All the Good Bits: Queer Christmas Under Lockdown

Eleni Zachariou explores silver linings, new traditions and the self-affirming nature of Christmas 2020 for many queer people forced to spend the festive season away from their family homes due to COVID-19 restrictions.

WORDS Eleni Zachariou

For some LGBTQ+ people the festive season can be difficult, even dreaded, and being wholly themselves around their relatives isn’t an option. Even if family members are accepting, being “out” can still elicit misunderstanding, disregard, or at worst resentment or violence. According to a Stonewall report published in 2018, only 46% of gay, lesbian and bisexual people and 47% of trans people feel they can be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity to everyone in their family. This shows that, while many people can be open with relatives about their identity, this isn’t the case for all; and even the people who are out can find the cultural gap between them and their relatives exhausting over long periods of time.

The multiplicity of being often makes our lives a web of complicated human connection, our lives are filled with disagreements and misalignments to navigate. Yet those whose family difficulties arise from a contention, or refusal, of their very existence, face a particular kind isolation – one that isn’t easy to walk away from. The nature of the family, as a structure, is hierarchical and, in turn, potentially coercive. The power imbalance between parent and child (even in adulthood) can act as a tool to make the vulnerable beholden to those who don’t respect their existence.

The family unit tells us that blood is thicker than water; that the viscosity of love between biological strangers cannot withstand the grip of genealogy. Yet, queer people have, by definition of existence, contradicted this for generations. Queer lives are rarely drawn along the same lines the family traditionally lays down, and rarely fit into the categories of acceptance that heteronormative culture demands. Out of necessity, queers have always redefined the form of the family, and the notion of the home as a closed unit, because the destination of those lives is different. The queer family is a congregation of the wayward, coalesced from many lines and many lives in tentacular ecstacy, that doesn’t require the individual to leave a part of themselves at the door. Because of this, and the solitude of being surrounded by those who don’t understand them, many queer people may attempt to limit prolonged exposure to family gatherings for their own wellbeing. Christmas, however, is often the inescapable requirement at the end of each year.

However, as we’re all well aware by now, 2020 was a year of change, bringing with it an unprecedented global crisis in the form of a pandemic that discarded “normality” somewhere in March. The pandemic scarcely needs introduction at this point and we’re all too familiar with the direct and indirect effects of the virus. Through efforts to stem its spread the shape of our lives have become wholly unfamiliar and a series of lockdowns, restrictions and tiers have altered the texture of everyday life immeasurably – Christmas being no exception. Contrary to the government’s promise that restrictions would be relaxed over the festive period, a sharp rise in cases and a new strain of the virus meant a swift U-turn on the Christmas plan and the introduction of tighter restrictions, under the moniker of Tier 4, in the South-East regions of the UK.

With Christmas effectively cancelled, many people found themselves in unique positions, unable to return to their families as usual. Though this was a  heart-breaking situation for many, with many people stranded away from loved ones, it appeared to me a silver lining – an opportunity. For the first time in my life, I had an inarguable justification for avoiding Christmas with my family. Though I’d previously considered spending the holidays alone, the backlash and consequences always far outweighed the payoff – besides the fact I’d never had anyone else to spend it with. The festive restrictions afforded me the excuse, that I didn’t want to put anyone unnecessarily at risk, and the collective conditions, that my friends could also excuse themselves from a family Christmas, to finally do things the way I wanted.

Usually as December rolls around the annual countdown begins, and the slow creep of yuletide advertising (originating somewhere at the end of October) is suddenly as ubiquitous as the stress sinking deep into my bones. Advent calendars, once exciting, are now harbingers of the approaching festivities and a warning to brace myself for a week of being spoken to (or at), but altogether unseen. A week of awkward questions asked across dinner tables and chasms of ignorance (or indifference), of hiding the unpalatable queerness in me, or the less than liberal political standings. The fragile veneer of festive cheer, or winning a game of Articulate, does little to hide the quiver at every incorrect pronoun, pointed criticism or the incessant drone of thinly veiled bigotry.

But this year the prospect of not pretending, hiding or making small the things I love about myself filled me with the kind of festive excitement I’d been missing. Suddenly I wanted to prepare, to plan, to make large, a space for care and comfort and feasting together. In the end, I spent Christmas with my housemates and our bubble, which included my partner and close friends. As we planned we spoke about the traditions we wanted to bring to our shared holiday, without judgment or favour; without hierarchy. The result was a slightly chaotic, but generally wholesome, day of games, drinking, good food, dancing and festivities (I still won Articulate, of course).  There were no arguments, no expectations and no awkward moments with people who don’t really know me. At the end of the evening we sat, slumped over the sofa in varying degrees of drunken contentment and all I felt was warmth. Despite all the turmoil of 2020, I found myself living a moment of the life I’d always dreamed of. With people I’d chosen to love, to care with, to laugh with. As one of my friends put it “you just get all the good bits.”

In light of all the good bits, and the days of recovery that inevitably follow any big celebration, I began to think more about the unique circumstances that had led to, what was undoubtedly, the best Christmas I’d ever had. I reached out and spoke to several others who had stolen joy in a similar shape over the festive period: I asked them about the good bits.

Dani (she/her)

I felt many things during this Christmas, but for the first time, loneliness wasn’t one of them.

Christmas isn’t a biggie for me. However, it is quite important to my partner (who I’m marrying later this year!) and she’s always wanted me to get into the festive spirit. Whilst I’d like to be able to do that for her and welcome Christmas into our family going forwards, it’s a time of year that I find really hard, and usually dread.

