“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 for 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, 'cause 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.” — Pepper in Paris is Burning
Paris is Burning is a rite of passage. It’s one of the most important queer movies of all time. And it has beautiful depictions of family, such as Pepper and her family, House of LaBeija. Even 30 years after its 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. 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% of homeless youth identify as queer, and for this demographic, in particular, the chosen family is extremely important.
The term “chosen family” may be a relatively new one, but queer and especially trans folks have always had to come together, not just for belonging but also for protection. Drag balls, similar to those shown in Paris is Burning have functioned as secret gatherings since the 19th century. Later, these balls evolved into the vogue balls shown in the documentary, where individuals or “Houses” compete in drag, dance and other performances. Balls have been central to some but not all depictions of a chosen family in queer communities.
A chosen family consists of people we find to fulfill the roles of support, teaching, comfort and kinship. This can look like almost anything and in most cases is defined to be purposefully broad and encompassing. Chosen families are meant to pull people together, not shut them out through ridged definitions. Chosen families can be specific, such as having a mother, father, sister, brother, cousin, etc. based on age, personalities or relationships. All these people may even share a residence. Or they can be more vague; you can have a chosen family without spelling out every person’s role and relationship to that family. As with all things queer, words matter. The point of a chosen family is not to stifle individual members through literal biological ties, comparisons to a nuclear biological family or labels. The point is to foster belonging and fill one’s voids: sometimes labels such as "mother" help with this, and sometimes they don’t; individuals get to decide.
The “traditional family” relies on a number of things that aren’t always available, applicable or appealing to queer people. For many people, marriage is a fundamental symbol of “family,” and marriage wasn’t legal for “same-sex” couples in the United States until 2015 (though some states had passed earlier legislation to this effect). It is still not legal in many parts of the world. Reproduction, another common tenant of “traditional family,” is complicated for almost all queer relationships, with many queer people either not interested in reproducing or not able to access the resources and technology to make it possible.
Finally, relationships with one’s parents often look very different for queer folks: queer people are frequently abandoned, the victims of violence at the hands of their parents, estranged or distanced from their parents. To queer youth who are kicked out of home for being queer, to queer couples who can’t or don’t want to have children and to queer adults who don’t talk to their own parents, these “traditional family” structures aren’t what family actually means or looks like.
Chosen families are often born out of necessity. Many queer individuals can’t turn to their biological parents or families in all the ways that other people can. Whether you are completely rejected by your biological parents, face homophobia or encounter increased tension because of your queerness, the safety nets that parents often provide aren’t always available to you. This can create the need to build a new, intentional, healthy family. Chosen families often provide each other with financial assistance, somewhere to sleep, a place to vent, a support-system and unconditional love.
Seth Owen has been recognized for his activism and his own story in the last couple of years. Seth was forced to undergo conversion therapy while in high school, was kicked out of the house his senior year and had his hopes of going to Georgetown shattered because he didn’t have the money. Thanks to a GoFundMe page set up by a former teacher, however, Seth not only got enough money to attend school but received additional donations, which he used to start a scholarship fund, Unbroken Horizons, for LGBTQIA+ youth of color. Since then, he has appeared on the Ellen show, multiple news programs and various talk shows to discuss his experiences and encourage people to donate to Unbroken Horizons and recognize issues facing queer youth, especially those of color. During a presidential town hall, Seth Owens was able to ask a candidate a question, and before he began, he took the opportunity to thank his “chosen family.”