Thanksgiving 2011 was the first time my mother met her eldest son. It was the first holiday I’d spent with my immediate family after coming out as transgender.
Earlier that year, I’d written my mom a letter explaining my transition, and my new name and pronouns, telling her how much I loved her and how grateful I would be for her support. With my siblings, I opted for more casual, in-person conversations. My sister nearly knocked over a whole wheel of cheese, flinging her arms in excitement when I called during her lunch break at the Oklahoma Whole Foods where she managed the cheese department.
Sitting across the table from my brother at my favorite Denver bar, the Thin Man, it was clear he didn’t really understand what I was telling him. But he told me about all the gay dudes he worked with and liked at the Apple Store in Denver. Close enough, I thought.
That Thanksgiving also marked the first time I was to meet my mom’s boyfriend, a guy she had been dating for more than a year, and the first serious relationship since her divorce from my father when I was 22.
I was nervous about spending a holiday with her. Yes, my voice had dropped since starting hormones in April, and yes, I was now wearing a binder, and yes, I knew I could count on my siblings to carry the torch. But I was still anxious about her inevitable slips. As the eldest child, I’ve always felt the way I imagine many oldest children feel; once you demonstrate you can take care of yourself, your parents tend to the younger siblings. I figured this holiday would follow that pattern: Mom wouldn’t take much care in acknowledging me or apologizing about the occasional misgendering or use of my birth name.
On the 60-mile drive to Colorado Springs from Denver, my mom warned me that her boyfriend, Mark, was a libertarian who liked to “discuss politics.” She also warned me that he was large and somewhat imposing, a former college basketball player standing at 6-foot-6, 250 pounds. He was a man’s man who rode Harley-Davidson motorcycles and took an annual “guys” fishing trip to Canada, she said. He was, in fact, all of those things. But he also had a steady, high-paying job, and unlike my father, treated my mom like a queen — spoiling her with new clothes, expensive dinners, even taking her on a lifelong dream trip through Europe. How bad could he be? I asked myself, trying to shrug off my anxiety.
As soon as I walked in the door, Mark started in. “So, what are your plans after law school?” he asked, dwarfing my hand in his when we shook. I tried to stand up straighter, taller, but still felt his shadow.
“Oh, well, I’m not sure yet,” I said nervously. “I think working as a public defender would be a good job.” He must be unaware of the panic that question strikes into law students everywhere.
“Oh, a government job, huh? Should work well for you while Obama is still in office, cushy government benefits and all,” he laughed loudly, his large body shifting towards me.
“Public defenders don’t make much money,” I quipped.
“Well, good! Then you can get on Obamacare and pay less taxes anyway,” he said, baiting me. I promptly walked to the fridge, while laughing and rolling my eyes. I was going to need a few beers to get through this afternoon.
As soon as my brother and sister arrived, Mark turned his attention to them — haranguing my brother about his latest frustrations with his Apple products, which my brother graciously indulged. My sister and I hugged and walked out to the porch, which had an incredible view of Pikes Peak.
“How’s it going?” she asked.
“Oh, how you would expect,” I joked. “He’s grilling me about politics.”
“You know what I mean,” she replied, staring at me pointedly. “How’s Mom been?”
“Well, she’s sort of avoiding me, generally,” I said, looking out at the mountains and sipping my beer. My sister put her arm around me and leaned in, resting her head on my shoulder.
“Oh, Carl. I love you, man.” We sat silently, the occasional sounds of glassware on the countertop and my brother’s laugh floating out through the screen door.
“Gir— er, I mean, children!” my mom’s voice broke the peaceful quiet between my sister and me. “Come help set the table!”
Laughing, my sister fired back: “We’re sharing a brother-sister bonding moment, hang on!” She could feel my shoulders slump as we both stood up.
We walked back inside and started setting the table. My sister paused, took out her camera, and snapped a picture of me. Sometimes I still look at that picture, hardly recognizing the person in it, but appreciating my sister’s act of solidarity, of saying she saw me.
As we sat down to eat, my mom asked my brother to say grace — a request she usually made of me. Even though saying grace involved praying to a god I don’t know or believe exists, I had grown accustomed to the routine; it stung to be passed over like this.
During the course of dinner, conversation ebbed and flowed between serious and innocuous topics, from foreign policy to the latest Marvel movies. My brother and I commented on the cultural significance of the influx of superhero movies. I added that visibility mattered in pop culture, noting how glad I was that a recent and popular show like Glee was highlighting the topic of bullying against LGBT youth in schools. Mark snickered when I said that.
“Well, that’s not really a thing, though, is it?” he chuckled.
I raised my eyebrows at him. “Yeah, that’s a thing,” I replied. “Thirteen youth committed suicide this year because of bullying.”
“Right, but 13 out of how many?” he goaded. “That’s not a huge national problem. I was bullied in school for having red hair and being skinny and I didn’t off myself. These kids need to toughen up.”
I could feel the blood rushing to my temples and looked up at my sister, who was shaking her head, nervously moving her food around her plate with a fork.
“Thirteen out of the thousands of LGBT kids who silently suffer through unacceptable harassment and mistreatment. And honestly, one LGBT youth suicide is too many.”
Shaking, I stood up and turned to face my mother, who refused to look at me.
“I’m leaving,” I said, resolute. “Thank you for dinner, Mom. I love you.”
My sister stood up too, knocking over her water glass, and said through tears, “I’m leaving with him, Mom — with Carl, my brother.”
“Yeah, love you, Mom, but if they’re leaving, I’m leaving,” added my brother, pushing his chair back from the table.
Once outside, my sister cried into one shoulder while my brother put his hand on the other.
“Let’s go,” he said. “I know this bar that has cheap beer not far from here.” We got into his car and drove away, kicking up dust in the parking lot as we left.
When I think back on this first holiday with my family after coming out, I will always remember the way my brother and sister stood up for me and for other LGBT people. In the years since, my mom and Mark have come a long way in terms of their acceptance and understanding, but those first few years were tough, and I’ve avoided holidays with them since.
Instead, I’ve built a chosen family and spent holidays, birthdays, and other big occasions with them. I know I’m not alone in finding my own family when flesh and blood failed to see me. When those who are supposed to support us turn a cold shoulder, we LGBT people have a remarkable resilience, turning to a community that welcomes us with open arms.
Especially at this time of year, when we are bombarded by soundbites, shows, and commercials commanding us to “cherish this quality time with family,” there is healing to be found in sharing the pain of rejection — and reminding each other that there is a whole world of people offering love and acceptance.
So as my trans friends and family head home — or don’t — this year, I’m sending my love to you. Know that you’ll always have someone waiting for you when you walk out of Thanksgiving dinner early.
CARL CHARLES is a Skadden Fellow and staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's LGBT and HIV Project. His work at the ACLU focuses on advocating for transgender and gender-nonconforming youth who are homeless, in foster care, or in the juvenile justice system. He is passionate about working for LGBT youth and their families who are impacted by the criminal justice system. Find him on Twitter @rarlrarles.