By Dakota Parks for Downtown Crowd
Gathering around the dining room table with family can be daunting—especially with looming discussion of election results, a problematic uncle or two and the on-going stress of 2020. For many LGBT+ people, heading home for the holidays or even Zoom 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.
Burdened with unaccepting family members, awkward questions prying into 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 family. Transgender people are often repeatedly misgendered and deadnamed by their family and experience additional stress about responses to their changing physical appearance and gender expression.
To push forward with celebrating the holidays, many people have sought out acceptance from the LGBT+ community and formed chosen families. The holidays are about spending time with people that love and support you in a safe place where you can be yourself without fear. Members of the LGBT+ community have bravely shared how they celebrate; however, many still spend the holidays alone. If you have LGBT+ friends and family members, don’t forget to check in on them this holiday season.
As a 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 Osteo- paths. While navigating her own strained family dynamic, Ariel is constantly speaking with young transgender people struggling with unaccepting families.
“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 ex- tended family. My two daughters have been amazing—they even correct people that get my pronouns wrong. 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 want to be that supportive person for them and help them navigate their transition because 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 avoids extended family functions. Through her work at the clinic and the nonprofit she started, Transacola Support Group, Ariel is channeling her passion to help other trans people feel less alienated. 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,” Emery said. “The [drag] 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 safe haven for 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 my family, we disagree on a lot of ideological issues, so I avoid going home as much as possible. At previous holiday functions, my aunts would have all of us over, and it would quickly turn into this big gossip fest. I don’t
like bad talking anyone, and 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. So, there was never an issue with being yourself there.” Nyralda explained.
Over four years ago, Elijah Luth, a non-binary 31-year-old, stopped celebrating the holiday season with his family when they had an adverse reaction to him coming out as transgender. Elijah works as an analyst for team experience at Navy Federal where he sup- ports diversity and inclusion at 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 cameout 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 chosen family.
“I was lucky to be adopted by a couple that I work with,” he said. “My co-worker, Kelly, knew about what happened with my parents. We continued to grow closer as we worked together, and one day Kelly 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. They even took me on a trip last Thanksgiving. It’s bittersweet because I still feel an aching sadness that I can’t be with my blood family, but I’m grateful to have this new support system.”
Since she was little, Carley Kirk, a 22-year-old lesbian woman, knew she would never be able to bring a partner home for the holidays. Carley is an anthropology graduate currently working in the marijuana industry and living in an RV with her partner. After her 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.”
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. Har-
ley’s parents struggled to accept his transition 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. 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 have someone that 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, Har- ley 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. Even though we are introverted, my wife and I have branched out into the LGBT+ community and gone to pride and drag shows. It’s really beautiful just being accepted for who I am with- out question.”