength to ebb and you’ll be able to break away.
The same principle applies when dealing with what a friend calls a “reduced truth” family situation. Some may call a sideways confrontation passive aggressive, I call it efficient.
Perhaps an example would prove instructive here. My mom had a tubal ligation 19 months before I was born. It seems in the 60s the tubal ligation procedure involved only ligation, that is clamping of the fallopian tubes, rather than actually severing them.
My brother, thinking I was already aware of this fact, mention it offhandedly at a Christmas gathering the year I turned 30. I did some quick internet research. According to a CDC report done over a 10 year period from 1965 until 1975, of the 10, 365 post-tubal ligation women the CDC studied, 143 became pregnant at least once after the procedure. In other words, 1 in 155 tubal ligations were unsuccessful.
It seemed strange my mom had never mentioned my special status as a 1 in 155er. We weren’t a timid clan by any stretch of the imagination: one of the explicitly stated family rules was “remember kids, we don’t give each other the finger in front of grandma.” My biological father was of the genre of dads that thought great fun on a road trip involved farting and then locking the windows of the family station wagon.
I couldn’t understand the complete silence over a simple medical fact.
I decided to chat with my mom about this. The day after Christmas, I accompanied her on an early morning drive to pick up donuts for all the visiting relatives. I had only managed to say “Mom, you could have told me about the tubal lig-” before my mom turned the steering wheel sharply to the right while simultaneously hitting the brakes. This sent the car skidding onto the gravel shoulder.
“I can’t believe how close that car came to hitting us” she said, genuinely breathless.
It was 7 o’clock on a Saturday morning and we were driving on a deserted stretch of highway in rural Florida. There was not another car for miles.
I nodded and agreed that, indeed, who could believe how close that car came to hitting us.
All the same I couldn’t resist tormenting my mother about this absurd situation just a tiny bit. The next Christmas I got my mom a special gift: a tee shirt I had sent to her house directly from the Planned Parenthood website. It was adorned with a picture of a smiling cartoon uterus and said simply “Ask me about my tubal ligation.”
See? Navigating within the confines of the family denial system, not against it.
Of course, if you’re bringing your partner along to spend some quality time with your family of origin, the ordeal becomes more complicated. Positive outcomes; however, are not impossible. In every relationship there comes a moment, usually shortly after moving in together, when one partner turns to the other and says “Seriously, though, seriously. Were you actually raised by wolves?” Spending time with your family allows you to demonstrate that yes, in fact, you were raised by wolves. If nothing else, it cuts that particular argument short.
Avoid doing the very first introduction of a new partner at a holiday gathering where there is no easy escape in case of backfire. Family vacations might be okay, if you’re going down the shore and can join the traveling carnival set up by the boardwalk if things get really out of control. If you’re planning a winter Pocono weekend trip with your entire extended family, a single snowstorm could throw the whole interaction deep into the unmanageable zone.
You’ll also need to process closet issues before—not during- the family get together. No, hilarious homos, I don’t mean a long discussion about the virtues of cedar paneling versus moth balls or a campy reenactment of the “no more wire hangers” scene from Mommie Dearest. I’m merely saying that if your partner is going to be introduced as “friend,” “room-mate,” “personal trainer,” “pal” or other such euphemism, they should know in advance.
Warn your partner, if you wish, about the little eccentricities of your family, but don’t expect to have warned them about the right things. For example, because I am both a registered nurse and a worrywart, I am known amongst my friends as “Safety Monitor Dyke.” I was frequently (and inexplicably) the only person who brought a fire extinguisher to the Lesbian Avengers’ flame eating demonstrations. One Christmas my partner watched my cousins (who had each polished off a six pack of Old Milwaukee) head into the woods, chainsaws and axes in hand. She turned to me with a stunned expression “what are they doing??” to which I replied “well, chopping firewood I guess.” She was horrified by this blatant affront to personal safety, I was accustomed to it.
Try to respect your partner’s view of your family; their (relative so to speak) objectivity may shed light into some very dark corners. For example, in the past ten years I have been involved in many useless arguments about the souls of cartoon characters. This is because at some point during every holiday gathering, my oldest sister authoritatively announces “Smurfs are a satanic force from hell.” “No,” I would say, “the Smurfs are merely annoying. There is no evidence they are a satanic force from hell.”
One year my partner asked if I might “perhaps choose battles a little more wisely?” And it’s true, there is only so much reality you can interject into any given conversation. Although I was initially resistant, I realized she did have a point. After all, who elected me CEO of the Cartoon Characters Defense League? Nowadays, I let the little blue bastards take care of themselves.
Finally don’t forget: Unless you were raised by 7th Day Adventists or the Krishna, take your vegetarian partner out to eat before every family meal. As far as I can tell, my family seldom if ever actually encountered a living breaking vegetarian in their habitat. This is why they don’t understand vegetarian diet choices. Or at least that is what I told my vegan partner when they offered her a huge platter of turkey explaining “it’s okay, we took out the bones, so it doesn’t look like meat.”
If all else fails, remember that cheerfulness is an effective weapon in trained hands. My “Smurfs are Satan” sister has a ten year old daughter who recently came into the house crying because another kid on the playground had called her “silly” when she instructed him that you can become demon possessed by trick or treating at Halloween. Faster than you can say “put another fifty bucks in the therapy fund” my sister comforted her daughter by saying “the Bible tells us the world will hate Christians. Isn’t it beautiful to be hated as Jesus was?”
Do you think my sister wants to know that I (the heathen sodomite) and my homosexually evil partner are actually happier than she is? No way. Sometimes collective cheesy grins (even if you have been 30 seconds away from partneracide for the last 6 months) can go a long way towards maintaining your collective sanity at holiday gatherings.
Finally, always plan an after holiday holiday. Invite your queerest friends to your queer house for completely queer decompression. This might involve eating hummus and completing rainbow crafts. At the very least, everyone should wear a vest and sing a showtune or Holly Near song.
You might want to get another dolphin or even labrys tattoo. Or go to a tea dance. Or write a slam poem that has seven trigger warnings and wherein you rhyme oppression with expression and spread each word over six lines. Most important of all, think about scheduling a double session with your therapist. And definitely plan on having the bill sent to your parents.
This blog post is excerpted from my upcoming book Freak of Nurture (Topside Press, April 2013).
Would you like to to read some more funny stuff from the book?
Maybe you’re a blogger and you’d like to review it?
Maybe you’re a podcaster and you’d like to have me as a guest on your show?
Maybe you just want to know where the title Freak of Nurture came from?
All that and more, right here.
Also, if you enjoy comedy about the craziness of families, you should probably download my brand new CD, “Why Is the Fat One Always Angry” as a holiday gift to yourself. Pay what you want, including free. You can play it on your iphone with an earbud in only one ear and your family won’t even notice, right?