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Chosen families help ease holiday stress for queer individuals

For many individuals, returning home for the holidays can be a stressful time due to traveling, event preparations and having to spend more time than usual with family members. For queer individuals, however, these issues can be magnified, as they often have to endure returning home to families that are not accepting of their identities. 

This phenomenon is very prominent within the queer community, so much so that the concept of “chosen families” has developed over time. These chosen families are groups curated by queer individuals that consist of various close friends in their lives — forming a family that is not blood-related at all, but its members share understanding and the overall acceptance of their queer experiences.

The LGBT Center at Ohio University has compiled a queer holiday survival guide for LGBTQIA+ individuals who may be returning to unaccepting homes. The guide offers tips for self-help, as well as links to resources such as housing, food and emotional support.

Micah McCarey, director of the LGBT Center, said the concept of a chosen family is not applicable to strictly queer people, but it is much more prominent in their communities as they navigate their sexual and gender identities. 

“All of us have, if we're fortunate, the capacity to develop chosen family, in addition to or instead of a family into which we may have been born,” McCarey said. “And there's a special significance to doing that as an LGBTQ+ person. I would define chosen family as those who affirm you, include you and sometimes compensate for a lot of painful experiences with rejection.”

Gene Dockery, a Ph.D. student studying counselor education and supervision, explained these rejections and feelings of isolation are especially relevant for queer individuals, as separation is created within their traditional family due to bigotry and misconceptions regarding their queer identity.

“A lot of people who are queer, in the process of coming out, lose important people, including family members,” Dockery said. “They haven't changed, but the way that their family member sees them has changed somehow. And for some people, that's enough to lose that relationship, or to create enough tension in the family that going home for the holidays isn't a good time.”

With the holidays in particular, McCarey said they place a heavy emphasis on familial time, which can put intense pressure on queer individuals to spend time with people who do not accept them as they are. 

“It's the strain of spending a lot of time with people you may feel you have an obligation to remain connected to, even though they may not help you feel as seen or valued as you'd like to be,” McCarey said. “And that can come from grandparents who have such a generational gap between their experience and the experience of their grandchildren or great grandchildren when it comes to understanding gender as a construct in 2021. It could come from a parent who's unwilling to use an LGBTQ+ person's pronouns or preferred name. And it could come from a cousin or aunt who is repeating really hateful things from the news or from their own personal opinions about how LGBTQ+ people should be living their lives.”

Within each of these examples, queer people have to endure bigotry and disrespect from the homes they are expected to return to for the holiday times, forcing them to almost revert back to their behaviors prior to their coming out. 

“I would notice when I would come home my freshman year, I was very much masking my personality and my queerness around them to be more palatable,” Alina Taylor, a senior studying marketing, said. “I'm fortunate enough that I came out as being trans nonbinary when I was completely living on my own. And I feel like I never would have been able to do that if I was under their household.”

Dockery said this is why many queer people not only choose to form chosen families but also choose to spend the holidays with them instead.

“Nobody should be forced back into the closet for the comfort of other people,” Dockery said. “We shouldn't have to diminish ourselves and grind ourselves down into bite-sized pieces to be consumable for people who won't love us as our full selves. So nurturing a found family is important because of the authenticity. Frequently, we're told that we cannot be explicitly queer, that that cannot be our identity, that we're not allowed to be that in public, that we're not allowed to exist.”

Over time, Taylor discovered that the opinions of unaccepting family members become less significant than the opinions from chosen family.

“I don't really care what they think,” Taylor said. “Because at the end of the day, me self-sacrificing and being someone who I'm not isn't worth them being able to stomach me as a person. So when you come forward with these ideals, they don't see it coming, because they've only seen one side of you.”

Through these struggles, Taylor said it is imperative that queer individuals who do not have accepting traditional families try to form their own chosen families as they can help in grounding and providing a necessary support system. 

“I think having that network of people that you love and trust, especially during the holidays, takes the weight off,” Taylor said. “Having a chosen family during the holidays is important because it reminds you of who you are and that you do have people around you that love and support all aspects of who you are as a person, even when you might not have that when you're visiting over the holidays.”

Through forming these support networks and chosen families, Dockery said there will be a positive impact on queer people — not only for the holidays but also for their futures overall.

“Being able to have those people who see us and understand us and want us to be (who we are) is really, really beautiful,” Dockery said. “And one of the greatest things that give success, especially for like queer college students is a sense of community. If they feel like they belong, they are more likely to graduate, to be successful, to get the jobs that they want, to have better health outcomes. So a sense of belonging, a sense of community, a support system, it can't be emphasized enough, how valuable that is to being able to succeed in the world.”


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