From pronouns to shame, this is how to navigate Christmas when you’re non-binary or queer

Non-binary Christmas

Christmas may be the most wonderful time of year for some, but for non-binary people and queers it can be tough going home to family whose acceptance levels of LGBT+ people might be… varied.

Of course, not all queers spend Christmas at home. Some may not go home to their biological family because it’s too dangerous – they might spend Christmas alone, or with friends – and then there’s the fact that 24 per cent of the young homeless population is LGBT+.

We’ve seen events like Queer Black Christmas and Trans Winter Wonderland created in response to this, to give those that don’t or can’t go home a safe place to be festive.

For non-binary people who do spend Christmas with family, there are extra considerations at play that might make going home for the holidays extra challenging.

Though not all non-binary people use them, having they/them pronouns respected and used can be an uphill battle, and non-binary people may also face invasive questions about their gender around the Christmas dinner table, as well as being tasked with having to educate extended family on what being non-binary means.

And, as Dr Meg-John Barker points out, there are small things that can make non-binary people feel excluded – does anyone else’s family traditionally split into boys and girls teams for Christmas games?

PinkNews had a conversation with Meg-John – an author and academic whose work covers gender, sex and relationships – about how to navigate this tricky time and make it through the other side.

Mature man serving food for Christmas family dinner.

If you go home to (biological) family for Christmas, how can you navigate it in a way that means you’re present but also keeping yourself safe?

I think this question hits on precisely the balance that we should be aiming for here, which can be extremely hard to manage. How can we be present to the people in our family – open and vulnerable and meeting them where they are – at the same time as keeping ourselves safe-enough by holding our boundaries and not allowing hurtful or toxic behaviour?

It’s so easy to veer too far one way or the other on this. Many of us get drawn back into old family dynamics where we allow ourselves to be treated badly, become passive or people-pleasing, and fail to say what we need. Others find ourselves becoming hard, brittle and defensive, maybe before anything has even happened. Some of us swing from one extreme to the other as we try to navigate this difficult territory.

Adult Family Sitting On Sofa Playing Game Of Charades At Christmas Together.

I think the first thing here is to recognise that this is an extremely tough situation for most of us. Family systems work to maintain old dynamics, which makes it extremely hard for anybody who challenges them – even though that’s frequently exactly what they need. Often the person who challenges the gender system is also challenging family norms far more deeply than this: the gendered expectations around everyone’s roles (like who does domestic labour, and whose voices get heard), how consensually people do or don’t treat each other, the things the family tries to hide or keep secret, how difficult feelings are dealt with. You may well feel positioned as ‘the difficult one’, which is such a tough place to be when we long to belong in our families and to be treated well there.

So, give yourself a break if you found yourself drawn back into old, familiar, ways of behaving that don’t feel like ‘you’. It’s really hard to do anything else within a family system, especially if you don’t have allies within the family who are also trying to do things differently.

How do you decide what information to share around non-binary identity, history, feelings?

It’s vital here to stay safe-enough. If you can’t trust family to be a safe-enough place to share these things – whether that’s in relation to physical and/or emotional safety – then it is absolutely fine either not to visit family, to minimise contact, and/or to decide simply not to share this information about yourself.

family at home sharing presents for christmas

It’s a hard situation and one you shouldn’t have to be in just because the world – and your family – don’t understand how gender actually works. Recognise that you’re being placed in a number of tough double binds here: either be with your family and deal with the discomfort of their behaviour, or limit contact and deal with feelings of guilt or pressure from them. Either be open with your family about your gender and face difficult responses from them, or don’t tell them and put up with the pain of them not seeing this important part of who you are.

The answers on how to manage this are going to be different for each person. For some, it’s worth taking the risk on being open, perhaps starting with one or two family members who feel safe-enough and can become allies. For others, the potential costs of losing family, or violent responses, are just too high. For some estrangement is the only option, for others it’s having occasional superficial contact, for others opening up these tough conversations feels possible and better for them.

Joyful family of three posing with gift over Christmas tree background, smiling and looking at camera, closeup.

How do you manage guilt or shame around not being completely open/yourself with your family?

However you choose to manage it there may well be guilt and shame: whether that’s around minimising contact, or around not being open, or around being open and family members finding that difficult. It’s important to remember that there is no perfect solution in an imperfect world, and that it isn’t on you as an individual but far more on the poor cultural – and community – understandings that people have around gender.

