Autumn appears on the horizon, blown in by winds of goldenrod and crimson. I am eager for her arrival as she comes to replace her aggressive and overbearing sister, Summer. Autumn is my favorite of the four sisters for she brings with her the loveliness of crisp air, mulled spices, and nostalgia-inducing vistas. Autumn is perfect…almost. Through her glorious procession, Autumn also ushers in something quite sinister: The Holiday Season, and when The Holiday Season arrives, I must awaken The Zombie.
The Zombie is the name I call the revived carcass of my former self that I keep stored away for most of the year. See, while I have come out to my friends with regards to my gender and sexuality, I have yet to do so with my relatives. I did come out to them years ago in high school (if being outed by a “friend” counts) but after a summer spent in conversion therapy, I came to understand that my relatives are only interested in loving a version of me that is cis and heterosexual, no deviations. I tried for years after that summer to be both of those things but as I became more educated and experienced truly accepting relationships, I was confronted with a choice: to grow or to die. I chose to grow. The process was less phoenix-out-of-ashes and more cicada-out-of-exoskeleton. Through a slow and painful ecdysis, I fully emerged as a new being at some point in graduate school. Still repulsive to some, I am to myself glorious, comfortable, and happy in this self that I plan to inhabit until my consciousness ceases to exist entirely. I have never for a moment regretted the decision to molt yet I still keep that itchy old shell in the back of my closet to be pulled out when needed, and during The Holiday Season I need it.
The process of transforming the long-dead husk of my oppressed youth into a passable excuse for a person looks something like a scene out of Shelly’s Frankenstein. First, I strap it down to flat surface so that it doesn’t fly off the handle when it finally jolts awake. The next step is to stuff it via the gaping hole through which I previously emerged during my transformation. The hard drive takes up the most space. As the “brain” of The Zombie it contains important information on how the creature should operate at holiday functions. The hard drive reminds The Zombie to hug everyone in the room at least once, even the people I promised myself I’d never speak to again. It contains a script to guide conversation, ensuring that my monster only says things like “work is going really well” or “this stuffing is good” and entirely avoids statements like “we shouldn’t be celebrating genocide” or “I don’t get why we have to get together just to pretend that we actually care about each other.” With so much at stake, the hard drive is the most quintessential part of this entire charade. After it’s installed, I fill in the remaining cavities with whatever happens to be lying around and sew the opening shut. Next, I tediously clean, manicure and dress the cadaver in preparation for a different kind of homegoing ceremony. Honestly, my current form doesn’t even receive this level of pampering. My kin enjoy the finer things in life, and if The Zombie is going to blend in (at least visually), it needs to be bright-eyed and sharply dressed. I wouldn’t want one of my cousins causing a scene by loudly snapping “why do you look like that?!” at my shabby appearance as soon as I walk through the door (because they would definitely do that). Lastly, I bring the creature to life by jump starting the body with a direct injection of 60 ml. of high-grade tequila. Tequila to the heart does the body good, and without this ritual The Zombie will lack any signs of vitality. All primped and fueled up, The Zombie is ready for a series of holiday events with a slew of aunts, uncles, countless cousins, and all the random people they brought with them!!
While I would love to call myself a genius and say that my monster moves seamlessly through The Holiday Season, the truth is that The Zombie malfunctions often. It sometimes glitches and talks too much of morbid things at the dinner table. Other times it slumps into my aunt’s couch, stares at its shoes and doesn’t speak for hours. Still, this behavior is inconspicuous because young me always behaved this way around my relatives. They never inquired about my social missteps before, and they certainly aren’t going to inquire now. To them, these odd behaviors are my normal ones. The Zombie might be strange, but at least it isn’t queer, and that’s good enough for them. The Zombie, like me, is imperfect and troubled. Unlike me, it is only flawed in the ways which are deemed permissible or are undetectable by those who have conditional love for me. For this reason, The Zombie gets to leave functions with continued access to all the benefits that come with being part of a “family.”
At this point, I imagine readers probably have a lot of questions about why I would go through such a hassle to attend events I don’t actually want to go to in order to spend time with people who don’t allow me to be my truest self? Well, quite frankly, it is easier to put on a brave face and endure a couple hours of shallow conversation than to completely dispose of a community I’ve been connected to since birth. This is not simply a matter of me not wanting to do something difficult, but rather me being unable to reconcile several conflicting identities and desires. For one, as much as we hate to admit it, emotional bonds are important and painful to break. Having the people who birthed and raised you tell you that they are now repulsed by your queer existence is a deep stab to the back which creates a wound that some people never recover from. Furthermore, if your relatives provide you with housing, food, and financial security, cutting ties with them would also be to cut literal lifelines. This downside to coming out has contributed to higher rates of homelessness and suicide among LGBTQ+ individuals, especially youth.
Beyond ties to my blood kin, I am deeply attached to my racial and cultural communities. I am Black and my Blackness is just as important to me as my queerness. The problem is that homophobia is rampant in the Black community, and racism is rampant in the LGBTQ+ community. My connection to the broader Black community gives me a sense of belonging to a shared ancestral past and a wealth of cultural knowledge that is unique to the community. My participation in the LGBTQ+ community gives me a social network that validates one aspect of myself and boosts my mental health by assuring me that my gender and sexuality are valid and not uncommon. I rely on both of these social networks to feel like a complete person and I won’t be cutting either out of my life anytime soon. I don’t want to live a closeted life. However, I also don’t want to experience the social, cultural, and financial ruin that would follow being excommunicated from my family at this point in my life. The Zombie is an interim, albeit imperfect, solution that buys me some time to grow in my career and relationships beyond my family while I figure out how to deal with them in the long-run.
At the end of the day, we all crave loving relationships. Coming out is about so much more than simply telling people that you are queer; it is the start of renegotiating the terms of your relationship with each person you come out to. Will your relationship with your family still be loving and kind (if it ever was) once they know that you aren’t cis or heterosexual? I wrote this article to tell the people who answer this question with anything other than a surefire “yes” that it’s okay to take your sweet time in figuring out how or if you ever will share that part of your life with your family. Constantly recreating a monstrous version of yourself which you despise but know your family will always love is not cowardly, but calculating. As this Holiday Season approaches, I want to encourage everyone to animate monsters and don masks as they see fit. Coming out is a process, not an event, and wherever you are on your journey to living your best life is perfectly valid. Take your time.