There is nothing unique about what I’m about to say. I am not the first queer person to have an awkward relationship with her heterosexual parents. I am not the first masculine-of-center female person to be misgendered by strangers. And I am certainly not the first human person to dread going home for the holidays. I’ve heard stories much like the ones I’m sharing here time and time again, from community members near and far, in all the soul-bearing corners of the internet or painfully hip coffee shops or shabby Women’s Center living rooms where such conversations are born.
These stories are always delivered in that half-confessional, half-exaggerated eye roll sort of tone that serves well to turn painful things into good jokes. We queers are masters of that particular brand of humor. “My great aunt is going to ask me if I have a boyfriend yet. It’s a holiday tradition.” “I wish I could wear my new tie to Christmas dinner, but my mother would declare World War Three.” “The priest looks at me funny during Midnight Mass. Maybe I’ll give him a wink this year.” “Thank Gay Jesus for spiked eggnog.”
The mystery of the whole season is why we – or at least, I – keep going home for the holidays, despite the fact that “home” is now less “place where I grew up” and more “interrogation room decorated with tinsel.” Part of the reason is that, despite being a devout atheist, I love (secular) Christmas and will probably one day turn into a butch version of Clark Griswold, risking life and limb to staple 25,000 imported Italian twinkle lights to my roof. I also love Thanksgiving because, I mean, food is my favorite.
The other part is that very famous and inaccurate “definition of insanity” – that is, doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Maybe this year, there won’t be any fighting about my haircut. Maybe this year, my mother won’t start crying about never having grandkids. Maybe this year, I can finally wear that awesome tie. Somewhere deep in my brain, there is an unfinished Norman Rockwell painting of familial holiday bliss and I am, apparently, determined to get it framed.
Thankfully, I have over the years perfected my method for handling seasonal strife at my parents’ house (the key is to distract my mother right off the bat by asking about the latest drama in her workplace, thus ensuring that the conversation will have nothing to do with me for the remainder of that day; repeat for as many consecutive days as necessary). The real challenges are those in-public moments of awkwardness and, well, “Sir”-ing.
I’ve gotten so used to being mistakenly called Sir, Mr., Brother, Man, or any other testosterone-based honorific that I am actually more surprised when strangers get my gender right. Not that I enjoy being called “Ma’am” (which makes me feel like a spinster), or “Miss” (which makes me feel like school girl), but hey, at least those people are paying attention and are not completely unable to process the notion that one can be simultaneously masculine and female without rupturing the time-space continuum.
While my daily misgenderings are par for the course for me, they are a source of supreme humiliation for my mother. I’ll never forget one particularly torturous dinner out when the waiter, an older mustachioed man, referred to me as “Sir” for the duration of the two hour meal. This awkwardness was compounded by his compulsion to end every single sentence with either “Sir” or “Ma’am.” A solitary “Sir” could perhaps go unnoticed, but after the 20th one, neither my mother nor I could pretend we didn’t hear. My father, who is half-deaf, was blissfully unaware of this entire situation and enjoyed his meal while my mother’s face tried on every possible hue of red and I seriously considered escaping through the kitchen.
A few years ago, my parents decided that cooking a big meal was too much work for just the three of us, so we began having Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant. There are a few advantages to that plan for me. One: blowout arguments are discouraged in public settings. Two: No clean up. And three: While my parents have a dry house, the restaurant has a full bar. (Hello, pumpkin martini.) There is one big disadvantage: See above horror story. And so for me, Thanksgiving quickly replaced Christmas as Most Stressful Holiday Involving Family.
I started this past Thanksgiving dinner with a panic attack appetizer after discovering the restaurant’s tradition of giving each female diner a rose after dinner. Besides being sexist, antiquated, and just plain weird, this policy put me on edge because I knew that the peace (or lack thereof) of our drive home would be determined by whether or not I got one – that is, whether or not my mother was publicly embarrassed by her giant butch dyke offspring. Thus, I sat there sweating and wondering desperately if I would receive a rose that evening, like the weirdest Bachelor episode ever.
I was calmed somewhat by our waitress, who in her infinite grace and wisdom did not use a single honorific during the meal. She was also quite cute and thought I was funny (or at least, was paid handsomely enough to pretend to think I was funny). Nothing soothes frazzled nerves quite like a pretty girl laughing at your jokes.
The meal went by smoothly and gluttonously enough, and soon it was time to face the flowers. I had cobbled together a plan between bites of pie, but I would have to time it just right. While my parents were putting on their coats and the hostess, giver of roses, had her back turned, I slipped past them all and triumphantly held the door open.
Success! I had foiled the hostess’ insidious, gender-normative plans while simultaneously appearing to be well-mannered. My mother was none the wiser, as she had also missed the opportunity to be flowered, despite her extremely obvious womanhood, and my father was just happy that the biggest debate on the way home involved what to do with the leftovers. And so there was peace on that Thanksgiving evening. A temporary peace, as Christmas dinner looms larger on the calendar, but peace nonetheless.
Let’s all just take it one holiday at a time.