Opinion Why Christmas can be a blessing and a curse for queer people like me…

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Closeup side view of a family having a Christmas eve dinner. They are having some traditional roast, gravy and vegetables and also some vegetarian food. There are three men and four women at the table having casual conversation.

Roughly one in four queer Brits aren’t out to their families. In face of such adversity, many LGBT people have re-imagined the holiday entirely

It seems that a proper Christmas get-together is on the cards this year, even if we’ve had to reduce our social contacts in the process. A source of joy and relief for millions in the UK, the prospect of spending Christmas with loved ones hasn’t felt this important for some time, in part because the last couple of years have left many of us craving the simple joys of spending time with family and friends. But it can be an incredibly difficult period too.

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For LGBT+ people in particular, relationships with the holiday can be as fraught and deeply complex as they are enjoyable. Visiting family for Christmas can evoke a whole spectrum of emotions – and in numerous cases, the concept of “family” has taken on an entirely different meaning to begin with.

Growing up as a queer Italian kid in Britain, Christmas was for me a moment of solace in a time of profound, inner solitude. Back then, I may not have been able to properly attribute such emotions to my burgeoning bisexuality, but I felt my identity and interests didn’t fully align with those of my peers.

At school, while other boys got muddy kicking a ball around the football pitch, I found my refuge in half-tattered art history books that I’d nicked (or, thanks to my kindly librarian, had been “gifted”) from the school library. The guys would gather in the locker room to drool over photos of attractive female celebrities, while I would be observing what latest fashions they were sporting. And if ever I made the feeble attempt to “fit in”, the others in my class made it clear that it was in vain. By the time I left for boarding school at 13, I couldn’t even count on the temporary comfort of coming home in the evening.

So an adrenaline rush of excitement would kick in every December as soon as my parents announced that plane tickets to Milan had been booked. Spending Christmas in my hometown wasn’t just about looking forward to the presents, the snow, the food, or any of the other festive delights children typically cherish. It meant being with relatives and family friends who not only accepted but fundamentally embraced and celebrated me for who I was. I would sit at the Christmas table, gushing over my favourite painting or the newest pop star’s album, and be welcomed with curiosity and interest, rather than derision.

Such warm memories have left me with an almost childlike predilection for Christmas – which is why, after more than a year in and out of lockdown, I’m overjoyed to be able to go back to my grandparents’ house to celebrate the holidays this year.

But almost as quickly as I outgrew my belief in Father Christmas, so too did I lose faith in the quasi-thaumaturgical power of the holiday.

I came to realise that my supportive family and the strong community of friends I formed after school blinded me to a harsher truth: Christmas not only can be a deeply challenging time time for many – those suffering through bereavement, mental illness or domestic abuse, for instance – but for a significant chunk of the LGBT+ community, it’s a painful reminder of the rejection they endure at the hands of those closest to them.

Roughly one in four queer Brits are not out to their families and a similar percentage of UK parents would not feel proud to have an LGBT+ child. As an occasion where LGBT+ people frequently face the whole gamut of queerphobic attitudes, from outright ostracisation to the subtlest of micro-aggressions – such as having to mask a same-sex relationship as a “friendship” – Christmas can open up fresh wounds every year.

In the face of such adversity, however, some queer people have re-imagined the holiday in its entirety, forging new, chosen “families” of their very own with whom to mark the occasion.

Outsidermas, an annual Christmas dinner in Camden Town’s Castlehaven Community, is one such space for queer people to celebrate outside of their households. Founded three years ago by the Outside Project, a shelter for homeless queer individuals, it provides a safe place for members of the LGBT+ community who feel alone during the holidays.

“Christmas can be alienating for our community, particularly for those who have suffered domestic abuse and been made homeless by their families,” stated Carla Ecola, the Outside Project’s director.

While many of Outsidermas’ attendees have nowhere else to spend the day, some join out of frustration with their families’ intolerant attitudes.

“Some just don’t want to bother themselves with the same LGBTIQ+ phobic digs, jokes and invasive questions from relatives who’ve had too much sherry,” Ecola added. “Why put up with it when you can have the best day with your own queer family instead?”

Testimonies from Outsidermas’ regulars vividly illustrate just how much it means for many queer individuals to spend the day with fellow members of their community that understand and uplift them.

“Never had a Christmas like it,” said Astro, a community member. “The day was full of queer joy and magic to feel part of a big queer family.”

Kiki, a former guest of the shelter, added that “it was the best Christmas with the people [I] lived with, and had the best vibe… because otherwise I would have been alone for Christmas.”

As someone who grew up in a tight-knit Italian family, I never fully understood the concept of “chosen families”. But reading testimonies like these opened my eyes to a whole new meaning of family – as a network where we feel at home, even if that means being with people we barely know to begin with.

Christmas ultimately represents a seminal moment in the lives of queer people. It forces us to look closely at the world that surrounds us and to identify who our allies truly are.

As we go back to celebrating the occasion with our loved ones again this year, LGBT+ individuals are freshly confronted with this issue. For some, it may mean clinging to the families that raised us. For others, it’s a chance to create new “families” made up of friends and like-minded individuals who understand us. What unites us all, however, is knowing that we seek to spend the day in a community where we feel loved and valued. We all want to “come home” for Christmas – the question is, what is “home” for us in the first place?