There are a number of reasons why the holiday season can be a time of anxiety for LGBTQ+ families. As many of us navigate the highs and lows of this period of togetherness, Director of Family Formation, Jess Venable-Novak, explores the complex and often contradicting emotions this season brings to them.
This Strange Feeling
Each year, as winter rolls in and the Solstice approaches, I’m hit with deep, unrelenting emotion. I think some people would call the feeling “nostalgia.” Maybe, “melancholy.” Some people even consider it to be a symptom of the “holiday spirit.”
For me, this feeling is too mystifying to label—too inextricably linked to myself to give a true name. I suppose the closest I can get is: “longing.” It feels like someone gently tugging at a string tied around my heart. I feel it when I pour my first cup of pre-dawn coffee. It’s sustained on midday walks, echoing in my bones as I shovel the driveway, nipping at my elbows when playing board games with my kiddo, and swirling my temples as I drift to sleep. In the joyful and the lonely, the dark and the light, I’m beholden to the ache of wanting something that is just barely out of reach and, at the same time, painfully familiar enough to be missed.
See, this time of year makes me overwhelmingly miss the past. That invisible string around my heart? This time of year, it tugs me to scrape the ice off my windshield and journey “home.” Suddenly, I find myself yearning for my parents’ house, homemade sauce, gingerbread houses in church basements, and plates of holiday cookies. I want to play Vince Guaraldi’s “Charlie Brown Christmas” on repeat, just like I know my dad is thousands of miles away. I want to ask questions like, “how can I help?” and “what time will we eat?” or revisit the dinner tables of exes that invited me into their traditions. I am nearly sick with longing for yule log cake, luminaries in snowstorms, and being tasked with stirring the mulled wine. I want to attend religious services to make grandparents happy. These days I ache to walk downstairs and see my parents’ decorated living room, with sun-soaked grey reflecting in from the picture window.
So, why won’t I call this “nostalgia?” Why do I refuse to accept this longing as a natural side effect of “holiday cheer?” Because, readers, it makes absolutely no sense.
Longing for a Past I Never Had
Like many LGBTQ+ folks who have found, formed, and chosen their families, my past is a minefield. Recalling it often feels like some sort of tingling on a phantom limb. In my world, there’s no “home for the holidays.” There are estranged family members and bigoted beliefs and unwelcoming neighborhoods. Even the good times weren’t actually overwhelmingly positive. On days when I’m more clearheaded, I recall familial fights, forced pleasantries, and closets stuffed with skeletons. Whether it’s the drop in temperature or the twinkle of holiday lights, I know that I’m yearning for the small stitches in an otherwise large, complicated tapestry (that I swear I gave up a long time ago!).
I am acutely aware of my reasons for not sustaining patterns of the past. In fact, I stand unwavering in those reasons, regardless of the time of year.
Finding My Family
Perhaps a part of this yearning is the inescapable narrative that correlates the holidays with togetherness, and the notion of togetherness is almost always tied to family.
But, I have one of those! I don’t just mean my partner and child, but my community—all of the people I’ve picked up along the way. These are the ones who loved me when I didn’t love myself, and the ones that feel like the home I want to grow old into. I bake them cookies, write them letters, and meet them on snowy street corners to exchange hugs.
As queer folks, we know that family can mean whatever we say it is – formed, found, or chosen. There is so much power in that for me; I can still immerse myself in connectedness, in community, but on my terms and how I see fit. Personally, this is one of the most precious truths of my experience of queerness, and it nudges me along the darkest days.
And I am so happy with my life, sweet readers. Not only with my community but with my choices, my beliefs, and my understandings. The small corner of the world I’ve carved out for myself is magnificent. Of course, most of it has been hard-earned, and the joys have stemmed from near-impossible decisions, difficult circumstances, and realities that leave little to be desired. But I’m proud of that, too. This hard life is mine, and I’m at peace with how I’ve chosen to live it. My life—like so many of yours, I’m sure—has been winding and long. But it is totally and completely mine. And, it’s rich with warmth and connection and other people because I’ve chosen to let love in, despite everything.
Rooted in Queerness
How can all of that be my truth and yet, I find myself bowled over by this unrelenting emotion each and every year? To be honest, your guess is as good as mine.
I don’t understand what I’m going through. But, I think I’m not the only one who feels this way.
As an LGBTQ+ person, I have had the deep honor of seeing other queer folks so clearly. This community has shown me time and time again its ability to understand things that I didn’t know needed understanding. So, it would be irreverent of me to assume I’m alone in this experience. If we queer folks know anything, it’s the juxtaposition of the world; the ways things that touch can be so different or things that are miles apart can be the same.
This experience of longing for something that is not there—something that I wouldn’t even want even if it were there—is so distinctly queer to me. It is full of contradictions, deeply individual and yet undeniably universal, pushing against so many of my fixed convictions and well-loved truths.
Can it get more queer than that?
So, maybe I don’t know what I’m going through. Maybe, as the holiday season passes this year, and another one approaches next year, the same feelings will be drudged up without an answer. But now, today, at least I can see the ways that my queerness—a collective self “that is at odds with everything around it,” as the late bell hooks wrote—is helping me survive its strangely shameful, wistful mourning.
If you know this feeling too, welcome. You’re not alone. There’s an entire community holding you up, ready to help you navigate this moment and to hold the feelings you don’t have words for yet (and may never have words for).
Thank you for sustaining me, dear friends.
Director of Family Formation
Jess is a queer, non-binary educator, organizer, and parent living in rural Vermont with their partner, kiddo, and a baby on the way. They’re also the Director of Family Formation at Family Equality and