Rainbow Rant: In praise of the queer potluck we're not having this Thursday

Joy Ellison
File photo

I feel sorry for straight people this Thanksgiving. 

Faced with CDC guidelines that recommend limiting in-person celebrations to the members of their own household, many people are brokenhearted. If the meltdowns of Republican politiciansMarjorie Taylor Greene,Tootie Smith, andTed Cruz are any indication, some straight folks are taking it especially hard. 

Skipping family holidays can be melancholic, whether the reason is a temporary pandemic or your family’s permanent homophobia. My heart goes out to straight people who are experiencing this pain for the very first time. 

Many queer people will find it easier to adjust to this year’s unusual Thanksgiving because a number of us have long since changed our conception of the holiday. 

I, for one, haven’t been able to celebrate Thanksgiving with my family of origin for 18 years. I’m used to finding myself in unexpected places on the fourth Thursday of November, but often I sit around a table with other queer people, feasting on a potluck. 

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Queer potlucks are always something special, whether they mark a holiday or not. In fact, it’s not queer Thanksgiving gatherings I miss this week. It’s the more mundane get-togethers, like backyard barbeques, Sunday brunch and front stoop beers. I don’t long for turkey, but my mouth waters for homemade bread and nutritional yeast gravy. I even think fondly of the inevitable lentil dish that seems to always materialize wherever two or more queer people gather.

As I dream of queer potlucks, I’m reminded of the most incisive portrayal of them, “The Potluck and the Passion.” This classic short film by Black lesbian filmmaker Cheryl Dunye tells an all-too-realistic story. During a potluck that hits every lesbian cliché in the most delightful way, a Black woman comes to realize that her white date is brazenly racist and subsequently strikes up a relationship with another Black woman. Dunye serves up both pleasure and discomfort through the similarities between what is on the screen and what we see in our own lives. It’s a remarkable piece of filmmaking that celebrates queer culture while excoriating its shallowness, hypocrisy and racism.

Queer people are as prone to idealizing our traditions as straight people. It’s tempting to turn queer potlucks into symbols of togetherness, gratitude and sharing that extends beyond the boundaries of the nuclear family, but that’s just as much of fantasy as a Norm Rockwell painting.

In truth, our chosen families can be as unsupportive and unreliable as our families of origin. We can be easily swept up into performative outrage (like, say, complaining about the settler-colonial roots of Thanksgiving instead of doing anything to act in solidarity with Native people). Our community is as rife with racism, ableism and classism as any. We have reckoning and healing to do. 

This Thursday, I’ll think wistfully of the queer potluck we will not hold. I’ll also imagine different gatherings in the future, where we serve honesty, accountability and kindness and the perfect mac and cheese.