By: Dakota Parks
Gathering around the dining room table with food, drinks and family can be daunting for a lot of people—especially with the looming discussion of election results, a problematic uncle or two and the on-going stress of 2020. While some people are opting for holiday celebrations on Zoom and small gatherings to follow COVID-safety, for many LGBT+ people, heading home for the holidays or even video chatting with family isn’t an option. According to the “Going Home Should Be Beautiful” campaign with GLAAD and Pantene, an estimated 40 percent of LGBT+ people struggle to go home for the holidays as their authentic selves.
Burdened with unaccepting family members, awkward questions prying into their dating lives, lying to family they have not come-out to or forced to go home alone without their partners push many people away from spending the holidays with the families that raised them. Transgender people are often repeatedly misgendered and deadnamed by their family and experience additional stress about how their family will respond to their changing physical appearance and gender expression.
To escape the stress and push forward with celebrating the holidays, many people have sought out acceptance and support from the LGBT+ community and formed chosen families. Instead, rallying around potlucks, Secret Santa and White Elephant gift exchanges and the web of friendships that have formed into new families. The holidays are about spending time with the people that love and support you in a safe place where you can come and be yourself without fear or discrimination. Members of the local Pensacola LGBT+ community have bravely shared how they spend the holiday season—embracing community camaraderie and the love and acceptance of their chosen families. However, many people within the LGBT+ community still spend the holidays alone. If you have LGBT+ friends, coworkers or extended family members, don’t forget to check in on them this holiday season.
As a nursing assistant and gender-affirming healthcare program manager at an LGBT+ clinic, Ariel Bailey, a 28-year-old trans woman deals with family fallout on the daily. After struggling to find a job when she got out of the Navy, Ariel was instrumental in helping start the first and only informed-consent HRT clinic in the Panhandle alongside Dr. Hillman at Pensacola Osteopaths. While navigating her own strained family dynamic, Ariel is constantly speaking with young transgender people struggling with unaccepting families and offers educational seminars on how to support trans family members.
“I do so much work in the community because it makes me feel like I have a family,” Ariel said. “My parents have come a long way, but I still don’t speak to a single person in my extended family. My two daughters have been amazing—they correct people that get my pronouns wrong and even yell at my parents if they misgender me. I see a lot of young people in the clinic with terrible families and we joke and say, ‘Ok, don’t worry—I’m your new mom now.’ I just want to be that supportive person for them and help them navigate their transition because I know I didn’t have anyone when I really needed it.”
Before Ariel began her transition, her holidays included multiple dinners and celebrations with her entire extended family. Now, she spends the holidays with her two daughters and her parents, and she stays home when they go to the extended family functions. Through her work at the clinic and her advocacy in the nonprofit she started, Transacola Support Group, Ariel is channeling her passion to help other trans people feel less alienated and alone. She even hosted a holiday party last year, Winter Queerstice, for local LGBT+ people that didn’t feel comfortable going home for the holidays, which she hopes will return in 2021 when COVID is under control.
When Emery Peil, a 29-year-old transgender man serving as Staff Sergeant in the Air Force first told his family about his transition, his mother told him that he was dead to her. The holidays of his childhood in Michigan surrounded by family and staying up until midnight to open presents became a thing of the past.
“It wasn’t until I got to Pensacola that I found a welcoming space in the LGBT+ community and with the drag queens,” Emery said. “I had never had that kind of support my entire life. The queens are like family to me. Lauren Mitchell and the other queens were so important in helping me become the person I am today. In many ways, I think they have cultivated a safety net and a safe haven for so many people in the community because we know that they’re going to defend us. They know what it’s like because they have been at war for their safety for decades if you look at the history of drag. They just embrace you and encourage you to be yourself.”
Emery found refuge and support in the Pensacola drag scene when Lauren first allowed him to compete in a male-only t-shirt contest at Emerald City—an act of solidarity and support of his transition that led to a close friendship between them. Since then, Emery has become a staple to the community and has operated the lights for The Cabaret drag shows for four years.
Although Emery hasn’t been home for the holidays in nearly a decade, his twin sister Hilary and his younger sister Carly have been a major support by standing up for him against their mother and trying to bridge the gap of unacceptance. After four years of his mother not speaking to him, Emery’s mother finally made contact with him at his sister’s wedding in September with a hug and apologies for her behavior. In past years, Emery has spent the holidays playing video games or visiting with friends to combat the lonely holiday blues, but this year, he is hopeful that progress has been made with his family in Michigan and that he might be able to celebrate with a FaceTime call home to his family.
For the last six years during his undergrad and graduate degree at the University of West Florida, Nyralda Bradley, a 25-year-old bisexual man has spent the holidays with his tight-knit group of friends. Each year, they gather for a friends-giving potluck on Thanksgiving and don their best festive footie-pajamas for Christmas and share a few alcoholic drinks while exchanging Dirty Santa gifts. Although Nyralda has not come out as bisexual to his family, he said his friends have been the best support he could ask for.
