In queer culture and media, there is a lot of emphasis on one’s “found family” or “chosen family”–families composed of people who are not related by blood. This is because a lot of LGBTQ people face rejection from their family of origin, and so if they want a supportive family they need to build their own from the ground up. Found families are not an LGBTQ-exclusive idea, but sources say that it originated in LGBTQ communities, and the associations continue to be very strong. In fictional media, found families are everywhere–we like our ensemble casts!–but queer media tends to go a step further, and hold it as a central theme.
I am fortunate enough that I have never been in want of a chosen family. I mean, I did, in the literal sense, choose my husband to be part of my family, but that doesn’t really fit the theme of a “chosen family”, which is more commonly understood as a group of close friends. So for me, found families are not real. They are a trope that I see in fiction that does not correspond to anything in my life. It’s kind of like living Los Angeles, where it never snows, and being surrounded by cultural depictions of winter as a snowy season. I’m not complaining, I’m just remarking on how it puts my own experiences in context.
To be honest, some depictions of found family in LGBTQ media seem like bad things I would never want. One movie that continues to stick in my mind, despite seeing it almost a decade ago, was Broken Hearts: A Romantic Comedy. Released in 2000, it’s a slice of life story with a realistic depiction of a group of gay friends, and their ordinary lives. It’s supposed to be a heartwarming story about the importance of a found family, but I saw a different side to it. I saw a bunch of friends who were endlessly mean to each other. Eventually, one friend gets fed up and leaves, only to become a heroin addict. The moral of the story is that you have to put up with abuse from your found family because face it: you’re gay, you have no other prospects in life.
Another example I saw more recently was Boys in the Band, a Netflix movie based on a play from 1968 (!). Again, there is a found family, and again, they are huge jerks to one another. Is this how gay men in 1968 lived? But overall, I found this movie more enjoyable, because the depiction of abuse feels much more deliberate, and it seems to function as a critique of that abuse.
But just because some fictional depictions of found family are abusive, does not mean that there is anything wrong with found families in general. Even in fiction, abusive found families are more the exception than the rule. It’s just something I tend to dwell on, as someone with no experiences with real-world found families. It’s just striking to me how found families can sometimes echo the problems with families of origin.
The thing about families of origin, is they’re basically a bunch of random people forced together on the flimsy pretext that they are “related” by blood. This pretext provides no guarantee that family members will accept each other for who they are, especially for LGBTQ folks. The concept of a found family is helpful because it demonstrates that you can leave. If your family is abusive, know that it is disposable, and replaceable. Are found families also disposable and replaceable? If so, that’s not reflected in fiction. But to be fair, fiction tends to avoid stories of relationship breakdown in general.
Anyway, with these thoughts in mind, I’m very grateful for my relationship with my family, which I understand to be a privilege that not everyone has. I live in a different city from the rest of my family and I am not that close to them. But they have always and continue to be a source of support in my life. In the age of the pandemic, I have paradoxically become closer, as we place more emphasis on relationships that cross large distances. My mother started running remote Zumba classes, and my brother started streaming on Twitch. We see each other and chat all the time now. When we grow up, we don’t really have a basis for comparison to understand whether we have a good family or not. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to understand and appreciate how good I have it.