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How queer and trans people are turning the internet into a safe holiday space

From turkey tips to transgiving, the internet is helping queer and trans people survive the holidays.

Thanksgiving dinner Rawpixel/Shutterstock
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

“Thanksdreading: when you’re trans and dreading Thanksgiving dinner bc you’re gonna be surrounded by a whole buncha family that don’t know [or] respect your preferred name and pronouns.”

The Twitter user who expressed this fear isn’t alone. Sentiments like this one are very common online, from the user complaining that her relatives refuse to use her correct pronouns, to the one worried about dealing with relatives who don’t know they’re out.

For many people, going home for the holidays is difficult: It can mean crossing ideological lines, entering into charged political conversations, or even worrying that your basic identity — your mere existence — might offend some of your relatives. This can be seen across the internet, as members of marginalized communities publicly grapple with the anxiety that surrounds holiday family gatherings on an annual basis.

But if the internet is a place where people feel able to articulate these fears, it’s also becoming a tool to combat them. Through social media, private chat platforms like Slack and Discord, and word-of-mouth internet spread, people are leveraging their online presence to help make Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the rest of the holiday season safer for more people. The result is that Thanksgiving in particular, with all its fraught origins and weighty history, might have become a more welcoming, more communal celebration than it was before.

Increasingly, people are using the internet as a virtual safe space for the holidays

First things first: The traditional story associated with Thanksgiving is pretty much completely wrong. The reality surrounding the day is extremely dark, and fraught with a lot more conflict than the holiday celebration normally acknowledges. We like to teach one another that Thanksgiving is about a celebration of unity despite our differences, but in reality, Thanksgivings historically gave rise to more conflict and even violence committed against Native Americans by English colonizers.

As our awareness of the origins of Thanksgiving has grown, our awareness that this “harmonious” time of year is something many people secretly hate has spread, too, with much voicing of anxieties and worries on social media. The irony associated with Thanksgiving’s colonialist history now manifests today as a fear about how to survive what’s supposed to be one of the warmest, rosiest holidays of the year.

This experience is often even rougher for marginalized groups like queer and trans people. They frequently have to deal with a lack of familial support while also feeling pressured to suck it up and be with their families during the holidays, regardless of how hard it might be. Tumblr, for example, is full of messages of support between queer people in particular who face difficult family interactions, as well as advice and encouragement for how to make the time less stressful. “My ask box is open if you need to vent, or have an audience for the gay jokes you can’t say in front of others, or want to be reminded you aren’t alone,” one such post reads.

On Twitter and Reddit, queer and genderqueer users who have recently come out take to social media to voice their frustration with family members who haven’t quite gotten it yet:

Similarly, private Slack groups, Facebook groups, and Discord servers explicitly allow members to voice their holiday worries and concerns without fear of public ridicule or harassment. In one such group server I’m in, a recent general chat gave way to sharing of slightly more mundane Thanksgiving-day disasters, ranging from dropped turkeys to exploding ovens.

In order to diffuse holiday worries, some people take to social media to offer their expertise in Thanksgiving-related quandaries. Ryan Meier, a professional chef and podcaster, told Vox that he started noticing that he’d get questions every time he tweeted about cooking. So a few years ago, he started the practice of offering annual Thanksgiving-related advice to his Twitter followers, regarding cooking and other related holiday woes.

“I like to talk about food with people!” he said. “And I rarely get to do that with people I know, and just from the responses that I do get i think people are not as able to, or inclined to, learn how to cook. I don’t see a lot of other cooks freely offering their time to answer questions, and I think people want that sometimes.” He worries that most of the primary sources a person might use — a cooking magazine or show, for example — give their audiences misleading information about how to cook practically and without stress or excess, he added.

“The classic thing I always get mad about is anytime a cook on a video or in a magazine says, ‘just ask your butcher,’” he said. “No one besides the rich has a butcher.”

Meier also said the number of responses he’s gotten is increasing from year to year.

“I get more responses every year so it seems like this is something people are looking for,” he said. “I would like to think I can help people feel like they can host a meal!”

Meier also told Vox he’d noticed the trend of “friendsgivings” and other alternate holiday practices on the rise. “I have heard people talk about friendsgivings more and more, especially this year,” he said. “Which I can only assume is because of queer communities, and found families. I think this will get more true as this younger generation of queer people grows up too. At least that’s what I hope! It’s nice to see queer people finding their families and celebrating with them!”