My dad is Jewish and doesn’t do Christmas at all (plus him and his family all live overseas), and I’m estranged from my abusive birth mother. Whilst in recent years (my early and mid-twenties) I’ve worked hard to build myself up and grow a family around me, some of the ways in which I differ from many of my peers do become more pronounced around the holidays. People tend to assume that 1) I celebrate Christmas and 2) I have a ‘family home’ to ‘go back to’. The reality of my situation is complex, sensitive, and quite painful for me, and conversations around ‘what are you doing for Christmas?’ tend to lead to more questions, confusion and awkwardness.

I feel like the Covid-19 situation has been a bit of an equaliser, in a way, and gave me permission to enjoy a low-key and non-traditional Christmas in 2020, since most people were having to do this, too. The past few Christmases I’ve hung out with just my partner and my wonderful siblings, and this year we were joined by our best mates who are another queer couple and are the definition of chosen family. I made a huge feast for us all and it was such a joy dancing about in my apron, eating and drinking what I wanted without shame or judgement, looking after my dearest loved ones, and generally being the matriarch of my own dreams. I felt many things during this Christmas, but for the first time, loneliness wasn’t one of them.

Emma (she/her)

We ate and drank and danced together, took goofy photos, jumped on the sofa, held each other and laughed, and didn’t argue at all.

What I loved about spending Christmas with friends was how I felt we were all coming to the celebrations as equals, negotiating our plans for the day around what we wanted. It was a time for us all to celebrate together with no sense of responsibility or obligation. It’s difficult going back to childhood homes for what it can remind you of childhood, or how the space can make you revert to a younger self, but also because returning to the countryside as a queer person is difficult – there is an ease to being in the city, among others like me – and as I don’t drive, I am beholden to other people to get around anywhere, or else am trapped at my parents’ home.

I also got to avoid the various awkward and uncomfortable social occasions with acquaintances (family friends and old classmates) that tend to remind me how out of place I am in that world. Instead, it was a celebration in and about this beautiful world I have been building for myself in London the past few years, a messy and chaotic one not about material possessions or expensive gifts but about care and joy and queer community. We ate and drank and danced together, took goofy photos, jumped on the sofa, held each other and laughed, and didn’t argue at all. It was a limited celebration because of the restrictions, but my home in London always feels less of a private space than my parents’ home; something open to all our loved ones here. Most importantly, it is a home without hierarchy in which we all care for each other and can draw our own boundaries.

SJ (they/them)

It was cosy and lovely, and I felt more loved than usual until the 2-hour family zoom which left me exhausted and self-loathing, which kind of says it all to be honest!

I am 37, bisexual and “gender wriggly”? I haven’t fully figured that out yet, but I use they/them pronouns. My family usually do a week together at Christmas, which often feels long, and I miss my queer family when there. My family try but there’s a massive gulf in understanding and I often feel I can’t be the real me when I am with them all. Having been in straight passing relationships for much of my life they “forget” I’m bisexual, though my Dad has made a point of asking if I am “seeing any PEOPLE, right now” which I appreciate.

This year, I didn’t feel lonely at all, and even had a wee video chat with the person I’m seeing (who my family don’t know about as I am not ready for that conversation). I got to have a delicious vegetarian meal of my choosing, wear pyjamas and not worry about things like my hairy armpits being noted. It was so freeing and is making me wonder how to limit the duration of my stays with them in future, which I feel guilty about. But in general, I found it to be exactly what I wanted. My relatives seemed to miss the big family aspect more, but I think us queer folk don’t always necessarily relate to that idea. Being around a lot of heteronormative couples in isolation for that long feels really alienating, but being alone, I could be me. It was cosy and lovely, and I felt more loved than usual until the 2-hour family zoom which left me exhausted and self-loathing, which kind of says it all to be honest!

Grace (she/her)

Christmas was ours this year. We had no rules, no one to impress. Not only could we be ourselves, but we celebrated ourselves.

Usually Christmas feels like such a performance. It’s like you sit and try to mimic what you see on TV, adverts, films and you’re always disappointed if your family doesn’t measure up. Even if it does, there’s a sense that the family “spirit” is being forced upon everyone. It’s especially hard for dysfunctional families, especially also if you are queer. Being queer,  you don’t get much opportunity to see yourself within this traditional family narrative- it can feel like there isn’t a place for you at the table. You end up with the choice to either blame yourself or to reject Christmas entirely.

Christmas was ours this year. We had no rules, no one to impress. Not only could we be ourselves, but we celebrated ourselves.

We spent Christmas in style with an elegant five course meal – made of everyone’s favourites. Cooked by my amazing friend Ruth, who was an organisational queen in the run up to the big day. It was made so exciting by the lack of things to do in the weeks leading up. We giggled all day and acted like kids (mostly me) as I tried to make a “home movie” on my video camera. I wanted to document a queer Christmas that we can look back to in years to come. The day was relaxed and easy- just good friends doing what we do everyday – that’s what family is, right? Feeling that you’re at home and not othered? No one to ask where I’m working, who I’m dating, no one to ask me anything other than to pass the ashtray. We drank and danced late into the night, friends had brought fetish gear and we played dress up in typical Berlin style. It was an honest portrayal of who we are and what we like to do. We felt elegant and strong, screaming in delight at each other’s outfits and documenting it far too much. We FaceTimed friends and avoided drunken family calls, we dipped from silly conversation to dancing in corsets. Too quickly it was over – it feels like one of the shortest days I’ve ever had (you can blame mid-day drinking). The most special part for me, to be honest, was how normal it felt to be spending Christmas in my own home, with the people I see everyday. I realised why I always feel so strange going ‘home’ for Christmas – because really, this is my home.

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