Self-care and support from others is gold here. Can you take time out during your time with family? Can you go only for the length of time you can actually manage – two hours with you on top form will be better for everyone than two days that you can’t handle? Can you have a group of supportive friends on a messenger app to keep contact with as you all try to survive this period?

If you have a partner or friend going with you, how could they support you?

Having one or more people who gets it around you can be gold in these situations, whether that is partners, friends, or family members who do understand and support you.

Portrait of handsome adult man smiling cheerfully while celebrating Christmas with friends and family at dinner table.

Ideally, think in advance about how you want to navigate the situation yourself and let them know this, so that they can support you around that. For example, if you do want to be open and clear with your family about your gender, that person – or people – can take the burden of correcting family members who misgender you. If you’d rather do it yourself – or let it slide in certain situations – that’s also fine and you can let them know that.

It can be great to schedule regular time out alone, and with your supportive people, during a family trip so that you can check in with yourself about your strategy, and change it if need be. It’s okay to change to whatever feels safe-enough as you get new information about where the family is at.

It may be that there are multiple family members who are navigating something along these lines in which case you may be able to support each other and regularly check in together. For example, family members who are survivors, who have mental-health issues, who haven’t had conventional relationships or families, who are working – or not working – in ways family finds difficult, etc. may be facing similar challenges.

Flat lay stylised Christmas tree made of small twigs painted in rainbow colors on stone background.

If your partner/friend is non-binary and they’re coming to your family for Christmas, what kind of conversation(s) could you have with your family in advance to make it easier for them?

Here it would be good to discuss what your partner or friend needs for it to be a safe-enough environment for them, and to have that conversation with your family in advance to see whether they are able to offer that. If not, then it’s fine for you and/or them to make other plans, but better to know that in advance rather than something very painful happening when it’s hard to get away.

If family are just unfamiliar with non-binary gender then sending them some book, website or video recommendations can be a great idea (we wrote How to Understand Your Gender, and Gender: A Graphic Guide with this in mind). If they fail to engage with these materials then that would be good information that it’s not safe-enough yet. Remember that this is a learning process for everyone so it might be that it’s not safe-enough this year, but might be next year. Or perhaps it’s safe enough to have them in your space but not vice versa, or to be together during the daytime but not overnight.

Group of people holding sparkling lights and looking at camera while enjoying Christmas celebration with friends and family.

Most of us are pretty familiar with the world not treating us in these ways, and may be up for being in discomfort around gender in order to do something that feels important – like being with family. In that case, it’s important at least to acknowledge the toll that that will take on that person – having to continually be unseen and poorly treated as if that’s okay. We may well need some extra support or self-care time. It might be helpful to arrange some other holiday time with people who do really see and get us: our logical family, as Armistead Maupin calls it.

Pronouns… this will vary hugely from person to person, but do you have advice for people dealing with an increase in misgendering over Christmas?

For me having two sibling allies helps hugely. The chorus of ‘they’, ‘they’, ‘they’ each time somebody misgenders me has become quite amusing over time and hopefully eventually will get the message across. Non-binary people differ in how vital pronouns feel to us. For some we feel very unseen each time somebody gets it wrong. For some we may feel – to some extent – that all pronouns apply so it might feel okay. For some it isn’t such a vital aspect of being seen. The most important thing is that however we feel about it is okay. And it’s definitely okay to need extra support in terms of self-care, time-out, and time with safer people who do get it.

Is it OK to hate Christmas? To opt out? To not see family?

Christmas background of gingerbread man with flag spruce branches and colorful sugar snowflakes on wooden table.

Yes, yes, yes to all of the above. You absolutely don’t have to celebrate Christmas – or any other festival. You don’t have to do anything that you’re not consenting to: in fact it’s vital consent practice not to. You don’t have to spend time with anybody you don’t want to. I don’t spend the holiday period with bio family and am engaged in long, slow conversations over time about how we navigate these kinds of issues around family members all feeling seen and safe-enough.

It’s fine to let family know what your needs and boundaries are in advance and only to see them if they can agree to those. Not only is this helpful for you, it’ll also be helpful for other family members who need to have important aspects of themselves respected. Being the one who shoulders the burden of trying to shift these things in a family or community is incredibly hard – and sometimes too dangerous to be possible. Do what you need, look after yourself, and spend as much time around logical family and people who treat you right as possible.

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