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Do You See What I See?

Published Dec 7, 2009

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 Ah, the holidays.  The proverbial chestnuts roasting on the proverbial open fire, delightful (yet economically prudent) gifts for one and all, a warm and festive atmosphere as family members arrive from near and far for another memorable celebration.  Trite and unrealistic, yes?

Yes, but It's almost equally cliche-ridden to note that the holidays can be stressful and demanding.  An alien visiting between November 1 and January 1 would wonder whether we embrace and enjoy the holidays, or dread them.  Magazines display glowing visions of succulent turkeys and lovely children, while on the other, provide 100 tips to "de-stress" and "uncomplicate" the holiday season.  Potential celebrators are advised to take deep breaths and long, soothing baths to escape from the demands of it all.  It seems as much of a burden to seek and find "the true meaning" of the holidays, as it was to celebrate in the good old artificial way.  Life in 2009 sure is complicated.

For families that contain GLBT members, the holiday season can bring even more complications.  At PFLAG, there are a few holiday issues that recur annually.  Do you recognize your own family or your own situation?

Do you recognize your own family or your own situation?

"It will kill Nonnie."

This comes up when a gay family member has been in the closet to some members of the extended family, and has decided that the time for hiding his or her sexuality is now over.  The concern is that a fragile or elderly family member will be so overwhelmed by the "awful" news, that he or she will literally, physically die (or at least run from the room in tears).  The gay son or lesbian daughter is admonished to avoid "ruining the holidays for everyone."

The gay family member often does not take this well.  In fact, asking for silence from the gay family member is frequently more a sign that the parents are uncomfortable and embarrassed, and has little or nothing to do with Nonnie.  The gay family member correctly "reads" this reluctance and concern for Nonnie as a wish that he and his "gay thing" would just go away, or at least shut up.

It's very hard to know just what to do in this situation.  Most people don't want a screaming argument around the Christmas tree, yet it's also difficult and ridiculous in many ways to have to go on lying and hiding.  One possible solution is to have a separate conversation with Nonnie, apart from the holidays, when nobody else from the family is there.  This can happen either before or after the big event.  Every person is entitled to his or her truth, and whether or not Nonnie knows already, or is completely overjoyed to hear it, nobody is entitled to die because somebody else is gay.  Period.

And here is the kicker: very often, Nonnie either already knows (or guessed) a long time ago and, in any event, has gained enough wisdom and mellowed enough through the years so that she won't, in fact, die.  The giant and terrible revelation is met with matter-of-factness and calm.  No Academy Award this Christmas.

Loved Him, Hated Her

The gay family member brings a significant other home for the holidays and, unfortunately, the result is parental rejection and coldness.  This one hurts.  One reason is that having a same-sex partner makes the whole "gay thing" real and actual to parents.  Without an obvious partner, a parent can pretend, in a sense, that the child isn't really gay.  Or at least, the parent doesn't have to confront it, in the form of another human being.

There is a second aspect to this, too, which is that, to some parents, nobody their child brings home - same-sex or otherwise - will ever be "good enough."  During our group meetings, we encourage parents to try and parse out how much of their reaction to the partner would be there in any event, and how much of it is driven by having to face the reality of their child's sexuality.  Here, the gay family member has to walk a difficult line, between an upsetting situation for the boy or girlfriend, and the parents' critical feelings.  Sometimes a shortened or modified visit will have to happen, at least for a year or two.

The Guest Room Dilemna

This is another time when the fact of a family member's gayness comes front and center.  It mixes with a parent's natural phobia around the idea of their child as a sexual being, and results in a truly touchy situation.  At PFLAG, we advise parents to treat their gay children exactly as they would their straight children.  Make one rule and observe it for everyone.  This takes the angst out of it, and hopefully the gay family member is mature enough to recognize that one or two nights apart will not make or break a relationship.  (If finances permit, a hotel is an option as well.)  Realize that this is one of the side-effects of legalized same-sex marriage in Connecticut: no more excuses on the bedroom issue.  Make an honest man (or woman) out of that partner!

Whether your holidays turn out to be Martha-approved or a hot mess, enjoy them and remember, none of us will have an infinite amount of time to share with our loved ones.  And that while magazines might be nice to look at, it would be pretty flat to live in one!

The Shoreline/New Haven PFLAG chapter meets the third Tuesday of each month from 7:30 to 9 p.m. at the Church of the Redeemer, located at the corner of Cold Spring Street and Whitney Avenue in New Haven. All are welcome. You may contact greaternewhavenpflag@yahoo.com for more information or to be placed on our mailing list.

Jane Ferrall lives in Guilford, CT, where she and her husband of 20 years, Bill, enjoy their family of four children. Among her other interests and volunteer work, Jane was a founding member and is the moderator of the Greater New Haven/Shoreline chapter of PFLAG.

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