You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.
Just because that refrain is common, doesn’t mean it’s true. It’s not.
Chosen families prove that, actually, it is possible to choose your friends and your family.
Also known as found family, “a chosen family is made up of people who have intentionally chosen to embrace, nurture, love, and support each other regardless of blood or marriage,” says Bahiyyah Maroon, PhD.
Sound broad? That’s because it is.
The concept of chosen family is purposefully e-x-p-a-n-s-i-v-e because it exists to expand the rigid definition of what society typically understands “family” to be. *throws confetti*
Nobody seems to know who coined the phrase “chosen family.”
But Maroon says the concept has existed for a long, long time.
For People of Color, she says, there’s a long history of children finding new “parents” when their biological parents were enslaved or killed.
Our old friend the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “family” the way many would define “nuclear family.” The definition reads that family is “the basic unit in society traditionally consisting of two parents rearing their children.”
True, many would buck against how antiquated this definition is.
Regardless, chosen families are far less prescribed than this.
Some chosen families posit someone in the mother role, someone in the father role, and others in the sibling role.
Maroon, for example, shares that she has a chosen mother, chosen brother, and chosen sister (whom she calls her gift-mother and gift-siblings). “I wanted someone to send flowers to on Mother’s Day and I wanted a brother to exchange that brother-sister bond with,” she says.
“Paris Is Burning” and “Pose” fans will remember seeing similar family roles assumed there.
But some chosen families stray from the nuclear family structure entirely, doing away with roles like mother, father, brother, and nibling.
“To a stranger, my chosen family would probably just look like a crew of friends,” says Ash, 32, of Brooklyn, New York. “After all, we’re all about the same age and have a similar style.”
But they say the bond the crew of 6 shares is more familial than friendly. “I can’t totally describe it,” says Ash. “But if you saw us bicker you would know what I mean.”
Tommy, 39, of Austin, Texas, offers a similar sentiment: “My chosen family features people of a variety of ages, but the older people don’t necessarily function as parents and the younger ones as children.”
Instead, the unit functions as a group equally invested in supporting one another, he says.
Often, chosen families and biological families are seen as existing in an either/or paradigm.
Example #1: You have either a chosen family, or you have a biological family.
Example #2: Someone is either part of your chosen family, or your biological family.
But this framing isn’t adequate.
A chosen family does *not* require the absence of a biological family.
Raquel, 24, of New York City, for example, grew up with a single mom and no siblings.
“Every holiday my mom and I got together with the other single moms and daughters/sons that we’re close to,” says Raquel.
Although she and her mom are blood-related, she still considers her mom to be part of this larger chosen family structure.
Further, having this chosen family doesn’t negate the fact that Raquel and her mother have and are in communication with their biological family.
“My mom’s siblings and cousins all live in Arizona, so we just can’t see them as often, but they’re still family even if we don’t spend Christmas with them,” she says.
The story of queer folks leaving behind — or more commonly, being abandoned by — their biological families and choosing new family structures is as common in real life as it is in the media. (See: “Queer As Folk,” “The L Word,” “Tales of The City,” etc.).
But no, the concept of chosen family isn’t inherently queer.
Need proof chosen family isn’t inherently queer? Just think about a wedding party between straight-heterosexual folks, says mental health professional Kryss Shane, LMSW, author of “The Educator’s Guide to LGBT+ Inclusion.”
“Often bridesmaids or groomsmen aren’t blood-related — they’re people chosen by the marrying pair to support them,” explains Shane.
“The concept of chosen family is inherently non-European and non-heteronormative,” says Maroon. “But there have been all sorts of types of non-blood families throughout history.”
“Chosen family is something that other cultures have offered to the LGBTQ+ community as an option and that the LGBTQ+ community seized in response,” says Maroon.
But, adds Maroon, “refusing to remain in kinship with people who reject us and who are toxic to us isn’t just for queer people.”
“A chosen family offers folks the opportunity to experience abundant love, joy, safety, and belonging,” says Maroon.
For folks who have been rejected by their biological families, these chosen families may be the only opportunity they have to experience these things.
All those good feelings offer major mental health benefits, according to Shane. Feeling wanted and cared for can be incredibly healing for people dealing with mental health concerns, she says.
It can also keep people from feeling intensely isolated and alone during moments of joy and mourning, such as a holiday or family death.
“One of the best ways to think about who your chosen family is, is to think about who you would want to call when you got the worst news of your life,” says Shane. And, to think through who would call you on their worst days.
If you can identify your support system, as well as who you’re a support system for, you can likely identify your chosen family, she says.
“Start by asking yourself, ‘What can I do to better show up for the people in my life who I care about?'” suggests Maroon. Then, show up for those people in those ways.
As she puts it, “Having a chosen family isn’t just about how others take care of you, it’s how you take care of others.”
By giving to your loved ones in these ways, you establish an ethic of care that has the potential to develop into a chosen family kind of care, she says.
If, when you look around at your life, you realize that you don’t (yet!) have people who you care about in those ways, your first step is to find those folks.
How? By putting yourself into positions to meet people who may have similar interests, beliefs, and desires as you.
You might join a lesbian book club, or start a queer Jewish cooking group. Or maybe you’ll volunteer at Habitat for Humanity, or join a wake up club.
Then, show up. Then, keep showing up.
Eventually, hopefully, you’ll form alliances with folks who feel like gifts in your life.
Such was the case for Peter.
“My biological family was killed in a car crash years ago,” says Peter, 31, of Brooklyn, New York. “After that, I joined a synagogue and started going to one of the weekly grieving groups.”
That group is where he met the folks who he now spends every Jewish holiday with. It’s been 15 years.
Proving that it is possible to choose your family, chosen families offer people an additional or alternative realm of connection, love, and support.
While these days the concept is mostly talked about as it relates to queer individuals, someone of any sexuality can have a chosen family.
Gabrielle Kassel is a New York-based sex and wellness writer and CrossFit Level 1 Trainer. She’s become a morning person, tested over 200 vibrators, and eaten, drunk, and brushed with charcoal — all in the name of journalism. In her free time, she can be found reading self-help books and romance novels, bench-pressing, or pole dancing. Follow her on Instagram.