“I don’t have any shame about who I am or fear the judgement from my family—I just don’t think it’s any of their business,” Nyralda said. “As much as I love them, my family and I disagree on a lot of ideological issues, so I avoid going home as much as possible. At prior holiday functions, my aunts would have all of us over, and it would quickly turn into this big gossip fest. I don’t like gossiping or bad talking anyone, and I guess that I don’t want to be subject to that gossip if I told them I’m dating men or any variety of genders.”
When Nyralda first began working at the UWF Writing Lab, he was immediately exposed to an inclusive hub of LGBT+ people at the university that allowed him entrance to an accepting community and helped him form a support system outside of his family.
“The lab was always this kind of inclusive place for all genders, races, ethnicities and sexualities. The managing director of the lab is a trans man and there are so many gay and open students and mentors working there,” Nyralda explained, “So, there was never an issue with being yourself there. Working there allowed me to make those connections when I didn’t have them before. I’m very fortunate to have made really close friends that just basically welcome and accept me for who I am.”
Over four years ago, Elijah Luth, a 31-year-old non-binary person, stopped celebrating the holiday season with his family when they had an adverse reaction to him coming out as transgender and starting testosterone therapy. Elijah works as an analyst for team experience at Navy Federal where he supports diversity and inclusion work and has advocated for the company to end trans healthcare exclusions, which goes into effect this year. Growing up in a typical Southern conservative family, Elijah has struggled to remain in contact with his parents for his own mental well-being.
“I had to learn through therapy where to set my boundaries,” Elijah said. “I just can’t put myself in those situations where I’m not respected. I’m not on speaking terms at all with my dad and my mom still refuses to use my proper name or pronouns. When I first came out as bisexual, that was more acceptable to my family because it was something that I could hide. Once I started testosterone, I couldn’t hide who I am.”
Elijah’s sister has been the only family member that has accepted him and stood up for him against their parents. He now spends the holidays with his adopted or chosen family.
“I was really lucky to be adopted by a couple that I work with,” he said. “My coworker, Kelly, knew about my story and what happened with my parents. We just continued to grow closer as we worked together, and one day she said, ‘This is absolutely unacceptable. You’re my kid now.’ Kelly and her husband Jim have taken me in on the holidays and always invite me over and feed me. They even took me on a trip last Thanksgiving, which was really awesome. I’m excited to spend the holidays with them this year. It’s bittersweet because I still feel an aching sadness that I can’t be with my blood family, but I’m so grateful to have this new support system.”
Since she was a little girl, Carley Kirk, a 22-year-old lesbian, knew she would never be able to bring a partner home for the holidays and imagined what it would be like to hire a fake husband to pretend to meet her family. Carley is an anthropology graduate currently working in the marijuana industry and living in an RV with her partner. After Carley’s mom died, Carley moved in with her sister at 13 years old. It wasn’t until she moved in with her former softball coach that she found out what it means to be a part of a stable and accepting family.
“I haven’t spent the holidays at home in many years,” Carley explained. “Being queer is one thing, but there’s this entire sense of othering that happens back home. Even what I wear is not considered normal or appropriate. I have a pretty fluid gender expression, and I didn’t feel comfortable embracing that until I moved in with my old softball coach Kayla and her wife Stephanie. They were the first normal and healthy lesbian couple I ever met. They took me in when I moved here for college and really helped me grow into who I am today.”
Carley quickly became a member of their family and was even around for the birth of Kayla and Stephanie’s first child, offering to come stay with them for two weeks while they adjusted to new parenthood. She now spends every holiday with them.
“Stephanie and Kayla were everything I needed as a young lesbian,” Carley said. “I can’t imagine where I would be without them. Chosen families are so important. I want young queer people to know that if you just hold on, at some point someone is going to come across you, really listen to you and just scoop you up and take you in as their own. There are good people out there.”
Although family dynamics and intolerance can be hard to handle, Harley Dismuke-Rojas, a 26-year-old transgender man relishes in holiday traditions with his wife. As a creative person drawn to woodworking and writing, Harley looks forward to weekend trips to renaissance fairs in November and merging holiday traditions with his wife’s family. Harley’s parents struggled to accept his transition and his marriage and even refused to attend his wedding.
“My oldest sister came out a lesbian before me and I think my parents really struggled with having two queer children,” Harley explained. “My sister was my biggest advocate, and I knew that even if our parents didn’t get better that we would have each other—that really helped. They tried to shelter our younger siblings away from us as if we would corrupt them. My dad is better now, and he calls me his son, but when my mom is around, he gets really quiet. She uses a childhood nickname for me and refuses to use my pronouns. Going home to my parent’s house is definitely easier now with my wife because I know I’m not alone. I have someone that I know is going to stand up for me.”
Harley has also experienced the support of a chosen family with his former soccer coach, Mrs. Lindsay that he considers his real mother figure and even shared his mother/son wedding dance with. After being kicked out of his parent’s house, Harley lived with Mrs. Lindsay, who was very supportive of his transition and helped him begin hormones.
“The South can be a really scary place to be a black trans man,” he said. “I’m constantly on guard, but I’m also lucky that I have an incredible support system with my wife and friends. Even though we are introverted, we have branched out into the LGBT+ community and gone to pride and drag shows. I even met other trans people and formed a support system where I don’t feel like I’m going through this alone. It’s really beautiful just being accepted for who I am without question.”