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Transmissions: Of lights, family, and the holidays

by Gwendolyn Ann Smith

Christmas lights illuminate the holidays. Photo: Courtesy Energy Efficiency
Christmas lights illuminate the holidays. Photo: Courtesy Energy Efficiency  

Christmas lights used to be wired in such a way that if one bulb perished, the whole string would fail to light up. You had to go, bulb by bulb, trying to find that one filament that had given up the ghost.

So many holiday traditions revolve around light, whether it is the glow of a family menorah or kinara, the lighting of the Yule log, or even the string of gaily-colored lights festooned on a Christmas tree or strung along the eaves outside.

This makes sense, given the holiday time's association with the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year and the ever-increasing light of spring and summer. We acknowledge the darkness and the rise of the light in our own ways.

It's at the heart of so many holiday traditions. Even the belief in the birth of Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem could be read as a parallel to the increase in the sun from the depths of winter — which is likely why the tale became a part of the holiday season, replacing earlier observances.

Of course, in today's world, the holiday season is also a time when the voices of Mariah Carey and Paul McCartney once again inundate us with holiday music as we try to forge a trail through the local department stores in search of gifts for the many people in our lives.
For some of us, this will be a time of year for traveling to meet with our relatives. This is where things get very complex for transgender and nonbinary people.

Many of us have been turned out by our birth families, shunned from blood kin and not at all welcome during this time of sentiment and family celebration. This was my experience from my own family for the first handful of years after I transitioned, as I was told in no uncertain terms not to contact the rest of my family during the holidays, or any other time of the year.

At any rate, my story is far from uncommon, with many still kicked out of their homes over their transition. For too many of us, we end up testing just how unconditional the love of our parents and others in our family may actually be — and often find it wanting.

As painful as this can be, there are even more casual forms of transphobic behavior trans and nonbinary folks can experience at the holidays, ones that may not be as soul crushing, but can nevertheless leave their own bruises.

When surrounded by the people who have known you since you may have been still relying on milk in a warm bottle, many of those same people may have a very strong opinion of who you are — and whether deliberate or otherwise, the holidays may be their time for bringing that out into the open.

The obvious cases are, of course, the wrong pronoun or name being used.

It may seem like a simple thing from the outside, a simple error, and one that shouldn't be more than a trifle. On top of that, many have used a particular name or pronoun for a given person for decades, and are now expected to change. I get that, and I'm not necessarily referring to the honest mistakes when I bring up this issue.

No, I'm talking more of those who might opt to wield a deadname — or a necronym, as I recently heard one's birth name referred to — more like a bludgeon, seeking to make an issue over one's identity in a place that should be safer. Such activities can indeed be callous and cruel, a far cry from the occasional slip of the tongue as family and friends relearn the identities of their loved ones.

By the same token, one might find themselves treated differently around the family, perhaps quietly excluded in ways, or pushed into activities that force them to be in line with a birth gender. Maybe even finding a makeup set under the tree, gifted to a transmasculine family member as a cruel way of devaluing them. After all, the gift-giver might think, it would be positively rude to show disdain for a nice gift, wouldn't it?

I should add, too, that the holidays may also end up being the time when many who are trans end up coming out when they show up on the doorstep. This makes things far, far more challenging, especially if the family turns out to be less than supportive.

This is, as I mentioned, a holiday season about light.

If you are trans and reading this: you are not alone. Many of us have faced similar things in our lives. Reach out if you need a friendly ear. Shout out on your favorite social media platform or confide in your close trans and trans-friendly friends. We're here for you.

For those reading this who may not be trans: Now is the time to give some light of your own. Listen to your trans friends, and stand up for those in your family who may be fearful — or in pain — this season. Now is the time to put your friendship into action, and show your love.

We live in an era that is dark enough without this time of holiday joy adding to the challenge. Like those old holiday lights, we need to make sure that every bulb remains intact, and strive to keep the whole string lit, as it were.

Let's provide the light we all need.

Gwen Smith still needs to hang the lights. You can find her at www.gwensmith.com

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