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Left: Casey Tanner, photographed by Alexa Viscius. Right: Kiana Lewis, photographed by Calvin Boyles. Background: Posts from the Queer Sex Therapy Instagram page. Graphic treatment by Maggie Sivit

7 tips for getting through the holidays as a queer person

Casey Tanner and Kiana Lewis of the Chicago-based Instagram page Queer Sex Therapy share tips for making it through the holiday season.

Left: Casey Tanner, photographed by Alexa Viscius. Right: Kiana Lewis, photographed by Calvin Boyles. Background: Posts from the Queer Sex Therapy Instagram page. Graphic treatment by Maggie Sivit
Queer Sex Therapy holiday thumbnail
Left: Casey Tanner, photographed by Alexa Viscius. Right: Kiana Lewis, photographed by Calvin Boyles. Background: Posts from the Queer Sex Therapy Instagram page. Graphic treatment by Maggie Sivit

7 tips for getting through the holidays as a queer person

Casey Tanner and Kiana Lewis of the Chicago-based Instagram page Queer Sex Therapy share tips for making it through the holiday season.

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Casey Tanner and Kiana Lewis, the two primary writers behind the Instagram page Queer Sex Therapy, post daily about topics like coming out in your thirties, having sex while experiencing gender dysphoria and opening up previously monogamous relationships.

The Instagram account, which is especially popular among queer millennials, has accumulated more than 145,000 followers in less than two years. The majority of the 500-plus posts feature text over muted moss- or rose-colored backgrounds, and offer advice, explain concepts and dispel misconceptions.

Tanner, the founder of the Queer Sex Therapy page and owner of The Expansive Group, a Chicago-based therapy practice, said during the holiday season they get a lot of questions like “What do I do if I have multiple partners, but I’m not ready to bring them all home?” and “How do I stay connected with my community while we’re all in different places?”

The overarching theme, Tanner said, is how to find stability when spending time with relatives who may bring out a previous or younger version of oneself — and when normal networks of support may be far away.

Lewis, the education and intern manager for the Expansive Group, said these types of questions may be particularly relevant during the pandemic, when periods of increased isolation have helped bring about new shifts in self-understanding.

The combination of a new awareness of oneself and being thrust back into a childhood environment can make the holidays especially challenging, Lewis said. Here are seven tips from Tanner and Lewis to help queer folks get through the coming Nochebuena dinner at their tío’s house, gift exchange at grandma’s or whatever else the season brings.

Courtesy @queersextherapy on Instagram
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Courtesy @queersextherapy on Instagram

Plan something special before and afterwards

If you’ll be separated from your queer community this holiday season, consider planning something special with them before or after, Lewis said.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Lewis’s pre-holiday routine involved inviting friends over to decorate a Christmas tree together. Each person brought an ornament and the gathering was “just a little send-off” before they went their separate ways.

“Now things look a little different,” Lewis said. But even something as simple as a “potluck with a couple close friends or … a little kickback on the couch” can put people in a good headspace before a potentially stressful time.

Tanner added: “For folks who are nonmonogamous or polyamorous, we might have to choose one of multiple partners to bring home — either because we’re not out or we just have different partners that engage with our families in different ways. This is a moment that aftercare becomes really essential. Specifically, knowing the next time you’re going to see your other partner, knowing that some form of ceremony will happen with them … can be really important.”

And aftercare isn’t just about a jubilant reunion, Tanner said. It can also mean setting aside time in advance to have potentially difficult conversations after the holidays are over.

For polyamorous folks in particular, the holidays can mean watching one of your partners go home with another partner, and communication might lapse from what you’re used to. So scheduling an hour or so to talk about any feelings of jealousy or hurt that may arise can add some predictability, Tanner said, because you know when you’ll be able to talk about those emotions together.

Bring a piece of home with you

For many queer and trans folks, certain clothing items, accessories or hairstyles may be key parts of their gender expression.

But sometimes those things get left behind when visiting family, Lewis said, “either because it’s not safe or you just don’t feel like getting into certain conversations with someone.”

Lewis advised doing or bringing one thing with you that makes you feel good — even if it’s something discreet that no one else will notice. “For me, it’s making sure my undercut is fresh before I go home,” Lewis said. “I might wear my hair up or down, but I know it’s back there. Or maybe it’s bringing a pair of boxers, or something else that’s underneath your clothing.”

Bringing a pet or beloved object with you can also bring a sense of reassurance, Tanner and Lewis noted. One such object on Lewis’s packing list is House Plants and Hot Sauce, a book they described as a “queer Where’s Waldo” that was gifted to them by a friend.

“It is just the queerest thing,” Lewis said. “So I will be bringing this, and it’s just a piece of comfort and something that I can zone into and focus on.”

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Courtesy @queersextherapy on Instagram
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Courtesy @queersextherapy on Instagram

It’s OK to be a “bad” queer person

Tanner advised that it’s OK to acknowledge when constantly having to remind your family members to use your name or pronouns is resulting in more mental anguish for you than it’s worth.

