If you've been given the boot, finger, or cold shoulder by your family of origin, you might be bitterly thinking that family is a thing reserved for straight or cis normative people—but this is not the case. On the contrary, ‘family’ is a concept that queer and transgender people have been defining and redefining for decades, as a way to give ourselves access to community, care, advice, resources, mentors, young ones, elders, and much more.
Before we really deep dive into the benefits of having and building a family in your life, let’s get on the same page about what family is.
Ask our old friend Merriam Webster for the definition of family, and they'll tell you that in its most traditional form, a family is a basic unit that features two parents and their children. Though, Merriam will caveat that family can also be any group of individuals living under a single. But we know that even that second definition doesn’t fully encompass the true expansive potential of the concept of family.
A truer, more robust definition of family would be any collection of individuals that foster a deep sense of care, community, and support amongst themselves. Sound familiar? Even if many of us have functional relationships without families or origin (or our birth families), they often haven't left us with the aforementioned feelings.
This more expansive definition of family can be freeing and enlivening for people who have felt robbed by extremely dysfunctional or unsupportive family dynamics before. This can be a new concept for those who have felt disenfranchised or abandoned by their blood relatives, or any other communities they had growing up.
Wait, what is a chosen family?
Raise your hand if you’ve been told—either implicitly or explicitly— that family is something you are “stuck with.” Likely, many of you have a hand (or two!) raised. That’s because that’s how family is usually framed culturally. But this actually is not true—family can be something we choose. Enter: Chosen families.
Chosen families is a term that names explicitly that family doesn’t have to be blood. “Chosen family prioritizes connection and emotional intimacy over shared biology or legal binds,” says gender specialist and licensed independent clinical social worker Rebecca Minor LICSW.
“It’s a group of people who actively choose each other to maintain significant roles in each other’s lives,” she says. Keyword here: Actively. The relationships within chosen families are ones you wake up and choose to actively invest your energy in day in and day out—not because you feel obligated to, but because you want to.
The benefits of family and chosen family
If you’ve been previously hurt by your family, you may need a little convincing that building a family structure is worth the energy. Here are some of the mental, emotional, and physical health benefits of building your queer family.
- It gives you a learning and growing community
- At its most distilled, family is community. Specifically, it’s a community that gives you a safe space to learn, get perspective, explore what you’re feeling, and seek out advice, according to Jesse Kahn, L.C.S.W., C.S.T., director and sex therapist at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in NYC.
- At risk of sounding dramatic, without access to those things, the entire course of your life can be different. Consider this: Many people seek out the advice of their community (family) when negotiating a salary, or where the best place to get their oil changed or teeth cleaned. Without the urging of your support system, you may not have the guts to ask for a higher base pay, nor the necessary support for daily necessities like oil changes and dentist visits.
- Similarly, many people explore their gender presentation, style, gender, and pronouns within their family. Without access to that safe space, many people feel that they cannot be their full selves or experiment and explore different options.
- It combats loneliness!
- The risk of not having that cluster of safe people? Feelings of loneliness. Yep, even for the most introverted amongst us! Not something to brush off as no big deal, as loneliness can have some real health implications (such as anxiety and depression), according to Minor. If you’re reading this and don’t currently have access to an in-person community, remember: these relationships can be established through in-person interactions, too.
- It gives you access to history.
- When there’s age diversity within the family structure—and there should be!—there are added benefits. “For queer folks, intergenerational connections allow for the sharing of wisdom, queer history, and invites gratitude for those who came before us,” Minor says.
- For queer folks who have lost connection to biological parents and grandparents, these kinds of relationships can be healing. “It incredibly healing to have support from older queer people with lived experience who can fully see and support the younger person knowing what they might be up against,” she says.
- It gives you access to support as you age.
- Young folks aren’t the only ones who benefit from cross-generational relationships. Queer elders benefit massively from having the support of younger folks, says Minor. “Many may not have had the option or the desire to procreate, but will also need support and care as they age.” Younger queers also keep older queers learning and informed about the issues most relevant to the queer community.
How to build a family
- Take inventory of the people already in your life
- Public service announcement: You don’t have to start from scratch! “Identify the relationships within your life that already make you feel good, and nurture them,” says Kahn. Heck, even if the relationship doesn’t necessarily feel good but brings you a sense of growth, community, and/or brings you to a broader community, you may choose to nurture it to keep yourself connected.
