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Location: Kansas City, Missouri, United States

Doing my part to irritate Republicans, fundamentalists, bigots and other lower life forms.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Families by birth and by choice

I was going to avoid the whole subject of Christmas with the exception of taking an occasional swipe at Faux News' ludicrous segments about "the war on Christmas." It's been years since Christmas held any real significance for me other than spending money on relatives I don't particularly care for the other 364 days out of the year to exchange during a family get-together that seems to always have an underlying current of tension.

But last night while browsing through postings on an LGBT discussion board I came across a message from someone feeling real distress about the pending holiday. Christmas, he said, with its emphasis on "family," made it worse for him because long-held feelings bubbled to the surface. My initial response was to roll my eyes and think Oh, Mary! Get over yourself! It's an exceedingly rare homo who doesn't hurt. That's my cynical side ... the side I tend to show an often hostile world to let it know it can't hurt me.

I kept watching the thread as it grew. More LGBT folks offered their sympathy and shared the own stories of scars inflicted - consciously and unconsciously - by the families who are supposed to be where we can find acceptance and unconditional love ... at least in a Norman Rockwell, Hallmark cards sort of world.

All of us who grow up in the dominant heterosexual culture carry scars. Sometimes the worst of those scars are inflicted by the families. Unlike racial or ethnic minorities, we are the only minority to be born "into the enemy camp," so to speak. In many ways being LGBT is like being born black in a white family ... only no one realizes that you are black and keeps making racist remarks or telling bigoted jokes or tossing around the word "nigger" without noticing that we wince or shudder or shut down a little bit more with every remark. Some families are more accepting than others, but hardly anyone who is LGBT grows up without some sort of scar, even scars inflicted unintentionally, by his or her family.

I have no doubt that my father loves me. But that doesn't mean I've forgotten hearing him refer to someone who was a few years older than me as a "damned queer" when he came out in college. I knew my mother loved me. But I still remember her saying she didn't want to know if I was gay after finding a couple of gay-themed books in my room ... and the subsequent pain of never being able to share that part of me with her before her death.

Unfortunately, the holiday season with its emphasis on "family" can be an emotional mine field for so many LGBT folks.

Between scars from our own family and the problems of being "different" in society, we face issues that most straight family members can never see nor understand. It's little wonder that there is a higher rate of depression in our community. Nor is it any wonder why so many of us try to self-medicate away the pain with alcohol or drugs or sexual compulsion or some other type of self-destructive behavior.

Sometimes I wonder if the scars ever truly heal. I know they ease after a bit and, in my own case, I believe I have forgiven my family for past issues. But forgiving isn't forgetting and it doesn't take much to bring old memories and emotions flooding back.

If there is one "treatment" for our wounds, it's this: most LGBT folks have two "families" - one is the one that we get be accident of birth and the other is the family of friends we surround ourselves with who can provide the love and acceptance our birth families didn't. While the old scars my never heal, we have our second families we can count on to be the most effective "treatment" for those old wounds.

Unlike the families on Norman Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post covers or those depicted on schmaltzy Christmas cards, our families of choice come in many forms. Sometimes they are the friends we surround themselves with. Sometimes, as in the case of the person who posted on the message board last night, they are people we may never meet, but who can still reach out and touch us with support via a computer.

Our families of choice don't require blood ties to become a part of our lives and our support systems. They are there because they care and they can understand and relate to the joys and pains that we feel.

I don't know if a Christmas wish from someone who doesn't put much stock in Christmas carries much weight. But if it did, my Christmas wish for all of us would be this:

Be gentle with one another, for we are all family.