Can we be honest with each other? 2020 has been just awful. This year has been totally defined by division, separation, and isolation. Not to be the naive optimist, but I believe that wherever there’s turmoil, we can find the seeds of growth. In isolation, so many people have found themselves this year and come out as trans to the world. But that means, for the first time ever, so many of you are celebrating holidays (either distantly or no) with a trans person. Make no mistake, your trans family members are apprehensive about this holiday. Holidays are often stressful to start with, and the way you treat them will set the tone for your relationship for a long time. So if you want to not f*ck that up, let’s talk.
All the things that make holidays wonderful, the traditions, shared narratives and memories, and even gift giving are all massive potential areas where old habits may harm your bonds with your trans family — or they can help you forge a relationship with this person that will last forever. Let’s talk about them.
Before we get started… I’m not going to lecture you about your holiday traditions, family habits, and whether they’re rooted in some bad notions of gender. A lot of them are, and maybe in reading this you’ll find you want to update or change some traditions but this is a practical, empathetic look at how to strengthen your relationship with a trans person this holiday season.
Let’s start at the absolute basics.
The Basic Basics: Some Terminology.
Alright, for the remainder of this article you’re going to see me use some words like cisgender, transgender, and non-binary. I am simplifying my language to make it easy to read for where you are, but it’s still important we know the terms and that even in this article I have oversimplified my terms.
Transgender (Trans) : Not the gender/sex combination you were assigned at birth.
Non-Binary: Not being entirely a man or a woman. A non-binary person might be both, neither, a mix, or something new and beautiful.
Cisgender (Cis): Being the gender/sex combo you were assigned at birth. Your doctor examined you, saw your genitals, said “It’s a girl or boy,” and you grew up in that assignment and those roles in the world just fine.
Metagender (Meta): This is a word that means “not cisgender, but not transgender.” I’ll explain more about this below. This word describes a wide range of non-binary identities and acts as an umbrella term for folks who have decided transgender does not suit them.
Mettā: a Pali word meaning, “loving kindness.” This is a word I was taught in my education as a Buddhist and it guides everything I do.
Frequently in this article you will see me use the terms “trans” and “transgender” to refer to a hypothetical family member. This is some 200-level-class stuff that you probably don’t know, but your family member might not consider themselves trans. Many non-binary people feel that the transgender label, with all its media baggage and cultural understandings, does not include them. That’s very ok, and even good. The power to self identify is essential. I am using the simplified term “trans” to refer to your family member for simplicity. There will be some links at the bottom of this article for you to do more learning about all of this if you choose.
Alright, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s go on.
A Gift by Any Other Name.
The trans person in your life has a name. That name means something to them. They probably picked it out themselves with every bit as much care as you, or their parents, named them. If you do only one thing for your family member this holiday season, use their name and use it well. Practice their name in sentences until it starts flows as naturally from you as the fullness in your heart when you see them happy. Because if you use their name, you will see the sun rise in their eyes every time they hear it.
They had a name before. That name was a gift given to them, and they have outgrown that name. Don’t ask them about that name, don’t tell them to wear that name. Don’t bring that name up. Honor their chosen name. You have time to practice, start now.
If you need an exercise, write down some of your favorite memories of them on flashcards and replace the old name with their chosen name. You’ll be shocked how quickly your brain adjusts to this. Read this aloud to yourself and get theatrical with it. Really practice the performance. It’ll feel natural on game day.
Since we’re talking about memories, let’s talk about the past. The holidays are a time we sit around with drinks and laugh at the obnoxious things we did as children, tell stories about our grandparents, share embarrassing photographs, and try to humiliate people just the right amount in front of their partner(s) they brought to dinner this year.
That history is fraught for trans people, and on this no two trans people are the same.
I am extremely protective of my past and my place in it. I don’t like to see old photos of me, they make me uncomfortable. Yes, you might see your smiling child in those photos but what I see was a little girl who had to grimace through the things that were happening to her. Sometimes, in the past, I really was happy. I love my family and I don’t want to take those memories and mementos away from them. I do need them to know how I feel, though. I am not going to feel the same looking through those old pictures. Sometimes I see photos of myself as a child and I sob uncontrollably because I remember how much I suffered. That’s what a lot of those photos mean to me. And your trans family might be similar.
I hate being referred to as “he” in the past tense. “He” is a performance that I never wanted to be. “He” is a reminder that for the first 29 years of my life, I had no control over myself and who I was supposed to be. My past with my family is a source of confrontation. They want to keep things how they were, and I want them to recognize who I actually was. When I speak of the past, I speak of young Evey, not my dead name. I was a little girl, nobody knew it, though.
Some trans people are like me. I was always a girl, even when everyone thought I was a boy and I’m not going to paper over that because it makes things easier. Some trans people find it easier to think of themselves as “I was this, and now I am this.” Talk to this person, ask them how they want to be referred to in the past and talk to them about how to handle memories of them and mementos like photographs, old cards, and home movies. Take time to understand and be curious about how they feel about and then follow their lead. This conversation is an incredible gesture to give to a trans person in your life. It says that you see and respect them and want to care for them as a person.