Indeed, for queer and genderqueer people in particular, the internet’s ability to facilitate alternate holiday celebrations is a vital and evolving tool.

Queer and trans people are creating safe offline spaces, too

At least in theory, if not practice, the goal of the first Thanksgiving was originally to celebrate community. These days, it’s viewed mainly as a family holiday, with communal celebrations sometimes given the separate moniker “friendsgiving.”

But all that emphasis on family can make Thanksgiving, both as a particular holiday and as the start of the holiday season, a tough time for anyone who’s had a family falling-out. In 2015, a study found that nine out of 10 people who’ve become estranged from their nuclear family find the holidays “challenging.” As a group, family estrangement tends to disproportionately affect queer and genderqueer people over other members of society. In fact, some members of the queer community reject the notion that Thanksgiving requires being kind to people who don’t respect your queer or genderqueer identity.

In this context, to many queer and genderqueer people, finding a community of welcoming friends and allies can be vital — and so the concept of a friends-only Thanksgiving can mean much more than it otherwise might.

On Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms, the growing concept of “transgiving” has found expression through hashtags and community posts, as people look for ways to gather with other members of their community. The Brooklyn GHOST Project is a non-profit focused on providing safe spaces and community for trans people, as well as preserving the historical work of trans activists like Marsha P. Johnson. This year, the group took to Instagram to advertise and celebrate its transgiving festivities.

“In its simplest context, transgiving can be described as a Thanksgiving meal for a super marginalized community,” GHOST Project CEO LaTravious Collins told Vox in an email. “However, to those of us without a place to go during the holiday season, transgiving is a family gathering where we feast on a fabulous meal and party until our feet hurt.”

Collins told Vox the concept isn’t new. “I don’t think the idea of Trans and GNC people gathering to share a meal during the holidays is new. I think we have always done that. Just the same as we have always built our own families.” But she did say that in the four years since the GHOST Project began to host transgiving, she’s seen the project spread to other cities.

“These spaces are now more visible and easier to locate,” she said. “They are also a bigger deal because of the internet. When GHOST first started transgiving, we walked around passing out paper flyers, but we quickly learned that the internet was more powerful and much easier on our high heels, lol.”

If the internet can foster and facilitate safe spaces in real life, safe real-life spaces can also arise from the internet. Jay Edidin, writer and co-host of the Marvel podcast Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men, told Vox that the private Discord server the hosts founded for their fans had become a found family and a sustainable community functioning as a resource for the holidays, and much more.

“The extent to which it very quickly turned into an intentional community has been really lovely,” Edidin told Vox in an interview. “There’ve been things like dealing with housing crises, people have recommended each other for jobs. There are a couple of teens that we, only half-joking, are being raised by a Discord server. We had ‘help-with-homework’ night for a couple of them.”

Edidin, who grew up involved in numerous peace and activist movements, told Vox he’s always informally tried to help people in need of safe spaces during the holidays find welcoming places to be. But as a result of the Discord and social media, he began openly using his internet connections to connect people.

“My dad is a college professor, and I’m used to holidays, specifically Thanksgiving and Passover, [that] always had at least a couple of students who couldn’t get home for the holidays. The idea is that that’s what you do, you welcome people when you can.” He told Vox he usually gets more offers, both privately or publicly, from people wanting to host.

“That’s something that I’ve felt really acutely,” he said, regarding the impact of social media on the whole process. “I’ve found a lot of community that way.”

Edidin stressed the importance of giving people safe spaces during the holidays. “I also know how hard the holidays can be when you’re estranged from family. Even if what you’re getting away from is something you’re happy to get away from, it can be a really really lonely time, especially because you’re surrounded by images and messages that you should be having all this stuff, and if you’re not there’s something wrong. It’s just really rough.”

Collins echoed this idea. “This is important because the holiday season can be hard on those of us who have been ostracized from our born families,” she said. “Everywhere you look there are people celebrating with loved ones. Every television show, movie, and magazine reminds you that you don’t get to have these experiences.”

Edidin told Vox he felt like this one, small thing was nonetheless a crucial thing for him to do. “I can’t fix the systems that are making it that hard,” he said. “I can’t do what I would like to do, which is open my doors and adopt every single queer and transgender person who’s on their own. ... There’s a lot I can’t do, but what I have is a fairly large social media presence, and the bandwidth to do some low-key coordination.”

But even those small things can be vital to helping marginalized community members get through the holidays. As Collins put it: “Events like transgiving keep our broken hearts mended for the moment.”

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