Washington Blade - December 3, 2004
FOR THE PAST six years, Evan Sisley has suffered from depression
during the holiday season because he says his church does not
accept him as a gay man.
He believes this year will be different.
"I beat my depression by realizing that this is who I am," Sisley
says, "and accepting it."
The 18-year-old aspiring photographer transferred from the Roman
Catholic school he attended five years ago to Chantilly High
School in Fairfax County, Va.
Although early on his parents were supportive of his being gay,
Sisley says that was not the case before he transferred to
Chantilly High. When he was able to leave the source that
triggered his depression, his problems during the holiday season
But for many gays and lesbians the time between Thanksgiving and
New Year's Day can be depressing and stressful if they are
estranged from their families or return to homes for the holidays
where they are not always fully accepted because of their sexual
orientation. Add to this the stress of taking a partner home or
other issues, such as dealing with an illness, a break-up, or
grappling with one's faith or family expectations, and it's
understandable why Rev. Don Southworth's sermon at All Souls
Church, Unitarian last Sunday, Nov. 28, was titled "A Blue
"The reason for the sermon was that too often depression gets
lost in the holiday joy and happiness and we don't acknowledge
it, when it's a difficult time for a lot of folks," said
Southworth, minister at Northwest Unitarian Universalist
Congregation on Mount Vernon Highway in Atlanta.
During his sermon, Southworth, who is straight, touched on a
variety of topics, including the pros and cons of religion during
the holiday season.
"Religion can be helpful for depression," he said, several days
after his sermon. "But it can also cause depression, especially
among gays and lesbians."
Rev. Rob Hardies, who is gay and the senior minister at All Souls
Church in Northwest Washington, D.C., invited Southworth, a
friend of his, to speak at the church. All Souls also has a
lesbian associate minister, Rev. Shana Goodwin.
Southworth said his sermon was inspired by "Be Your Own Santa
Claus," a book written in 1978 by Sandra Gordon Stoltz, a
counselor. He said Stoltz wrote the book after she discovered
that people with diverse problems have common needs during the
"If I were to give one word for the biggest cause of depression
this time of year, it would be expectations - expectations that
our culture puts upon us, that set us up for disappointment and
sometimes depression," Southworth said.
GAY PSYCHOLOGIST RODNEY KARR of San Francisco says seasonal
depression is common for all groups of people, including straight
men and women. But there are some factors that make it a unique
challenge for gay youths and adults.
"Gay people going home for the holidays, brings up old family
patterns," he said. "Family systems have this way about returning
you back to [being] a 6-year-old. And for many gay people, trying
to stand up to that is difficult."
Karr works with gay clients, couples and families. He says one
source of depression among gay people during the holidays is
caused by expectations depicted on television and movies.
"We create our fantasy family when we move away," he says. "Those
who do go home experience depression, anger and emotional fallout
from being back home and having their fantasy shattered.
"They are re-connected to the hurt and anger that they may have
experienced with their families before they left home," he said.
Bruce Weiss, executive director of the Sexual Minority Youth
Assistance League in Washington, D.C., said many gay youths and
young adults have a hard time during the holiday season because
they experience some level of oppression, "either from their
community at large, their church or their families."
"It's hard because they are surrounded by all these images of an
ideal family, which many don't experience," he said. "And if you
do have a family, they are less than ideal."
Kathleen DeBold, director of the Mautner Project, a national
organization in Washington, D.C., that addresses the health needs
of lesbians, echoed Karr's sentiments.
"It's a treasure trove of triggers of depression," she said. "Do
you bring your lover home and be harassed? Or do you not bring
your lover home, and be alone?"
DeBold also said the holidays can be particularly stressful for
"They reinforce traditional roles that a lot of lesbians have
rebelled against," she said of families. "A lot of the burden
falls on lesbians because we are the ones most likely to be
without kids, so we're expected to play more of the support roles
in the family gatherings."
Ellen Kahn, director of Whitman-Walker Clinic's Lesbian Services
Program, said that usually before or right after holiday family
gatherings LSP experiences a surge in calls from gays seeking
counseling and help. "It's that time of year when you have a
heightened sense of aloneness," she says.
LSP offers a variety of support services for lesbians, bisexual
and transgendered women, including a Tuesday night discussion
group, which does not require participants to register in
"If folks are feeling lonely and depressed about the holidays,
you can just drop in," she said. "You don't need an appointment."
Feelings of loneliness can often lead to unhealthy behavior,
another expert familiar with depression among gay youths and
Dr. Randy Pumphrey, clinical director of the Lambda Center, said
people dealing with loneliness may act in dysfunctional ways,
including using alcohol heavily, using illegal drugs and
increasing their level of sexual activity with anonymous
Pumphrey also said the holidays can be particularly stressful for
gay people who are alone.
"For persons who have lost a partner because of death or because
they just separated, the holidays tend to be very difficult," he
"There's distress between having to pick a family of choice or
origin, distress about work holiday parties, the level of outness
and whether or not to bring your partner to the parties," he
added. "It's also a time that triggers loss."
The Lambda Center addresses issues related to severe depression,
and provides more acute psychiatric care, including in-patient
Pumphrey said if a person doesn't get help during their initial
stages of depression, this might lead to more severe cases of
destructive behavior, including suicide.
"People tend to say, 'I'm just going to get through the holidays
and deal with it in January,' but it's important to seek help and
not wait," he said, "because that's your way of dealing with
psychological trauma, while it's happening."
Some gay people of faith, like their heterosexual counterparts,
turn to their spirituality to get through the hard times. Those
with other beliefs said they find different ways to cope.
Sarah Karon, a leader of the Jewish Lesbian Social Group in
Madison, Wisc., described the holiday season as frustrating.
"I get really annoyed by the assumption that everybody is
celebrating Christmas," she said. "People no longer say 'Merry
Christmas,' they say 'Happy Holidays,' but it's clear in my mind
that they mean the same thing."
Norman Sandfield, who is gay and chairs the Jewish AIDS Network
of Chicago, shared another view.
"I think people should lighten up," he says. "There's enough
complexities in the world. This one should not drive you crazy."
Nevertheless, Sandfield said he understands how Karon feels.
"Hanukah is not a Jewish Christmas," he said. "Being gay is a lot
like being Jewish in that we have to learn to live successfully
as minorities in an increasingly complex world."
To cope with her annoyance, Karon said she focuses more attention
on celebrating Hanukah with her partner of 22 years.
"We make it a much bigger deal than it really is," she said,
"just because we make it a time to express our love for each
other, when the rest of the world is not so inclusive."
Sisley, the teenager from Virginia, is optimistic this year.
"My depression went from self-hatred to anger toward
Catholicism," he said. "It was magnified during the holiday
season because you realize that the feeling of a loving Father
being there for you, the sense of warmth and comfort, is no
longer there. Instead, you feel discomfort and judgment."
But now, he said, "I have my own relationship with God."