The importance of found families for LGBTQ youth, especially in a crisis

the voice and vision of a new generation

The importance of found families for LGBTQ youth, especially in a crisis

April 9, 2020

I grew up with a lot of 'family members' who are not related to me. My parents’ closest friends were my 'uncles' and 'aunts.' I called my brother’s godmother, who watched both of us when our parents were at work, Mama Angela. I told a story about my Uncle Crash, and my friends asked if he was my dad’s brother or my mom’s. I hesitated. My dad had been calling Crash “brother” my whole life, but I knew they didn’t share parents. When I tried to explain that Crash was my dad’s best friend, my friends interpreted the relationship in their own way. “Oh, so he’s a family friend.” The phrase felt cold to me. My idea of family had been challenged, and I did not know how to respond. I spent years assuming that everyone had this—people who were family in the ways that mattered, even if you weren’t technically related.

As I grew up and started exploring my queerness, I came across a term that described this patchwork community I had grown up in: found family. Also referred to as chosen families, found or chosen families play an important role in the lives of queer people, as 39% of queer adults have faced rejection from their birth families. Found families can fulfill survival functions as well as emotional ones; 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ, and found families can sometimes help find someone a place to stay. For these people, family becomes not a biological happenstance, but a group of supportive people providing unconditional support. 

My high school best friends, my Girl Scouts and sorority sxsters, my college roommate, and the close friends I’ve found in college are my support net when my birth family can’t be. I was homesick for my first few weeks of college, feeling a little rudderless and unimportant. As I found friends who came to mean more than that word can contain, I missed home less. My family was with me at college, so I couldn’t be homesick. Recently, not being with those members of my community reminded me of just how important found family is, especially to LGBTQ youth.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to shelter-in-place and lockdown orders across the country, with no clear end in sight. Many queer young adults are being thrust back into homes that are unaffirming or actively dangerous, and remain away from their found families and networks on college campuses or at school. In these unprecedented and uncertain times, maintaining contact with found family is a crucial act of survival for many young people. 

Coming out to my birth family is an ongoing process, and one that is incredibly scary for me. I couldn’t have done it without my found family’s support, because as accepting as my family has been, that acceptance was never guaranteed. Without a found family who would accept and love me to rely on, my relationship to my birth family would be very different. For people who face rejection from their birth families, the safety of found family becomes even more critical.

Before the outbreak, my found family was always there for me in my daily life: Front row at plays I wrote with flowers and ready to shower me with their compliments, calling me Ubers or buying me food when I need it, and so much more. There are people who want to hear from me and who care about me, beyond the people who are obligated to, and I cannot overstate how important that validation is.

These days, I have video called many of my friends over the past two weeks, and have felt uplifted every time, at least for a little while. Maintaining that contact reminds us that this will end eventually, and even if they can’t necessarily be with us, the love of our found and chosen families overcomes physical separation. Without my chosen family, my life wouldn’t be the same at all. They’re my family because we are all in it for the long haul, and we are there for all the bad parts, not just the easy and fun ones. All the unknowns right now are certainly not easy or fun, but found families are there to support you.

A few months ago, a friend of mine graciously allowed me to host “family dinner” at his apartment. My best friends in college were there, including my roommate, who I refer to as my brother, and a friend of mine that is my “pledge husband.” We regaled each other with stories about work, school, and relationships. We ate enchiladas and laughed about dining hall food. No one objected to me calling it family dinner, because that’s what it was: a group of people who all loved each other sitting down for a delicious meal. As I prepare to move off-campus into my own apartment next year, I am excited to host more family events and continue to cultivate those relationships. Those dinners will mean even more now after going through this difficult time apart.

Love comes in all shapes and forms, and so do families. These arrangements are created by queer people to bring familial love that was otherwise missing into their lives, or to form an even deeper connection with one’s friends. Discussions of queer love so often focus on queer romantic relationships, but we must remember the power of queer platonic and familial love—even if, for now, it is at a distance. These bonds can help heal queer youth and keep them safe.

Pallas Gutierrez is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador and a sophomore at Northwestern University majoring in Theatre with a minor in Gender and Sexuality Studies. Pallas is the co-chair of the Student Theatre Coalition and formely served as an Opinion Editor at The Daily Northwestern. They previously served as a Lead Junior Editor of Amp.

the voice and vision of a new generation