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Surviving the Holiday Blues: Gays encounter unique stressors this time of year


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 evaporated.

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 Christmas." "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 holidays.

"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 lesbians.

"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 advance.

"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 adults said.

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 partners.

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 said.

"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 care.

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."


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Information in this article was accurate in December 3, 2004. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.