The past comes back in other ways, so let’s get to the deliciously thorny topic of family traditions.
We’re a Traditional Family…
Most families have small traditions around the holidays. A lot of them might be invisible to you — it just so happens that the men tend to filter into the living room to watch the game while the ladies talk around the table, right? But that stuff turns into a tradition just as much as who plays “Santa” this year, and who sets the table. If we’re going to be painfully honest a lot of these traditions are gendered implicitly, if not explicitly.
Setting aside the discussion about gender roles, let’s talk about dinner roles. I’ll be honest, as a newly out woman being included in formerly gendered-ish holiday practices feels really welcoming and like I’m being accepted into my family as a woman.
And that matters. Rituals and traditions bring cohesion and unity to a group of people, that’s why they’re so important in religious practices, corporate culture, and more. Families aren’t immune to the power of ritual or tradition and being included, or not included, says everything about how the family views you.
Perhaps a less fraught example of such a tradition is the much maligned “kids table” at holidays. Graduating from the table is a rite of passage, a true sign that you’re entering some form of adulthood and taking on a new role in your family. No more will you be the one cleaning mashed potatoes off your young cousin, you’re an adult now. The sheer joy you might have felt graduating from this position to the next is minuscule compared to the joy a trans person will have at feeling properly included in family traditions.
And sometimes your traditions are going to need to change. I said above that I was going to avoid gender roles, I lied. But I lied for a good reason! A lot of those trans people I’m talking about aren’t men OR women, they’re non-binary in some way. And when you have a non-binary family member, it’s really likely those gendered roles will make them feel them trapped into a dynamic they’ve been trying to escape. This year, talk to your non-binary family member about making some new traditions that can include them and help them feel seen and accepted into your family as who they are. That’ll really help to make a strong foundation for…
Let’s talk politics. I don’t mean government politics, though you really should make it a practice to be able to have those talks in your family, I mean family politics.
Can we be real a second? We all know which family member is the racist one, the sexist one, or the homophobic one. You’ve been apologizing for that family member for years and this year that family member needs to be put on notice.
The dynamic in too many households is that we should tolerate the boisterous bigot and sit in uncomfortable silence while they spew venom into your family’s faces and spaces. If you want your trans family to be comfortable in the house, that person needs to understand everything I’ve said above about how to respect them at a basic level. If you normally hold holiday at that person’s house, set boundaries with them or move the venue.
Don’t wait until there is a problem with this family member to react. There will be a problem with that family member and you have an opportunity to be proactive. An ounce of prevention is a pound of cure, boundary setting doesn’t need to be an act of aggression. This change in your family dynamic can be an opportunity for them to grow as a person.
Now, all of this presupposes that the trans person in your life is completely out. Before you take actions for a trans person, ask them what they would like and be comfortable with. Never out a trans person to a family member who could be dangerous to them. I know you think Racist Uncle Bill™ isn’t a problem, but you can’t guarantee he’s not. The trans person needs to know when they’re being put at any risk, even a small one.
Talking Politics: You Done Goofed Edition.
While we’re here, let’s talk government politics for a second. If you’re from the United States, sit down we need to talk. If you’re from anywhere else, go get a drink and have a walk or something IDK. Or don’t. I’m not your mom, unless you want me to be. Dinner’s at 6. Alright.
I’m not going to get into a discussion about who you voted for because I care more about you treating trans family well than yelling at you about your electoral ethics. But you do need to understand that those ethics have an impact on this person in your life, and what you said in the voting booth has an impact on how they see you.
If you chose to vote for politicians, not just the orange one, who espouse anti-trans policies, I genuinely hope you’ll examine your priorities and listen to the trans person when they express being hurt. They will feel hurt, almost certainly. Please, I’m begging you, stop putting your party affiliation before your progeny. Just be ready to hear and if you can get the conversation out of the way before holiday dinners then you should do that. Let this holiday be a time of healing in your family if these boundaries have been crossed. Don’t paper over them anymore, but you do need to be ready to grow. Your trans family does have the right to be hurt by it when you vote for politicians who will harm them.
One of the best parts of any holiday, for me, is wearing cute holiday clothing and obnoxious sweaters. But when you’re trans, figuring out what to wear when you do holiday things with your family can be really nerve-wracking. If you’re family to a trans person, you can help give them guidance about this that’ll really make their holiday great. I’ll use my example: my sister helped me pick out clothes and dress for Thanksgiving this year and I adored her input. Getting ready with her was SO rewarding because, well, sister bonding right?
And if that trans family member pops into your home, and they’re wearing a whole amazing outfit this year, be kind and complimentary. It will make their whole holiday just to hear, “Wow you look great and I love those boots.” Promise.
The Presents Might Not Be Alone in The Closet.
Let’s talk about a very real, very possible dynamic. Your kid has just come out as trans and you want to be respectful to them, right? You’ve learned their name, their pronouns, helped them feel welcomed into the family and then… It’s time to go to Uncle Bob’s for the holiday (or have that big family video chat— because COVID-19). And your newly out trans family tells you that they’re not ready to be out to Uncle Bob and his family.
