Las Vegas Sun

November 29, 2021

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A holiday feast with friends offers local LGBT community a sense of belonging

Reverend Jamie Lee Sprague-Ballou

Christopher DeVargas

When Jamie Lee Sprague-Ballou told her parents she was a transgender, their relationship was tested. That included her feeling unwelcome at holiday events. But instead of being alone at the holidays, she celebrated with other LGBT individuals who were unwelcome at the family events.

When Jamie Lee Sprague-Ballou first came out as transgender to her parents, it took a couple of years for their relationship to realign.

The holiday season came around briskly, but Sprague-Ballou was not alone for Thanksgiving or the winter holidays, instead celebrating with other LGBT individuals who were unwelcome at family events.

“I try to encourage people to develop that support circle first, make sure you have people, that if everything fails with your family, you have a support circle to lean on,” said the Las Vegan resident, who in 2017 became the first open transgender woman ordained as a minister by the United Church of Christ.

When an LGBT person comes out, family members can either accept or reject their revealed identity. If rejected, the prospect of a Thanksgiving or holiday season alone can be isolating and daunting, especially for transgender individuals like Sprague-Ballou, who may not feel comfortable or empowered in the body and identity their family is familiar with.

Many LGBT individuals — in particular youth — face nonacceptance from their families and peers, suffering poorer mental health than their cisgender and heterosexual counterparts. Sharing that experience over food is common for many excluded LGBT people, said Erika Abad, assistant professor in residence in the Department of Interdisciplinary Gender and Ethnic Studies at UNLV.

“When you’re talking about potlucks and the queer community, and sharing the holidays together, our community’s varied experiences with acceptance and respect have led many of us to find each other and break bread together in an effort to maintain human relationships in the face of discrimination or familial or communal rejection,” she said.

But sharing food extends beyond the holidays for the LGBT community. Abad studied queer urban gardening and the role food can play uplifting a group, like how meals can sustain positive energy and kinship among its members.

This is the case for Abad’s lifelong friends in Portland, Ore., where she lived for several years, precisely because they cooked and ate together.

“In cooking together, we revisit familial traditions without the twinge of our straight families’ discomfort with our queerness and are able to hold on to the best parts of family traditions and rewrite them with each other, so that we sustain our joy together,” she said.

Resources close to Las Vegas help serve LGBT individuals who may be alone during the holidays.

The Henderson Equality Center will host a Thanksgiving dinner in its dining room and will distribute meal kits with items such as turkey, sweet and mashed potatoes, vegetables and soup that are ready to cook, executive director Chris Davin said. Pickup dinners will be available 5-7 p.m. while sit-down dinner will be 5-8 p.m. at 1490 W. Sunset Road, Suite 120, in Henderson.

Free meal kits or in-house dinners for those without the funds or resources — especially for homeless LGBT individuals who do not have a kitchen — are a crucial offering at the center, which is the only daily full-size food pantry in Henderson, Davin said.

“We want people to come to the center, to feel appreciated and be part of a community that supports them,” he said.

Potlucks and sharing food have also been a defining aspect in the life of Steven Dansky, director of outspoken films and Las Vegas resident, who was active in the late 1960s and early 1970s LGBT activist groups following the Stonewall riots.

The riots began June 28, 1969, in New York City after police raided a Greenwich Village gay club. Back then, gay marriage — let alone public shows of affection between gay people — was illegal, and police raided gay bars frequently.

Dansky was also living in New York during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which began in the 1980s. He saw firsthand the impact that sharing food had on individuals who were homebound, when, at the time, government programs and treatment for the disease did not exist, he said.

The Reagan administration at the time was failing to acknowledge the threat of the epidemic, which by the end of 1984 had infected 7,700 people and killed over 3,500.

The self-funded programs were driven by LGBT individuals, including Dansky, who saw the federally driven prejudice against LGBT people who were sick. Providing meals for someone with an immunocompromised system was essential to the organizations he worked for, Dansky said.

“A lot of us have not felt a sense of belonging,” he said. “Food is symbolic beyond just being life-sustaining.”