Beyond the general anxiety that the holiday season brings—a never-ending shopping list, gatherings at every turn—it would be an understatement to say that the holidays can be stressful. In some cases, this stress takes the form of interacting with family members who have yet to get over their homophobia, or haven’t realized that the person you love is not simply “your little friend.” Even my own mother would ask me about how my “friend” (ahem, husband) was, so I know from experience how pivotal this moment is, particularly, for queer folks of color: you bring your partner home during one of the most intense times of the year, opening you both up—individually and as a couple—to scrutiny, weird questions, and maybe even some hostility.
Sure, you don’t need to spend the holidays with family members, but some of us do go home and want to bring our partners with us. Frankly, this takes courage; these sorts of trips can often require staying mentally and emotionally strong. It also requires preparing your partner (and yourself) for an experience that might not go as smoothly as one might hope. Here are some things that you and your partner can consider before you walk into the room, throw glitter and tell your family to clean it up.
Keep It to a Small Group
Introducing anyone you love to folks in your family is a big step. Huge. So sometimes, you have to start small, like the size of Lizzo's iconic lil' purse at the AMA’s. Jose Arce, 26, who has been with his partner for more than four years, suggested asking to keep family festivities to a limited audience. “My advice would be to start small, or with people who might have a good understanding of lived experience as a queer person of color,'' Arce said. Celebrating with a select group of close family members when introducing his partner’s family made him feel much safer.
Araya James, LPC-I who specializes in working with queer people of color, suggests that nuclear families tend to be more accepting than others in the family. “It’s not always the case, but parents and siblings tend to be more open to the idea of meeting a queer family members partner,” they said. “Meeting a smaller, more nuclear set of family takes away some of the pressure to ‘perform,’ considering they tend to have a better bond and understanding of you and your relationship.”
Whoever shows up still might be out of your control, but if you’re anticipating some gaffes anyway, make a plan for dealing with that. You simply can’t be over-prepared for a family member to introduce your partner as your roommate or your “friend.” Having a thorough come-to-Beyoncé (or whoever you pray to) moment with your family before you bring your partner into that situation is essential.
Talk About Family Norms and Traditions in Advance
One helpful way to prepare is to have a real conversation about what might go down once you and your partner get there. “We had multiple discussions about what it’s like in Latinx homes during the holiday and what it is like in a Black home,” said Arce, who noted that these sorts of traditions and expectations can be overlooked when introducing our partners to our families. “It’s about understanding what the norms are in each of our homes and how we can support one another if said norms don’t allow for us to feel welcome during the holidays.”
James reiterated this, “especially if you are in an interracial relationship. Certain families do certain things when it comes to the holidays that might be rooted in religion or even race.” James expressed that not having these conversations can lead to your partner feeling like an outsider. “There is nothing worse than feeling judged by people you don’t have a relationship with,” James added. “You want to make sure you and your partner are on the same page about what they should expect.”
Get on the Same Page About Messaging
Before you go, figure out where your boundaries lie: What are you going to explain to your nosy second cousin, and what isn’t worth going into detail about? Which uncomfortable questions or assertions are you going to be prepared to answer and which ones will you let slide? Whether it’s the weird questions about gender identity or gender roles, each of you should be in a place where you can comfortably be one another’s shield.
“It’s important to know that some family likes to test those they don’t know,” James said. “Some families take pride in putting people on the spot, even when they don’t know or don’t fully understand how their questions or thoughts can come across as a microaggression.”
For D.J. Kelly-Quattrochi, 31, being Latinx and meeting his white partner’s family for the first time during the holiday gave him that fear—the fear of being caught in a scenario where he thought he might be interrogated by his partner's family. “Not only was I worried about how I would be received, [but also] how the conversations would go.” He kept imagining that uncomfortable discussions about race and queerness would come up (they did), and how his partner’s family would respond.
“My partner’s mom actually stood up for me when someone said something racist once at Thanksgiving dinner,” Kelly-Quattrochi said. “That actually meant a lot to me and helped me feel much safer around his family.”
But Kelly-Quattrochi noted that every couple should have open and honest conversations about boundaries and how these conversations should be handled when they come up. “It’s truly about knowing your limits,” he said, noting that no one should have to feel stuck in an uncomfortable situation. “Me and my partner talked about capacity a lot and what I needed to feel OK at his folks’ place. It mainly centered on me having the space and opportunity to remove myself occasionally when I felt like these conversations became too heavy and balancing our alone time together while we were there.”
Arce, who like Kelly-Quattrochi worried about race and homophobia making an appearance at the dinner table, said families need to have more upfront conversations before the big meal—ideally via a conversation before the holiday itself. “Educating said family about what not to say or do before the holiday helps to keep the tension down,” Arce said. “But it is even more important to remind folks that they don’t have to partake in these conversations if they don’t feel safe. Send them guidelines prior to showing up, so that when you do tell them that they are crossing a boundary, they are not caught off-guard.”
When You Gotta Go, You Gotta Go
While the anticipation of introducing your partner might seem hard, making the decision to leave the festivities while they’re in full-swing can be even harder. That’s why you have to figure out an exit strategy if things go south.
“Making your exit strategy is all about intention,” said therapist Asher J. Wickell, a marriage and family therapist in Wichita, Kansas. “It’s about knowing and understanding what your means look like, whether emotionally, physically or financially, and what’s going to benefit both you and your partner in the long run.”
Wickell notes that an exit strategy can look like a multitude of things: “This can mean staying at a hotel and making sure you have your own mode of transportation to get to and from the airport. Or, it can simply come down to how long you plan to engage your family and at what point do you and your partner look at each other, get up, and walk out.”
Of course, not everyone has the means to fork out hundreds of dollars on a two-day trip. In that case, connecting with other people ahead of time who live nearby, who you know are more accepting, might be beneficial in the event that you need somewhere to go should things go south.
“Having a rescue plan is vital for queer couples,” Wickell said. “You don’t want to be looking at one another in confusion.” In all, it’s about what helps both of you feel better should you decide to throw up the peace sign and dip.
Remember the Big Picture
For most queer people of color, being around any family during any holiday means putting yourself on the front lines—something that we often do simply by existing.
Though you can never be too prepared, it is important to realize that family can be a complicated thing to navigate and the holidays don’t necessarily make it any easier. “There are a lot of variations on the theme of, ‘it might be hard, it’ll probably get better, just hang in there,'” Wickell said. “But sometimes, we have to accept that sometimes our families won’t get any better and that sometimes they look for the drama during this time of the year.”
In making the decision to introduce the person you love unconditionally to your family, you are vocalizing that you are going to get that same love and energy back from those who are supposed to love you unconditionally. In a world that often doesn’t view queer relationships as real, you are in fact making the personal political.
It is important for both you and your partner to be real about what you are hoping to get out of the interaction, and to dictate what you will or will not tolerate.
Feeling overwhelmed in the moments leading up to that initial introduction might never go away, but remember that what you both are doing is a political act, and that you deserve all the love, peace, and protection possible when in the company of your family.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.