I haven’t been home for Christmas in ten years. The excuse I always gave was that the holidays stress me out, which isn’t untrue. I can’t stand to watch once the local news station starts its seasonal coverage. You know the hard-hitting journalism I’m talking about: brave reporters staked out at Wal-Mart before it opens at 6 a.m. on Black Friday; with a frumpy Jane Doe browsing Amazon.com on Cyber Monday; and, around now, live on the scene at the airport giving updates about the bad weather, long lines, and flight delays. Just thinking about standing in a security line for two hours makes me want to punch Santa.
There’s buying and wrapping gifts, writing and sending cards. If your family is anything like mine, Christmas is also when everyone comes together, gets drunk, and airs the grievances they’ve been holding onto all year. After that come the teary expressions of love and forgiveness. I’m one of five kids, my dad is one of eight, and my mom is one of four. All that pathos can be overwhelming.
But that’s not the real reason I stayed put on December 25. Like many gay kids who grew up in a small town—in my case, on the Arizona-Mexico border—I was so desperate to get out I thought it would never happen. When it finally did and I left for college “back East,” I felt I had escaped. When I visited—in summer or spring—I’d look out the window in relief as the plane back to my new life took off. Somehow—implausibly—I’d broken free again.
I stopped going home for the holidays after I graduated from college and took my first job in New York City as a paralegal. It was the first time I was financially independent. At the time, my parents were so cool with me being gay that we weren’t allowed to talk about it. “It’s just a small part of who you are—it doesn’t matter,” one or the other would say. “Why do you have to make such a big deal about it?” Silence can masquerade as acceptance, but there is a big difference between a quiet room and one in which it’s forbidden to speak. My parents would only refer to my boyfriend, who I’d met in college and had been dating for two years, as “your friend.”
Like a mischievous child peeling back the wrapping paper on Christmas Eve, the prohibition made me not just want to talk about being gay; I wanted to lead the San Francisco Pride Parade through their living room. I made sure to antagonize mom and dad as much as possible, sliding in references to the boyfriend or drag queens wherever possible, which they would dutifully ignore.
Instead of going home on Christmas, I went to a gay bar, the first place I found other people like me. On the 25th, the hotspots in Washington, D.C. and New York have an aura I usually associate with smaller-town establishments. They’re more sparsely populated, the patrons friendlier, the age range wider. As more and more of us feel comfortable coming out, the increasing number of gay bars in major cities means more self-sorting. In D.C., for instance, young professionals go to Number Nine while thirty-somethings who are too old to wear Abercrombie & Fitch go to Nellie's. But on Christmas, it seems gay bars go through a time warp. Whether it’s in New York or D.C. and whichever bar it is, each feels like the only one in town. While the night before they may have played Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” to the wild screams of the dancing queens, on the actual holiday gay bars don’t play Christmas music. Instead, they play the anthems of gay and female empowerment—“Born this Way,” “Firework,” “Defying Gravity,” “Strong Enough.” There is an air of loneliness about them I always found comforting on Christmas. Comforting because I recognize it: Here are other people who fled to the cities and, like exiles trapped together in a foreign land, feel they can’t return. That’s of course why they also play “We Are Family.” For a long time, I indeed felt that way.
The last time my parents called my boyfriend “your friend,” the family was on a five-day cruise to Cabo San Lucas. I had just decided to quit my Ph.D. program and try to become a writer—a risk I’d been too afraid to take at 22 but at 26 felt confident enough to try. I’d be moving in with my boyfriend, who would support me financially while I took an internship at The Nation.
The Carnival cruise is designed to be fun—at least for people who like zoos. There’s an endless parade of attractions: themed bars (I liked the Cole Porter Club), margaritas on the Lido Deck, a swimming pool packed with children like sardines. My younger brother and his wife had gotten their own suite while the rest of us kids were crammed together in a room not much larger than my studio apartment. It only took me two days to crack.
At dinner on the second night—cruises have seatings, and ours was at 8 o’clock—I was already drunk. When my mother once again referred to my boyfriend as “your friend,” I lost it. “You don’t fuck your friends, mom,” I exclaimed. “No one calls dad your friend.” I told them that whether or not they accepted my sexuality, my life was going to move forward. “You have the choice of being a part of it or not,” I said. The guests in the surrounding tables sat in stunned silence as I stormed off. I spent the rest of the trip trashed, and of course managed to find every other gay guy on that ship.
A parent’s love for their child is transformative in a way other types of love—filial, fraternal—simply are not. It changes you. Faced with the choice between me and deeply ingrained beliefs about God, family, and love they had grown up with, my parents chose me. So do most. Demographers ponder the radical shift in public opinion on gay marriage over the last ten years—in 1996, only 27 percent of Americans supported it; now, a majority do. But it’s no mystery. Gays and lesbians changed America one cruise-ship confrontation at a time. Those who prefer the law to justice would call it unprincipled, but I’d rather live in a world based on empathy than doctrine.
When I was last home in May, it struck me how much my hometown had changed. It had gotten its first movie theater. There was now an IHOP and a Home Depot. The place seemed foreign. I, too, had changed. My boyfriend had become my husband, and my fanciful dream of becoming a writer had come true—I even get paid for spouting off, which never ceases to amaze me. My parents looked older, and their kids have started having kids. My nephew speaks now—in both English and Spanish—and my brother and his wife just had another baby. My youngest siblings, who were 6 and 8 when I left, are in college. My other brother is starting his own business. My dad tells me he thinks Michael, my husband, is “a wonderful guy.” My mom now mentions my “husband” more than I do, and tells him over and over how much she loves him (better him than me). That was the first time I felt I couldn’t go back. The place I had fled simply wasn’t there anymore.
As I write this—I had to get up early to get some quiet—the dogs are running around the house and people have started to get up. Someone just turned on the TV, and it’s blaring. I decided to come home for Christmas this year, and think I will from now on. This of course means I’ll be abandoning my annual tradition of going to the gay bar. As acceptance for gays and lesbians increases and more of us get married, settle down, and have kids, there will be fewer of us to listen to “We Are Family” together on Christmas. That’s sad in one way, but better in more.