I Know What It's Like to Go Home For the Holidays — and Go Back in the Closet

In my teens and early 20s, when I was a bumbling little gay trying to comb out my identities in public and private, returning home to see family meant locking up different aspects of myself as I was still in the process of coming out to myself. Even as I eventually came out to friends where I lived, I went home and "played it straight": I did that thing where you mention you're too busy with school and work to date. I did that thing where you reveal only the lightest sketch of your life to anyone who asks, saying, "I've been busy!," without mentioning with what, exactly. I did that thing where you burble up various thoughts on queerness over Christmas dinner that are perhaps a little too informed for someone who isn't queer themselves. I even did that thing where you bring a straight friend home with you to help keep things in check, to prevent you from spilling all your queer beans, accidentally breaking out of your closet and taking over — and potentially "ruining" — the holidays for everyone else.

These are coping mechanisms; things you do when you feel you cannot be yourself. A lot of this is the effect of homophobia and general queerphobia. Research shows discrimination causes a pile-on, leading to poor mental health and poor coping skills. No wonder our behavior changes: as we become less open about our identities, our stress is likely to increase. Unsurprisingly, we code-switch. Unsurprisingly, we indulge in self-loathing.

This is hard to change. Even after I "officially" came out to my family, I was still uncomfortable fully owning my queerness in front of them. After nearly a decade of being out to my family, it has gotten easier to be myself in their company. Yet, the little nips at my heels to "play it straight" persist. This was definitely true at this past Thanksgiving: I may not have dropped my voice a few octaves or turned to more muted clothing, but I did find that I was frequently erasing the queer details of my life. "Just a lot, a lot of writing," I explained when my father asked about my work, leaving out the specifics of how my writing typically deals with LGBTQ+ subjects and LGBTQ+ issues. "Just some friends," I explained of recent trips and travels, leaving out details that these are people who are in my LGBTQ+ family of choice. I became a queer paper doll — flat, two-dimensional, and way less interesting — instead of the queer human that I am. My opportunity to share all the details of my life, to be realer than real, yielded to maintaining what I felt was the (straight) status quo.

Even after I "officially" came out to my family, I was still uncomfortable fully owning my queerness in front of them.

This temptation to "play it straight" in uncomfortable environments is so sexy to people like us because, in zones where being LGBTQ+ is no longer the norm, we do what we have to do to soften the blows of judgment. We're in places where we've gotta field really dumb, accidental homophobic commentary that turn up the volume on our internalized homophobia. In an instant, we can become that fish out of water we once were in these spaces all over again. In these moments, it's easier to pretend you can breathe air instead of admitting you'd like to be back in your rainbow lake.

Going home and seeing family is not easy, my queer friends. My experience has been a long process within a generally accepting family that is not the same for many young and old members of my LGBTQ+ extended family who have faced discrimination under their own roof. This is perhaps why I have tread so lightly in the department of being myself: there have been few conversations about what my queerness means to my family and if they are connecting the dots between a very homophobic government and my life and the lives of people like us. My hometown and family are lovely, but it's quite easy to see the bruises they left have yet to attend to.

This is why it's easy to submit to straightness, to slip back into an old self as to not distract or disturb anyone around you. These may not be behaviors you are intentionally participating in, but I can assure you: they happen. They creep up on you without your knowledge like a sticky, pale sweatsuit that is your personal ghost of Christmas past. Do not indulge them, particularly in a time when queer acceptance is being tested. Understand that it's a lot of work to not censor yourself and, for some LGBTQ+ folks, there are certainly risks to putting your queer life on the line — I'm certainly not advocating for anyone to put themselves in a dangerous situation.

It's hard to check yourself before you straight-wreck yourself. Find ways to be yourself when out of your comfort zones, budgeting in time for self-care, knowing your boundaries, and having the wherewithal to put yourself out there as the big ol' queer that you are. I've been there, and I've come out on the other side to tell you that you can do this, that the rainbow holiday spirit is alive and well with you. If you trip up, that's OK, too. Recognize this, and do what you can to get back to yourself.

The holidays are only as brutal as we allow them to be. It's up to us to reframe these messes into messages, to know that these affairs are for a limited time only. If queers are returning home, our friends and family must benevolently anticipate that we ain't turning off them sparkles just because we've returned home. If anything, we have to turn them up — and get them to invite a little openness into their heart as they welcome us in.