Writing My Way to a New Sort of Holiday: On Queerness & Christmas Stories
Sassafras Lowrey | December 2018
When I was seventeen years old, I ran away from my mother’s house to escape abuse (my mother would later plead guilty in court to her assault of me). I moved in with some adult friends, and that first Christmas three months after I ran away, they gave me a journal. It was purple leather and on the front page these adult friends I lived with inscribed: “Write your dreams and your fears.”
Two months later, the day before Valentine’s Day, the adults I lived with read my journal and kicked me out of their house. They had read my queer dreams. That day, I learned the most important lesson as a writer: Words are powerful. Also, don’t put anything on paper you aren’t ready to defend with your life. Although I had no idea that I would become an author, the hard lesson I learned that day prepared me well for a writer’s life and for deciding what books matter enough to write and put out into the world.
Growing up in an abusive home, holidays were a source of stress and anxiety. After I became homeless as a senior in high school, I loudly professed to hating all holidays. I met other LGBTQ people and learned that my experience of rejection was not unique—it was an epidemic. 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ and LGBTQ youth are 120 times more likely to experience homelessness than their heterosexual and cisgender peers. In many ways, my literary career has been about writing my way to a new home and a new family, and about using my words to create space on the page for others to do the same.
Long before pop culture latched onto the idea of “friendsgiving,” queer folks have been building holidays around the families that we build together. Most of us don’t have good (or any) relationships with the families who raised us. Our family values center around the idea that families are something to be created. My writing has created and held space for marginalized queer folks. Giving voice to our lives/bodies/families is what brings me back to the page. I started writing about the holidays in many ways because of the conversations I had with my readers. Every December, we would have extensive conversations on my social media pages and at readings about our struggles and triumphs with surviving and reclaiming holidays. I’d never seen a book that came close to portraying the complexity of queerly reclaiming the season. Similar to the ways in which I found myself writing novels by/for queer and trans writers, I knew that part of my job was to write these holiday stories.
At first, writing about Christmas looked like writing a subtle but explicit rejection of holidays. This was a form of caretaking, encouraging, and validating my readers—predominantly current/formerly homeless and otherwise estranged LGBTQ people. I wanted to continue to write books that spoke to those challenging experiences. I needed to validate that it was okay to have negative feelings about Christmas. Particularly after the release of my first book Kicked Out, the first anthology of its kind that brought together the voices of current and former homeless LGBTQ youth, I felt a tangible responsibility to “my people” because I saw firsthand how important representation was. In my first novel, Roving Pack, I tried to capture some of that anger and disenchantment with the holiday season that I remember feeling in the first couple of years after running away from home, and the way the holiday felt to so many of my peers and the readers of Kicked Out. I wanted to write a book that didn’t villainize the holidays, but showed the painful awkwardness of being invited to be the extra at someone else's holiday table. In Roving Pack, the main character Click leaves a holiday gathering ze had received a pity invite to, and then sees a kid in the squalid apartment building where ze lives. Click (while complaining about how awful Christmas is) ends up deciding to go to the store on Christmas Eve and playing a bit of a queer secret Santa to a small child whose young mother wasn’t going to be able to provide any kind of Christmas celebration.
Thinking about queer culture, mutual care, chosen and created family are themes I try to center in all of my work, but especially those stories that incorporate Christmas or other holidays. In the seventeen years since I ran away from home, I have worked hard and been blessed to have found and created my own queer family. My created family involves the people who stood by me as a homeless youth, my nearly fifteen year relationship with my partner, our dogs, our cats, and other people who I have claimed as family and who have chosen me to be family regardless of the fact that we do not share blood relationships.
Over the years, I have gained a new and different understanding of Christmas. Instead of it being a holiday of trauma, fear and abandonment—how I understood it as a child and runaway teen—I have reclaimed and queered the holiday with the support of my chosen family. For me, this looks like centering a reclaimed childlike joy. I believe in Santa Clause, and I lean deeply into the magic of the season, of centering joy, wonder, and play. These are themes I try to embody in my life year-round, but I especially center during Christmas. With this queered grinch-like personal transformation I’ve undergone in the past decade, I’ve built my own holiday traditions: vegetarian meals, going to the zoo on Christmas eve, stockings filled with treats for my dogs and cats, cookie decorating (gingerbread unicorns and dinosaurs), Christmas trees decorated with sentimental ornaments from travel or that represent important things of each year, all of which have found a central home in my creative work. This is not just because of how important this journey has been to me, but because of how I know from connecting with my readers, online and through the letters they send, that these are experiences are ones that many of my readers have also grappled with.
My latest book, a novella called A Little Queermas Carol, took my queerly developed work about Christmas and chosen families to the next level. This novella is a retelling of the classic, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but retold from a contemporary, queer, BDSM-centered subculture. This was a story that I had been dreaming of writing—taking my love of Christmas and the difficult time I had accepting and owning that to the page because I knew it was an experience that was not simply mine, but rather one that many people in my community were still grappling with.
In A Little Queermas Carol, the main character Ebe is a radical queer activist and independent publisher who, after the death of their best friend and collaborator, has thrown themselves fully into their activism and political work. They are in a polyamorous courtship with a couple who they are deeply interested in and extremely compatible with, but they continue to struggle with letting themself open up to find ways to reclaim/claim/queer holidays that may have deep traumatic memories. Queer ghosts are coming, Leather Daddies are baking cookies and time is running out for Ebe to wrangle their own trauma.
Holidays are fraught for so many of us, especially LGBTQ people. Even those of us who have found ways to queerly reclaim the holidays tend to bristle at the biological family focus. I find it my responsibility as a writer to create a different kind of holiday story, the kind that gives voice to the trauma and joy of the season.
Sassafras Lowrey is straight-edge punk who grew up to become the 2013 winner of the Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award. Hir books—Lost Boi, A Little Queermas Carol, Roving Pack, Leather Ever After, and Kicked Out—have been honored by organizations ranging from the National Leather Association to the American Library Association. Hir nonfiction book Left Out: How Marriage Equality Abandoned Homeless LGBTQ Youth is forthcoming from The New Press, and TRICKS IN THE CITY: For Daring Doggos and the Humans that Love Them is forthcoming from Mango Publishing. Sassafras' fiction and nonfiction work has appeared in numerous anthologies, literary journals, and magazines and ze facilitates writing workshops at colleges, conferences, and homeless shelters across the country. Sassafras has recently relocated from Brooklyn to Portland with hir partner, and their menagerie of dogs and cats. Learn more at SassafrasLowrey.com.