I know I should go home to Belfast for Christmas. I haven't seen my mother for, oh, it must be a year and a half, and I haven't seen my father since he was released from prison (another story for another time) and it's been two years since I saw either of my brothers, and months since I saw my sister and my nephews and nieces, whom I miss very much, and it would really be something to walk the shattered streets of Belfast with them, wrapped in that perfect and perfectly unreal perfume we call pe ace, but ... No. I can't do it. Won't do it, really. I'm not going home for Christmas.

Why not? After all, if you're the gay brother, the gay son, the pink sheep of the family, it's always automatically expected that you will be coming home. I always have before. Last year was exceptional in that my bloke and I flew off to Istanbul (not Constantinople) and handed over our London home to my parents: see, my father had Yuletide leave from jail and he couldn't stay in Belfast, according to several old and dear colleagues with a penchant for balaclavas, rapid-fire weapons and fast getaway cars (usually other people's). So I could weasel out of returning to the land of my birth and not have to spell out how I felt ... Which runs thus: my parents and siblings think they're free and easy about me being gay but come the season of good cheer they can't help making me feel like the spectre at the feast: the Ghost of Christmas Faggot. My other sister also lives in England and she isn't expected to be present and correct at the annual gathering of the clan, no sir. Because she's married and has children and that's real to my parents in a way I guess I'm never going to be, despite being with the same person for nigh 17 years and despite all the protestations to the contrary.

The assumption is that my sister has made a life for herself. And the implication is that I haven't. Or, more accurately, I have and it's one with intrinsically less emotional value. Of course, my sister should be with the other people she loves at Christmas, but me, hey, it's just not the same thing, is it? I shouldn't mind being apart from Nicholas because ... well, I shouldn't. Two men together. Not the same thing. Besides, Nicholas will be going down to his lot, won't he? Best place for him.

My family simply haven't thought about it. Which is OK. I don't know how I'd explain it to them anyhow (Hi folks! You're bigots! Best wishes!) so it's best for me not to think about them not thinking about it, only this special time inevitably rolls around and suddenly it's an issue, at least in my mind. Over Christmas it gets increasingly crowded in there.

For instance, I wonder, if I did bring Nicholas home, would it be because everyone else has their partners to hand, or would it be to make a statement?

And would we snog under the mistletoe?

And would we sprawl on the sofa together?

And share the same bed?

And would I let him unwrap his special present (sexy underwear cut to here) in front of my Mum and Dad?

You know, the things encouraged by Christmas that everyone else takes for granted but gay men can't, because we have to be on our best behaviour lest we slip up and accidentally give offence, even to our nearest and dearest. Conditioning. Rejection. Fear.

Then I remember the things my family have said to me over Christmases past, things that have given me almost exquisite pain. Things like, "Christmas simply isn't the same without children, is it?", a line that never fails to bring a lump to my throat andan imaginary baseball bat to my hand. Part of me agrees - one reason I make the effort is to be with my nephews and nieces - and part of me can't help blaming myself for being so stupid as to believe this time would be any different from the time beforeor the time before that. That I wouldn't feel as if I'm on the outside of something looking in.

It's not as if my family don't try. One year my brother bought me an electronic gadget in matt black because a friend had told him that was the sort of thing queers were hot for; and once my sister got me a plain, one-colour sweater, having seen Michael Cashman wear one just like it on EastEnders and she couldn't understand why I laughed hysterically (and I do mean hysterically) and she took offence, which, frankly, was hogging the act, know what I mean?

Yet I'm one of the lucky ones. This Sunday thousands of gay men will be living a lie, telling their families about girlfriends who don't exist, fabricating an existence they hope their loved ones will buy, dying a little inside at every joke about the Christmas tree fairy, wanting to be with people who understand them, people who don't require ... effort.

So to those families, and to my own, I impart the traditional seasonal warning: remember, a homosexual isn't just for Christmas, a homosexual is for life.