Membership Highlights and Reflections

Chosen Family: Fostering Connection Away from Home

A thoughtful reflection from a student member on chosen family.
By Cole Milton

I've always loved the end of the movie Birdcage, during which the characters dance to the unifying chorus, "We are family." These lines resonate in my mind as I reflect on LGBTQ+ history month. The celebrations, the cooler weather and the slowing rhythms of the world around me have me reflecting on family, connection and healing in the LGBTQ+ community.

I choose to see family as an empowering word. As a gay man, I've created my own chosen familyand I've embraced the larger LGBTQ+ community as a sort of family as well. I hold both groups dear and lately I've focused on the ways these chosen families inform my own experience.

As the holiday season approaches, I'm mindful of the people I consider family: both my biological connections and the people outside my family of origin with whom I've intentionally developed close, mutually supportive bonds. For me, my connection to chosen family is just as important as my relationship to biological kin. We may not share blood, but as a gay man, these relationships are equally important to me. 

Many LGBTQ+ people seek comfort and community outside our families of origin. There are many reasons to seek alternative family members such as:

  • a response to rejection (PDF, 523KB).
  • seeking unity with others who "get it."
  • searching for safety and purpose in a world which often feels dangerous and unwelcoming.

For example, I remember when the Pulse Nightclub tragedy occurred. The night of the shooting, my local LGBTQ+ community rallied. Several hundred community members gathered as a family would to light candles, speak to their grief, and stand in solidarity. I remember weeping that night for those who died and fearing for all of us who remained. Through it all, my close connection to my LGBTQ+ family gave me much needed reassurance that we would survive.

For me and for many others, the LGBTQ+ community provides an invisible network which connects people to one another. While I didn't know any of the shooting victims personally, I felt as though I'd lost people close to me. I felt that threads of shared experience, shared oppression and a shared desire for safe spaces to live as our authentic selves linked us together. When an event as impactful and grief-filled as a mass shooting affects our kin, it reverberates within the community.

As psychology students and professionals, it's incumbent on us to recognize the importance of these interconnected networks. The US Census Bureau still defines family as: "a group of two people or more (one of whom is the householder) related by birth, marriage or adoption and residing together." LGBTQ+ family may not fit this definition, but the extended support networks LGBTQ+ people might rely on are equally important for survival and sustained growth.

As helpers and advocates of social justice, it's incumbent on us to hold space for ourselves, our clients and the people we seek to support — to give all involved permission to build their own family units and identify who's important, to help them find meaning in those relationships and to encourage them to seek strength in community when tragedy strikes. It is important to recognize that for many LGBTQ+ people, at our core, we are family. I believe there is a common strand of humanity that links us together with all our grief, pride, pain and love for one another.

As a doctoral student and future psychologist, I've decided to research chosen family networks and their impact on the LGBTQ+ community. It's my hope this will lead to better understanding of the dynamic possibilities for connection in the LGBTQ+ community and greater acceptance of the networks we choose to develop. It's my hope that, despite our differences, we can prepare ourselves to lean into pain that undulates through oppressed communities and find connection and healing in the families we create.

About the Author

Cole Milton (he/him) is a first-year counseling psychology doctoral student at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is interested in affirmative care and how chosen family networks impact mental health and success outcomes for LGBTQ+ populations.