I’m preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving as I have for the past several years, with my extended queer, polyamorous family. My husband will make Norwegian cardamom buns, and his girlfriend wants to try a new Brussels sprouts recipe. My husband’s girlfriend’s boyfriend is committed to roasting a duck and making eggnog that no one else will drink. Her husband isn’t going to cook. We’ll make him wash the dishes.
My girlfriend is bringing a gluten-free chocolate cake, whipped cream and berries. Her son will make all of us take turns chasing him in the yard. My girlfriend’s partner is blowing up our Thanksgiving planning group chat with lame food puns. It’s still unclear whether he’s cooking, but he said he’s going to carve a sheep out of butter. I’m never sure when he’s joking.
Polyamory is a nontraditional relationship structure where people have multiple relationships that can be sexual, romantic, casual, platonic or some mixture of all of these things. Each person practices polyam differently. My polyamory takes the word rather literally. I have many loves. While my entire polyam family celebrates our togetherness in nontraditional ways, for me, holidays are especially unconventional because I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness growing up in the 1990s in South Carolina.
Thanksgiving is actually a great day for Jehovah’s Witnesses: Everyone is home. My family spent the holiday knocking on doors with warnings of a coming Armageddon as families set their tables and watched football. There was always a bored auntie or husband willing to listen to my mom preaching about sin, forgiveness and everlasting life.
In elementary school, I sat by myself in the back of the room drawing cats while everyone else colored in turkeys made out of the outline of their hands. I couldn’t even eat the Thanksgiving treats that other parents brought to share. Abstaining from holidays also kept me separate from the “worldly” kids, who my mother taught me were bad associations. Saying no to holiday treats is no way to make friends at school. But what mattered most to me was earning the love and acceptance of the congregation. I had to prove that I was good. All the while, each Sunday, I was reminded that one step off the narrow path of righteousness could bring me public shaming and the possibility of rejection.
All holidays are sins, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses’ strict doctrine. Each one is a different tactic of the devil attempting to distract and tempt faithful servants of Jehovah. Thanksgiving, Witnesses explain, is rooted in a harvest festival to pagan gods, and those pagan gods corrupt even the contemporary celebration. The holiday revels in gluttony and excess. They quote their Bible: “ ‘Get out from among them, and separate yourselves,’ says Jehovah, ‘and quit touching the unclean thing.’ ”
When I was 20, I was excommunicated and completely cut off from my family. The command to “quit touching the unclean thing” extends to people, even family. When I had sex, I became the unclean thing that my community, even my mother, refused to touch. The part of me that was broken when my family of origin rejected me gets a little closer to being whole each time I celebrate holidays with my chosen family.
This year, my crush of more than a year is bringing the cranberry sauce. They are now my dear friend, writing partner and occasionally more than a friend. Last year, I found joy during the pandemic when I fell in love with a nurse, and I celebrated all the locked-down holidays with him and his wife. Our romantic relationship ended as the world shifted toward normal, but our love still brings me joy. His wife will make multiple pies in my kitchen on Thursday, and he will only join us for a couple of hours before leaving for a night shift in the ICU.
The value of our polyam family isn’t in its stability, but rather that we choose each other even when we change, relationships change, feelings change. The power is in the choosing. There’s no obligation. I can only offer invitation and acceptance.
Next year, our Thanksgiving guests may be different. My ex, the nurse, and his wife may choose to visit family in Colorado. My husband’s girlfriend may prioritize another partner or her family. These choices are ours to make. For me, the beauty is in making space for us to gather and also making space for each person to make their own choices.
Polyam family is like any family. We get our hearts broken. We have petty fights and legitimate conflicts. We complain about one another from time to time. We don’t choose one another because we’re perfect. Chosen family means choosing complex humans, including our faults and struggles. It’s vulnerable to build a family with deeply flawed humans. But there’s no other option.
After a childhood spent learning to say no, deny pleasure and abstain from anything possibly unholy, I’ve learned to revel in life’s abundant pleasures. My polyam family amazes me with each of their capacities for love. It’s not easy to be vulnerable. We open ourselves, share love, swim in pleasure, sometimes get hurt.
While my chosen family is, in large part, a rejection of the way I was raised, I also know I’m not all that different from my mother. Jehovah’s Witnesses are all brothers and sisters. They may not celebrate Thanksgiving, but my mom hosted potlucks nearly every Sunday. She taught me not to fuss about the menu: There was always an abundance to go around. Never stress about the guest list, because there’s always space, even if we have to eat dinner sitting on the floor. As a child, I knew that community meant showing up for one another, and in a way, I also learned that there could be abundance.
Now, my community reminds me that the scarcity mind-set that tells us we can only have one love, that we must compete for our lover’s attention, is a lie. There’s always an abundance of love if you have the courage to be vulnerable. And the courage to share.