Non-queer people have a hard time empathizing with queer estrangement: the deeply traumatic experience of being rejected by loved ones, not because you’ve wronged anyone, but simply because of who you are, or who you love. They haven’t been kicked out of their house after coming out as gay, or invited home for the holidays on the unspoken condition that they not bring (or speak of) anyone they are dating. Their parents have never refused to gender them correctly, or systematically omitted their pronouns or chosen name from conversations with their friends and family. They have never kept entire long-term same-sex relationships a secret, or been interrogated when evidence of such a relationship was uncovered. They’ve never been recipient of a barrage of hostile letters, voicemails, and text messages arguing that their love is sinful, unnatural, the result of confusion, or that their gender is invalid, evidence of underlying issues (see: mental illness.)
Because they don’t share these experiences, non-queer people have a tendency to impose cisnormative/heteronormative expectations on the way we queers manage our grief, our boundaries, and our relationships—especially around the holidays.
Estrangement is weird. It’s both like, and unlike, losing a loved one to death. With death, there is at least a sense of finality. When you’re estranged from someone, this sense of finality is lacking. No matter what has been done or said, or left undone or unsaid, there is always the possibility, however remote, of mending things. This possibility, this lack of finality, is one of the defining features of estrangement, and one of the things that distinguishes this grief from the grief that we experience when a loved one passes away.
I love my biological family. I always have—even when I wished I didn’t. Sometimes I wonder if my family ever wished the same—that they could just stop loving me, their queer, transgender, atheist, alcoholic kid who has lived up to approximately none of their expectations, and who maybe caused them more disappointment than joy for the last three decades. In a way, the knowledge that they’ve continued loving me, and have continued reaching out, even as they misgendered me and erased my identity, has been the most painful part of my estrangement from my family. My trans and queer readers know exactly what I’m talking about.
I recently discovered a new phrase: ambiguous loss. Wikipedia defines ambiguous loss as “a loss that occurs without closure or clear understanding [, that] leaves a person searching for answers, and thus complicates and delays the process of grieving, and often results in unresolved grief.” Some examples of ambiguous loss that it lists include: infertility, termination of pregnancy, disappearance of a family member, a family member being physically alive but in a state of cognitive decline due to Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, etc. I would add to this list the loss of family members or loved ones through estrangement.
In addition to being ambiguous, unresolved, and lacking in closure and clear understanding, queer estrangement is often accompanied by a nagging fear that the situation is your fault, your choice, your doing. You feel guilty for being the problem child, the black sheep; for knowingly disappointing your family; for “choosing” your “lifestyle” over them; for prioritizing your need for distance over their desire to see you; for not being more forgiving of their mistakes or more patient with their faults.
Queer guilt and queer shame hit hard this time of year, when everyone is talking about their holiday plans with family, forcing you to either lie or explain and defend your lack thereof. It’s been over ten years that my queerness (first my sexuality, then my gender) has caused a rift between me and my family. Over the course of this decade, I’ve cycled through the stages of grief the way Kentucky cycles through the seasons: with seemingly little rhyme or reason, just perpetual disruption to everyday life with no end in sight.
I’ve been home for two holidays in the last ten years. I’ve been invited home for more than I can count. Does this mean that my estrangement is my fault? The last couple of times I went home did not go well. The triggers, memories, silencing, microaggressions, and erasure were more than I could bear. I reverted to an earlier version of myself. I binge drank, passed out, lied, hid, spiraled.
For the last decade, going home, for me, has felt like walking into a burning building. Is it my fault for not walking back into a burning building? The answer, in case it wasn’t obvious, is no. We are never at fault for protecting our minds, bodies, and hearts. On the contrary: protecting our minds, bodies, and hearts is our greatest responsibility. If we’re not safe and sane, how can we do anything for others except cause them more harm?
My family has come an incredibly long way in the last ten years. They now use my chosen name and pronouns. They visited me last year, and met my then-partner. They have started opening their doors, and their hearts, not just to my physical person, or to a version of me that they are comfortable with, but to the real me. And I am so grateful for this. But I am still not going home for the holidays this year. Why? Because I’m not ready. Some wounds take longer to heal than others. And until I’m adequately healed, I’m not willing to compromise my sobriety, my mental health, my growth as a person, or my relationship with my family. I’m not ready this year, but maybe next year.