What Happens to Queer People Who Don’t Have a Chosen Family?

A transmasculine person standing by the water and looking into the distance (Photo credit: The Gender Spectrum Collection)

When I was a sophomore in college, the resident gay kids invited me to lunch. They moved as a unit and rarely separated: They protested together, dined together, partied together, dated one another, and left me both admiring them and feeling envious of their camaraderie. There weren’t many gay students, especially out gay students, at our small liberal arts school in North Carolina, which made their invite even more special, especially as I was began to question (read: panic about) my sexuality. I’m still not sure why they invited me—maybe there were rumors about my sexuality or maybe they just sniffed the questioning on me—but I do know that during that lunch, they decided I wasn’t gay, gay enough, or gay in the right way—and they never spoke to me again.

Joining a chosen family would’ve changed a lot for me at that point in my life. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt so lonely if I’d been surrounded by a wider variety of supportive people who understood the depth and endless diversity of queer experiences and coming outs. Maybe I would’ve chosen to come out to those closest to me sooner. Maybe my understanding of my sexuality wouldn’t have been so closely tangled with my feelings about one particular girl. But it isn’t easy finding or joining a queer chosen family, though sometimes it seems like it should be.

If you listen to pop culture, then we’re supposed to grow up, move to big cities that have queer-friendly neighborhoods, and seek out queer friends who quickly become family. It’s important for LGBTQ people to see themselves onscreen because it combats “symbolic annihilation,” described by Nicole Martins, a Media Studies professor at Indiana University, as “the idea that if you don’t see people like you in the media you consume, you must somehow be unimportant.” However, seeing perfect chosen families onscreen—or in pop culture—can also be difficult for queer people who are struggling to find a similar kind of deep friend-love in their own lives.

There are even Instagram memes and jokes on Twitter about queer friend groups finding each other accidentally, with everyone coming out at different times but ultimately ending up roaming the world together. Watching a range of shows, from Will & Grace and The L Word to Tales of the City and Queer Eye, filled me with the same sense of both admiration and envy that I felt watching the gay kids at my college care for one another. Despite the necessity of chosen family—and the dreamy, idealistic way it’s presented in pop culture—finding this level of support is easier said than done. Most of my childhood friends are queer, but we grew up, moved out of our hometowns, and are now spread out across the United States and struggling to find or form a chosen family.

In queer communities, loneliness takes on a specific form because of the structural impact of queerphobia, which makes it more difficult for members of the LGBTQ community to both form and maintain relationships and emotional connections. It is more difficult for queer people to own homes and garner the communities that often come from moving into a new neighborhood; it’s more difficult for trans people to get jobs (at least one in five transgender people surveyed report experiencing employment discrimination), which shuts them out from the camaraderie that often comes in an office environment; queer people are more likely to become homeless or at be kicked out of our homes when their gender orientation and/or sexuality becomes is known; and we’re less likely to be able to rely on and trust our immediate family members.

Given these dire circumstances, the friends we are able to make might be homophobic, racist, or transphobic. At times, we have to choose between safety and security, excusing bigotry or deep loneliness in favor of friendship. As such, chosen families have long been a core part of queer survival. In “LGBT Older Adults, Chosen Family, and Caregiving,” a 2016 article published in the Journal of Law and Religion, law professor Nancy J. Knauer explores why queer people rely so much on chosen family, especially as we age. “In the United States, informal elder care is principally the responsibility of younger relatives. Adult children perform the majority of elder care and non-relatives perform only 14 percent of care…[but] instead of relying on relatives, LGBT older adults largely care for each other,” Knauer writes.

Loneliness is more than a fleeting feeling of sadness for LGBTQ people; it has a real impact on our safety, our health, and our livelihoods. We need people we can count on who see us as we really are. I spoke with six queer people about their thoughts on queer chosen families and reckoning with queer loneliness.

Heather* queer Jewish writer and mother

I’m a Gen X lesbian and queer person and my spouse and I have not been part of a big queer chosen family. We live in the Bay Area—big lesbo mecca—and we have two boys. Our oldest was born in 2000, and we lost our closest lesbian couple over the course of eight days after our son was born. One of them came to the baby naming, and then we never saw them again. Being parents, especially at a time that straddled the acceptance of marriage equality—(for at least the first eight years we had to counter the “what does your husband do?” presumption with some educating and explaining)—has meant that most of the people who have crossed our paths in the past 18 years have been straight people with kids the same ages as ours.

We made some forays into the world of queer parents early on, but nothing really stuck. Neither my spouse nor I are really joiners, but it’s not just that. It’s felt like queerness alone isn’t enough of a glue. Most of my best friends are straight or straight-ish women. The idea of the “big queer family” is so prevalent in queer culture that it’s hard not to feel othered a bit by not having one. At the same time, as someone’s ex once observed, we queers exclaim that we’re family to each other, but most people come from dysfunctional ones. Just because we’re queer doesn’t mean we’re all kumbaya.

Leah, 63, genderqueer lesbian, writer and teacher

I joined a Hasidic community at 16 and stayed for 30 years—arranged marriage, seven children. I grew up there, stayed closeted, and then finally left. But I left with such a communal sense of myself that my “I” was almost a “we.” I felt gloriously free to choose my own community and assumed having one was essential. I never found that community. I’ve assembled a network of friends, and I stumble [upon] a lesbian from time to time, but I’ve found little or no sense of LGBTQ community. I left [the Hasidic community] 15 years ago. At first, the loneliness was astounding, as if without a community I wasn’t quite sure who I was. But over time, I learned how to be alone and came to treasure—even love—being alone. I learned to assume I was usually going to be the different one in the crowd. I carry that differentness quite happily; it’s a pride.

