Long Island’s GLBT Population Speaks about Family, Faith, Community and What the Holidays Mean to Them
The holiday season is a time for cheer and celebration, but for some GLBT people, it is one that brings anxiety and stress. Already faced with its own, unique set of challenges that center around defining family, determining the role of faith in their lives, and dealing with angst over coming out to friends and relatives, overall feelings of sadness andexclusion seem to intensify around the season.And mainstream media certainly doesn’t help, as it fills us with “traditional,” “Leave it to Beaver” images of family gatherings with smiling parents and well-groomed children set around the dinner table for Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Kwanzaa and Christmas – a reality that probably never even existed in most American families in the 1950s.
“For those of us GLBT people on Long Island who do not have accepting family members, any family, or family in the area, the holiday season can be absolutely horrific,” says Rob Balzarano, LMSW, Director of CARE Services for The Long Island GLBT Network. “Instead of experiencing the media images of love, goodwill, and celebration, some in the GLBT community can feel lonely, unloved, and often desperate. It is not until we create our ‘chosen family’ in which we actually decide the people in our lives that we cherish, truly love, respect and want to spend the holidays with that we are able to feel a true sense of home for the holidays.”
For Adelphi University student Shannen Murphy, she remembers Christmas Eve with her family as, among other things, a time of discomfort and anxiousness. As she tells it, her earliest memories from around age 5 are of her mother’s family visiting the house for the holiday, which always included her two gay uncles. It wasn’t that their sexual orientation was so much the source of her angst, but rather, her family’s aversion and silence in talking about it.
“By the time I was around 12, most of the family started to wither away and it was really only my two gay uncles who would visit every year,” she explains. “And my family never talked about the fact that they were together. I had to figure it out by myself. And by them not talking about it, it gave me an awkward feeling – that it was something we didn’t discuss at home – and that would make Christmas uneasy for me.”
Murphy, who has since come out herself as Queer, is part of a group of youth at Long Island Gay & Lesbian Youth (LIGALY) who meet every Tuesday night at The Long Island GLBT Community Center in Garden City Center for a video project called TRUE Calling. LIGALY’s TRUE Calling project consists of dozens of youth, ages 13-21, who are encouraged to express themselves through various types of performance art and then put these skills into action by creating a series of videos aimed at their colleagues. This season, the group worked to create a video that would express their feelings surrounding the holidays. Using words like “confusing,” “anxiety inducing,” “nerve wracking,” and “depressing,” the spot exemplifies how the subject resonated with the group.
“We talked about the emotional toll the holidays can bring on youth, those who don’t feel like their families support them,” says Murphy. “We focused on silence – who you are out to and not out to – and how it can be difficult around the holidays and how it helps to get it all off our chests. Feelings can get messy if you don’t have somewhere to put them. Towards the end of the video, we talk about how LIGALY, the TRUE Calling project and other programs can build that sense of community and family that we may not get otherwise during the holidays and have other times of the year. The message really is that we need to take care of each other when our blood kin can’t.”
Max Micallef, a 16-year-old gay high school student from Sag Harbor, agrees with Murphy that as a younger child, the holidays were sometimes uncomfortable for him as well.
“It was kind of awkward for me sometimes when my grandpa or uncle would say, ‘Oh, you’re a handsome boy, why don’t you have a girlfriend?’ I would just laugh and try to brush it off, but it was definitely uncomfortable. When I did come out, they stopped asking me about who I was dating. I mean, they didn’t ask me, ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’”
Micallef says that his greatest source of anxiety was brought on when he came out to both his immediate and extended family, just prior to the holidays a few years ago. “After telling my parents, I told my other relatives over the phone because they live in other states – so my first Christmas out, my first face-to-face with them after they knew, was at my aunt’s in New Jersey. I felt anxious thinking that things were going to change, even though I knew in the back of my mind that my parents loved me and it wasn’t going to be an issue,” he explains. “Nothing had changed at all. I was just in my own head being paranoid. But my family didn’t treat me any differently. I wasn’t gay Max, I was still Max. And since coming out, I lost the anxiety.”
“As a kid, all I thought about on Chanukah was that my family got together and there would be gifts,” says Elyse, a 28-year-old lesbian who lives in Syosset. “We always spent Chanukah at my uncle’s house. It wasn’t until my senior year in high school when some of my older cousins started to bring their girlfriends and boyfriends to our holiday dinner. By the time I was in my first year in college, when I finally came out as a lesbian and had my first girlfriend, it really bothered me. I wanted to bring my girlfriend with me to my uncle’s, but I didn’t feel like I could. When I finally came out to my parents, my father didn’t actually say it to me, but I think he was embarrassed. We had a family friend who was a Rabbi … and he came to the dinners, too. And I don’t think my father wanted him to know about me.”
Elyse says that there were a few years when she stopped attending her family’s Chanukah dinners, due to her family’s lack of support. Instead, she spent the holiday with friends. “It definitely made me feel alone.” Shortly following college graduation, she says her mother asked if she would come to the next Chanukah dinner. “I said I would come, but only if I could bring my girlfriend. Everyone basically treated her like she was my ‘friend,’ – that’s the word my mother used,” she laughs. “They didn’t treat her the same way as they did my cousin’s girlfriends or boyfriends. They’ve since warmed up to things with me, but it took a few years to get to that point.”
Many senior members of the community, too, admit to having mixed feelings about the holiday season. According to Lou Lisi, an 87-year-old gay man from Bay Shore, he didn’t come out until he was 67. For him, the biggest change during the holidays was when his wife passed away nine years ago. “She really made a big fuss about holidays,” he says. “We had an attic full of holiday decorations. But when she died, everything got quiet. But I had always felt pressured and overwhelmed during that time of year because I felt a lot was expected of me that I couldn’t live up to. As time went on, rather than be uncomfortable, I tried to tell myself that it was just another day. So, that’s how I get through the holidays.”
