There are few things more awkward than the family visit. There’s the easy part: throwing out the cigarette packs and empty Smirnoff bottle “decorations.” You sweep away the evidence of what-your-family-expects-and-doesn’t-want-to-know-for-sure and present a clean face. What parents and siblings don’t know won’t hurt them; hopefully, we are still those same bright-eyed, eager 18-year-olds our parents dropped off at Carman, so innocent and so premed. Maybe you cover your Che Guevara poster and stash your Marx-Engels Reader in a drawer. The college you, the young-adult-freewheeling-liberated you, gets stashed away, too. Family doesn’t want bra-burning, Sartre-quoting you. Family wants the rule-abiding you that got you into Columbia in the first place. Thanksgiving is the season of family, and while most students are homeward bound, some (myself included) find ourselves here playing host.
Family visits should be something to look forward to. Everyone gets homesick once in a while and needs the gentle reminder that there is indeed a world outside Columbia craziness. But for LGBT students, family visits are met with a mixture of apprehension and wariness. The Columbia cocoon (or most college spaces for that matter) is a bubble of exploration—freedom of expression under the aegis of youthful self-exploration and “finding oneself.” It is here that many students feel comfortable enough to come out and show themselves to the world for the first time. Columbia provides an environment of accepting “deviance” that I had never felt before. Unfortunately, the culture of acceptance is not a universal one and is not one that extends to the homes of many students.
The “coming out” process is never easy. At home, surrounded by the familiar and the comforting, one’s emergent “queerness” is isolated. It is but a slight aberration in an otherwise ordered existence. It is perhaps best summed up by the quiet humiliation of: “We love you even though ... ” Their space is still straight, still normal. They may look at you differently, but their world remains unchanged. Yet when our families come here, they leave that behind. They enter our space: They leave the ordered, the normal, the straight. They enter the life you created for yourself in your liberation and self-expression. And, my God, it is awkward.
Family is a sensitive topic in the LGBT community. We are constantly told that we are incapable of creating families or that we do not belong in them (some studies have shown that up to 42 percent of homeless youth are LGBT). However, when we are forced to reconcile our worlds with those of our families, our initial reaction, more often than not, is to apologize for our “queerness.” It is to make ourselves appear less effeminate (in the case of queer men) or masculine (for women)—to reject an integral part of ourselves, so that we may appear more acceptable to those we love. We choose to “cleanse” ourselves of any offending attributes, removing that which makes us the most “gay” so that we are acceptable to our families.
There are small changes: your tone of voice, your gesticulations, the way you dress. And there are the more noticeable ones: the conversations avoided, the words left unsaid (“How is your friend in California?”). They are petty humiliations, but they are humiliations nonetheless. It takes a toll. Family visits can boil down to one thing: fear. Fear of being judged, misunderstood, rejected. What do we do when we are confronted with our pasts? What effect does it have to stash away a part of you, like so many other dorm room undesirables?
Any holiday that celebrates food and involves the institution of gravy is a holiday that I strongly support. Yes, it’s also about how the Native Americans taught the silly white people how to farm and make Turducken. But it’s come to be about that peculiar institution of family, and the sides of us that we choose to share with our family members. There is no prescription in this column. I have no advice to dispense. I have a brother and sister arriving today, when this column goes to press. At the last minute, we opted out of making Thanksgiving dinner together in favor of an overpriced prix fixe menu.
Dinner should be interesting...
Andrew Godinich is a Columbia College senior majoring in sociology and Portuguese studies. He is treasurer of Students for Educational Reform. Too Be Frank runs alternate Mondays.
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