The following contains spoilers for Happiest Season.
Elena Joy Thurston knows the anxieties of dating someone who isn’t out to their parents. But she considers herself the poster child for how not to handle it. Thurston met her partner Kristen while learning to fly fish in Arizona in 2017. By Thanksgiving the next year, the two were dating and in love. Kristen was planning to spend the holiday with her family and decided to bring Thurston along — mostly because she didn’t want her beloved to be alone. At the time, Thurston was a single mom who’d just gone through a divorce. She was in the process of leaving the Mormon church and was focusing on regaining her mental health after undergoing a form of conversion therapy as an adult.
“When she found out I had no one to have Thanksgiving with, there was no question in her mind that she was bringing me with her,” Thurston says. The problem: Kristen wasn’t out to her parents. Thurston was concerned. “I was saying, ‘You’re ashamed of me. How can you be in love with me if you’re ashamed of who we are?’” Thurston remembers. So at about 10 p.m. the night before the holiday, Kristen texted her mom and told her she was in love with a woman, as Thurston watched her nervously from across the room.
Looking back, Thurston says she’d do things differently. “I now realize what a tender and significant moment it is to be honest with your family and come out to them,” she reflects. “Now I know, your partner coming out has nothing to do with you.”
Thurston, now 41, wishes she’d been in a different place and had more examples of what it means to come out — like a guidebook or a movie like Happiest Season, a romantic comedy in which Abby (Kristen Stewart) goes home for Christmas with her girlfriend Harper (Mackenzie Davis), who isn’t out to her parents.
The film is undeniably funny, but it also has heart. There are several moments that astutely capture what it’s like to be in a relationship where one person isn’t out to their parents. In one blowout scene, Abby confronts Harper and says, “Do you know how painful it’s been to watch the person that I love choose to hide me?” Harper responds, “I’m not hiding you. I am hiding me.”
"That scene, I cry every time I watch it,” Mary Holland, who co-wrote the script and stars in the movie as Harper’s sister Jane, tells Refinery29. “It’s so important to hear Harper’s side of it… She’s having this massive internal battle and struggling so hard to get through... And that is such a scary process. In that scene, it was so important for us to express that struggle and how hard it is for people."
Whether you’re from Arizona (like Thurston) or suburban Pennsylvania (like the fictional Harper), weighing whether to come out to family can be emotionally draining, to say the least. “Spending time with family of origin who don’t know or won’t acknowledge what can be a big part of someone’s identity can be destabilizing and cause stress, regression, dissociation, or other symptoms,” says Dulcinea Pitagora, PhD, LCSW, a sex therapist who uses they/them pronouns. That stress can be exacerbated by the holidays, and when there’s more than one person’s feelings on the line. We turned to experts like Dr. Pitagora for advice on handling the holidays when you’re in Abby and Harper’s shoes or if you're going through something similar.
If you’re in a relationship with someone, it’s natural to want to share your warm, glowy happiness. But if you’re not out, or your partner isn’t, it can complicate things. One of the best ways to navigate this is to communicate with your partner and set healthy boundaries, says Ty David Lerman, MA, LPC-S, a relationship and sex therapist who specializes in LGBTQ+ issues.
If you’re the one who isn’t out, be as clear as you can with your partner about why. During the holidays, ask them to understand that you’re not comfortable with them meeting your family yet. It might mean saying, “I appreciate you wanting to be involved, but I’m not ready to take that step yet,” Lerman says. Or, “I don’t feel safe enough in my relationship with my parents, and I’m going to choose not to come out. Please respect that.”
On the other hand, if you’re out and your partner isn’t, it’s crucial to both respect their boundaries and set your own. If, like in Happiest Season, your partner asks you to go back into the closet to meet their parents, consider how that will make you feel and remember that it’s OK to say no. “Ask yourself, ‘Is it compromising my moral code to put myself back in the closet in order to show up for you?’” Lerman says. “That’s a big ask.”
Lead with compassion.
If you're in a relationship where one or both of you aren’t out to your family yet, Lerman says it’s best to communicate openly and kindly with each other. “Lead with compassion,” he says. “If we’re the partner of someone considering coming out, it’s important to lead with the part of us that understands the fear and the worry they might be feeling.”
“Say, ‘I hear that this is where you are and it’s valid,” Lerman continues. “'You’re allowed to not be ready yet. I can respect that and honor that.'” As Levy says to Stewart in Happiest Season, “Just because Harper isn’t ready, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you.”
On the other hand, if your partner does decide to come out around the holidays, let them know you’ll be there for them no matter how it goes, Thurston says. Tell them you have their back, and be ready to have it.
Take all the time you need.
This is something Thurston says she wishes she and Kristen had done more of before Thanksgiving 2018. “We rushed it,” she reflects. Coming out is up to an individual, and it’s worth putting some thought into the decision. Asking questions like, “Will I be safe, physically and emotionally?” can be helpful when weighing your options, Lerman says. He adds that it’s also crucial to “prioritize our needs over wants.” You might want to share your relationship with your fam, but the need for safety should outweigh that, if that's a factor.
It’s important to consider timing, too. The holidays can be stressful. Because of this, you might consider waiting for a less hectic time, Lerman says. “It may be a little less convenient to do it another time, because everyone’s often already together for the holidays, Lerman says. “But it’s going to set you up for greater success if you take the path of least resistance.”
If you do decide to come out during the holidays, make a concrete plan, but also be flexible and give yourself permission to back out at the last minute if you’re not up for it, Dr. Pitagora says. If you do come out, “Go into it having done all the self-care possible,” Dr. Pitagora says. “Have an aftercare plan in place, which could include taking space to decompress or a phone call with a supportive friend to process and reaffirm. It’s also fine to leave the gathering, so it’s not a bad idea to have a plan in place for exiting early, for example if transportation is limited, what would good alternatives be?”
As for Thurston, she now runs a nonprofit, the Pride and Joy Foundation, where she supports LGBTQ families and the allies that love them. She’s learned a lot about coming out in the last few years, and even spent this week leading up to Thanksgiving doing a live Zoom advising people about coming out over the holidays. “I tell people, ‘You need to get in touch with your own self,’” she says. “Ask: ‘Is it invalidating for you to show up and not be who you are? Or is this a moment to protect yourself? Is it self care to not be vulnerable with your family through the holidays?’”
Thurston wishes she’d helped Kristen parse through these questions two years ago. She says if could talk to herself then, she’d say: “Your partner’s coming out has nothing to do with you, so stop taking offense that they’re not coming out to the people who have the most influence in their lives. This is potentially the riskiest undertaking — to be honest and vulnerable with their family — and your job is to support them through that, not to force them through it.”
Anne Cohen contributed to the reporting of this story.