How LGBTQ People Are Reimagining The Tradition of Friendsgiving In a Pandemic
Memories of my first Friendsgiving come to me in vignettes. It was 2015 and I was a college student, surrounded by 10 or maybe 15 people all packed tightly around a makeshift dining table in a friend’s off-campus apartment. There was mulled wine poured generously into a cheeky coffee mug, while buzzed chatter and laughter swirled around me in place of the charged discussions about politics I’d come to associate with holidays back home. I’d heard the term “chosen family” before and understood it conceptually. That night, I realized with a rush of joy that I’d inadvertently found my own chosen family among my queer friends.
“Friendsgiving”—a potluck-style annual gathering with friends on or near Thanksgiving Day, usually indoors—quickly became my most sacred fall tradition. And I’m not the only LGBTQ person who feels this way. The queer appeal of Friendsgiving was the genesis of “Friendsgiving“, an aptly-titled new movie from lesbian comedian Nicol Paone. It’s the inspiration behind popular social events like Queer Soup Night, a volunteer-led pop-up event with chapters across the country. It’s also been documented at length by LGBTQ media outlets. I’m fortunate to have a biological family who embraces and supports my queerness, but for LGBTQ people without that community, Friendsgiving is a lifeline, and a celebration of the many different forms of family we can foster.
It’s now November 2020, almost five years to the date since my first Friendsgiving. Today, the thought of an indoor gathering of that scale fills me with an entirely different feeling: fear. We’re more than eight months into the global COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 225,000 Americans and infected millions of people worldwide.
While Friendsgiving may be emotionally fortifying for many, the act of gathering with loved ones is a risk many aren’t currently willing to take. To that end, time-honored traditions like Friendsgiving have been put on pause. Doing so is for the greater good, but it can come at a small cost: Quarantining and social distancing have taken a serious emotional toll on many of us, including LGBTQ people. One report from The Trevor Project, America’s leading suicide-prevention group for LGBTQ young people, characterized queer youth as “particularly vulnerable” to mental health declines associated with the pandemic.
And that’s on top of the innate stress of the holiday season. Many LGBTQ people simply don’t feel comfortable being their true selves in front of their biological family. During the holidays, this can become especially evident. It’s a phenomenon Dr. Bruce Olmscheid, MD, a family medicine practitioner with One Medical in San Diego, has observed personally and anecdotally through queer friends and patients. “When we go visit our families for the holidays, there’s always a sense of having to hide or worrying about what people were going to say—or there were things said overtly that were not nice,” Dr. Olmscheid, who is gay, tells Apartment Therapy. “You’d get done with the day with your biological family, and then you’d go spend time with your ‘logical family.’”
Hannah, a lesbian living in Missouri, knows the importance of chosen family firsthand. She and her girlfriend started celebrating Friendsgiving in 2019 as an alternative to spending Thanksgiving with Hannah’s biological family, whose religious beliefs make her feel “uncomfortable and unsafe.” Already, it’s a tradition that’s near and dear to her heart. “My friends love me for every part of who I am, and we can be fully ourselves around each other,” she tells Apartment Therapy. “Around my biological family, I have to mask my queerness even though I’m out and dating my girlfriend of nearly two years.”
Due to the pandemic, Hannah and her girlfriend are opting to celebrate the holiday alone in their apartment. There were plenty of factors that influenced their decision, but ultimately, it was a recent spike in new COVID-19 cases in their city that sealed the deal: “For us, it’s just not worth risking getting or spreading a life-threatening virus for a few hours of festivities with our chosen family,” Hannah says. They’ve planned out a Thanksgiving-themed menu and a day’s worth of festivities to make the day feel special, not sad. “It will be very cozy but also safe,” she adds, “and right now, that’s the important thing.”
For Tiffany, who lives in New Jersey, the pandemic came at a particularly inopportune time: This year was supposed to be her first time celebrating Friendsgiving with queer chosen family, who support and affirm her in ways her transphobic family does not. Due to COVID-19, she now plans on “video calling or texting” her chosen family for a virtual gathering to stay connected. “It upsets me being [that] I had plans on what I wanted to do,” she tells Apartment Therapy. “Now, it’s on hold.”
Other LGBTQ people have decided to gather IRL to celebrate Friendsgiving, including Wyatt, a queer organizer who lives in New York City. In lieu of the standard “open invitation”-style Friendsgiving he and his sprawling chosen family usually host at someone’s apartment, Wyatt is gathering with three other people, all of whom are his close friends. (All four have limited close contact with others outside of their group throughout the pandemic and get tested for COVID-19 regularly.) To keep the inclusive spirit of Friendsgiving present, he plans to have other friends—including fellow LGBTQ+ New Yorkers who may have left the city—call in via FaceTime or Zoom. “I’m very much looking forward to it,” he tells Apartment Therapy. “This year has been interesting because we’ve all been separated due to the pandemic. It will be nice for us to have an intentional time to all come together.”
Alexis, a lesbian also based in New York City, is taking her Friendsgiving outdoors this year with a few trusted friends. She admits that the gathering is a bit of a stressor for her since it will be her first “big in-person event” since March. (“I didn’t do outdoor [dining] this summer, just takeout because I was nervous about being around people eating without masks,” she tells Apartment Therapy.) To ease everyone’s nerves, Alexis and her friends are all planning to get rapid tests for COVID-19 before they meet up in an effort to ease their nerves, a precaution made possible by her city’s expanding testing efforts.
As a doctor, Olmscheid supports meticulously planning gatherings—including a 14-day quarantine period, testing, and discussions about comfort levels with regards to mask-wearing—as a safer way to meet up with your “logical family,” if you’re going to meet in person at all. He likens the individual-level precautions to wearing a condom while having sex or getting tested for STIs regularly, two common forms of risk mitigation that resonate deeply with LGBTQ people, especially those who lived through the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and ‘90s. (He certainly isn’t the first to compare how individuals or institutions are handling COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS.)
“Plan ahead,” Olmscheid advises. “If you’re going to have a meal together, you’re going to take your masks off. So you really have to trust each other to know that you’ve been very, very safe over the preceding two weeks.”
As for me? I’m toying around with the idea of a virtual Friendsgiving in late November. Most of my queer chosen family no longer live in my city, so I’ve become intimately familiar with video conferencing platforms like Zoom and Skype. I’m privileged to have a girlfriend who lives a five-minute walk from my Brooklyn apartment. I also have a supportive biological family within driving distance, but my mom is immunocompromised, and seeing her feels like a risk, no matter how safe I’ve been in my day-to-day life.
With political gains like marriage equality in jeopardy and record-high rates of anti-transgender violence occuring nationwide, it feels like there’s never been more at stake as an LGBTQ American. I desperately want to gather with people who just get it; at the same time, socializing in-person has never felt riskier. I now have to weigh the pros and cons and make a practical decision about celebrating Friendsgiving in a pandemic while honoring the spirit of the tradition.
It’s a tall order, and catching up with my gays via video call will never replace the intimacy of splitting a bottle of red and roasted Tofurky IRL, but hey—we’re queer people. We know more than a thing or two about resilience in times of crisis.