Managing Family Relationships and ‘Chosen Family’ in the Queer Community
How culture and religion in family can impact queer people
Despite all the progress in LGBTQIA+ rights in the last few decades, queer and gender-nonconforming people are still not fully accepted in many communities. And, for some LGBTQIA+ individuals, this rejection can start at home.
Whether your immediate family or relatives don’t support sexuality or gender identity or believe it is just a ‘phase’, it can be painful and isolating not feeling unsupported by your loved ones. Culture and religion can have a significant influence on how family view gender and sexuality and if you do not conform to these ideals and beliefs you could experience rejection. You may feel as if you need to hide parts of yourself from specific family members or are exhausted from having to constantly educate and defend your identity.
How to manage difficult family dynamics as queer people
It’s important to know, however, that you’re not alone, and you do have options. While you may not be able to control how your family reacts or change their minds, there are several ways you can mitigate your discomfort and protect your mental health when in an unaccepting environment. Whether you live with unsupportive family or see them a few times a year, here are some tips to navigate tough family dynamics.
Acknowledge your feelings: You may have mixed emotions when it comes to your family and that’s okay. Maybe their lack of support makes you sad, frustrated, confused, or angry, or maybe you feel worried or anxious about seeing them, while also wanting to spend time together. You may even be coping with feelings of loss, knowing that your relationships with these family members may look different than they used to. Remind yourself that your feelings are valid, and allow yourself to experience those emotions, rather than fighting them.
Know your worth: Your family members may have their own thoughts and opinions on your gender identity, sexuality, and lifestyle, but ultimately the only opinion that matters is your own. Just because a family member has expressed their disapproval, doesn’t mean they are correct, or that you should be ashamed of who you are. Remind yourself that you are perfect just the way you are, that you have done nothing wrong, and that you are enough.
Identify your allies: It can also be helpful to identify some supportive family members to lean on during family gatherings. If you have a sibling, cousin, or an aunt who is LGBTQIA+ friendly or even identifies as LGBTQIA+ themself, consider reaching out ahead of an event or family gathering to ask for help.
Set boundaries and plan ahead: Though you can’t control how your family is going to behave or act, you likely know some of your potential triggers. Set boundaries around which topics you’ll engage with and plan a few responses ahead of time in case they come up. Also, think about a few coping mechanisms that may help you regain a sense of calm when triggered. Preparing for these triggers ahead of time can save you a lot of unnecessary anxiety and stress.
Prioritise self-care: Dealing with problematic, unaccepting, or dysfunctional family members can be emotionally and physically exhausting, so be sure to treat yourself with kindness and compassion. Take care of both your physical and mental health by maintaining a healthy diet, getting a good night’s sleep, and exercising regularly. Doing so will help you manage the stress of a difficult family, as well as function at your best around them.
Excuse yourself: Oftentimes people think they need to push back against bad behaviour and speak up or just sit there and take it. It’s okay to remove yourself from stressful, triggering, or upsetting situations. You need to look after yourself first and no situation is worth compromising your physical or mental health.
The importance of having a ‘chosen family’
Relationships with one’s parents often look very different for queer folks: queer people are sometimes abandoned, the victims of violence at the hands of their parents, estranged or distanced from their parents. A chosen family consists of people to fulfil the roles of support, teaching, comfort and kinship. Chosen families are meant to pull people together and can be specific, such as having a mother, father, sister, brother, cousin, etc. based on age, personalities or relationships, or they can be more vague. The point of a chosen family is to foster belonging and fill one’s voids experienced in their biological families.
Chosen families are often born out of necessity. Many queer individuals can’t turn to their biological parents or families in all the ways that other people can. This can create the need to build a new, intentional, healthy family. Chosen families often provide each other with financial assistance, somewhere to sleep, a place to vent, a support-system and unconditional love.
Close friends can oftentimes provide a greater sense of familial love and support than our own blood relatives. If you’re visiting family, let your friends know that you may need some extra love and encouragement that day. If you have a big family gathering you’re anxious about, plan something with your ‘chosen family’ afterwards so you have something to look forward to.