The Queer Innovation Of A Family Based On Choice And Necessity

The brutal massacre of 49 of our LGBTQ siblings in June 2016 at Pulse forced our society to openly recognize and discuss queer lives. Many of the victims were outed in the aftermath, and family members struggled to come to terms with a part of their family member’s life they did not know about and/or accept. Some parents and relatives, even in tragedy, refused to lay their deceased relatives to rest. Mainstream society did not understand the significance of Pulse or what was so “special” or “important” about a nightclub. The inability to think beyond traditional understandings of family making and community building rendered the Pulse tragedy as just another footnote in the increasing occurrence of mass shootings in the United States. For those of us  who rely on chosen family for survival and support, Pulse was about much more. QTPoC, particularly Latinx LGBTQ folks, were hit hard by this tragedy. The core of our communities were shaken.

For LGBTQ+ folks, the standard conception of family has always excluded the significance of the social and cultural realities of chosen family. Chosen family is arguably a pillar of LGBTQ communities. Building kinship and family with those we are not related to by any biological and/or legal connection is beyond the scope of our traditional understandings of family. As QTPoC, chosen family is uniquely significant as we navigate the intersections of our racial, ethnic, sexual and gender identities. Kin relations are the foundation of chosen family. While typically family refers to biological relatives, for chosen family it includes friends, neighbors and other non-biologically related loved ones. The connections are built on kinship with intentional demonstrations of love, shared history, material and emotional assistance, and enduring solidarity. Chosen family encompasses a network of social support, intimacy and identity. Providing monetary support, caretaking, and symbolic gesture of love all create and sustain the chosen family. Kin relations are at the center of the activities that sustain a family built on social and cultural connections rather than legal and biological.

The shared history of QTPoC folks has been the foundation of the formation of chosen families. Black and Latinx QTPoC folks are at the heart of the aesthetics and culture, and carved out safe spaces for themselves to exist and care for one another through the HIV epidemic, persistent violence, abandonment, and disenfranchisement. Ball culture emerged in Harlem in the 1970s and 1980s as a response to the rejection of QTPoC people by heterosexual society, and the rejection of Black and Latinx folks by the white QTPoC community. Ball culture, embodies the basic tenets of chosen family. Built and sustained through kinship and social support, ball structure is based on “houses” with house parents and the siblings/children they are responsible for in their house. The house parents not only nurture the talent and help groom winning performers, but also provide love, security and solace in a homophobic and transphobic society. Each individual’s last name reflects the house they belong to as do their names and aesthetic presentations. House provide a space for QTPoC youth to illuminate their racial, ethnic and sexual identities.

On the west coast, Indigenous LGBT folks began carving out a space that reflected the intersections of their identities. GAI (Gay American Indians) was the first organization to provide a space for Indigenous queer folks. Many queer Indigenous folks began moving to the San Francisco Bay Area to be a part of the family building and organizing work of GAI. The goals of GAI reflected the need to address non-native queer folks and non-queer native folks while also being able to exist in a supportive and safe space. GAI cemented a paradigm of building kinship and illuminating the voices of queer Indigenous folks. Among the significant works published by GAI members was a glossary of Berdache and Gay roles among natives. This glossary reflects the immense diversity of experiences and identities among Indigenous folks informed by regional, linguistic and cultural history.

The HIV epidemic emerged as early as the early 1980s. Initially known as the gay disease, it was largely ignored by the general public because of violently homophobic perceptions of QTPoC people. However, by the late 1980s, it became a public health crisis that put conversations about sexuality, cultural norms and the politics of medicine at the forefront of American discourse. Chosen family became a central part of QTPoC survival as the rest of society turned its back. Caretaking, medical decisions, monetary and emotional support, and love were central to chosen families as they fought to survive. Shunned by family members, medical professionals and even others in their own communities, people living with HIV/AIDS found support in others with similar status. Having a chosen family meant greater likeliness of adherence to the drug regimens many people living with HIV/AIDS were on. One’s health and prognosis was positively impacted by whether or not they had a chosen family, whether it was a partner, friends, or other patients.

Much like the houses in ball culture, the community formed around people living with HIV/AIDS provided a solid family unit that nurtured, cared for and provided a safe space for each other. Since the height of the epidemic in the United States, drug therapies and other healthcare options have been created to provide a better quality of life for people living with HIV/AIDS. While the panic and chaos in the beginning of the epidemic has since settled into better understandings of HIV/AIDS and its transmission, the most marginalized remain deeply affected. Black QTPoC folks remain at a higher risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and securing accessible treatment. The ball houses have become a central place of discussion, caretaking and medical decision making for people living with HIV/AIDS. Many house parents and members live with HIV/AIDS, and provide each other with support and guidance navigating the medical and societal realities of their status. Chosen family remains a central part of the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS.

The legacy of ball culture and GAI continues to impact family making for QTPoC. NQAPIA (National Queer Asian and Pacific Islander Alliance) was established to build community in Asian American communities and provide diverse programming serving Asian communities from various cultural and ethnic backgrounds. SONG (Southerners on New Ground) is an anti-racist queer liberation organization based in the south that has spent the last 25 years building a multiracial queer southern family. A part of family making for queer folks in the south has been providing support for undocumented immigrants, bailing out incarcerated Black women and fighting for safer communities for QTPoC. Chosen family is a focal point of our existence and resistance. Existing in a white supremacist heteronormative homophobic world is radical. Family making, community building and providing support are all crucial to existing and thriving. We build political, radical, loving and reliable kin networks of people we are bound to by shared realities.

While there have been many strides made since the emergence of ball culture and the HIV epidemic, conversations about chosen family remain central to LGBTQ+ communities. The last 10 years have been filled with disappointment, organizing, and victories. Marriage equality is a reality in the United States. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell no longer exists, and transgender folks can opening serve in the military. While these legal changes have been touted as progress, they do raise concerns about the centrality of chosen family for QTPoC. Before marriage equality, many states had domestic partnerships, legal recognition of relationships that provided some legal and tax benefits. With the ushering in of marriage equality, domestic partnerships are being done away with and leaving one legal avenue of recognition for specific families. Marriage was never the central tenet of family for QTPoC folks. Non-romantic intimacy, partnership and relationship building as exemplified by ball culture and the networks of people living with HIV/AIDS, has always existed outside of the system.

With the establishment of marriage equality, there has been a rethinking of QTPoC activism and political pursuits. Moving forward, celebrating a more broad and universal conception of family is important for progress. The kinship patterns of QTPoC communities  rooted in a rich history of survival and resistance are at risk. Pursuing formal legal means of recognition that position marriage as one of the highest valued form of intimacy and family undermine the survival of QTPoC communities. Visibility and inclusion as a marginalized community is “often the trickiest of traps”. The ability to exist outside of the dominant heterosexual patriarchal society allowed QTPoC folks to curate a unique and expressive culture that built relationship and families outside of biological and romantic/sexual connections.

Incorporation and assimilation through legal, social and cultural means puts the values of these communities at risk. The families that have been facilitated and built through the generations, are being forced to bend to the will of institutional recognition and conformity. Disenfranchisement and marginalization have historically forced QTPoC folks to approach family making and navigating the economic and political realities of the societies they exist in a radically different way. A reconceptualization of marriage and family, legally and socially, should reflect the dynamic variations in family making and kinship. A household is not always merely just people living under one roof. A non-romantic partnership is no less important or reflective of a family unit. A network of QTPoC kin are no less of a household or family if they don’t live under one roof. Monetary, social and emotional support exist in families and kinships that defy legal language or social norms.


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