by Dr. Jem Tosh
(Content warning - discussion of family rejection, loneliness, familial abuse)
While 2020 and COVID-19 will mean that many people will not be spending this holiday season with their family, for some folks being apart from family can be a more frequent occurrence. Whether that's because they are an immigrant who cannot travel during the holidays, a survivor of abuse who has a no-contact boundary in place to protect themselves from further familial abuse, or those who have been rejected by family for their sexuality or gender - there are many reasons why someone's family of origin can be unwelcoming, unsafe, or just not possible to spend the holidays with.
In these situations sometimes people talk about their chosen or found family. This can be a whole chosen family all on its own, or chosen family can add to an extended family of origin. A chosen family can include people you have met along the way, who have been supportive, accepting, nurturing, and loving. It can be life-long friends who just 'get it', people who are 100% supportive and always have your back. Pets can be members of chosen families, as well as great additions to any kind of family. It can also include those who you find love, hope, and reassurance in - not even necessarily in direct contact. For example, it could be a celebrity or fictional character who inspires you, or celebrates themselves in such a way that it makes it easier for you to celebrate those parts that others (wrongfully) rejected or criticised. Maybe they just give you the courage to live a more authentic you*.
...there are many reasons why someone's family of origin can be unwelcoming, unsafe, or just not possible to spend the holidays with.
It could be people you've met in your life only briefly, but for some reason, they made you feel a little more included, accepted, or seen. It could be a teacher you had years ago who really believed in you and made you believe in yourself too. It could be a health professional who heard and validated your pain and tried their best to help you.
They can be people you think are 'like a sister to me' or like the 'mother I never had'. Some people tell their chosen family these things, and there is an openness about how that relationship is viewed by those who are a part of it. For others, it can be something they keep to themselves, not because of shame or secrecy, but because's it's private and not really anyone else's business. Most will be a complex mix of all of the above - some good friends, influential supportive people from the past, a few fictional characters here and there who inspired you or you really related to. Some might know that they form a part of your chosen family**, or that your friendship is more like a sibling bond, and others may not realise just how significant they have been to your life.
All types of chosen family can be equally important - such as needing a close friend to talk to after a bad day, or having a fictional character that is dependable, so that no matter how crappy life gets, you can re-watch that show/film, or re-read that book and know exactly what they are going to do. It can be comforting to find a predictable and repeatable relationship, one that maybe only occurs in a single episode, especially for those who experienced abuse or trauma with their family of origin where unpredictability was frightening.
...invest your time and energy with people who choose to love and support you and are happy to have found you too.
So don't feel guilty about a 'guilty pleasure' if it's rewatching that episode for the millionth time, the stash of posters you have for your favourite celebrity, or just how tatty that book is because you've been reading it for over a decade. If they make you feel better and they take up space in your life and your mind as being like family, and especially if you have vacancies in those family roles, then take joy and comfort where you find it. And for those real-life relationships, whether that's friends or supportive folks you know, rather than feeling sad or bad about not spending time with family who don't support you, invest your time and energy with people who choose to love and support you and are happy to have found you too.
If the holiday season might be difficult or triggering for you, particularly around feeling a lack of familial support, you could try drawing or thinking about what your chosen family tree might look like. It could include any type of relationship like those described in this post - pets, friends, famous people, fictional people, those you only spent a small amount of time with but the experience had a significant (positive) impact on you. You could draw them, write their names, or print out some pictures. Having a visual reminder of how many people care about you, and how many you feel connected to, can be helpful when the days are getting shorter, the nights longer, and the holidays can be tough. If drawing isn't your thing or you're not a visual person, you could try coming up with a story that includes your chosen family to help you remember how many there are for times when it feels like you are alone. It could be a holiday meal where your favourite celebrity is sitting next to your pet cat who is eyeing up your BFF's plate.
If thinking about family (i.e. family of origin or chosen family) feels too upsetting, reach out to your support network (e.g. a therapist, support group, good friend or partner, local organisation etc.). If you have a self-care plan, make sure it is in a place that is easy for you to find and access.
Why queer people need chosen families from Vice
What happens to queer people who don’t have a chosen family? from bitchmedia
How we show up: Reclaiming family, friendship, and community by Mia Birdsong
Families we choose: Lesbians, gays, kinship by Kath Weston
We Are Family: Chosen and Created Families as a Protective Factor Against Racialized Trauma and Anti-LGBTQ Oppression Among African American Sexual and Gender Minority Youth from the Journal of GLBT Family Studies
“I'm Kinda Stuck at Home With Unsupportive Parents Right Now”: LGBTQ Youths' Experiences With COVID-19 and the Importance of Online Support from the Journal of Adolescent Health
Queer Polyfamily Performativity: Family Practices and Adaptive Strategies Among LGBTQ + Polyamorists from the Journal of GLBT Family Studies
* This can be tricky given the changes in writers, directors, and characters in media representations. If a character is made to go through something difficult if could be both cathartic and triggering, and of course, with the trope of killing queer characters, sometimes feeling overly connected to a fictional character can be painful (Destial fans, I feel for you <3). In these situations it can be helpful to make note of the singular episodes that bring you comfort and rewatch them when needed. Fan fiction can also be a great area for cathartic healing - so if you don't like the ending, just rewrite it ;)
** When deciding to tell a person that you consider them to be family, like family, or a part of your chosen family, remember to think about boundaries first to make sure that you are not violating any of your own, or their possible boundaries. This can be particularly important if professional boundaries are a factor.