While he does spend time with his children, one of his sons prefers not to discuss Lisi’s lifestyle. “I feel like there’s a wall between us; like I’m not fully accepted or that he’s ashamed of me. We still get together, but we just don’t talk about it. I feel uncomfortable about that.
Bob Maletta, a 70-year-old East Patchogue gay man, says he has always loved the holidays, but after 28 years of marriage, he had an awakening. “I told my wife a year into therapy that I had to end our marriage because I was gay. And so, for the holidays, I went from having 20 people sitting around a table, to it being just my partner and myself at the time. It was a bit of a shock. But you know what? I’m always so thankful I did what I did. I now spend Christmas with my partner in Florida, where we have a small tree we put on the table. I’m with the person I want to be with and we’re with a whole bunch of friends. This is where I belong and I’m happy here. Ultimately, my life is more important than a Christmas tree.”
As far as the role faith plays in his holiday? “I was born and raised an Italian Catholic. I was an alter boy and I was always very faith-based. I still have that faith but I don’t practice the way I used to practice. I have felt alienated from the church, knowing how the church feels about me as a gay man. I don’t agree with their doctrine and I don’t necessarily practice going to church but I’ll always be a Catholic.”
Missy, a senior trans woman from Hempstead who has lost many of her relatives, shares, “My family knows about me but doesn’t want me to wear a dress or heels on Christmas.” She explains that for her, she likes to celebrate her faith during Christmas, but “I can go to church and celebrate as a male, but being transgender, if I showed up in a dress, I don’t think they’d let me in the church. I’d like to be able to celebrate my faith as who I feel like I really am, Missy.”
Explaining that her faith is important to her, Missy says, “I’ve done performances as an actor. And in one church, they had me perform as Jesus, along with some other people, and I’m thinking, ‘Here we are, in a church, performing onstage and basically it’s a bunch of men wearing dresses, and that’s fine. Yet if I showed up at the front door, in dress and makeup, they wouldn’t let me in the church. It’s just ironic.”
For members of the community who are looking to celebrate their faith around the holiday season, there are some houses of worship on Long Island that either are open to “all” Long Islanders or have services for the GLBT Community.
One such place is the Sid Jacobson Jewish Community Center (SJJCC) in East Hills. “We are not a synagogue, so we don’t have holiday services, and we don’t have a huge GLBT population here, but we do have a Chanukah candle lighting and family workshops that are open to everybody – and we do get families of all configurations, including gay and lesbian families,” says Rabbi Zerbarini, director of Weinberger Center for Jewish Life & Learning, SJJCC, who has collaborated on various events with LIGALY’s Aleph Project (which addresses the challenges that GLBT Jewish youth and their families face when identifying safe and welcoming Jewish spaces). Rabbi Zerbarini says that when she came out as a lesbian in 1985, “it seemed like a different world. There were a few years when I lived in San Francisco and it was a good thing to be 3,000 miles away from my family. Now, it is a very wonderful thing to be back on Long Island, living near my folks and being able to celebrate holidays with my parents and my in-laws and to be all together.”
As a rabbi, faith has played an important role in Rabbi Zerbarini’s life, not just for the holidays, but, as she explains, “in challenges in self-acceptance and the ability to be out. It took me a little while to find a faith community that was accepting. When I found one with some folks who were very openly supportive, I felt like, ‘Here I can do this in a religious context.’ I felt very supported. I needed a context where I could be both gay and religious because I couldn’t really do an either or.”
According to Rabbi Zerbarini, “The real Chanukah miracle is not that the oil burned for eight days instead of one, but that people went ahead and lit the oil when they didn’t have enough – it’s a holiday of hope and of acting on hope. And certainly in the GLBT civil rights movement, we’ve come so far in the last 40 years, maybe even in many arenas, way beyond where we would have thought, and its people having hope and then acting on it and creating miracles. So, I think it’s a holiday for all of us.”
Brother Mark Gregory D’Alessio is a Franciscan friar with the Episcopal Society of St. Francis, an activist in the GLBT community, and an openly gay administrator, webmaster, and events coordinator at Little Portion’s Friary in Mount Sinai. “If we’re talking about spirituality then we’re talking about acceptance, wholeness, and integration,” says Brother Mark. “So, when you speak about the kinds of things we’re doing here, well, there isn’t any question that whatever we do is open to the public. It’s an open table for communion and all the events are open.”
Brother Mark continues, “Some people turn to so many different kinds of things when they think that God doesn’t love them. And when we talk about the GLBT community, there are some people who aren’t part of their family any longer or they are people who have created large, extended families, so there are all different ways to live out that spirituality. What we say here is that you can do all of that in church. And the GLBT part is not a broken part, that’s how you’ve been made and so the wisdom now is that we are to celebrate diversity.”
According to Reverend Gale D. Jones, a lesbian and faith leader with the Long Island Community Fellowship in Bay Shore, for many members of the GLBT community, the experiences in just connecting with family tends to be a big issue during the holiday season. “When you see the holiday ads, they often bring us back to our childhood memories, and to that sense of connection with family. Unfortunately, too often we don’t necessarily have that connection with our blood families.”
Jones continues that there are a number of affirming congregations on Long Island for the GLBT community. For Christmas, the church offers a number of services, and a brunch on Christmas morning that follows the service. And for those who don’t necessarily have families in the area, there’s usually a general invitation from one of the members to make certain that people have somewhere to go on that day to celebrate.
“Since it’s a season of giving, I say invite a friend or even an acquaintance or two to dinner for the holidays until they’ve created their own chosen family,” adds Balzarano. “Whether that includes you or not, what a genuine gift it is to be able to give.”