This is the time of year when we’re encouraged to think about surrounding ourselves with the love and support of our family. The trouble is, as many queer people can tell you (and many more would prefer not to discuss), when you’re one of the interesting people, family can be hard to come by—even, or especially, at Thanksgiving.
Ironically, it seems the more open your definitions of love and identity, the less likely you are to enjoy the acceptance and support of those who share your genetic line. Some are lucky. But many LGBTQ folks report rejection and disownment from their so-called families, and others find only an uncomfortably chilly tolerance.
Those of us still welcome in the homes of the people who raised us often put up with years of hurtful behavior at family gatherings in the form of homophobic comments or of being called by the wrong name or gender pronouns. While relatives may wave it off and claim it’s unintentional (or even blame us for being “too sensitive”), we can’t help but notice, as the years wear on, that they don’t seem to intend to actually rectify those hurtful behaviors and attitudes, either.
Many of us spend years patiently trying to help our blood relatives through their difficulty accepting who we are, with varying degrees of success. Sometimes, eventually, it just becomes easier to spend the holidays away from problematic relatives. When I came out as transgender, my father embraced me with open arms, hugged me, and cried with me, whereas my mom frowned and said I needed psychiatric help: Guess which one I break bread with more often? And my only brother—well, that’s a topic I prefer not to discuss.
Blood family often do terrible things to queer people. Humiliate them. Traumatize them. Make them homeless. Even in death, they erase our identities and defile our bodies, by cutting trans women’s hair short, burying trans men in dresses, carving our birth names into headstones to invalidate who we were in life.
Queer people sometimes have no choice but to make our own family.
I’m not talking about adoptions, domestic partnerships, or same-gender marriages, many of which still take place unofficially in lieu of certification from the state, because those all fall within the traditional definition of family (and anyone who says otherwise is an unpardonable turkey). I’m talking about people who love and sacrifice for each other: a bond outside romantic love, which transcends friendship. Family, but not by blood or marriage.
Sometimes queer people support each other. Sometimes queer youth are made welcome and supported in the family home of a friend. Occasionally, it’s a friendly neighbor, a teacher, a co-worker, or even an ex-partner. Family can be anyone you love, anyone who loves you.
This “chosen family” phenomenon isn’t unique to queer people, but it is particularly prevalent in our communities for the reasons outlined above. I always know I can count on my queer family. We all share one thing in common: Not a lot of people stick up for us, so we stick up for each other.
It’s worth mentioning that conservatives have been trying to rob us of the right to make our own families forever. The harms they do to partner benefits, spousal rights, parental custody, legal gender identification, employment and human rights protections are all serious matters, and we’re still fighting for those basic equalities in many jurisdictions. But one thing they can never take away from us is our ability to define family for ourselves (for which I am thankful). If our self-definition didn’t drive conservatives completely up the wall, they wouldn’t stomp their feet and reiterate their exclusive definition of “family” so much.
Still, that fight does get tiring, and some of us are still working on building our queer families from the ground up. The holiday season can be a very lonely and isolating time for queer people. This week, somebody’s alone out there for the first time ever, just because of who they are. Do you happen to have a queer person in your life who might have it rough this holiday season? If your table has room for one more, you should consider inviting them for turkey. You might both be thankful.