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Is It Safe To Say Gay At The Dinner Table?

How to navigate uncomfortable conversations with family about gender identity and sexual orientation during the holidays…

By Jumol Royes

I generally love deeper conversations. Soul-stirring conversations that cut straight to the heart of the matter and help shift perceptions from fear to love are my favourite kind.

Uncomfortable conversations with family members? Not so much.

’Tis the season of heading home for the holidays to spend time with loved ones. If we’re to believe popular depictions of what that looks like, it’s supposed to be filled with feasting, merrymaking and lots of good cheer. The reality is that the holidays tend to be the most stressful time of the year instead of the most wonderful.  

For 2SLGBTQI+ individuals who find themselves estranged from their bio families, the holidays are a reminder of fractured familial relationships. The yearning for true belonging and the pain of not belonging to your own family can be devastating.  

Then there are those of us heading home to families who don’t fully understand issues pertaining to gender identity and sexual orientation – issues that directly affect our lives and the lives of 2SLGBTQI+ Canadians – but aren’t shy about expressing their opinions and their often controversial views.

If your family is anything like mine, they enjoy having heated debates about what’s trending in the news, which can lead to flared tempers and hurt feelings. 

There’s no shortage of divisive topics to pick from this holiday season: from school pronoun policies and the recent protest on Parliament Hill opposing 2SLGBTQI+-inclusive education in classrooms, to the NHL banning theme nights and players from using Pride tape on their hockey sticks, it’s all a recipe for some tense moments around the dinner table this December. 

Don’t raise a glass before checking out these tips to help you navigate uncomfortable conversations with family during the holidays while standing in integrity and protecting your peace.

State your intentions

Putting your intentions on the table prior to participating in a hard conversation is a bit like laying a table setting: it sets the tone and prepares everyone for what’s to come. That doesn’t mean that there won’t still be passionate disagreements. However, getting clarity beforehand on what the conversation is really about can encourage more meaningful dialogue. Brené Brown, author of Braving the Wilderness, believes intention gets to the root of why an issue is important to us. “We have to understand what truly matters to us and learn why this topic is so important to the other person as well,” she writes. If the intention is to cultivate compassion, connection, deeper understanding and empathy, it’s probably a conversation worth having.  

Be civil and call out bad behaviour

We’ve all been in situations where a conversation goes left, and civility gets thrown out the window. In these cases, no one walks away from the interaction feeling good. Civility is a cornerstone for conversations based upon mutual respect. The definition of civility is “claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process,” say Cassandra Dahnke and Tomas Spath, founders of the Institute for Civility. Civility goes hand in hand with using inclusive language. There’s no room in a civil conversation for hate speech or language that aims to dehumanize. If a family member uses anti-2SLGBTQI+ slurs, or repeatedly deadnames or misgenders someone, call them out on it. We have a collective moral responsibility to maintain the dignity of every human person.     

Choose differently

The hardest thing to do, when triggered while having an intense conversation, is to not react from that activated place. Instead, you need to create space between the trigger and your knee-jerk response, and then make the conscious choice to choose differently. This practice isn’t for the faint of heart: it requires patience, self-awareness and a commitment to doing the deeper work of uncovering what triggers you, how those triggers make you feel and what your go-to responses are when those triggers are activated. When you create space between a trigger and your response, you also create space to get curious about what might be triggering the other person…which opens the door to compassion. This isn’t easy to do within families with deeply rooted dynamics at play where individuals revert to familiar roles and ways of behaving when conflict arises. But if you’re able to put this practice into action, it can be liberating.  

It’s okay to disengage

Sometimes all you want to do when gathering with family over the holidays is open gifts, eat dinner and then call it a night. If a family member tries to engage you in a conversation about gender identity, sexual orientation or any other hot-button issue, and you’re just not feeling it, you’re allowed to say no. If you happen to be in the middle of an uncomfortable conversation and you feel like your physical or emotional safety is at risk, you have the right to disengage and walk away. Given all the chaos in the world today, you might not have the mental or emotional capacity for conversations that have the potential to escalate quickly, especially if people are drinking or have been overserved. Protecting your peace and well-being is the best gift you can give to yourself.  

Here’s hoping that the only thing you’ll be cutting with a knife when sitting down for dinner with family this holiday season is the turkey, not the tension.

JUMOL ROYES is IN Magazine’s director of communications and community engagement, an Ottawa-based poet and storyteller and glass-half-full kinda guy. He writes about compassion, community, identity and belonging. His guilty pleasure is watching the Real Housewives. Follow him on Instagram @jumolroyes.

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