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5 Crucial Ways to Support Your Non-Binary Family During the Holidays

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I didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving with my family this year and I’m not sure if I’ll celebrate Christmas with them either — not necessarily because I don’t want to, but because I am putting self-care first.

As a non-binary person, it has been challenging to get my immediate family to understand my existence. I have educated them on the idea of gender identity — of my gender identity, pronouns and name changes. It’s a lot to take in for someone completely new to the queer community or LGBTQIA+ issues. The idea of “coming out” and doing this same level of education with my extended family is mortifying. These are people I’m not as close with, people who I feel will be critical of me, and people who will make it uncomfortable to enjoy the holidays.

I don’t want the focus of the holidays to be on me coming out, but I am also sad to miss out on seeing my family members. However, it is too hurtful to hear my birth name (being “dead-named”) and pronouns instead of the name and pronouns I chose to represent my non-binary identity. Granted, most of my family members don’t realize they’re hurting me because I have not come out yet, but I also don’t feel comfortable to do so. I choose to stay home for the holidays and then see individual family members on my own time so I can spend more quality time with them and have a better opportunity to come out if I feel safe doing so.

Gender non-conforming, non-binary and transgender folks all can have an especially hard time during the holidays because of a lack of acceptance, increased depression and anxiety, and simply all of the terrible ways we are mistreated or face microaggressions this time of year. If you have a friend or loved one who is non-binary or gender non-conforming, here are a few things you can do to ease their anxiety during the holidays:

1. Call them by their name.

I realize this one sounds obvious, but for some reason, it is really challenging for people — especially parents, siblings and grandparents. If your non-binary family member told you to use a different name when referring to them than the name they were assigned at birth, then only use that name.

I realize there’s a learning curve for people to adjust to the new name, but it’s not up for discussion and your opinion about whether you like the name is irrelevant. It’s not about you. It’s about them. And they chose this name, felt comfortable enough to share it with you in hopes of your understanding, and so it’s a matter of respect to continue using it. Every slip up I hear (or worse, deliberately calling me by my birth name) puts me in a state of anxiety and self-doubt. It’s really an unnecessary feeling because it’s just a name and an issue that could’ve been avoided entirely. When I changed my last name for marriage, I didn’t experience any of the resistance I’ve faced when changing my first name. People used my married name as a sign of respect and the same should hold true for people changing their first names.

It’s a small change on your part but makes a huge difference on their part. This shows them you respect them, you see them for who they are and you still love them. So please, use their chosen name.

2. Use their pronouns.

Going along with #1, if your non-binary family member asks you to use different pronouns when referring to them (or him/her), please honor this request.

If your response is that “them” is for multiple people, read this article over again. I am only using the singular “they” pronoun to refer to a single non-binary person. If their pronouns sound strange to you, again remember that your family member thought long and hard about what pronouns feel right to them — something not every person does — and these pronouns are the ones that help them feel seen as their authentic self. When you use the wrong pronouns, this is considered misgendering them. Imagine if they called you “she” or “he” instead of whatever your pronouns actually are. Wouldn’t it feel wrong and insulting to you? Even though your family member is asking you to adjust your language with new pronouns, they still might feel insulted if you slip up constantly or flat-out refuse to use the new pronouns.

There should be a learning curve when it comes to changing pronouns and names, but only a curve and not a permanent line. When I don’t hear my pronouns by my family (which is constantly), I feel like they don’t respect my gender identity and they don’t understand how hurtful they are being. It is crucial for transgender and non-binary folks to feel validated to improve their mental health, especially during the holidays. If you want to validate your non-binary family member, please use the pronouns they request 100 percent of the time (whether they are present in the room or not).

3. Educate yourself on trans and non-binary issues.

Gender identity is complicated and it can be helpful to educate yourself on transgender and non-binary issues. Do your own research, without the request of your family member, so that the burden of education is not placed on them. Learn how to be respectful and supportive. When I have to explain my gender identity and explain non-binary issues in general to my family, it is completely nerve-wracking and emotional.

If my family members had ever done their own research on these topics then our conversations would be easier because they would be more informed and have other sources of information than just me. It also would have avoided me from hearing invalidating and untrue comments like “it’s just a phase,” “it’s not real” or “you’re just mentally ill” — whatever you do, don’t say these things. The holidays can be a hard time of year for LGBTQIA+ folks. Transgender and non-binary youth have especially high rates of suicide attempts. In one study, over 50 percent of transgender males, almost 30 percent of transgender females and 42 percent of non-binary youth attempted suicide at some point in their lives. This is why education, validation and support are so crucial for your non-binary family member.

4. Respect Their Privacy.

If your non-binary family member came out to you, that does not mean they are ready to come out to everyone else. They put their trust in you and hoped you would respect their journey. It may take more time for them to be comfortable enough to tell other family members or they may never want to come out to everyone.

The holidays can be especially triggering if you’re not out. Transgender and non-binary folks want to hear their chosen name and pronouns and be treated based on their gender identity. If their family members don’t know about their gender identity, then, of course, the person is going to have to deal with hearing their old name and pronouns and be treated based on the gender roles of their sex assigned at birth. This can be incredibly traumatic. For me, it can lead to feelings of anxiety, anger, self-doubt, depression and sometimes even suicidal ideation.

So, if your non-binary family member does not want you to share information about their gender identity, please respect that and let them come out in their own time. Ask your family member if they are comfortable going to large family events where they might be misgendered. If they aren’t comfortable with that, then please respect their wish not to go this year. Maybe they would be willing to see Grandma on another day with less of a crowd, for example. Not only will this save your non-binary family member from being misgendered and upset during the holidays, but they will also feel loved and validated by you for asking and respecting their wishes. 

5. Love them just like you would before they came out.

Your non-binary family member probably hopes you will still love them after they come out. One way to show you still love them is to treat them similarly as before they came out. The caveat to this is any gendered treatment should change.

For example, if men and women get different types of presents or play different games during the holidays, you could ask your family member which “side” they would like to be on or if they had an alternative idea that would make them more comfortable. As a non-binary person, the whole idea of grouping people by gender is absurd and unnecessarily stressful for me. I don’t want to be on either side, but I also don’t want to seem unfriendly. I would participate in games or activities that had nothing to do with gender. Picking a side would make me anxious — I would feel like a fraud on one side and would have gender dysphoria on the other side. Maybe just do what teachers do in school — count off randomly between one and two, and then group everyone by number. This will also get family members to talk to each other who might not otherwise socialize much. You can give suggestions like this without “outing” your family member. You could come up with it as wanting to do something different this year and never even needing to mention your family member.

The holidays are about coming together and enjoying each other’s company. If you truly love your non-binary family member, show them you care by being sensitive to their needs and communicating with them in a validating and non-judgmental way about their holiday wishes.

Photo by Karina Carvalho on Unsplash

Originally published: December 11, 2018
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