More than blood
The term “chosen family” comes from Kath Weston’s Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship in 1991 as a phrase to describe people who are not related biologically but consider each other family.
“‘Chosen family’ is a term employed within queer and transgender (Q/T) communities to describe family groups constructed by choice rather than by biological or legal (bio-legal) ties. Chosen family implies an alternative formulation that subverts, rejects, or overrides bio-legal classifications assumed to be definitive within an American paradigm of kinship . The provenance of the term “chosen family” in social science discourse derives from anthropologist Kath Weston’s Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship (1991).”
— “We Just Take Care of Each Other”: Navigating ‘Chosen Family’ in the Context of Health, Illness, and the Mutual Provision of Care amongst Queer and Transgender Young Adults
Within the LGBTQ+ community, chosen family is sometimes all someone has. A few instances and historical significance:
- During the AIDS crisis, many of those dealing with end-of-life care were supported by friends instead of family of origin, elevating traditional friendship into something more intimate, meaningful, and intense.
- Chosen families are born out of necessity; often queer people are rejected or disowned by biological family and have to find meaningful relationships with others.
- Chosen family can provide monetary support, caretaking responsibilities, housing, and/or emotional support.
- According to the Washington Post in 2016, 40% of homeless youth identify as queer, and for this demographic, family is vital.
- One-third of LGBTQ people identify as people of color, and statistically, immigrants and people of color are more likely to live with extended family or family that is not blood related than white people. Additionally, POC members of the LGBTQ community suffer poverty at a disproportionate rate, and living together is a way to reduce rent bills, etc.
Chosen family and prevalent communities
Perhaps one of the most famous examples of chosen family is from ball culture that originated in New York City, where families were referred to as “houses” and often named after popular fashion brands. Each house typically had a “mother” or “father” who functioned as a parent to the “children.” These families were close-knit and exclusive, and it was considered an honor to be asked to join one. Other similar communities that often have chosen families are:
- BDSM communities.
- Sex-positive communities.
- Immigrant communities.
- Communities of color.
- Poor communities.
- Foster children.
- Other marginalized communities.
Chosen families can face challenges that biological ones do not, particularly because there are very few legal protections in place for those who aren’t tied together by blood or marriage. Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago have all passed ordinances that allow people to take sick days from work to care for anyone they consider to be family, and Arizona and Rhode Island have passed similar laws. While not the same, laws like this are a start to providing chosen families the legal rights they deserve.
Some things to consider when forming a chosen family:
- Take your time. Forming these bonds with people is not going to happen overnight, but likely with people you’ve spent years cultivating relationships with.
- Employ similar tactics to chosen family that you would in a romantic relationship. Discuss boundaries, be aware of NRE, and be on the lookout for red flags.
- Make sure you cultivate boundaries around how you choose to deal with people’s personal issues and drama so you don’t get sucked into situations you don’t want to be in.
- Try not to sacrifice your wants, needs, and feelings for the good of the group. If something is uncomfortable, speak up and don’t let it fester.
- It’s okay to end the relationship dynamic if it’s not working for you, just as it’s okay to end a relationship with a blood relative if it is toxic and/or doing more harm than good.