One of my personal traditions around this time of the year is that I put my gifts under the tree on Christmas eve. I am usually the last to go to bed, so before the tumult and frenzy of Christmas day arrives, I have the house all to myself. The tree lights sparkle in the stillness and the only noise is the crinkling of the wrapped gifts in my hands and the creak of the floorboards. Any other noise would seem a violation, an intrusion into something special. It is my special time to gather myself, to reflect and to pray.

Last year that tradition of silence was broken by quiet sobs. As I looked at the tree lights dance and the gifts wrapped so pretty and neat under the tree, I wondered if it would be my last Christmas, here in this house, with this family. I had come out to my family as trans only seven months before, and even though I had given myself a year to decide how to handle my gender identity, the writing on the wall was plain. I clutched at a ragged old stuffed animal, Bear-bear, a version of which has been in my family since I was a baby. I buried my face in that little bear’s head and hid my tears once more. Would my family be willing to accept their new daughter? Would I still have a family after my decision was made public? Would I ever be welcome, here in this room, watching the Christmas lights glitter, again? I just didn’t know. I’ll admit I thought about turning back at that moment. The fear of rejection was so strong that I had managed to deny reality for more than 30 years. What was a few more? I prayed and prayed that night and woke up the next morning determined to cherish what may be my last Christmas with my family.

Over the past year, many people in my life have used “love” as an excuse for all sorts of behavior that would be seen as reprehensible in other contexts. Their refusal to use my legal name. Their refusal to even attempt to use the proper pronouns. Their absences in times of joy and celebration. Their refusal to see me as who I am, or to even have basic respect for me as an individual. This kind of love is like a thousand tiny cuts, trying to wear me down, trying to shame or intimidate me back into my closet. All so I can put on boy clothes again and pretend that everything is alright. This is a strange and deceitful kind of “love.”

Over the past year, my family has shown me that real love is not just a word to be carelessly tossed about, but an action. Love is there in the mess, unsure of if there is a right answer. Love was cards from my mother and grandmother sent on the day I came out, celebrating their daughters’ and granddaughters’ arrival. Love is the small pendant waiting on my pillow at Thanksgiving, a reminder that I am and always will be part of this family. Love is a place setting sent from afar with my proper name displayed and conversation and turkey as if nothing had changed. Love is the new stocking hug on the door with pride with my name engraved on it and a present already waiting for Christmas day. Love is in the kitchen baking cookies or pretzels with me. Love is countless hugs and kisses received just because. Love is using my proper name and pronouns. Sure, they have all slipped up here and there, but I never asked for them to be perfect. My family members have all been through their own journeys of acceptance as they wrestled with what it means for someone so close, and so dear, to change genders. They all came to accept me in their own way and in their own time. Today, when my family looks at me and tells me they love me, I do not doubt it.

Though it is not yet Christmas eve, I once again find myself alone, watching the tree lights twinkle and dance, and yes I am once again sobbing. This time though, the tears are not out of fear, heartache or pain. They are from an overflowing joy, a thankfulness that cannot be expressed adequately with words. My heart is overflowing with so much emotion that I don’t know what to do with myself. I am a lucky one. All too many of my LGBT friends and community will face this holiday without a family or a home to go to. Somehow, I was lucky enough to end up in a fairytale, and I am so very grateful, but my heart goes out to my sisters and brothers who will not come home to find a stocking hung up just for them. If this is you, please know that you are loved. Even if no one around you has the decency to show it to you. Please know that it is never too late. That the darkness does not last forever. That you can get through this one moment. This one day. This one week. This one month. This one year. You are not a waste, you are and always will be, worthy of love.

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