When I was younger, before I was married and raising a child, it was easier to fly under the radar at holiday get-togethers if I wanted to. To the untrained eye, I might be pegged for a tomboy. When I’m alone, I don’t necessarily always read as a big old lesbian, particularly for people who don’t recognize LGBTQ people in their everyday lives. But when I’m with my wife and son, we are very clearly a queer family.
Aside from the obvious concerns we have about our safety and well-being when we’re walking down the street or traveling to another town or state or country that might be hostile, there’s a more subtle — but equally pervasive — feeling of dread that creeps in around the holidays. It’s the at-attention stance we’re forced to take as we await a firing squad of awkward and sometimes inappropriate questions, an exhausting posture that I’d love to shed at a time of year when I prefer to just eat pie in elastic-waisted pants and not have to make small talk about donor sperm.
We’re exempt at smaller gatherings when it’s just immediate family in attendance. That’s when I know we can be ourselves and we don’t have to be on guard. But often, holiday invitations bring new faces — the in-laws invite friends we’ve never met, a family member brings their new boyfriend, the neighbors stop by with their out-of-town guests — and then we find ourselves having to navigate a slippery and sometimes uncomfortable situation.
Perhaps surprisingly, the most awkward situations often aren’t the most obvious ones. We have, of course, experienced the cousin who spews bigotry; the homophobic aunt who clings to religion as justification; the timid mother-in-law who isn’t sure how to introduce us. But often the most uncomfortable moments are when someone we’ve just met is trying really hard, too hard, to relate and to let us know they’re okay with LGBTQ people.
“Oh, that’s so nice that you decided to have a child,” said one person we had just met at a holiday gathering. They were well-intentioned and friendly, but syrupy in a way that felt borderline disingenuous and overcompensatory. It was as if she had to prove that she was accepting of our LGBTQ family by being overly happy for us.
It’s not the first time we’ve heard that song and dance. That line is nearly always followed by “I have a friend of a friend’s [insert person they vaguely know] who did that in [insert liberal city they’ve never traveled to],” as they try to relate.
It is generally less painful if they veer the conversation in a different direction entirely at this point, and I’ll often help by asking an innocuous question about something unrelated. “Is that shirt from Banana Republic? I almost bought one just like it,” or “Who made that chocolate cream pie? I think I tasted a hint of bourbon in it.”
But about half the time the diversion is unsuccessful, and people further their efforts to show that they’re LGBTQ-cool by asking a question or making a comment that is more straightforwardly uncomfortable for us, like “So, how did you do it?” That’s how my wife and I have often found ourselves talking about menstrual cycles, reproductive organs and mail-order sperm at the holiday dinner table.
Don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing wrong with taking on the role of educator. I don’t usually tire of playing that part, and I do appreciate people who are trying to understand and be respectful. I recognize that someone who has little to no exposure to LGBTQ families is naturally curious about how two women or two men can make a baby. It flies in the face of what they’ve been taught.
But in the same way that I wouldn’t assume or ask about things in their private life, like how they created their children, I find it strange that people feel they can be nosier, or more intimate, or whatever it is, when they are faced with my LGBTQ family. Even if I’ve never met them before and they’re standing in my living room.
If the tables were turned and I were at their holiday soiree, I would compliment their vase and ask if it had any special meaning. I would compliment their meal and ask if there were any special ingredients. I would compliment them on their children and ask what they like to do for fun. I would never ask how the kids were conceived. Or whether the man was the real father, or whether the mother used her own eggs and uterus. For some reason, though, people seem to have no qualms about asking us these kinds of intimate questions.
I’ve often been tempted to respond just with, “Well when two people love each other …”
The truth is, I welcome and even crave acceptance from — and friendly banter with — new people during the holidays. I just wish they knew that it’s actually much easier to be inclusive than they may think. We probably have more in common as fellow parents and human beings than we have differences. They don’t have to claw their way out of their awkward feelings about my sexual identity by trying to drop every reference to LGBTQ people they’ve ever encountered.
It’s much more welcome when people ask me the same things they would ask anyone else. Questions like “How old is your child?,” “Where does he go to school?” and “What are his favorite things to play?” are all perfectly acceptable, universal subjects that would make me feel a part of the gathering rather than the awkward lesbian with the family who is different. The fact that the person is engaging me in friendly banter is enough evidence that they’re okay with who I am and how my family came to be. Nothing more is needed.
So, this holiday, when you meet my family, just treat us like you would any other. We’ll be happy to treat you the same.
Allison Hope Kahn is a writer in Connecticut. Find her on Twitter @bubballie.