"It’s OK if it’s not the most wonderful time of the year" reads a massive billboard in Hackney, part of a campaign for Scarlett Curtis’ mental health anthology, It’s Not OK to Feel Blue (and other lies). Christmas can be a strenuous time of year for a number of people for a number of reasons, including those who may have lost someone during the year, people who live with depression and other mental health issues, and people who may struggle with alcohol addiction. The season is also particularly difficult for LGBTQ+ folk who may not be able to bring their full selves home, or who may have been rejected by their biological family for attempting to do just that.
Christmas, like any other family-oriented holiday, is a time when queer folk rely on their chosen family as a source of strength. Queer ethnography resource Queer Queries defines a chosen family as "a group of individuals who deliberately choose one another to play significant roles in each other’s lives." The members of a chosen family don’t need to be biologically related and often offer the support and affirmation that biological families have withheld from queer family members. The significance of chosen family and support networks can be seen in the demand for events such as LGBTQ+ youth worker Tanya Compas’ Queer Black Christmas, a day-long event for young black LGBTQ+ people from around the UK who are estranged from or have strained relationships with their families for a multitude of reasons.
Bekah recently had to stop all communication with her mother and older siblings, with whom she had been close until her relationship with her partner got serious. "[My partner and I] moved in together and are now engaged but my family did not take the news well," she tells Refinery29. "My mum said she didn’t give birth to a gay child and that she would never attend a gay wedding, meanwhile my older sister (previously my closest ally) has refused to meet my partner, citing all kinds of ridiculous reasons." Bekah’s actions were compared to "selling drugs" and she was accused of "putting [her] happiness before the family".
She highlights that spending time with family members who hold beliefs that queerness is deviant and unnatural creates a unique drain for LGBTQ+ people during the holidays: "You’ll usually have to tone down parts of yourself that may shock family members, you won’t get to talk about anyone you’re dating or be your full self. Pretending to be someone you’re not during a time that’s supposed to be filled with authentic connection and joy is a drain on your mood and mental health."
Bekah will be spending Christmas with other folks in her borough who are alone for the festive period, however, she feels far from alone. "I have a group chat filled with people I met during a Stonewall residential trip for young QTIPOC campaigners early this year. I can lean on these people whenever I need as we have an understanding that we will always support each other, though we are all spread across the UK. The WhatsApp group is like a sanctuary."
This Christmas, Alex*, a genderfluid person, will also be relying on support from outside their biological family and will be staying with their girlfriend’s family over the festive period as they no longer have a relationship with their parents. "[My mum] outed me to my dad, who repeatedly told me that I was an abomination, I was going to hell and I was an embarrassment to the family." Their father soon apologised and asserted he would be better, however, when Alex brought their girlfriend of two years to their parents’ house, he wouldn’t let them in. They continue: "A few months ago, my mum attempted to reconnect and have dinner with me, but it was really a homophobic ambush where she brought a man her pastor knew to tell me that I had emotional problems and that two women shouldn’t be together."
Much of what Alex has been grappling with hinges on the conditional acceptance they previously experienced from their biological family as well as knowing that the seasonal festivities they once shared are a thing of the past: "Christmas is hard for me because I have such good memories of Christmas with my parents but then I remember that I won’t be able to make any good new memories with them for a long time."
Some black LGBTQ+ folk, like Shane*, will be spending Christmas with family that they have not been able to come out to in any capacity. "My Jamaican parents are homophobic and transphobic among other things," they say. "I find Xmas hard in particular because it’s supposed to be this time where you’re around family, celebrating going into the new year and counting blessings but there’s always tension when we’re all in the same room together – we don’t know what to talk about." It’s even harder seeing presents and cards for them that are marked with the wrong name. "It’s bad enough that my non-binary identity gets invalidated by them every day but it really stings when you read 'daughter'. I wish I could sleep through it and [wake up in] January." Shane credits their chosen family with keeping them sane and alive throughout this period in their life. "I think I wouldn’t be here without them; they’re more like a family than my biological one."
It’s for these very reasons that an event like Queer Black Christmas exists, with its creator Compas also citing the critical importance of chosen family as a reason for its existence. "Chosen family have upheld me, supported me and uplifted me when I didn’t know I needed it, whether it was people offering me a sofa to stay on, a bed to sleep in, cooking me food or just some words of encouragement."
"My therapist often refers to chosen family as logical family, as opposed to biological family," Compas adds. "Chosen family are the people who make sense to you and the people who help you make sense to yourself."
*Name has been changed to protect interviewee's identity