As Thanksgiving approaches, my pondering thoughts (as I am prone to have, as bloggers do) about how this holiday relates to gay men. What meaning does it have for us, as a community, that perhaps it doesn’t really have for our straight brethren? There is overlap, for sure. For most Americans, Thanksgiving (especially those of us of Anglo-Saxon descent or families that go back to New England colonial times, but certainly others, too) is a time when we collectively celebrate the spirit of gratitude. For some, it has a religious connotation, as it did with the early New England settlers, but gratitude can be a secular humanist value as well.
People ask me sometimes, as a therapist, what is the “key to happiness”, and I always say that to my observation and experience, as a therapist for over 25 years, that the way to make yourself feel better faster than anything is to simply practice gratitude. Some religious people do this, thanking “God” for their bounty, or people in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) practice this idea, and New Age spirituality adherents do, too. You hear sometimes of people having a practice of making a “Gratitude List” as a daily ritual, which can lift your spirits. (By contrast, by the way, the most efficient way to make yourself miserable is to make comparisons to others, when you beat yourself up and feel like you come up short in some way: money, prestige, appearance, social status, privilege, “accomplishment”, etc.) So it’s kind of funny that a very old American holiday like Thanksgiving has this very “New Age” spiritual connotation to it.
For others, Thanksgiving is about family, and while this can be true for many gay men, especially today, when large numbers of gay men bring home their boyfriend/partner/spouse to their family of origin, and the partners are accepted like “one of the family”, this is not always the case. Family of origin conflict, caused by family members who are rejecting, hostile, and anti-gay (usually for warped “religious” reasons) also is in supply. In my practice, I hear quite a mix of guys whose partners are accepted by their families, and those who are not. I’m struck by the stark contrast, really, because it seems like it’s one extreme or the other. So while for straight people, Thanksgiving means Family of Origin fellowship, for gay men, often it can be observed with friends who are really “Family of Choice”, in the now-classic “Friendsgiving”.
I really de-emphasize the whole thing about the ritual of eating a turkey as being the piece de resistance of the holiday. I know many people like the taste and the ritual, but I eschew the “factory farming” of all that, and I feel good about that in my conscience. But I know I’m in the minority on that. I like to think of the ritual of the feast, sharing either high quantities or high-quality of foods, is symbolic of the ritual of group sharing. Throughout the world, observations of special occasions in a culture is done through the foods you eat. “Breaking bread” is a ritual that bonds people together. And, like maybe costumes, crafts, or dances, it’s something to actually DO on the holiday (certainly for many gay men – although certainly not all – it’s not the incessant football on television! But I know some gay men who are “into” that, and with players who like some (like Eric Decker, right — who can blame them!). The ritual of the feasting is the physical manifestation of the symbolic ritual of spending time together and bonding along a common humanity. That can be with family of origin, but sharing that with the “tribe” of gay men is also meaningful.
Gay men have a lot to be thankful for lately. We have been delivered, through the benevolence of fair Law and Justice, from the oppressive discrimination against marriage equality. The bigots lost, and we are grateful for that. Medical technology has given us PrEP, and so we are grateful that HIV risk management has helped us to take better medical care of ourselves as a community, after so many years of feeling like HIV held the upper hand in suppressing our lives and well-being. We can be profoundly grateful that the same virus that killed so many of us only about 20 years ago (and still does, in some cases) is now, largely, contained in unprecedented ways.
We can be grateful that while there are SO many oppressors still among us (such as the Republican party platform that is virulently, publicly, and extremely anti-gay in everything from health care to civil rights to education) and the Internet and social media gives unprecedentedly wide audience to the most extreme of the anti-gay Exterminationist Movement, which includes most religious conservatives of all “faiths”, we also have unprecedented numbers of average Americans who see the anti-gay pundits as immature, hateful, crass fools that have no place in mainstream American society. The majority of Americans now support marriage equality, and that wasn’t so just a few Thanksgivings ago, so that is a heartwarming fact that feeds our sense of dignity, relief, and gratitude.
Gay men might have very individual, as opposed to community, reasons for gratitude. Getting a new job, starting a new/exciting relationship, moving into a new home, having enjoyable experiences this year (vacations, outings, accomplishments) can make us all grateful within ourselves as individuals. To stop and recognize our gratitude through various rituals at this time of year for these things can “solidify” our gains and strengthen our Sense of Self, or as we shrinks call it, “self-efficacy”, when we prove to ourselves that our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors that we choose can influence our lives for the better. We have agency, we have influence, we have power to guide at least part of our lives, and we have the ability to respond to challenges, setbacks, and random unfortunate events with healthy, adaptive, coping responses. As Jack Canfield says, we can’t always control what happens to us, but Event + Response = Outcome. It is our response to random events that influences the ultimate outcomes, for better or worse.
What are you grateful for? Can you allow yourself to just sit in the quiet of mindful observation, and let yourself acknowledge these things? How can you express your gratitude? Do you make a toast? Decorate? Cook? Gather others near you? Give to others in some way? Write something? Many would say that our gifts from the Universe are gifts it gives to us; how we respond to those gifts – how we use them, apply them, share them – is our gift back to it. It’s an evergreen exchange of energies that fuel our lives for a lifetime, and create our relationships, families and our cultures throughout time.
When we are stressed, it’s easy to “take inventory” of the stressors: this is stressful, that is stressful, that’s messed up, this is chaos. But if we can quiet our minds for a moment and instead re-focus on what see/hear/feel that we can be grateful for — even if it’s just a new day to start facing challenges all over again — this can help. We all have unique skills, talents, and aptitudes that can help us face many different environmental stressors. Some of these we face alone, because we just rally our own resources, and some things need the help of a therapist/coach to help facilitate their resolutions, or at least their acceptance. Focusing on empowering actions can make the difference between despondency/depression and feeling confident.
By the way, I am very grateful to you, Gentle Reader; to be of service to those who appreciate my writing and my therapy/coaching services, in the hopes that I may be of help to you. It is a vicarious reward to help others thrive, in the way that they define “thriving” for themselves, because it is in that, I feel that I thrive as well. You give me a livelihood, a purpose, a sense of reward, and an endless fascination with the human condition. Thank you, and enjoy your Thanksgiving in unprecedented ways each year!
If you are interested in learning more about therapy or coaching services, please call/text me at 310-339-5778, or email Ken@GayTherapyLA.com. I provide sessions in my office in Los Angeles, or remotely via phone/webcam to anywhere in the United States or even the world. Would be happy to help!