- To discern what relationships you want to invest in, ask yourself:
- Who fills up my cup?
- Who makes me feel like my most authentic self is lovable?
- Who supports my growth?
- Who helps me feel like my existence is possible?
- Prioritize cross-generational relationships
- Don’t limit your family to people in your age bracket. Family can and often does prioritize the relationship across generations. And cross-generational relationships aren’t limited to the relationships between parents and their children, or grandparents and their grandchildren. Cross-generational familial ties and friendships can (and should!) take place between non-blood relatives, too—especially when queer folks are involved, according to Minor.
- As for how to do that? Anything from joining your local tennis club to volunteering at your local nursing home will do it. If volunteering or letter writing is your jam, check out SAGE, an advocacy and service center for LGBTQ+ elders that works to connect younger queer people with older ones.
- If there are already older queer or transgender folks in your life, you can also nurture those relationships by writing a research paper on their life, making them dinner, taking them grocery shopping, or uploading their photos into a digital photo album. Just a few ideas!
- Think about what kinds of relationships you want to have with kids
- It should go without saying, but there’s no reason there can’t be people in your family who are younger than you, too.
- Of course, while having your own kids is certainly an option— either via one of these queer fertility methods, or fostering or adoption— it is not the only option. “There are many important roles you can play in a family and a [queer] community without having your own kids,” says Kahn.
- One option, says Minor, is to express to your friends with kids that you are interested in playing a significant role in their life. Tell them that you want to babysit, that you want to be their god-parents, that you have an interest in taking on an ‘auntie’ or ‘uncle’ type role with them. Even if the title is not automatically given, Khan says, “You can be a chosen aunt, uncle, auncle, unty, or untie to the children in your friends’ lives.” If you're interested in more commitment, you can also explore what it might be like to co-parent with someone.
- Simply being an active member of your community will put children in your life, too, they say. Volunteering at your local LGBTQ+ youth center, coaching little league, or hosting arts and crafts nights will all put you in an environment for becoming a mentor, teacher, role model, and chosen family member to young(er) ones.
- Consider adoption and or fostering
- If getting pregnant or exploring fertility options isn’t your thing, but you’d like to bring kids into your family, fostering or adoption are also two great options. Fostering and adoption can be a wonderful and fulfilling way to both grow a family and give yourself the gift of being a parent.
- How you go about fostering or adopting that will depend on a number of factors, including:
- How much money you’re able to spend on the process (adoption can cost anywhere between $15,000 and $40,000)
- Whether you are interested in an in-state or international adoption
- The age of children you’re looking to parent
- How many children you’re looking to parent
Queering family structures can be about challenging the biological predetermination of the word family. “There is not the genetic connection with a child you choose to adopt or foster, but you are still creating a familial connection by loving that child and bringing them into your family,” says Kate Steinle NP, FOLX's Chief Clinical officer, former Director of Trans/Non-binary Care at Planned Parenthood.
- It might sound too simplistic, but socializing within your community is a wonderful first step, according to mental health professional Kryss Shane, L.S.W., L.M.S.W., author of The Educator's Guide to LGBT+ Inclusion. “Socialize at your community centers, on online forums, via social media, and within groups with shared interests (that are unrelated to your identity),” she suggests.
- Here, your primary goal isn’t to immediately make someone your surrogate brother or dad, but instead to meet people who could, down the line, matter to you. “Once you have more people in your corner who you enjoy, you can invest time and emotional currency into getting to know one another,” Shane says. “Over time, this can create a close friendship or even a family or chosen family dynamic.”
- Just remember to be safe if you’re using the internet to connect with others! Whether you’re looking for lovers, partners, or pals, be sure to avoid sharing personal information until you can verify someone's identity. Beyond that, practice self-preservation by trusting your gut. And, if you eventually meet your URL-friend offline, do so in a public space.
- Choose wisely
- “Don't just jump into something because you are desperate for connection,” says Minor. “Instead, foster relationships because you truly feel like the best, most authentic version of you when you are with these folks.” Also, don’t be afraid to re-negotiate or end your relationship with someone if it stops fulfilling your needs.
Sure, as with any family (chosen or otherwise) some conflict should be expected. “Just remember that you can either choose to work through or decide to move on if the connection is no longer healthy,” she says. Ask yourself questions like, “How does this person make me feel” and “Do we have similar values” to help yourself decide whether someone deserves the right to be in your chosen family.