Last Christmas, Anastasia Curtis brought her good friend, a fellow trans woman, home to enjoy the holidays.
Shunned by her family for being trans, the woman had no place to go, Curtis said. But Curtis’ family welcomed her with open arms.
“While my family is very religious and Christian-based, they are also very open,” the 24-year-old Essex resident recalled.
Curtis considers herself one of the lucky members of the LGBTQ community.
“It is far outside of the norm,” she said. “From being a gay male to transitioning, I have been supported all over. I would consider myself a lucky one. Support for me never stopped, no matter who I was or who I loved.”
For members of the LGBTQ community, the holidays can be a difficult time as they struggle with discrimination, isolationism due to rejection from support systems, and in some cases loss of chosen family due to death and illness. These factors are top of mind for many, who are extra vigilant in protecting both the community and its most vulnerable members.
“Rates of suicide attempts and deaths by suicide in the LGBTQ community are higher anyway. And with the stress of holidays, you’re bringing together two different challenging dynamics,” said Sam McClure, executive director for The Center for LGBTQ Health Equity at Chase Brexton Health Care.
The Pride Center of Maryland, the state’s largest nonprofit organization dedicated to providing resources to the LGBTQ community, sees a 25% uptick in people seeking resources during the holidays, according to Cleo Manago, the center’s executive director.
The center typically offers about 30 events and programming each month. It also will host a holiday party on Dec. 20 with the hopes of providing a welcoming space to LGBTQ people who have limited family or support systems.
“There are a lot of successful, powerful, same-gender-loving people who are quite sad this time of year because they are estranged and alone because of their families,” Manago said. “Despite how your family treats you, you are organically created to love them.”
Elder members are among the most vulnerable during the holiday season, advocates say.
“Anecdotally we’re well aware of many people in the community who are isolated, especially the elders. The same people who built the LGBTQ movement are struggling because they are isolated,” McClure explained. “We have to look after those people because they are an essential part of our community. It’s one of the primary motivations for why we built the ElderPride program. Loneliness is a well-known public health problem. It’s particularly affecting our community.”
McClure’s center offers a variety of programs targeting older members in the community, including Speak OUT, Speak UP, Speak Together, a group of people age 50 and over who hold weekly virtual meetings, and the LGBTQ 50+ Thrivers HIV Group, which also meets virtually and is dedicated to those living with HIV.
“People talk about wishing they had a Friendsgiving party to go to or they think about what they are going to do in the holiday time — people who came out in [the] 50s, 60s, 70s, when familial rejection was more likely,” McClure explained. “They really organized their own chosen family. That same group of people went through the AIDS crisis and lost their chosen family. There is a compounding of these dynamics for that age group. It’s always a concern with loneliness and isolationism.”
Stacy Williams, programs director at the Pride Center of Maryland, estimates that close to 40% of attendees at the center’s holiday party are older than 40.
“A lot of them live alone, have no family or are restricted for health reasons,” Williams said. “A lot of them struggle with depression, so we try to help them and provide a shoulder to cry on. A lot of people forget about the elders during this time. Same-gender-loving people don’t have the support system from their families and a lot of their friends are deceased. Christmas especially triggers a lot of people — particularly our elders.”
People across the spectrum of the LGBTQ community are at risk of isolationism and mental illness-related issues as a result of the holidays, Manago said.
“Even though there has been a lot of legislative, policy success, there are still a lot of young people who have been kicked out of their home without a place to stay who are couch surfing,” he warned. “They feel isolated around spiritually-based dates. They can’t bring their partners.”
Manago said that some LGBTQ members have to perform “man drag” and “women drag” — dressing in traditional male and female clothing — when being with their families during the holidays.
“There are definitely people who are in a religious family or families who believe in a certain way that a man should be,” he explained. “They have to dress in a societal-acceptable way. Their family gets on their case.”
Some in the LGBTQ community themselves are “femme-phobic” and discriminate against feminine-appearing gay men, Manago said.
“They are dismissing people because of how they appear in the world. There are even social parties where people say if you are not so-and so, you cannot come in,” he said. “It’s really important that we learn to build community and not repeat the oppression that we have all suffered from.”
Providing a sense of community for LGBTQ people is precisely why the Baltimore Eagle Bar & Nightclub opened the night before Thanksgiving, which is something it had not done in recent years, according to manager Brandon Gruszczynski.
“We did it for the community and for people who do not have family and friends and do not have a place to go — so they don’t feel like they are out of place,” he said. “Some people who don’t have family or they have post-trauma issues and family issues, it doesn’t mean they are not good people. They deserve to have a place to go. There are some older men who think the Eagle is an escape to be themselves. They get to be in their own skin and that’s such a beautiful thing.”
In addition to having a DJ and drag queen host, the establishment offered drink specials throughout the night.
“We wanted to do it for people who like to go to the Eagle,” he said. “In the future we want to build on it and offer a free meal.”
Experts say the most important thing is for those who are struggling with isolation and the holiday blues to seek immediate help.
“I have been alone during the holidays before. It’s hard. It’s really, really hard. No one should feel shame in struggling. Reach out to someone,” McClure said. “There are a lot of resources out there.”
Williams also recommended taking advantage of the resources available to the LGBTQ community.
“Believe in yourself and continue to walk on faith and not on sight. There are brighter days ahead. Just continue to fight,” Williams said.
Curtis, who recalled her friend feeling supported and loved after attending her family’s Christmas party last year, recommends self-care and preservation for others experiencing rejection from their biological family.
“Those who have discarded you and disrespected you should not be in your life to begin with,” she said.