That doesn’t make your family’s behavior acceptable, it doesn’t make you any less queer or trans, and it certainly doesn’t mean you’re any less less deserving of having your correct pronouns used, Tanner said. “You are worth it. The question is: Is your family worth it? Do you trust them with it?”

Tanner refers (tongue-in-cheek) to opting out of these (often energy-draining) conversations as being a “bad” queer person. And you should give yourself full permission to be one, Tanner said.

Lewis added: “You’re not any less of your whole self even if you don’t share parts of yourself with whoever you’re spending time with. You’re showing up as what feels comfortable and what feels safe. That’s survival.”

Relatedly, Tanner said it’s OK to give yourself a break from confronting family members every time they say something harmful or make a microaggression.

“When I first came out, I was very much like, ‘Anytime they say something problematic I’m going to jump in because this is that time of year when I have them in front of me and I can change them,’ ” recalled Tanner. “Ten years later, I think some people aren’t worth that energy.”

That’s not to say people can’t change, Tanner noted, or that it’s not worth engaging in these conversations with loved ones at another time. “But if you are having trouble self-regulating day-to-day over the holidays, that can be really dysregulating,” Tanner said.

Consider limiting substance use

For many people, the holidays are a time when alcohol is ever-present and a glass of wine (or three, or five) can be a welcome distraction from Uncle Erik’s rampant homophobia.

But Tanner said one of the best things queer people can do in stressful situations is be intentional about drinking alcohol — and to limit substance use as much as possible.

Tanner noted that queer people are more likely to experience substance abuse issues and relapses occur more often around the holidays. “And that’s not because we have substance abuse problems intrinsically,” Tanner said. “It’s because we experience immense amounts of stress and rejection as we move through the world, and particularly when we’re at home.”

Alcohol is a coping strategy for many people, Tanner acknowledged. “That’s legitimate and valid, but if you have other coping mechanisms available, consider leaning on them,” Tanner said.

“And if you are choosing to drink as a way to cope, if that makes sense for you, at least be intentional about it and do it with a bit of mindfulness. Because otherwise it can just add fuel to the trauma potluck that is the holidays.”

If you’re a queer person seeking support around substance use, the Center on Halsted has a list of substance abuse resources.

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Courtesy @queersextherapy on Instagram
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Courtesy @queersextherapy on Instagram

Know what to do in case of crisis

If your family is making you feel stressed and small and you need extra support, one resource Tanner recommended is the Trans Lifeline. Tanner said you don’t need to be suicidal or have safety concerns to access it.

“It’s a resource you can use even if you just want to talk to someone who will use your real name,” Tanner said. “Sometimes just hearing your own name can be so powerful.”

Lewis suggested writing down affirmations ahead of time that you can pull out and say to yourself in moments when you really need them.

Tanner added it’s worth remembering that sometimes the best thing you can do is to save difficult emotions for another time when you have the resources and capacity to process them.

“When you’re at the height of distress, that peak anxiety that feels like you’re almost on the verge of a panic attack, remember that that doesn’t have to be the time that you process those feelings,” Tanner said. “In the moment, that’s actually the time I recommend having distractions.”

Watching favorite episodes of a familiar show or rereading a book you love can both be really soothing, Tanner said.

Bodily interventions like extending your exhales longer than your inhales, splashing cold water on your face or even holding ice cubes can help return you to your body when your anxiety gets really intense. “These are things that are somatic experience interventions that can sort of shock your system out of panic,” Tanner said.

Finally, if it’s available to you, don’t be afraid to cut your visit short if it’s financially possible for you to change your flight or buy a bus ticket. “A lot of us are people-pleasers and really don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. But then we end up being the collateral to that,” Tanner said.

Invite a little levity, if you can

The holidays can be a time of invasive questions, intense heteronormativity and thinly veiled transphobia. “These are serious things that bring real pain,” Tanner said, “and we don’t always have the resources to deal with them in the moment.”

So Tanner likes to play a game of virtual bingo with friends and colleagues, where they each make their own board full of things that are, unfortunately, liable to happen around the holidays. It could be a family member making a homophobic remark, or your mom insistently referring to your significant other as your “friend.”

“I’ll be on the phone with one of my colleagues like, ‘I’m almost at bingo, so you know things are going well over here,’ ” Tanner said.

Though Tanner said the situations on the bingo cards are of course deeply unfunny, humor is all about holding up something familiar at a distance, and doing so can make them a little more manageable. “If it feels doable to you, engage your sense of humor,” Tanner advised.

Don’t underestimate the power of a hand squeeze

For those of you bringing home a partner or partners for the holidays, remember that even small shows of support can go a long way, Tanner said.

“Even just a little hand squeeze in the moment can signal, ‘I heard what they said, I know how that likely impacts you and I’m here,’ ” said Tanner. “That gesture can be really powerful. … It’s a way of being there together, even when words aren’t really available.”

Maggie Sivit is the digital and engagement producer for Curious City. Follow her @magisiv