Five Ways to Manage Heterosexism at Family Gatherings

Five Ways to Manage Heterosexism at Family Gatherings

Family Gatherings, while full of happiness and cheer for some, for others, is a time to relive or be reminded of painful experiences with family members. It can be a time to be reminded of one’s insignificance, due to having an identity and life that makes their family uncomfortable. It can be a time where attempts are made to minimize the significance of people in our lives we love deeply. Family gatherings are often a reminder of the cultural norms we do not wish to, but sometimes feel forced to adhere to, because we’ve all been conditioned to obey them. We internalize these norms and put pressure on ourselves to conform, even if it makes us feel uncomfortable, and lose sight of our own boundaries when others reinforce this belief in their behavior and the expectations they place upon us.

According to Pew research (Source), of individuals who identify as LGBT:

  • 58% indicate they have been the target of slurs and inappropriate jokes
  • 39% of U.S adults who identify as LGBT say they have been rejected by a family member or friend due to their sexuality or gender identity.
  • 30% indicate they have been threatened or physically attacked.
  • Only 56% have disclosed their sexual or gender identity to their mother and 39% to their father.

What do we do?

First of all, it’s important to begin to name some of these behaviors so they can be understood better. It can also provide some ability to convey to others a way of understanding they can unpack within themselves if they so desire. When we go back to families through gatherings, we can often go back to the dynamic we were in when we were within that family unit. How our family perceived us, whatever behavioral expectations they had, can sometimes continue to apply. Oftentimes, the people in our family simply aren’t interested in the direction we have grown, and many members of our family often lack the ability to understand the immense diversity existing on our planet to include within humanity itself. To begin to see us for who we are, can cause so much discomfort, this part of our identity, this new part of us, is often denied. That identity could be any identity that does not conform to the cultural environment in which an individual was raised.

Heterosexism – is defined as systemic bias toward individuals that do not conform to the cultural standard for heterosexuality. It is intricately connected to homophobia which is holding an irrational fear of individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, (intersectional issues are acutely at play in the trans community and will be covered in a later blog) results in bias, violence or other discrimination against individuals who identify as a sexual minority.

This can look like:

“Oh honey, how are you and your roommate doing?”  – referring to a same-sex couple married for four years. Use of terms to imply a romantic connection is denied or minimized.

“I hope you and your friend are doing well today.” – Father referring to the adult child of a same-sex couple on their marriage day. The refusal to attend the wedding and acknowledge the significance of the day for their child.

“I can’t wait for my daughter and Bob to settle down and have some grandchildren!” – Her daughter and Bob are both bisexual and polyamorous (polyamory is having multiple romantic partners at the same time) and not interested in having children. There is a covert expectation that this woman’s daughter and her partner should create a more traditional heterosexual pairing.

“She would look so pretty in a dress and with a man!” – Mother referring to her daughter, who she knows is gay, while she is standing next to her girlfriend.  The complete denial of and refusal to accept her daughter’s sexuality and the expectation she denies her own sexuality and conform to both gender and sexual cultural standards.

As noted in the examples, the microaggressions or covert insults by family members are often directed at the individual in question in full view of other family members, in many instances few if any even acknowledge a slight occurred due to the systematic bias around the expectation and promotion of heterosexual behavior and gender norms within our culture. For sexual and gender minorities, it can be deeply painful to experience, leaving individuals feeling hurt, powerless, angry, guilty, shameful, and depressed. It can make family gatherings feel dreadful and anxiety-ridden. These feelings can make it more difficult to open up and speak up.  This blog is about giving some tips on managing family gatherings as a gender or sexual minority.

  1. Lay down boundaries ahead of time – Give the relatives a call, text, e-mail, prior to your gathering to make sure they understand what is ok and off-limits. This will help prevent any misunderstandings and potential blowups. Family counseling or family meetings are opportunities to discuss feelings and views, including how to be an ally to a family member if extended family knowingly or unknowingly acts in ways that are harmful toward the minority family member.
  2. Gently but firmly correct inappropriate behavior – Simply correct them. It is understandable having difficulty here especially if it’s something new, but if it is an ongoing issue then it may be implicit/explicit bias present due to extreme discomfort and may require pulling that person aside to speak with them personally.
  3. Ignore/disregard – Don Miguel Ruiz in his book The Four Agreements indicates as the second agreement, “Don’t take anything personally.” Having an understanding that whenever someone reacts with hostility toward you, it’s about them. There is something inside of them that is making them so uncomfortable and powerless, the only thing they can do is try to control you to make it stop because they lack knowledge and awareness of how to manage it within them. In our culture, we keep trying to fit a square peg in a round hole so to speak, in that sexuality and gender occur across a continuum that is organic, in that, it is ever-evolving and changing as we evolve and change.
  4. Leave – Yes, I know it doesn’t feel great, but if someone is passively harassing you, attempting to shove certain ideas and identities you do not agree with down your throat, or are overall being rude and disrespectful and will not relent (sometimes alcohol plays a role in this behavior). That is NOT OK! Leave! Allow whoever is upset, to be upset, because no host should ever allow that behavior, and a good host would tell the offending individual to leave. If the host is caught up in their own head due to their cultural conditioning, then they can’t help you, leave.
  5. Examine the greater good – Which is the greater good, look within yourself and ask yourself which is worse for you, going, having the experiences you will have and the feelings you will feel. Not going, having the experiences you will have and the feelings you will feel with not going. Which feels better? Also, if you don’t feel safe going into a situation, you should absolutely not go into it. If the answer is not going, ensure you have your own support systems in place, friends, counselor, partner, companion animal, etc., to help you manage your feelings with any outcome.

Times are changing, I remember when I was younger, removing the pictures in my apartment and “pretending” to be my roommates’ ‘best friend,’ when her parents would visit to keep the peace, or so I thought. In reality, it was a form of internalized heterosexism which many of us manage day-to-day due to the undercurrent of cultural conditioning. Acknowledgment of this within yourself can help alleviate the guilt and shame which can creep up without knowing, leaving a feeling of uncertainty and in-authenticity. Self-doubt can spearhead tremendous growth and is part of the process of developing a stronger sense of self. Speaking with a culturally competent counselor who understands this process and can aid you through it can be helpful.

One last thing, sometimes, our relatives just don’t know how to talk to us about us, but they desperately want to. They want to learn, explore, and understand, but no one ever taught them how to ask that first question, so they remain quiet and waiting. Look for them, and while it is not your responsibility to provide the first spark of conversation, these individuals would be very receptive, so consider rebuilding those relationships based on your new identity, creating and building relationships with relatives who are allies, can ease the strain of gatherings, making them more enjoyable for everyone.


Dr. Africa L Rainey

Authentic Self Inc.

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