What do you do when you can’t go home for the holidays?

LGBTQ+ people find fellowship and community through Friendsgiving celebrations

Once a month, Sunday afternoons at Neighborhood Church in Chamblee begin with a mother-daughter duo setting up folding tables in an empty meeting hall. Little by little, more and more people arrive, and soon there is a small crowd arranging chairs and laying out a buffet spread of soul food for a trickling stream of incoming guests.

This week, when volunteers light the chafers, the aromas of turkey and stuffing, cranberry sauce and mac and cheese radiate through the dining hall.

This isn’t your average church potluck. The gathering, known as Lets Eat!, is a production by Southern Fried Queer Pride, an Atlanta-based LGBTQ community organization. Maya Wiseman is the brains behind the gatherings, borne of her desire to create a space for the community to develop deeper connections than they could at clubs or dance parties.

“Food brings everyone together,” Michelle Wiseman, Maya’s mom, said. “This is soul food – it’s good for your soul, and we put our soul in the food… so it’s really special. [Maya] puts a lot of thought into what she’s going to prepare.”

Angelica and Snowflake Vyrostek began attending Wiseman’s Let’s Eat! gatherings in August, and they quickly became a monthly tradition. The couple was drawn in by a desire to connect with the Atlanta LGBTQ community and stuck around when they found fellowship and a space that catered to all generations of the community. Wiseman’s daytime potlucks are free and the parents feel comfortable bringing their daughter and her friends to the event.

“It feels like going to a family meal on a Sunday, except not at all because this is safe people,” Snowflake Vyrostek said.

“Yeah,” Angelica Vyrostek agreed. “I wouldn’t go to actual family events. Your walls are up when it comes to your actual family a lot of the time.”

“Unfortunately, for a lot of us, especially the queer folks, family dinners and gatherings and the holidays can be very difficult to be in those spaces,” said volunteer Angie Wheelis. “Some folks may not be welcomed by their family…they may be estranged from their family, so providing a space for this for people to congregate [where] they feel at home and feel comfortable is so important.”

Friendsgiving potluck for queer Asian group

YanLin Tso, a 45-year-old therapist who recently moved to Atlanta, has been celebrating Friendsgiving for most of his life. He describes his first celebration as “an orphan Thanksgiving” – a gathering for friends who didn’t have parents or were estranged from their families to bond over a shared meal.

“One year, I decided that instead of the holidays being sad because I’m not gonna be with my family, I’m going to develop my own traditions,” Tso said. When he isn’t at a community dinner, he celebrates solo with outdoor activities like hikes and bike rides. Since moving to Atlanta, he has also connected with Asian community groups in the area. This year, he’s celebrating with a local, queer Asian group that’s organizing a potluck on Thanksgiving day.

Tso likes to bake pies for holiday meals, favoring flavors like apple, cherry, cranberry or raspberry. When he hosts holiday gatherings, guests share food and play board games like Settlers of Catan or dominoes.

“I’m not a big fan of Thanksgiving as a whole because of colonialism and all,” Tso said. “But culturally, eating and meals are really important, so I like to share this with people, especially around the holidays.”

“A community to celebrate with”

Liliana Bakhtiari, an Atlanta city council member, celebrated their first Friendsgiving as a college freshman at Georgia State University. They don’t remember the dishes from that first college dorm potluck, though. “What I remember is finally having friends for the first time,” Bakhtiari said. “It was the first time I was actually happy and got to really enjoy the holiday.”

Thanksgiving was historically a dark time for the council member’s family, with strained gatherings that often ended in fights. “It’s been hard for my family, so it’s nice to actually have a community to celebrate with,” Bakhtiari said.

Bakhtiari’s found family gatherings are almost always potlucks – unless one of Bakhtiari’s partners wants to cook everything. Sometimes everyone brings a dish from their own culture, or sometimes it’s picked up from Kroger on the way over. This year, Bakhtiari’s social circle aims to start a new tradition of making their Friendsgiving meal out of Thanksgiving leftovers.

“It’s been always been less about the food and more about redefining or taking back the holiday and spending time with people that we actually want to spend time with,” Bakhtiari said.

Celebration with vegetarian food and trinkets

For Atlanta couple Sidney Hayes and Chelsea Hoag, Friendsgivings are an opportunity for a spectacle.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

The pair hosted their first Friendsgiving gathering as a couple in 2021. That evening, Hayes made what Hoag considers some of the best mac and cheese ever and the couple’s friends feasted on vegetarian food and holiday cocktails. The celebration made Hoag “feel really close to Sidney… like a family.”

Both Hayes and Hoag have event-planning backgrounds and try to make their found-family gatherings unique. This year, each guest will bring a trinket that is important to them. The items will be put on display like they’re at a gallery and each guest will talk about what their item means to them. “I feel like this is something that could really be a great way to connect,” Hayes said.

Before they moved to Atlanta, Hoag always craved being part of a family that got along and wasn’t judgmental.

“[When] you come through the door and you’re genuinely excited to see everyone…” Hoag said. “To me, Friendsgiving is the opportunity to do that.”