For many people, family is where life begins, and family provides the first group of people attending to your physical and emotional needs. Your parent or parents or step-parents, siblings, immediate kin, grandparents, and aunts and uncles ideally provide a network of support and supporters to help you grow and help you thrive. This group of people is known as your family of origin. Your family of origin also includes others who were involved in providing care, including adopted or foster parents and siblings, babysitters, nannies, or family friends who were part of the group of people who took care of you when you were small.
Family is where you learn who you are, how to relate to others, and how to take care of yourself. In healthy families, one receives structure, unconditional love, and safety, and this system of support grows with you as you get older, become independent, and possibly start a family of your own.
Unfortunately, this is not the reality for many people. For some people, their family of origin does not provide the love, care, and support they need and so they create alternative support networks that supplement or take the place of their family of origin and provide the support, care, and safety they need to live and thrive. These alternative support networks are referred to as families of choice, and for many people, the bonds they feel to their chosen family are stronger than they feel with their family of origin.
Your family of origin is the family into which you were born. These may take the form of a nuclear family – parents and children living together – but an endless array of family structures exist. For most people, family of origin includes more than just the immediate family; it also includes grandparents, cousins, and other extended family members, and can include members who are part of the family because of a biological connection, or another affinity, such as adoption or marriage, or paid or unpaid caregivers such as nannies and babysitters.
A family of choice, on the other hand, sometimes called a family of choice, is just that: a family created on purpose and by choice, comprising a network of people working together to meet one another’s needs for love, acceptance, and safety. This group of folks are typically part of your life as you navigate adulthood: romantic or sexual partners, close friends, roommates, and others in your life you fulfill the roles typically filled by families of origin.
Can someone have both a healthy family of origin AND a healthy family of choice? Absolutely, and many adults move between their various support systems with ease, relying on either or both at different times and in different contexts. Others may navigate adulthood with significant involvement of their family of origin in their daily lives, participating in a multigenerational support system that exists throughout their lives.
But this is not the case for everyone, and it is important for queer people and allies of queer people to understand the significance of families of choice for queer and trans people.
Queer families of choice are very common amongst individuals who identify within the spectrum of LGBTQ identities, referred to here as queer people, including a variety of identities related to sexual orientation and gender identity. Despite incredible gains in social awareness and acceptance in recent years, the reality is that queer people still often face difficulties receiving the support and acceptance they need and deserve from their families of origin. Separation from family of origin is still common for many queer people.
Unfortunately, many families have prejudices against people who identify as queer. These prejudices may be rooted in family traditions, religious belief systems, or cultural norms. These prejudices can sometimes lead to strained relationships, distancing from family members, estrangement, or complete cessation of contact. Sometimes a family system finds the mere existence of a queer person within it unacceptable, or they might place immensely difficult conditions on their queer family members in order to remain connected to the family.
Queer families of choice are not new, but have received increased attention in recent decades. The American anthropologist Kath Weston wrote in the early 1990s about the prevalence of families of choice in the social support networks of queer people. She noted, as was the case at the time, that most queer individuals coming out to their families of origin faced varying degrees of rejection and isolation from those closest to them. This necessitated the need for these individuals to seek out other groups of people to provide the support and resources that other people typically find within their family of origin.
It is important to remember that Dr. Weston was writing about queer families of choice at a time when American society was still dealing with the horrific impacts of the HIV/AIDS (Human Immunodeficiency Virus/Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) epidemic that devastated queer communities in the 1980s and 1990s, and which still poses a significant threat to health for several groups. The disproportionate impact of AIDS on the queer and trans communities created an era of fear and misinformation that led many queer people to feel rejected by or isolated from their families of origin. During these difficult times, many queer people found themselves cared for by networks of friends who played many roles traditionally filled by families of origin, from providing emotional support, housing or financial assistance, care for them when they were sick, safety from the cruelties of the world and, unfortunately for many, memorializing them at the end of their lives.
What Dr. Weston also discovered was that families of choice often provided what healthy families of origin provide: the cultivation of resilience.
Resilience is the ability for someone to adjust to and overcome various foreseen and unforeseen stressors. Resilience is related closely to the idea of adaptability or the ability to face a challenge, make choices to manage and overcome that challenge, all while maintaining a sense of emotional and physical regulation. Over time, a person’s resiliency typically grows, and they become better at facing challenges, solving problems, and regulating their emotions.
Resilience is an important element of a healthy life. It is especially important for people whose identities place them at odds with social expectations, exposing them to repeated adversity, such as discrimination, the threat of violence, actual violence, and social isolation and ostracization.
What does a queer family of choice look like? Let’s look at some examples from the life of “Ty.”
