Last year, we saw multiple queer- inclusive holiday films from major TV outlets, including one featuring A-lister Kristen Stewart. However, Stewart’s film Happiest Season also provided something frustratingly familiar: conflict.
In the movie, Abby joins her girlfriend Harper for the holidays, but finds out last-minute that Harper isn’t out to her family and endures humiliating shenanigans to maintain the secret. Many felt the premise was a coming out trauma trigger. This criticism begs the question: What would this situation look like in real life; how could it be better navigated?
For insight, Tagg Magazine spoke with two queer dating professionals, as well as people with real life experiences.
“Most people don’t have the perfect holidays,” says Ruth L. Schwartz, Ph.D, author of Conscious Lesbian Dating & Love and co-founder of Conscious Girlfriend Academy. “But it can be particularly painful if you have someone you’re in love with and there’s a barrier to celebrating with both your family and that person.”
For example, from 2012-2015, Jan Rocha, 30, of New York, was in a relationship and not yet out to her family. That meant spending the holidays apart from her then partner, because her family expected her home and she feared coming out to them, partly because they are very religious.
“[It was] extremely painful,” says Jan. “Watching couples attend family events and other holiday parties without any care really sucked – I just remember always looking with envy.”
She was able to join her fully out girlfriend at her family events, but if Jan brought her girlfriend to events, they’d pretend to be friends. Jan’s girlfriend never pushed her to come out, but Jan notes it was still a strain and contributed to their eventual break-up. Jan is now out and able to support her partners who are in the shoes she was then, but she hasn’t forgotten that struggle.
Cory, a 30-year-old Minnesota native who requested her last name be withheld for privacy, experienced this a few years ago, when she was in the third year of a relationship. Cory, who identifies as a lesbian, is closeted with most of her family. Her then girlfriend pushed to be more involved with Cory’s family, especially regarding the holidays.
Cory understood her partner’s frustration but coming out could’ve cost Cory her home, car, and financial safety net, since her parents provide those essentials. So, she didn’t come out then and remains closeted. However, she thinks one day she’ll have to come out for the sake of a relationship. She just hopes by then, she’ll be financially independent, so risks are mitigated.
Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, 44-year-old Michelle Lucas is financially independent but also isn’t fully out, despite having as son and a wife, RJ, with whom she’s been with for 19 years. Michelle’s parents know she’s gay and with RJ, but they refuse to tell the rest of the family, and they don’t know Michelle and RJ are married. For many years, Michelle has spent Christmas away from RJ to spend it with her family instead.
“I felt guilty and obligated to my family and I felt like a horrible asshat for even having to make a choice,” says Michelle.
Michelle says RJ was always understanding and never pushed. Still, every year, Michelle thought her decision would cost their relationship, and admits she doesn’t think she could have managed if the roles were reversed.
Since Michelle’s son was born, Michelle’s parents have—at Michelle’s insistence—allowed RJ to attend holiday events, but only on condition that they pretend RJ is Michelle’s roommate, and the wives sleep separately. Michelle knows this is still problematic and has considered walking away from her family of origin but can’t bring herself to do so.
But Schwartz and Ariella Serur, a certified life coach who founded the platform Queer Dating Coach believe couples can manage closeted-during-the-holidays situations in a way that works for both members of the couple.
They offer external solutions that could ease the pain. Schwartz says if a person travels home without their partner for the holidays, after the family festivities, the couple could meet somewhere and have a vacation of their own as an extension of the holiday where the couple gets to be together.
For couples together at events but hiding the truth of the relationship, Serur says if there are relatives present who know the truth and are supportive, a couple can share with them the emotional labor of protecting themselves – and have those family members be ready to show the others “the right way to treat people [with] care and love.”
Schwartz and Serur stress the importance of both sides looking beyond the surface and seeing the deeper needs and motivations. For example, Serur says the out person may think their partner not coming out means they don’t love them enough, but really what’s going on has more to do with their partner’s family.
Schwartz says if both individuals discuss their feelings and recognize they’re on the same team, then it’s like “dealing with any other difficult situation in life…The worst thing is when the members of the couple get pitted against each other, when really the problem is society’s homophobia.”
That’s where Happiest Season might help. As Serur says, not only is it a blueprint for queer couples for how not to handle a closeted holiday situation, but it also exposes the general public to queer relationships.
Additionally, Lucas notes benefits for queer people. “Coming out and family transformation is and always will be a process,” says Michelle. “I think the representation [in Happiest Season] may help people find some courage and hope to have needed conversations with their partners and families.”