Just because the phrase, “You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family.” is common doesn’t make it true. Chosen families prove that it is possible to choose your friends and your family.
“When someone has rejection from their mother and father, their family, they — when they get out in the world — they search. They search for someone to fill that void. I know this from experience because I’ve had kids come to me and latch hold of me like I’m their mother or like I’m their father because they can talk to me and I’m gay and they’re gay. And that’s where a lot of that boldness and the mother business comes in. Because their real parents give them such a hard way to go, they look up to me to fill that void,” stated Pepper in Paris is Burning.
Paris Is Burning is a 1990 American documentary film directed by Jennie Livingston. Filmed in the mid-to-late 1980s, it chronicles the ball culture of New York City and the African-American, Latino, gay, and transgender communities involved in it.
According to Jasmine Shirey, even 30 years after the documentary’s release, the documentary is real, relevant and revolutionary when it comes to family and chosen families.
“For many queer youths, myself included, watching Paris is Burning was an experience of deep affinity, sadness and joy,” said Shirey. “At the same time, queer people like me whose biological and legal families accept us, who always have enough to eat or who are white, can never understand the true depth of community depicted in the film. No one can speak to the magnitude of importance behind ‘chosen families’ better than those who have been kicked out and are homeless or traumatized because of other people’s responses to their queerness.”
According to a 2016 Washington Post story, 40 per cent of homeless youth identify as queer, and for this demographic, in particular, the chosen family is extremely important.
What is a chosen family?The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines family the way many would define nuclear family. The definition states family is “the basic unit in society traditionally consisting of two parents rearing their children.” One may say the definition of family is quite antiquated.
Also known as found family, “a chosen family is made up of people who have intentionally chosen to embrace, nurture, love, and support each other regardless of blood or marriage,” Bahiyyah Maroon, PhD, told healthline.com.
Maroon shared that she has a chosen mother, chosen brother, and chosen sister whom she calls her gift-mother and gift-siblings.
“I wanted someone to send flowers to on Mother’s Day and I wanted a brother to exchange that brother-sister bond with,” she says.
To people outside your circle, a chosen family may just look like a group of friends. The concept of chosen family is intentionally broad because it expands the stiff definition of what “family” is typically understood to be.
Just because you have a chosen family doesn’t mean you can’t have or still be close to your biological one. And it isn’t only for queer people.
Global News reported that Elisabeth Sheff, educator and CEO of Sheff Consulting Group based in Atlanta, said author and scholar Kath Weston was the first person who popularized the term “chosen families” in the ’80s. After doing research on gay and lesbian families in San Francisco in that time period, the term that was originally used to describe these families was “fictive kin.”
But Maroon says the concept has existed for a long, long time. “For People of Colour there’s a long history of children finding new ‘parents’ when their biological parents were enslaved or killed,” she said.
A lot of times families are biological families are seen in an either/or model. You either have a chosen family or you have a biological family. Someone is either part of your chosen family, or your biological family. But that’s not always the case. What’s important is aligning yourself with those who have chosen to embrace, nurture, love, and support each other.