Ty is 25-years old and non-binary and is living in Philadelphia working their first job after graduating college. They live with their roommate and best friend Ces in an apartment they share in Center City. When they came out as non-binary three years ago, Ty’s family - devout Catholics from a rural community in central Pennsylvania - did not react well. Ty’s mother insisted that Ty’s expression of their true selves conflicted with her religious beliefs and insisted that Ty use prayer to restore themselves. Ty’s father insisted that if Ty was going to live as a queer person in the open, that Ty was no longer welcome at family functions and would no longer receive financial support from their parents. Ty was very disappointed in their parents’ reactions, but not surprised, and they returned to Philadelphia determined to continue living true to themselves and without family support, either emotional or financial.
Finding this untenable, Ty has been putting their focus on building a support network to sustain them while they are estranged from their family. Here are some examples of how Ty’s family of choice supports them and creates an atmosphere of mutual care, support, and love:
Ty and Ces rely on each other for emotional support and are always available to one another as a shoulder to cry on, a sounding board, or for advice or material assistance. In the evenings, they are intentional about checking in with one another about their days at work, and renew their commitment to one another as friends through daily expressions of support and love. It is not uncommon for Ty and Ces to show physical and verbal affection for one another, hugging one another frequently and even saying “love you!” when one of them leaves for the day. Ty often says that Ces is like a sibling to them, and closer to them than their real siblings.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday, Ty, Ces, and a group of their closest friends - (which they call their ‘framily,’ a portmanteau of friends and family) - decide to have a Friendsgiving meal on the holiday as Ty, Ces, and several of their support system members are estranged from their families or unable to travel to join family gatherings. Each person brings a dish and Ty volunteers to make the turkey, using an old family recipe. The friends decide to make this gathering a yearly tradition.
Ty has just been surprised when the person they have been dating says they are no longer interested in pursuing a relationship. Ty is very upset because they saw real potential in the relationship. Ty remembers once getting advice from their mother about accepting that not every relationship is destined for success, but knows they can’t call her for advice, so Ty reaches out to their support network to connect with their friends. Ces decides to cancel their plans for the evening and invites Mollie and Dave over to watch silly movies and eat microwave popcorn and be there for their friend Ty, who feels so much better seeing how much their friends care about them. As the night ends, Mollie, who is a bit older than Ty, sits with Ty and helps them process the experience of losing the relationship, offering advice, a listening ear, and a big hug.
As you can see, a queer family of choice can often take the place of, or supplement, the roles that for many people are filled by families of origin.
Families of choice are not only found within the queer community. Other groups of people who have been, for one reason or another, estranged from their family of origin create alternative networks of support with others who share their experiences:
Veterans may create networks of support amongst themselves in order to receive support and understanding from other people who have experienced the trauma of military service, which often include exposure to violence, physical injury, mental stress, and physical and emotional isolation from others. Like queer individuals, veterans often find difficulty engaging with a society around them that does not understand their experiences and is oftentimes incapable of providing the support veterans need.
It is common within immigrant communities, especially for people who immigrate to a new place without their families, for individuals to create strong social networks with others who perhaps share similar cultural origins, similar immigrant experiences, religious beliefs, or language. One may find individuals informally adopted into already existing family structures, finding companionship and support with people of shared background.
Communities of people in recovery from substance addiction often create networks of support amongst themselves that take the form of families of choice. Often, the insidious impacts of addiction have separated individuals from their families and they find comfort, solace, and belonging within a community of people with shared experiences and a shared goal of achieving and maintaining healthier relationships with substances. These families of choice amongst people in recovery can provide the unconditional love and support that those with addiction are sometimes unable to find in their families of origin.
People who have distanced themselves from their families of origin because of differences of belief are also common, including people who choose a different religious belief system than their family (or no belief system at all), people who differ in political, moral, and ethical belief systems; or people from insulated communities who have chosen to leave and pursue a life beyond the constraints of those contexts.
When there is violence or lack of safety in the family of origin, such as intimate partner violence from one parent to another, or the presence of drugs or criminal activity by family members, survivors often distance themselves from their family systems and seek new frameworks of support as they heal and grow into people independent of these environments.
The landscape of social networks has changed dramatically in recent years, with it becoming more and more common for people to live far from families of origin, staying connected through a variety of technologies, the formation of families of choice, especially queer families of choice, is becoming more and more common. Despite this, American culture (like many) privileges and centers families of origin as the most important social network one has, even if it is unhealthy and dangerous. Families of choice deserve to be honored as families of origin are, and should be given the same respect and loyalty afforded to families of origin.
For many people, their family of choice - especially a queer family of choice - is an important part of their lives, providing the things that anyone would want and need from a family: love, support, acceptance, and safety.
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