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The Mistletoe Minefield :: Avoiding Political Arguments Over the Holiday Table

by Andy Smith
Sunday Dec 25, 2016

Between usually rock-steady Rachel Maddow mixing toxic cocktails on air and Steven Colbert's gentle implosion during his hard-to-watch election-night special, left-leaning America has been experiencing a public meltdown since Donald J. Trump passed the 270 mark on November 8.

Other than "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and that sexy Santa on those Fiat commercials, the 2016 holidays are shaping up to be a shitty end to a regrettable year for much of the LGBTQ community.

And now, as we struggle to make sense of this election, those of us who didn't grow up in liberal enclaves are faced with the already daunting possibility of the holidays -- a minefield for many during the best of times.

Is this the year to avoid our families and feel good about it?


It's Not OK, but You're Not Alone

If it's any consolation, licensed therapists think it is!

Manhattan-based psychotherapist Sam Guzzardi works with LGBTQ adults and young people facing a range of issues, including depression, anxiety, trauma and difficulty in relationships.

"When we think of family, especially our parents, what we imagine is that their job is to love us and support us. When folks see that their family supports a candidate that isn't supportive of them, it's disheartening for many, many, many people. It's not that their family is estranging them. Many people are saying, 'For the first time, I need to take a stand with my family. I need to say that their views are not okay with me,'" Guzzardi says.

"Especially with the holidays looming, people have felt as though this holiday season, we can't just have Christmas together around the tree without discourse about what just happened," he continues. "I think that type of exceptionalism isn't going to work for them anymore. It no longer works for people to hear 'I support Trump and I love you.'"


Blindsided in Buckhead

In the weeks leading up to the election, Atlanta therapist Thom Anderson, LCSW, observed his patients becoming increasingly keyed up from both fear of a Trump win and excitement over the possibility of the first female president. "It certainly reached a crescendo on the day of the election itself," he says.

And then...

"Since the election, my email box has been full and my phone began ringing off the hook. I opened up additional hours," says Anderson, whose practice focuses on LGBTQ clients. "It's universal. I haven't seen a person who isn't scared and hurting. I don't have a person on my schedule that isn't afraid; they're worried about the hate crimes that are going on."

Comparisons to 9/11 may apply, he adds. "I literally have clients coming in and using that metaphor. They feel like it's the day after 9/11 and everything was different than it was before."

Anderson says his patients are particularly concerned about whether to spend the holidays with family members. The situation, he adds, is unique in his experience.

Whereas, in general, most LGBTQ voters are sad and disappointed when conservative Republicans win major elections, the difference between Bush vs. Gore and Trump vs. Clinton is "huge," in the president-elect's vernacular.

"People are making that comparison. They're saying, 'I thought it was bad under Bush, but this doesn't compare.' They didn't like Bush, but that was political, and this is personal."


"You Can Do Anything ... "

For some of Anderson's patients, "personal" means "trigger." Since the Access Hollywood bus tape was released -- and then played constantly at all hours -- women have been outraged, horrified and traumatized by Trump's sexually predatory behavior.

"I see a few heterosexual women and lesbians who have experienced sexual assault. Watching the Trump campaign was deeply disturbing for them," Anderson says. "When the video came out, they watched as the larger society didn't understand what assault was. This proved very troubling and very hard."

So, what to do about the holidays in this brave new world?

Anderson says his clients are in the process of deciding what to do, weighing their options "to see if home can be apolitical around the holidays."

"And any of my clients aren't going. Usually people I see have experienced a lot of difficulty in their families of origin. They're having to make the choice on whether it's emotionally safe to go home," says Anderson.

"They're asking for advice, and we're weighing it out on a case-by-case basis. In some cases, it's a safe family [environment] to say, 'Let's not talk about it.' But that's not very common."

In other cases, LGBTQ patients are deciding whether they "have to" go home, based on specific family situations, including older, ailing parents and grandparents.

His advice? Ask everyone at the holiday table to sign a pact to not discuss politics or the election. Also, if holiday visits involve returning to your hometown, schedule (multiple) visits to friends who live near your family. "And practice changing the subject."

For multigenerational family gatherings, Florida-based therapists Poppy and Geoff Spencer suggest agreeing on "a list of acceptable topics" before the holidays begin.

When necessary, find unity in the past. "When it's possible, try to validate the older generation. Segue way the conversation to family memories and stories from the past. Let them tell a great story they can tell well," says Geoff Spencer. "If possible, change the focus to fun and humorous things."

Hudson, New York-based therapist Jamie Trachtenberg, LCSW, ACHP-SW, agrees that already strained family dynamics could be stretched to the limit. "How do you handle the 'drunk uncle at the table' conversation? I believe it's not to have the conversation. Just respectfully say, 'I'm not choosing to participate in this,' " she says, adding, "I know many people who have unfriended family members on Facebook."


And Then There's Mike

Love him or hate, hate, hate him, most of President-Elect Trump's characteristics (and rampant character flaws) are out in the open.

For many, however, the only contact our family members have had with VP-Elect Mike Pence is through the vice-presidential debate, during which he came off as a calming counterbalance to the top of the ticket -- a benevolent disciplinarian, looking doubtful and gently shaking his head while a hyper Tim Kaine bombarded him with unnecessary facts.

For the LGBTQ position, Pence is perceived by many as a greater threat than the combustible Trump, who's already stressed his acceptance of "gay marriage" on "60 Minutes."

"My gay clients know who Mike Pence is, and they know what he did as governor of Indiana. My heterosexual clients don't know that," says Anderson. "Heterosexuals perceive him as a good sign. They perceive him as reasonable. Gay clients know how bad the country would be under Pence."

How do families with LGBTQ members reconcile the Trump-Pence platform?

Atlanta native and former social worker Erik Friedly is lucky. While his divided family is feuding on Facebook, he has a great excuse to stay put over the holidays: He's deputy program director for CDC's Global Health Security in Uganda. Thanks to the Internet, he can't escape his country's -- or his family's -- infighting. "The most shocking thing about their support for Trump is that they can support such an unqualified and morally bankrupt person. How do you support someone who won't even pay his taxes and then complains that our national infrastructure is bad?"

His brother was a vociferous Trump supporter who believes the election was a referendum on Clinton's "corruptness" and an "emancipation proclamation" for repressed white America. "'Political correctness' seems to have become a buzzword for them, as they now proudly proclaim that they, like the country, have been unshackled from its damaging restraints," he says.

And Pence? "They seem to accept me for who I am, but at the same time seem to simply overlook Pence's dangerous views on LGBT people. It seems like an inconvenient fact for them that they simply ignore," Friedly says.

"The support for Pence is mystifying. This is a man who openly and throughout his career has opposed LGBT rights, and in the most extreme ways -- yet even with several gay or lesbian family members, they can overlook all of that and find him an acceptable candidate worthy of their votes."


What's Next?

If you're still mourning, give yourself some time to recover -- and then take action.

After the holidays, the best therapy may be to fight back. "The other thing I will say is that fear isn't going to help. To the extent that exposure to media or social media that is sensationalist or fear-based is out there, skip it and instead try to look at action and things that you can do and think about learning. What are the actual policies that the Trump administration is supporting? Those that you're against, lobby," Guzzardi says.

Even if you live in a blue state, there's a lot to do, he adds. "We get into this myth that our state is monolithically red or blue. There are plenty of backward leaders in blue states. Find out who the people are on your school board. Is the school board teaching creationism?"

"Find out who is in leadership in your city or county. You can get involved there and make an impact."

Or you can just quit. "I've had two friends who are leaving the country. One has already put his house on the market," Anderson adds.

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