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Chosen families. All photos by Caroline Catlin.

Growing up as LGBTQ in today’s America often means more dialogue and acceptance than it used to, but we still have a long way to go.

According to a 2018 report by the Human Rights Campaign, only 24 percent of LGBTQ youth feel they can be “definitely be themselves at home.”

Additionally, 78 percent of youth say they are not out to their families because they’ve heard their family members make negative comments about queer and trans folks.

Due to the frequent experiences of discrimination and rejection from their biological families and communities, queer folks are often rejected, disowned, or forced to move out.

In response, many LGBTQ individuals cope by creating their own communities, and defining family in ways that resonate most with them.

Often multiple people who identify as queer will come together, sometimes with a few biological family members, and sometimes with a group of individuals who share their common values.

These self-created communities are called ‘chosen families’

This photo essay takes us into the lives of several queer families and allows us to hear their stories, exactly as they want them to be told.

It’s remarkable to see the strength, courage, and resilience within these communities, and the unbreakable bonds they’ve each built within their chosen families.

Carly and Jordan

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Carly (left) and Jordan are currently expecting their first child.

On growing up queer

I think my lack of any examples of [queerness]... I just didn’t even consider it until I was in the situation. I came out at 19 and even then I was questioning like, what is happening? — Carly

I didn’t really come out until, I think I was 19. So my stepdad calls it my experimental phase when I actually dated guys. — Jordan

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Jordan and Carly with their fur babies, Kava (left) and Jackson (right).

On what makes a family

Your family is like, it’s a soul connection. [It doesn’t] have to be a blood connection or anything. — Carly

When it comes down to it, no matter who they are, if you love this person and you’re spending a lot of time with them, then that kind of makes them a member of your family. — Jordan

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After having a miscarriage in 2018, Jordan is pregnant again and doing well. The couple is excited for their family to grow later this year.

On having a child

My desire to have a child is very much grounded in experiencing the world through their eyes and getting to teach them everything. That’s what I’m most excited about — teaching my child about the world and that desire to be that child’s person. You’re their person. — Carly

We’ve talked about how we’re going to parent, you know, we’ve talked in so much detail. — Jordan

Axton and James

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Partners James (left) and Axton are the center of each other’s chosen families.

On growing up queer

I didn’t know I was queer for a long time. The first time I had a concept of it was at my grandma’s house and a news story came on about a gay wedding in Hawaii. I found out at that time that, one, gay people existed and could get married and, two, couldn’t get married everywhere. — James

I was raised by my parents who were hard Christians, but they told me they would always love me no matter who I chose to love. When I did tell them I fancied a girl in my middle school, I got the back hand from my mom and repressed myself for years. — Axton

On why being queer can be difficult

I think compared to a lot of my queer peers I lucked out in that I still get to have a working relationship with my parents. I think the hardest part about being queer is holding onto the advancements that other queer people sacrificed for and holding the door for other queer people. — James

I think the hardest part about being queer today is misinformation and ignorance. There’s so much information in the medical field especially that is so incredibly inaccurate, it made me think transitioning was unhealthy and impossible… one gender therapist told me my vagina was sure to fall out if I used testosterone. A doctor told me my insides would fall out. — Axton

On what makes a family

My chosen family is my partner Axton and all of our animals and the good people who come into our lives. It is uniquely ours. And it can change its shape to fit whatever happens, we always have room to grow and improve.

Family is built with love, trust and support. It’s built over time. Nurturing a family is perhaps the hardest, most rewarding work anyone can do. Family is who you would fight for and who you would go to for support. Family is love, not blood. — James

Even though some [chosen family members] don’t fully understand being another gender or loving the same gender, we respect each other and want only the best each other. — Axton

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James and Axton also consider their animals, like Homie the Pomeranian, part of their chosen family.

On the good parts of being queer

The greatest thing about [being queer] is the overwhelming sense of community that I can feel with any other queer person. Being able to be myself and getting to find out who that is for me, not for other people. — James

Since learning to love who I am, I’m confident in so much that I do. I feel happy that I’m basically a guy who has the past and understanding of most females. I still wear a purse, I still carry a key in my hands on the way to the car. I’m the best of both binaries, and I love myself for choosing myself. — Axton

Kate and Baby Hank

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Kate’s chosen family is a mix of biological relatives and friends.

On growing up queer

I was very angry when I was first coming out like the first few years of identifying as lesbian, as I did at the time. I always had a guard up, always felt like I had to stand up for myself and was constantly just waiting to argue with someone.

I feel like people probably nowadays feel less like this, and [it doesn’t have] to be black and white. You don’t need to have a certain set rules on how you feel, and how you look, and how you are supposed to live, because that’s not realistic at all and that’s not how it is anymore.

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Kate with her baby, Hank.

On her chosen family

I am a single mom to a lovely little being named Hank. My family pretty much just consists of women. My aunt, my mom, my grandma on my mom’s side are the biggest parts of my family. My best friend is a big part of my family. Her mom and dad are a big part of my family.

On what makes a family

[Family are] people who you can count on to be there for you when you need them. They’re there to make you a better person and you’re there to help each other grow. Even if things are tough, if you don’t always get along, you’re there for each other in that sense, always. That’s what family means to me.

Steph and Libby

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Libby (left) and Steph have been dating a little over two years.

On growing up queer

I spent a lot of time with my mom’s extended family. She had seven siblings, and many live in the same town as her parents. I remember everyone doing their part to support one another.

I’m very proud to have seen and developed such a deep admiration for intergenerational love and family. I really didn’t have any models or messages that would allow family outside of a heteronormative, intergenerational one. — Steph

On the good parts of being queer

The most beautiful part [of being queer] is having a connection to all queer folks, and understanding that we have a shared responsibility to care and support for one another. — Steph

On the difficult parts of being queer

The hardest part of being queer is the lack of security and safety for many members of the big, gorgeous, queer family on this earth. — Steph

On what makes a family

The willingness to be present in all of each other’s successes, struggles, pain, and happiness are what make a family to me. — Steph

The Guddat family

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The Guddat family is a blend of biological (mom with three daughters), friends, and partners. Responses below are from various people in the family.

On what makes a family

So for me, my family is very broken, coming out as gay, being disowned by my mom and dad. To me family has always been somebody that’s unconditionally loved. Somebody who loves me whether I agree with their ideals, their beliefs, you know, their views on life.

On growing up queer

Even though I think we were raised in a different way, we have this kind of value that has transcended over time that you don’t get to pick your family, but you do get to keep and pick the people that are in your life.

Growing up I think we had the nuclear version of the family. Then we kind of developed our own ideals and we went off on our own and kind of experienced different things. We all grew in different ways. I think my idea of what a family has expanded and definitely includes friends now.

Their advice for queer youth

I think I would say [to young queer folks] don’t give up on the people that you love.

While you continue to put people into your life that accept you and love you and continue to look for your tribe of people, always allow the opportunity for someone to turn around and show love, because people do change.

I think that you hear this a lot, it’s something that you don’t believe at first, but it does get better. It absolutely does. Surrounding yourself with people who truly love you, is the best thing. It was the saving moment for me.

Acceptance is out there

One thing that holds true across the board for LGBTQ folks is that even if it doesn’t feel like it currently, there is an entire community of people that care about you, understand you, and will accept you.

The model of the nuclear family — one mom, one dad, two kids — is shifting. Despite a tumultuous political climate, there are many parts of the world that continue to become more loving, safe, and accepting every day.

Caroline Catlin is an artist, activist, and mental health worker. She enjoys cats, sour candy, and empathy. You can find her on her website.