Of lights, family and the holidays

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Photo by Kelly Burkhardt

Christmas lights used to be wired in such a way that if one lightbulb on the string perished, the whole chain would fail to light up. You had to go light by light trying to find the one with the filament that had given up the ghost.

So many holiday traditions revolve around light, whether it is the glow of a family menorah or kinara, the lighting of the yule log or even the string of gaily-colored lights festooned on a Christmas tree or strung along one’s eaves.

This only makes sense, given the holiday time’s association with the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year and the ever-increasing light of spring and summertime. We acknowledge the darkness and the rise of the light in our own ways.

It’s at the heart of so many holiday traditions. Even the belief in the birth of the son of God in a manger in Bethlehem could be read as a parallel to the increase in sun from the depths of winter — which is likely why the tale became a part of the holiday season, replacing earlier observances.

Of course, in today’s world, the holiday season is also a time where we are once again inundated with George Michael, Mariah Carey, and Paul McCartney, as we try to forge a trail through the local department stores in search of gifts for the many people in our lives.

For some of us, this will be a time of year for traveling to meet with our relatives, which is when things become very complex for transgender and nonbinary people.

Many of us have been turned out by our birth families, shunned from blood kin and not at all welcome during this time of sentiment and family celebration. This was my experience from my family for the first handful of years after I transitioned. I was told in no uncertain terms to not contact the rest of my family during the holidays or any other time of the year.

At any rate, my story is far from uncommon, with many still kicked out of their family home because of their transition. For all too many of us, we end up testing just how unconditional the love of our parents and others in our family may actually be — and find it wanting.

As painful as this can be, there are even more casual forms of transphobic behavior trans and nonbinary folks can face during the holidays — ones that may not be as soul-crushing but can nevertheless leave bruises.

When surrounded by the people who have known you since you were relying on milk in a warm bottle, those same people may have a firm opinion of who you are. Whether deliberate or otherwise, the holidays may be their time for bringing that into the open.

The obvious cases are, of course, family members using the wrong pronoun or name.

It may seem like a simple thing from the outside, a simple error, and one that shouldn’t be more than a trifle. On top of that, many have used a particular name or pronoun for a given person for decades and are now expected to change. I get that, and I’m not necessarily referring to the honest mistakes when I bring that up.

No, I’m talking more of those who might opt to wield a deadname — or a necronym, as I recently heard one’s birth name referred to — more like a bludgeon, seeking to make an issue over one’s identity in a place that should be safer. Such activities can indeed be callous and cruel, a far cry from the occasional slip of the tongue as family and friends relearn the identities of their loved ones.

One might find themselves treated in different fashions around the family, perhaps quietly excluded in ways or pushed into activities that force them into situations aligned with a birth gender. Maybe even finding a makeup set under the tree, gifted to a transmasculine family member as a cruel way of devaluing them. After all, the gift-giver might think, it would be positively rude to show disdain for a nice gift, wouldn’t it?

I should add, too, that the holidays may also end up being the time many who are trans come out when they show up on the doorstep during the holidays. This makes things far, far more challenging, especially if the family turns out to be less than supportive.

This is, as I mentioned, a holiday season about light.

If you are trans and reading this: you are not alone. Many of us have faced similar things in our times. Reach out if you need a friendly ear. Shout on your favorite social media platform, or confide in your closest trans and trans-friendly friends. We’re here for you.

For those who may not be trans reading this, now is the time to give some light of your own. Listen to your trans friends, and stand up for those in your family who may be fearful — or in pain — this season. Now is the time to put your friendship into action and show your love.

We live in a dark enough era without this time of holiday joy adding to the challenge. Like those old holiday lights, we need to make sure that every bulb remains intact, and we strive to keep the whole string lit, as it were.

Let’s provide the light we all need.

Gwen Smith still needs to hang the lights. You can find her at www.gwensmith.com.