Gay and Gray is a monthly column at Time Goes By written by Jan Adams (bio) in which she thinks out loud for us on issues of aging lesbians and gay men. Jan also writes on many topics at her own blog, Happening-Here, and you will find her past Gay and Gray columns here.]
Ah - the holidays! That season that begins with Thanksgiving and ends with New Years (or for some, the college football "national championship" game a week later) is a time when it is almost mandatory for us to be enjoying fun and family. When this ideal crashes into our real lives, it can be painful. Holiday induced stress and depression is so common that the Mayo Clinic posts 10 tips for coping.
For people who find the holidays hard, being gay can make it harder. Most obviously, if we don't have children (and many of us do), it can be difficult to fit into family-centered celebrations. But holiday depression can have a lot of other features. Consider this story from an advice site called The Body:
”I'm a 55-year-old, recovering alcoholic, HIV-positive, single gay male. Over the last 20 years I've lost many close friends due to AIDS and I have not been able to regain the kind of social life I once had. I have no family; they rejected me due to my homosexual orientation. My romantic involvement with men has always been very limited and now, with my HIV status and my age, it is non-existent.
“In addition, I'm not a religious man; I have never found any comfort from or motivation to seek out religion due to punitive religious views on homosexuality. My point is that during the holiday season this all seems to hit me harder and I become seriously depressed.”
Summing up his story, if your circumstances leave you already lonely and outside the comforts that many of us find in our various communities, the holidays can be especially tough for gay folks.
On the other hand, as all online helping tip sheets will tell us, the holidays are what we make of them. Here's the story of how my partner of 30 years and I have learned to cope.
When we were first together, though none of our parents were outright rejecting of our homosexuality and our relationship, they also didn't take us seriously as an established couple. As women in our late 20s and early 30s, considered unmarried (as much by ourselves as everyone else), we were each expected to spend at least part of each holiday season with our families of origin.
This was complicated in the contemporary way as one set of parents had bifurcated. So for the first ten years or so, each of us would spend large parts of the holiday season traveling, separately, to be with family; we each sometimes felt deprived by not being able to be with each other on these festivals that epitomize "family.”
In the second decade of our relationship, parents and family had more or less gotten used to our being a couple. Now, when we did the holiday travel, we often did it together, visiting families in turn. Since our parents were aging and slowing down themselves, being together with them came to feel that much more urgent.
In the same time period, our women's support group - ten or so middle-class lesbians without children - became self-consciously aware of itself as an alternative family. Gathering every six weeks, we have stuck by each other through break-ups and recouplings, through physical and mental health traumas, through the deaths of parents and difficult job transitions.
Gradually we began to celebrate some holidays. The group had started out evenly divided between mostly secular persons of Jewish and Christian origin. As we aged, we adopted two Jewish celebrations, the Passover seder and Hanukkah, as our annual feasts.
In 1991, my father died. In the same year, my partner's increasingly less independent mother had moved near us to have more support. My mother became the one who traveled; she'd join us all in San Francisco for Christmas. Our holiday pattern was then that of a more conventional family, though one without young children.
This had its difficulties; the two mothers disliked each other on sight and didn't often make for good company; were we losing the great benefit of "chosen" alternative families which is that if you don't want to be with particular individuals, you have no obligation to them? Yes.
About ten years ago, as a couple, we also joined a friendly little Episcopal Church, a return to parts of our childhood spiritual roots for both of us, though my partner is also Jewish (she can explain; I'm not going to speak for her). That gay-friendly environment gave us yet another community in which to celebrate another set of religious holidays.
Though running back and forth between the secular, familial, Jewish and Christian observances can be strenuous, all of them involve loved communities that enrich our lives.
The last of our four parents, my partner's father, died two years ago and since then, we've realized we've acquired yet another set of family that draws us for holidays. My partner's father's unmarried (woman) partner of 43 years (can you untangle that? - you can do it) comes with five children and various younger relatives. We're now part of the core of this group that celebrates Thanksgiving with her. This is new. It's slightly astonishing this late in life to realize we're part of yet another family grouping - delightfully astonishing.
Is it perhaps the experience, as gay outsiders, of needing to choose affirmatively to nurture "family" and community that has enabled us find such a richness of connections? Or just luck?
And sometimes it is all too much. We have to get away with each other. This year, as you read this, we're spending Christmas literally at the end of the earth trekking in Patagonia. Greetings from the summer solstice!
[Editorial Note: While she is away in Patagonia, Jan prepared posts for her blog, Happening Here, so there is a new story every day.]
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ellen Younkins: Santa Baby - 2009