This is true, even though I’m married. I’ve found that loneliness can be more acute even within a good relationship. Proximity can wake up unfulfilled desire, need, and even that infant scream within, and any of these can be read as loneliness. The loneliness or aloneness has become more of a companion. I’m no longer looking for community. Now, when I come across “my” people, I open my arms.

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Sam*, 37, genderqueer, in New York City

Images [of queer chosen families] create an ache in my chest of loneliness, alienation, and longing. I’m in my late 30s, and I recently came out publicly. I’ve got a partner and kids who keep me busy. I don’t know how to meet other queer folks who share my values and might make good friends and potentially chosen family. When I encounter queer folks who are interesting to me, they seem to have their own community and network; [so] nothing develops [when] I make friendly overtures. I’ve never had that problem with my straight friends. I’m not sure if I’m doing something wrong or if my “social capital” as a potential friend translates differently in the LGBTQ world.

[To me, queer chosen family is] a group of queer people who share some of my values in life and in friendship and who want to build a familial-type network. There’s no [way to] combat [queer loneliness]. It just hurts. It’s an unfulfilled longing for now, but I keep putting that longing into the universe.

Brianna, 39, bisexual and queer parent and freelance writer in Cochrane, Alberta

Growing up in Toronto, I had a pretty great group of queer, artsy friends. In high school, I was lucky to find some “gender-indifferent” outcasts. Though it never looked quite like The L Word, and there was often some lingering stigma around being bisexual, I was able to find queer belonging throughout my 20s. But as I’ve become a consummate grown up, I’ve lost a lot of this chosen family-type community. Busy schedules and school bus dropoffs have replaced much of the brunch and bonding.

As a bisexual person in a mixed-sex marriage with two little kids, the places where I fully fit are few and far between. Maybe part of my mixed-sex marriage privilege is that my partner and I do have good relationships with our parents, so the need for a chosen family is a bit less immediate than for others. While I’m fully in love with my partner and kids, and we have many close friends scattered across the province and the country, I’m sometimes left longing for a life where I could have a queer chosen family, too—one where my lived experiences as a queer, bisexual person are shared and held by the experiences of others.

[Queer chosen family is] people to call on in the dark hours, who wordlessly understand what’s needed, who understand stigma, and what it’s like to be on the outside looking in. It’s seeing one another and being seen, but also showing up in person when needed. People who unconditionally love your kids, and who share space and the experience of being queer in a heteronormative world. Instead of loose threads of friendship, I see a queer chosen family as a handful of awesome rainbow threads woven together to make a strong community. Chosen family doesn’t have to look like social media or television tells me it might, and I [always] remember to honor the connections I have, the connections I’m making, and the connection [I have] with myself.

The idea of the “big queer family” is so prevalent in queer culture that it’s hard not to feel othered a bit by not having one.

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Kirsten, 41, queer femme in Atlanta

When I was in my 20s, I definitely had a large group of LGBTQ friends, and we did everything together. We brunched, played softball and flag football together, partied, and celebrated some holidays together. But now that I’m older and in a LGBTQ marriage with kids, this has evolved to having LGBTQ friends but spending holidays with my immediate and larger family. I have incredibly close LGBTQ friends, but they’re not family to me. They’re like family, but I don’t consider them [to be] my chosen family. I would love to have that strong feeling of family with my friends, but it’s just not how my friendships have evolved.

I have a relatively small [biological] family and many [of those] people have died. But those people are my true family whereas my friends are simply my friends. The reason there’s this distinction for me is that most of my family is supportive of my sexual orientation. If they weren’t, I would feel the need to search elsewhere for family.

Theda, 36, trans woman based on Treaty 7 land in Canada

To me, a queer chosen family is love. I have chosen queer family, but it’s incredibly small and not at all like what is presented in pop culture. I tried for a very long time to replace my prior queer family after I came out as trans. I would attend support groups, volunteer with queer orgs, and use dating apps to find friends, but nothing stuck for me. I’m more introverted and making friends can be hard.

When I see chosen families on shows and films, I tend to respond with a mixture of jealousy and confusion. At one point, I did have what I considered a chosen queer family, but I realize now it was based more around shared drug use than a common bond. What I see presented in pop culture feels foreign: Everyone seems to get along, and if there are interpersonal issues, they’re quickly resolved in the service of family. Queer families were typically a response to biological families abandoning queer children. I have had chosen queer family attempt to [harm me], and issues are downplayed again in the service of maintaining a familial social setting. There is often no recourse when major transgressions take place. Typical family responses or ways of dealing with family issues aren’t available as there are no ‘parents’ (even if there are older members), and everyone is usually dealing with unresolved trauma and is unable to properly show up.

I try to now just immerse myself with queer content, whether it’s literature or poetry or film. I feel a connection with queer people in an abstract sense and sometimes just reading the work of queer people is enough.

*Author requested pseudonym

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by Rachel Charlene Lewis
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Rachel Charlene Lewis is the Senior Editor at Bitch. She has written about culture, identity, and the internet for publications including i-D, Teen Vogue, Refinery29, Glamour, Autostraddle, Ravishly, SELF, StyleCaster, The Frisky (RIP), The Mary Sue, and elsewhere. Her literary work, reviews, and interviews have been published in Catapult, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Normal School, Publisher’s Weekly, The Offing, and in several other magazines. She is on Twitter and Instagram, always.