Family Acceptance Project shares holiday tips for LGBTQ students

Many people sitting at a table with beverages in hand. It appears the group is doing a celebratory cheer with their drinks.


Director Caitlin Ryan says preparation and boundaries can be key to a happier holiday season

The holidays are supposed to be a merry time with friends and family. But it can also be a tough time of year for LGBTQ individuals, who might be in the closet or estranged from family members who don’t accept their identity. Fortunately, Caitlin Ryan — a social worker who has dedicated more than 40 years of her career to LGBTQ health — has identified ways to reduce potential discomfort.

Ryan is the director of San Francisco State University’s Family Acceptance Project, the world’s first research, intervention, education and policy initiative for helping diverse families support their LGBTQ children. Through her work, she hopes to help people understand how family acceptance plays a crucial role in the well-being and success of LGBTQ people — particularly youth. She offered the following tips for LGBTQ people who find this season difficult.

Anticipate What You Might Expect

Many LGBTQ people feel anxious during the holidays as they prepare to visit their family, Ryan says. To limit some of that stress, acknowledge any uncomfortable conversations or scenarios that may happen during your visit and think of the best ways to respond.

It’s important to remember that your visit may never turn out exactly how you planned and that’s perfectly fine, she advises. Learn how to “let go” and let the things you cannot change run their course. While you can’t control other people’s actions, you can control how you prepare for the expected.  

Set Boundaries

Set firm boundaries with yourself to protect your mental well-being. For example, if you find yourself in the middle of an uncomfortable conversation, take a break and find a place to catch a breath. (The classic, “Excuse me while I use the restroom,” works well here.)

Another way to set boundaries is to speak up and assert yourself when someone crosses the line. If a family member makes a derogatory comment, calmly — but firmly — tell them what they said was hurtful and ask that they refrain from making such remarks.

Lean on Allies

If you have family members who are supportive of the LGBTQ community, lean on them for comfort during gatherings. Being able to fully express yourself with people who accept you makes a critical difference. If you also feel more comfortable with a family member or friend who accepts your identity, ask if you can stay with them during your visit.

Celebrate With Your Chosen Family

If your family by birth doesn’t accept who you are, there’s an alternative. Spend the holidays with your family by choice: the people who do accept you. This could be friends, coworkers or neighbors.

Also, check if there are local LGBTQ centers in your area that are hosting holiday events. You may find people who are also going through similar situations.

Looking for more information on the importance of family support for LGBTQ individuals? Family Acceptance Project offers a series of research-based posters that educate the public on how family acceptance can reduce serious health risks, especially suicide, among LGBTQ people.

“The posters are key resources to help families and providers understand the critical need for family support,” said Ryan. “Efforts to change, deny and minimize LGBTQ identity and gender expression start at home and last a lifetime, just as affirmation and support build healthy futures for LGBTQ people.”

For more information about the Family Acceptance Project, including details about the posters, visit its website.