Thanksgiving is over, but the holiday season is far from it. Our December break is coming up, and, though I might be inclined to say that Mariah Carey’s unfortunately heartfelt attempts at 45-year-old whistle notes are the true evils of Christmastime, I’ll stick to genuine cultural critique.
Holidays are times of familial anxiety for queer people. People who aren’t out to their parents and loved ones face the constant fear of close interactions turning into revealing discussions. Tiptoeing around many subjects, especially those of LGBTQ+ discourse, becomes an absolute necessity at the dinner table. The winter break, which has been haughtily homogenized as “Christmastime,” brings with it the accompanying proximity that all family gatherings do. This time, however, is special in its requirement of both gifts and openness. Christmastime, once a form of celebration and individualist capitalism, has become a Maussian gift-giving cycle that has evolved too far for its own good.
No longer does Christmas bring smiles to the faces of queer kids; rather, the marginalized often feel only fear and loathing. For those who have not come out, especially those who don’t know whether or not their family space is safe for them, holidays are solely times for apprehension and careful speech. When you’re not out to those who are supposed to be closest to you, every word must be explicitly regulated and metered in order to avoid accidentally revealing something about yourself that could make your situation violent, unhappy, and abusive.
Even for those who are out, the time of Christmas is borderline threatening. Family environments are often sources of agitation or nervousness, as the limits of dialogue on non-normative subjects either far exceeds what queer people want to talk about, or it quickly brings anger to the faces of those around us. Managing parents who aren’t approving, family members who are dangerous or violent, or siblings who side-eye and snicker takes time and energy away from the members of our society that are already denigrated and delegitimized.
Many family members simply want their queer relatives to keep quiet about their identity. Unfortunately, what they fail to realize is that this silence is itself a form of violence: a micro-aggression for sure, but one that relies on inaction. This, for many, is even worse, as queerness has become so deeply ingrained in their being that it is inseparable from the rest of their identity. Family gatherings are always rife with discomfort, but, for people whose identities are constantly reviled and censored, they become a specific site of intense cruelness. The power of heteronormativity shapes both the holiday tradition itself (there’s a reason why your favorite songs use sexualized language to the tune of female subjugation) and our supposed celebration of it. The latter, given its requirement of violence, shapes our relationship to the former and often precludes a happy feeling during Christmastime.
These critiques all, of course, assume that the subject of this analysis has a family to go back to. Sadly, queer youth are among the most likely to be homeless and therefore are among the least likely to even celebrate Christmas or participate in its surrounding festivities. According to the Williams Institute and the National Coalition for the Homeless, “40% of the homeless youth served by agencies identify as LGBT,” while “30% of clients utilizing housing programs identified as LGBT.” The NCH website similarly states that “LGBT youth are also disproportionally homeless due to overt discrimination when seeking alternative housing,” meaning that those who are without homes are the rule rather than the exception.
Queer youth do not have access, in the same way that non-queer people do, to the holiday traditions, household convocations, and happy emotionalism that pervade the discourse of Christmas itself. As a time for familial love and joy, Christmas has failed queer kids who do not have access to homes or families— or perhaps it was built on the same imperative of heteronormativity as a whole, and therefore succeeded in its real goal (that is, the exclusion of queer people from participation in its events).
More generally, though, the form of the family that the Christmas tradition is built upon is in and of itself a form of violence. The nuclear family, rather than being denied by late capitalism, is proffered as the foremost unit of expansive consumerism. Proposing radical modes of kinship and friendship over the nuclear family structure, Jack Halberstam writes that the “family promises… a form of belonging that binds the past to the present and the present to the future by securing… the figure of the child.”
Thus, the family itself has become antagonistic to that figural queer of politics. The normativity established by Christmas is intimately bound to a highly unrealistic, regularizing, and hegemonic form of the family unit, which is produced in opposition to the desires of queer youth. Holiday traditions, certainly spectacular in their iterations, are now simply the exaggerated, albeit logical, conclusion of their origins. Christmas started out as a religious celebration and has, as holidays often do, become commodified by the orders of gender and sexual normativity. Thus, in its most modern form, the consumer is bombarded with a multiplicity of meanings that somehow all lead to one end— the family.
Similarly, as Lee Edelman says in his 1995 article “Unstating Desire,” the pain that really comes from this time of family gathering “is, of course, the prohibition… that forecloses any but the most guilty experiences of hostile or negative feelings: feelings of disaffection, disidentification, or even profound dislike.” Queerness, already established as deviant and therefore denied subjectivity, is thus denied its truest form of self-expression. When Christmas forces us together, queer youth can no longer talk about that which assaults us daily in the most pure and virulent form— structural abuse. The command of Christmas is thus a prohibition on true fellow feeling, an order to talk to your parents and family about everything that’s familiar and non-private. For some reason, what everyone’s homophobic grandpa finds agreeable is now what we’re allowed to really discuss. Christmas is supposedly a time of happiness, of family communalism, of love and affection, of acceptance. We must then ask: why is it that queer people can’t seem to find happiness and individualism in the holiday that so explicitly glorifies those values?