“Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world.
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I’m a 25-year-old queer Southeast Asian man who came out a few years ago to my parents. They aren’t super conservative or religious, but they still didn’t handle the news well. They had this idea of me marrying a woman and having kids, and they still bring it up every time I see them. They’re also always trying to set me up with “smart, nice” women they know—basically pretending like they don’t even know I’m queer. I have tried to talk to them about this, many times, but it basically feels like talking to a wall at this point. Part of it has to do with their cultural understanding (or lack thereof) about queerness. In their generation, queer people didn’t come out or talk about their sexuality; they just pretended to be straight and had queer sex/affairs in secret. I understand this, but it still really hurts.
My parents always invite me over for Christmas dinner, and I normally go because I do really care about them. But I also don’t know if I can keep doing this. Most of my queer friends are white, and they say that I should have better boundaries and spend the holidays with them instead, since my family isn’t supportive and “unsafe for queers.” But honestly, it’s not as simple as they think, and sometimes their advice just makes me feel worse. In my culture, leaving family is not an option. Family is everything in my culture. What should I do? — A Little Christmas Queer
Dear Christmas Queer,
I don’t know of a more stressful time for queer communities (or really, any communities) than the holiday season. Whether we’re with family and/or friends or we’re spending the time solo, everything about this time of year tends to feel charged and loaded with emotional baggage. Queer people of colour in particular are often forced to navigate many layers of complex interpersonal and social dynamics: For one thing, Christmas is a colonial holiday that was imposed on our families, which can feel weird to begin with. But also, for families who have lived through forced migration and diaspora, the holidays can be one of the few times when we have the opportunity to gather and be with one another without the stress of the racist world pressing down on us.
When we are queer, however, celebrating in a family of colour can be very complicated—it can feel like we have to choose between the queer community (which tends to be dominated by white folks, at least in North America) and our families and cultures of origin. So wherever we go, we don’t fit in. Whatever we choose, we still don’t belong. It’s a Catch-22, and there isn’t really a good solution because the truth is, this isn’t something we can control.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re doomed to the holiday blues forever, Christmas Queer—on the contrary. I do think it’s possible for us to both live fully in our queerness and maintain relationships with our families at the same time. And I believe that what makes this possible is refusing to choose between queer community/chosen family and family of origin—that instead, we can choose ourselves.
What does that mean, you ask? To me, choosing yourself means centring and being honest about your own needs. This can be an incredibly difficult thing for people to do, especially if, throughout our lives, we’ve been encouraged to put the needs of others first. The narrative of the “secret queer” that you describe in your letter, where a queer person gets married and has children in order to satisfy the needs of family and society, is a great example of putting the needs of others first. !!!
This narrative is very prevalent in my culture—I’m Chinese Canadian—as well. Indeed, my own family of origin once suggested to me that I should try “only being trans inside the house” in order to protect the family business! In many cultures, especially ones where queerness has been repressed by Christian, European colonization, this kind of thinking isn’t necessarily malicious or intentionally abusive—though it can certainly be traumatic, don’t get me wrong.
I think it comes from a cultural norm of personal sacrifice for the collective good: My parents made enormous sacrifices to protect me. It only made sense to them that I make a sacrifice (I don’t think they really understood what they were asking me to give up) to protect our family too. No doubt my parents also thought that they were protecting me from discrimination and public violence.
You know what, Christmas Queer? I still do believe that a certain amount of collectivist thinking is important for maintaining strong, loving families. I still do believe that family is everything. I am still Chinese in that way, and that’s not something I will ever give up. What I don’t believe is that hiding my transness is protecting my family—because my transness makes my family better and stronger.
This, I believe, is true for your family as well, Christmas Queer, although they do not know it. Your identity and your self-expression are powerful gifts. So when you put your own needs first, you will be teaching your family how valuable you are. Beautiful!
What this might look like is taking some time by yourself or with a friend, therapist or spiritual guide to figure out what your specific needs are around family and spending time together. You could even write an actual list of your needs that you can always go back to in times when the expectations of others start to become overwhelming or confusing.