A lot of the advice I gave you earlier entirely assumes that your trans family is out. You should never be the one to tell other family members that this person is trans unless they ask you to. Coming out to people was, and is, a really important part of our lives. It’s a skill we develop, and you probably don’t know how to use it safely. We tell people when we’re ready to tell them, so please don’t out us to family members before we’re ready for them to know.
This might have you feeling frustrated. You might have to sit there and deadname (which means using the trans person’s old name) your trans family to Aunt Jackie, and remembering to code switch like that on pronouns and names can be really difficult. But it’s important. They’re relying on you to keep them safe and secure, so practice before calls if you need to. So make sure before the holiday happens that you are having a conversation with your trans family about who they’re comfortable with and what they want them to know. Coming out takes time. Make sure that your trans family member can have that time, support means letting them have control of this.
Delivering Joy from Afar
You might be supporting a trans person from afar this year. Maybe your friend came out and you want them to feel whole and seen. Small tokens can give big results.
For many trans folks, our names are the sweetest holiday music we can hear this year. A quick video, a snapchat, a card, anything at all that just says, “Hey [trans person], I love you and I hope your holiday is great,” can be the difference between feeling lonely and feeling loved. Gifts are great too, and I know it sounds silly but personalized gifts with their name on it are even better. My partner got me a necklace that has my name on it and I cherish it like it’s gold.
Because I’m a Winters, snowflakes are kind of my aesthetic; when people get me things with snowflakes on them, I feel so seen and accepted. Does your trans family member have an aesthetic?
Now Presenting… Presents.
Alright, let’s get to the main event. I’m kidding, dinner is the main event. Pass the cranberry sauce. Fine, fine, ok. We’ll talk about gift giving.
Buying items for your newly out trans family can be a minefield. You’ve been gift giving for them for… years? Decades? And now things are changing and all those familiar habits can actually cause a lot of harm. It may seem a little gauche, but you’ve got two options here:
First, you could make assumptions. If your trans family is binary, a woman or a man, their wants this year might be predictable. They’ll probably be trying to rebuild a wardrobe, learn skills their cisgender counterparts know, and participate in other little rituals and expectations for their gender. For me, a trans lady, clothing and makeup are wonderful gifts. But so are candles and anything that smells nice. And have we talked about how cool rocks are? Love rocks. A lot of ladies like me aren’t particularly feminine though, and might love gender non-conforming gifts. Making assumptions on gender is taking a gamble: when it works it’s delightful because we feel surprised, but when it doesn’t… oof.
The other thing you could do is TALK to your trans family member. Ask what they’d like or what needs they have and then try to help them fill those needs. This is doubly true, I think, for our non-binary siblings. The odds that you’ll accurately assume what things they might need to slot into their gender are low. You can make everyone happier by talking to them about where they feel they are missing things in their new life or what would help them feel whole and loved.
I can tell you to be careful about items, especially clothing, that include the trans flag. A lot of cis family get real enthusiastic about supporting their trans family and suddenly it’s trans flags everywhere. This can be dangerous for us to wear or have on our person and a lot of us opt not to wear trans flags or those colors outside very specific instances, for fear of violence. If your family member is out and proud and LOVES showing off that trans flag, it’s safe to roll with that. Just make sure you understand how they feel about this specific thing before you go overboard on it.
If there’s something you don’t want to get for your family member… consider revising your opinion on that. I get that you may find it uncomfortable buying dresses for your newly out trans daughter, but those might be just the thing she needs from her parent — not just to twirl around, but to know that her parent sees and loves her for her. Your refusal to give categorically gender appropriate gifts isn’t going to help her feel whole or welcome.
As for what you should get… I can’t help you know this person and, honestly, I’m so Virgo that getting me a vacuum cleaner is peak loving-gift. You’re on your own here friend. I wish you success.
I saved this for last because I didn’t want to lead with a stern warning. To be blunt, your acceptance of your trans family could be the difference not just in whether they come to dinner next year or speak with you ever again, it might be the difference in if they’re alive next Christmas. The attempted suicide rate for trans people is roughly 41%, depending on who measures. Having an accepting parent can drop the chance of suicide by almost half. This might sound like I’m guilting you into accepting someone you don’t accept, I’m not. You need to understand the gravity of the dynamic so that you can make good, informed choices about how you treat your trans family. They changed, you need to change too.
The holidays are the coldest time of the year, but I think they’re the warmest. The holidays are when we come together, renew our bonds, and give each other the warmth that the world has denied us for the rest of the year. We symbolize it in fuzzy blankets, hot cocoa, mulled wine, and roasted chestnuts. For trans people the world can be very, very cold year round. So give them warmth, hearth, and home.
And please, this holiday, remember to accept things that are new to you. Your trans family member is a gift. Accept that gift. Accept the pronouns they offer and the name they give for you to use for them. When your trans family member gave you their name, their pronouns, and their vulnerability they also gave you their trust. They are trusting you to be the person they need you to be. I wish you the happiest holiday season, all the beauty in the world, and mettā for you and your family forever.
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