The idea of family comes up often when discussing relationships that inform who we are. Within the LGBTQIA+ communities, families are often chosen.
Researchers Seohyun Kim and Israel Fisseha Feyissa
My blood family didn’t push me out, but my chosen family’s impact on my life goes beyond measure. Namely, supporting my coming out as queer during grad school.
Seeing more queer characters portrayed in film and television has led me to reflect on the camaraderie I’ve built with folks who later became family.
Both pieces depict the early 1970s through the 1990s and are still incredibly relevant today, offering storytelling that reinforces the vitality of chosen families in the survival of LGBTQIA+ persons.
When I moved to New York, I was 20, still keeping my inklings of sexuality to myself, and arrived in the city by Megabus with nothing but two suitcases and a prayer.
I decided to be more of myself and who I’d hoped to be in my new home and leaned into places where I could easily find my joy and meet like-minded people, many of whom later became my chosen family.
Most importantly, these newly toured experiences and relationships:
- Didn’t require me to be an unauthentic version of myself
- Provided mutual vulnerability, safety, and compassion
“Uncle Frank” and “Pose” both provide raw and intricate depictions of young adults doing the same by using their academic and creative gifts to remove themselves from toxic environments.
In both examples, they make shifts that allow them to find their chosen family in New York City and have more room to explore their identities, sexualities, and expressions.
Despite my relationships with my blood relatives, I wasn’t exempt from the clashes and obstacles that often form when you’re seen as an “other.”
Many of us have experience with the values of some being perceived as family-wide, resulting in misaligned responses to differences in things like sexuality, religion, and politics. Often, chosen family fills the void created by being seen as the “disruptive” family member.
Set in South Carolina, “Uncle Frank” is an example of these dynamics. Told through the viewpoint of teenage Beth, played by Sophia Lillis, we see how “othering” a family member doesn’t go unnoticed.
Beth’s Uncle Frank, played by Paul Bettany, moves from their close-knit hometown of Creekville to New York, Beth questions why her uncle is treated differently. These differences are especially palpable regarding the family patriarch and Beth’s grandfather, Daddy Mac, played by Stephen Root.
“I might understand if Uncle Frank was selfish or rude, a snob–but he wasn’t. He was smart, funny, and considerate,” Beth said during one of her internal monologues.
“He was the kind of person I wanted to be, but he was the one Daddy Mac picked on and belittled in front of everybody. Uncle Frank was good at hiding how much it hurt him, but I could see it.”
Daddy Mac’s treatment of Frank has nothing to do with who he is as a person. We quickly determine that it’s because he’s well aware that his son is gay — a fact kept secret from most of his family.
As Beth spends more time with Frank and his people later in her early adulthood, the audience realizes that Beth is more aligned with his understanding of the world than the rest of his extended family. When Beth stumbles upon the truth about her Uncle Frank and his partner of 10 years, Walid, he’s honest with her but asks her to keep the information to herself.
For those of us who belong to marginalized communities, there are repercussions for simply being yourself. When you consider pressure from people outside the community, these are amplified and can include other harmful intersectional biases like:
“Pose” and “Uncle Frank” also traverse other biases like transphobia, homophobia in different cultures, and stigma associated with HIV/AIDS.
These factor into the already prominent risks associated with the visibility of being queer or trans in public, ranging from ostracization from family and community, navigating threats of physical harm, to basic needs being inaccessible.
Data from the FBI shows high percentages of anti-gay hate crimes, and reports from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) show the disproportionate numbers of trans and gender non-conforming folks that are killed each year. The HRC notes that many situations go unreported or misreported and that a majority of the affected are Black or Latinx transwomen.
In some cases, we see the outward expression of sexuality treated as a crime, punishable by imprisonment or death.
This layer of sanctioned discrimination shows up in “Uncle Frank” because we learn that Walid is originally from Saudi Arabia, having fled for safety from persecution connected to his sexuality. Saudi Arabia has a predominantly Muslim population, with Queerness seen as Anti-Islamic in more traditional practices of the religion.
Considering the time frame “Uncle Frank” is set in, these factors are further complicated by the onset of the HIV/AIDs crisis — at the time known as the “gay man’s disease.” Because of the novelty of the virus in the 1980s, many had to deal with both the illness and the harmful stigma that came with it.
In “Pose,” we meet 17-year-old Damon, played by Ryan Jamaal Swain, who goes against his father’s wishes to become a ballet dancer in New York.
When Damon’s parents discover men’s magazines under his bed and that he’s been attending, he’s met with physical violence and pushed out of his home. In “Pose,” Damon sleeps in a park until he agrees to join a home led by the new House Mother, Blanca, played by MJ Rodriguez.
While fictional, Damon’s experience is extremely common for young queer folks.
Almost 30% of LGBTQIA+ youth have experienced houselessness at some point, usually after being booted from home. This demographic often has less access to care and resources, with those numbers increasing for trans and BIPOC youth.
As a Black and queer woman, I recognize that being out and having chosen family in additionto my given family is a form of privilege that not everyone within the LGBTQIA+ community has.
And the truth is that I’d be stuck without the love and support of my chosen family. These folks have seen me through it all — from out-of-state moves and failed relationships to job changes and career pivots.
Many of them are still here — over ten years later — and I’m grateful to have an extended community of warm spirits who have supported me throughout my different seasons.
For many, chosen families are not just a means of emotional support but are necessary for their survival. With the onslaught of proposed and passed legislation rooted in homophobia and transphobia, the support and safety that comes from chosen family are irreplaceable.
In loving memory of the stolen lives of Kelly Loving, Daniel Aston, Derrick Rump, Ashley Paugh, Raymond Green Vance, and the countless others gone too soon. May you rest in power.