Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Families of Choice

"The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other's life. Rarely do members of the same family grow up under the same roof."
Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

This was the quote from the season finale of "Criminal Minds" (yes I watch TV and love this show - I also love popular music - wow look at me defying all those crunchy granola she used to live in Berkeley stereotypes!)  and it got me thinking about the importance of our families of choice and the particular importance of families of choice for the LGBTQ community.

Richard Bach points to something very important in this quote, that many of us find our deepest, most authentic relationships in the families we create - hopefully through marriage - but maybe even more commonly through our friends and those we choose to call family.  I love my family of origin deeply and I know they love me and I also know that we have struggled to understand each other, I have struggled to fit in and it takes time and maturity to transform the parent-child relationship to one of friends and not "people responsible for keeping you alive and raising you."  I know my parents have people in their lives that are like family yet they are not related  - even though I think my parents would never use the "family of choice" language. These are friends they have had for decades, who attended each other's weddings and baby showers and now attend their children's weddings and share pictures of grandchildren. These are the people they can see once a year and pick up just where they left off.

I have an amazing family of choice and I have been blessed to watch this family grow in recent years.  Many of the members of my family of choice are people I went to Georgetown with - the Who crew as we called ourselves - although I was not a member of the family when the name was chosen.  It was at Georgetown and through these friendships that I first learned about family of choice. I have laughed and cried with these people. They are the people I could call in middle of the night because I needed to talk and they picked up the phone. We understood each other and supported each other in ways our families of origin could not. Four of us in this group are queer and we witnessed and assisted our coming out journeys. When we get together even if we have not seen each other for years because jobs, families and miles have kept us apart - we pick up just where we left off. I follow their Facebook updates regularly and wish I could see them more often. 

Families of choice can also be large communities - like the LGBTQ community. Please note that I am not entering into the problematic and troubled waters of whether being LGBTQ is a choice as if it were a choice it would somehow make it ok to discriminate and commit violence against LGBTQ people - I am talking about finding your people.  Most LGBTQ people are not born into LGBTQ families.  So one of the hard things about growing up LGBTQ is that you don't necessarily know where the people who are like you are. 

We have heard the stories over and over again of how people knew early on that they were different, that they didn't fit in.  Many of these people did not even have a name for this difference until they were bullied with the words "fag" or "dyke" or heard others bullied that way. That is why coming out is so important.  It is very different now than even the 1980's and 90's when gay characters are television shows were new, Ellen came out on her show and more celebrities started coming out and giving their name to the LGBTQ movement. The result is that people are coming out earlier in their lives, they are finding support in the LGBTQ community that exists openly and publicly because of the courage of older LGBTQ people to speak up, organize and refuse to live in the closet any longer. People like Harvey Milk, Del Martin, Phyllis Lyon etc,  

The LGBTQ community, like other marginalized communities, has created community services and centers that focus on serving the needs of the community. Marginalized communities often create social and community organizations that provide places for people to gather, to share heritage and history, meet needs that no one else is willing to meet. The LGTBQ community has also done this - there are community centers that offer social activities, support services like coming out groups, medical services, legal advice. LGTBQ people have even formed their own faith communities sometimes within particular religious communities synagogues like Sha'ar Zahav in San Francisco, CA or the Metropolitan Community Church founded by Troy Perry.

In addition to these large communities and resources, LGBTQ people have often formed close friendships and bonds - raising children together, providing support. The AIDS crisis of the 1980's and 90's created many families of choice caring for ill members, some if not many of whom, would not be welcomed home by their families of origins.  For that is one of the unique features of LGBTQ families of choice, while many of us who are queer are blessed with loving accepting families like mine, others have been told to get out, been thrown out, been told not to write, not to call.  In the worst situations these "family" members seek to insert themselves back into lives at the worst of all moments when someone is sick or dying.  In case we think this is a thing of the past let's remember the recent case of Roger Gorley who was arrested for refusing to leave his partner's side. The law is on the side of the family of origin.  There are too many stories of family of origin members banning partners from funerals, going against the wishes of surviving partners, taking money and shared property. We who are LGBTQ have to be exceptionally diligent when it comes to the law. 

My fear as more LGBTQ people seek to get married, seek to be "just like everybody else" that we could lose something as essential as the creation of family of choice.  I am even more concerned that in our quest to placate the fears of straight people, to convince them that really we are just like them, who we will leave behind. What about those who can't pass? What about those whose appearance will make them a target? There is a wonderful scene in the movie "Milk" where Harvey meets with the gay elite in California politics. Harvey was too flamboyant, too "obviously gay" for these men who just wanted to fit in.  They tried to discourage him from running. Much like the way the Human Rights Campaign has only slowly included trans people and recently had to apologize for those that asked people at Supreme Court rallies to put the Trans flag away since that would detract from the marriage equality issue.  

I hope that we who are LGBTQ hold on to our families of choice, that even when marriage equality is achieved (and I have no doubt that it will happen) we recognize that families of choice have much to teach us. That love, respect and joy in one another's lives does not just come from marriage or birth or adoption - it comes from freely entering into bonds of care and concern. We need our families of choice for there will unfortunately always be queer youth who lose their families of origins when they come out.  Currently a high number of homeless youth are LGBTQ. They don't need marriage equality they need us to open our families of choice and take them in.  They need us to show them that being queer is a gift, not a burden, not an affliction. They need help to heal the wounds that come when those who are supposed to love you forever and then don't. They need to learn how to find their own families of choice.

And as Richard Bach reminds us, it is not just LGBTQ folk who need families of choice. We all need to find our people, find the people that "get" us.  

So as we await Supreme Court decisions and celebrate Pride, let's celebrate those people who love and respect us - whether in our families of origin or families of choice. Let's not lose one in favor of the other.

May it be so!