I used to live in Brisbane, where, year after year on the afternoon of Christmas Day, a group of older gay men I knew would meet up in a pub.
Spending some of the holiday season catching up with friends over a few drinks is an experience familiar to most. At the time, I didn’t think too deeply about the annual ritual these men were undertaking. It is clear to me now, though, they were very deliberately seeking out and spending time with their chosen families on the one day of the year when escape from images of domesticity and family appeared all but impossible.
When Christmas rituals match with an individual’s belief system, they can induce immense comfort. There are certainly many lesbian and gay Australians who enjoy exchanging gifts, eating a festive meal and undertaking the more traditional cultural rites associated with this time of year. It is also difficult for some to avoid the conspicuous seasonal consumerism that marks the season.
If one looks deeper though, it is evident that the Christmas season can place a number of complex stresses at the forefront for some members of the lesbian and gay population. For some lesbian and gay Australians, spending the season with family may not be an option if families refuse to accept their sexuality or include their partner in celebrations.
For others, going home for the holidays can mean returning to places where memories of childhood and adolescent experiences of homophobia resurface. There are also those lesbian and gay Australians who do not have a home to which they can return. Rates of homelessness are much more pronounced among this population than the broader Australian population.
Even an activity as innocuous as watching carolling in a local shopping centre can be fraught for lesbian and gay Australians. Those prolific performers, the Salvation Army, have a depressing record on lesbian and gay issues, even going so far as to send a submission against marriage equality to the House of Representatives Inquiry into the topic in 2012.
Although lesbian and gay Australians have sometimes been on the outside of traditional Christmas rituals, this time of year highlights the ways in which lesbian and gay Australians have created their own rites and communities of support.
These are important not just during the festive season but throughout the year. The group of Brisbane men mentioned earlier provides one such example but the Australian Lesbian and Gay Life Stories oral history project provides others.
I’m a researcher on this project and part of it involves interviews with five different generations of gay men and lesbians across Australia. Over the past 60 years – a time period some of our participants lived through in its entirety – social attitudes towards gay and lesbian Australians have shifted remarkably.
A majority of our male participants are able to recall a time when sex with another man was illegal. Many of our lesbian participants stress the isolation and invisibility that marred substantial parts of their lives.
Although our interviews have captured accounts of prejudice, discrimination and loneliness, it is also clear that many lesbian and gay Australians responded to this by fashioning lives for themselves in ways that were both imaginative and inspired. Many lesbian women who were told that children would never be part of their future did indeed raise children, most frequently with partners, sometimes independently and occasionally with the involvement of gay male donors.
Some of our male respondents recall being told to expect a life of loneliness and unhappiness upon revealing their sexuality to their families. But perhaps some of the most moving accounts of friendship and support to have ever been documented in Australia’s past are from gay men who stood shoulder to shoulder with each other during the dark years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic when so many lives were lost.
There are members of Australia’s gay and lesbian population who question the notion of a united community and who opt to not engage with it. There are also those who fully embrace it.
The Australian Lesbian and Gay Life Stories project includes accounts from younger people who are able to have their same-sex partner included in family rituals and celebrations and who – not unreasonably – expect to marry their partners in celebrations with relatives and friends.
One lesbian couple integrates both traditional and community experiences, taking their children to both a Rainbow family barbecue and a traditional lunch with grandparents over the holiday season.
I had a chat with a retired gay male friend of mine a week ago though. His family is important to him but he told me that he was particularly looking forward to catching up with his gay male friends over Christmas. His parents were dead and, although he enjoyed the time he spent with siblings, nieces and nephews, it was limited.
He looked to peers for support and during a recent health crisis: it had been these men who had provided it, on both an emotional and practical level.
For many lesbian and gay Australians, it has not always been possible to revel in the type of domestic Christmas portrayed in the media. This is increasingly becoming an issue for heterosexual Australians. Growing numbers of individuals live in single-person households.
Others experience seasonal unemployment or financial difficulties. Sometimes fractured family relationships mean people are isolated over the holidays. Charities such as Lifeline point out that the festive season can be a deeply unhappy time for many Australians.
The historic marginalisation of Australia’s lesbian and gay population has seen many rely on other members of this group for support or subvert mainstream rituals in a way that makes them meaningful. There is much talk of “chosen families” in our oral history project and its evident that time with support networks provides a much needed antidote to marginalisation and exclusion.
It is also evident that lesbian and gay support rituals (and those from the broader LGBT community) provide a useful model for other potentially isolated individuals in modern society.
This article is part of The Conversation’s End of Year series.