February 18, 2021
This February 22, 2021 is Chosen Family Day, a national observance of the significant relationships among those in the LGBTQ+ community.1, 2 Families formed by choice, and with intention, play a vital role in the lives of many LGBTQ+ people, where close relationships provide care, affirmation and a sense of belonging.
Research shows that marginalization due to one’s sexual orientation or gender identity has been linked to higher rates of family rejection, mental health challenges, substance abuse and exposure to violence among LGBTQ+, compared with their heterosexual and/or cisgender counterparts.3 These vulnerabilities are further amplified for those with intersectional identities, such as one’s race, class, religion or dis/abilities. Chosen families, friendships and positive community connections are therefore essential, as social connectedness is a key factor in well-being and resilience.4
Chosen families face more barriers yet serve many of the same functions of biological families
Fondation Émergence, a non-profit organization in Quebec that supports and serves the LGBTQ+ community through education and awareness-building, champions the importance of chosen family.5 Julien Rougerie, Program Manager with the organization, asserts that the roles within chosen and biological families are often identical: providing love, support, care and connections.
The difference for family who are not blood-related, however, is that their roles are often impeded by more barriers, such as the lack of formal recognition of such ties as valid or “legitimate.” Research has shown, for example, that LGBTQ+ seniors in long-term care homes are sometimes not able to get access or certain permissions for their loved ones when protocols and regulations are not inclusive to those who do not fall under “traditional” conceptualizations of a family member. Moreover, the fear of disclosing one’s sexual orientation can sometimes prevent an individual from identifying their partner or spouse. When institutions, such as health care or long-term care systems, do not acknowledge these diverse family formations, they block pathways of necessary care and connection.
One study found that, apart from their partner, 59% of lesbian, gay and bisexual adults aged 50 and over indicated that friends are the first people they contact in emergencies, whereas only 9% say that they contact a “family member.”6 Rougerie notes that LGBTQ+ older adults commonly share experiences of estrangement or distance from their biological families, as they grew up in sociocultural and political contexts in which there existed more stigma and sanctions around queerness. Reliance and interdependence with chosen family therefore take on additional significance among LGBTQ+ older adults, whose chosen family often become their caregivers in later life.
Chosen family and well-being are interconnected
In preparing for Chosen Family Day, the Vanier Institute asked people who identify as LGBTQ+ to share what these connections mean to them. Many of the responses and reflections highlighted themes of solace, security and strength:
“Chosen family is moving forward in my life. It’s feeling like I have agency in the experience of fraternity, trust and companionship. It’s building networks that are strong, like the points and spirals on a spider web.”
“To me, chosen family is the community of support with which you surround yourself. It’s the relationships you hold closest – whatever their nature is – and where you feel unquestionably at home.”
“Chosen family is wholehearted, wholesome, safe, strength, shared resources, shared emotions, uplifting habits, community, shared creation (such as through food), communion and ritual.”
“For me, chosen family is a group of people that you can turn to when you face hardships or have something to celebrate, and they can be there for you without judgement, especially when it comes to queer aspects of life such as dating or gender identity. It’s not really about seeing each other all the time or even being best friends, it’s knowing that you can confide and find comfort in someone and be assured that they love you AND your queerness, not despite it.”
“Chosen family mean there’s always an extra chair, and it’s for you.”
“Chosen family to me is reclaiming something that you didn’t have before.”
“Having a chosen family is an extension of self-love. The active choice to surround myself with people who love and support me is the most significant way that I can appreciate and value myself.”
“Chosen family is like a big family gathering but without uncomfortable chairs, heavy air (heavy with secrets) and weird unspoken rules about when to speak. Instead, we are talking about a web of people who bob in and out of my life. I look to them and they look out for me. It’s not all smooth sailing – they teach me hard lessons (like how to avoid jealousy and how to deal with grief). In the light moments and in the rough ones, I’m so grateful for my chosen family.”
“Chosen family is a place without judgement. It’s where you feel safe and true to yourself. It’s a place ‘where you don’t have to shrink yourself, to pretend or to perform.’”7
“Chosen family are those who help you sustain an environment of peace where you can show up as your authentic self.”
“To me a chosen family is one connected above all by trust and a kind of loyalty that is easy because it recognizes and anticipates change and growth.”
Special thanks to all those who took the time to share.
Responses have been edited for punctuation.
Gaby Novoa, Families in Canada Knowledge Hub, Vanier Institute of the Family
- Friends of Ruby – an organization focused on supporting the progressive well-being of LGBTQI2S youth through social services and housing – launched Chosen Family Day in February 2020. Link: https://www.friendsofruby.ca/.
- Nathan Battams, “In Conversation: Lucy Gallo on Chosen Family Day and LGBTQI2S Youth,” The Vanier Institute of the Family (February 2020).
- Jonathan Garcia et al., “Social Isolation and Connectedness as Determinants of Well-Being: Global Evidence Mapping Focused on LGBTQ Youth,” Global Public Health (October 2019). Link: https://bit.ly/3p8BCMg.
- Fondation Émergence. Link: https://bit.ly/3aeMS5F.
- Fondation Émergence, “Ensuring the Good Treatment of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Older Adults” (2018). Link: https://bit.ly/3jKQsaQ.
- The quoted words are lyrics from the song “Family” by Blood Orange.