Safety and being respected are some obvious needs that all of us have when it comes to family, which are emphasized in queer community. What’s often less obvious, though, is that humans also have a deeply-rooted psychological instinct to seek closeness with our families of origin—even when they are hurtful or dismissive to us. For queers, who often experience harm (whether intentional or unintentional) at the hands of our families, this instinct for closeness may come into direct conflict with our need for emotional safety, which can cause great psychological pain.
When we have two conflicting needs (emotional safety versus closeness with family), it’s easy to go into oversimplification, or what’s sometimes called “black and white thinking.” I think this is why queer community (perhaps especially white queer community) goes so quickly to “if your family can’t respect your identity, then don’t see them at all!” This all-or-nothing thinking is a protective mechanism, meant to keep us from feeling the pain of giving up one need to prioritize another.
But of course, it’s not always so simple: For queer people of colour, our families are sometimes our only link to our cultures, our heritage, our mother tongues, to knowledge of our pasts and our ancestral lineages. For queer people of colour, our family traumas are sometimes also deep bonds, an intimacy and understanding that are impossible to find elsewhere.
So in order to get both of our needs met, we sometimes have to be both firm and creative. You might, for example, decide that you can be with your family for Christmas, but set a boundary that if your parents start talking about setting you up with women, you will leave (for the evening, not necessarily forever).
I would suggest letting your parents know about such boundaries in a calm, clear way, that is open to discussion, but not debate. For example, you might say, “Mom and Dad, I really want to be here with you today, but when you talk about setting me up with women, that really hurts me because, as I’ve told you, I’m queer. And if you keep on doing that, then I’m going to have to leave. We can talk about this if you want, but I need you to know that I’m never going to stop being queer, and if you try to convince me otherwise, I will have to leave.”
This gives you a chance to explain to your parents how their behaviour makes you feel, but doesn’t open you up to being emotionally attacked. If a debate starts, I would suggest ending the conversation in whatever ways feel comfortable/safe—remember, you won’t be “ruining the evening” by doing so. Taking care of your needs is not ruining anything—rather, it’s preserving your mental health, which is a good thing for all of your relationships.
Once you set a boundary, following through with it is important in order to make your needs and agency clear to your family. This isn’t about punishment—you’re not trying to emotionally blackmail your parents or make them feel bad—it’s simply about showing both your family and yourself that your needs really matter, and that you will take care of them if your parents don’t. This is the true meaning of having healthy boundaries: It’s taking care of yourself when others can’t or won’t.
Once we start setting boundaries and following through with them in our relationships, it can sometimes be shocking how quickly our loved ones learn and change. This has been the case for several queer friends of mine and their families of origin. However, it is also very possible that our loved ones will act shocked or hurt even when we set the fairest of boundaries to protect ourselves. While this is a common, even normal, reaction, it does not mean that setting boundaries is wrong. This is why it is extremely important to have good support around when we start to create new boundaries in our interpersonal lives.
Therapists, counsellors, life coaches and other professionals can be a good foundation of support for this. (When I was a therapist, it was not uncommon for me to set up check-in calls with clients after their visits to family. It’s a practice I recommend!) Queer community can also be a great support.
For our queer communities and chosen families to provide us with good support around negotiating family of origin, however, they need to be able to understand our actual needs, rather than projecting onto us what they think we need. Here is where choosing yourself comes in again: It sounds like you might need to have a conversation with your queer friends about how they can really be helpful instead of simply telling you not to see your parents.
While it’s wonderful that your friends are concerned about how you feel when you’re with your parents, they need to understand that your need for closeness with them is just as valid as your need for emotional safety. And it would probably feel more supportive if they tried to help you figure out ways to get both closeness and safety from your parents rather than repeatedly encouraging you to cut off ties, which you’ve already expressed isn’t an option, at least right now.
Perhaps one of your friends could be your check-in call person—they could be ready to talk or pick you up should things at Christmas dinner go south. Maybe one might even be willing to go to Christmas dinner with you as a support person! There are many ways of supporting you that don’t involve asking you to choose between queer family and blood family.
You see, here’s the thing, Christmas Queer: There may not be any good solutions. But there are solutions. And when we start putting our needs first—all of them—I think it is possible, if only for a moment here and there, for us to have it all.