Every December, my chosen family and I hold 'Queer Family Christmas' a week before the 25th. It is a way for us to celebrate our chosen family before we return, sometimes begrudgingly, to our biological families for the festive period. Every year we are keenly aware that our party is the last time some of our trans friends will hear their chosen name and pronouns for several weeks.
A chosen family is, as the name suggests, a family that someone chooses for themselves. It blurs the lines between friends, siblings and parents. For trans people, relationships with biological families can often be strained or marked by transphobia. Chosen families can step in as replacement care networks that provide emotional and community support when biological family ties break down.
My own chosen family has been invaluable in times of hardship. When I had top surgery, friends came to my house every day to make me food, help me with laundry and reapply my bandages. One of my closest friends came to visit regularly to wash my hair, gently avoiding getting water on my chest while rinsing out shampoo. The photo she took of me smiling in the bathtub is, to this day, one of my most precious possessions.
So many other young trans people have similar care networks to rely on in times of crisis. Tom*, a 22-year-old trans man from Brighton, told me that when he came out to his parents, things didn’t go well. "They said I’d always be their daughter," he tells me. "It was a really horrible time, I felt completely rejected." Tom ended up sleeping on a friend’s sofa for several months while estranged from his parents. "I don’t know what I would have done without my friends, they were really there for me when my family wasn’t."
For young trans people like Tom, it can feel like the traditional family unit isn’t able to support them. Tom tells me: "My parents felt like I owed them womanhood and I just couldn’t keep living like that. I know if I had tried to live as a woman for them, I wouldn’t have survived."
The traditional family unit, where parents are the sole caretakers of their children, cannot always support young trans people. If a young person comes out as trans to their parents and is rejected, then their sources of emotional, financial and physical safety are also endangered.
My parents felt like I owed them womanhood and I just couldn't keep living like that. I know if I had tried to live as a woman for them I wouldn't have survived.
Freddie, a 24-year-old non-binary person from London, tells me that "traditional families don’t allow space for transness. When somebody in a family unit comes out as trans, it creates a fracture." They continue: "If that model didn't exist or existed differently, or the way that we thought about family was different, there would be a lot less pain for trans people."
When rejection happens, chosen families can be a powerful alternative to the traditional family model and older trans people can take on quasi-parental roles. "Often," says Freddie, "the older members of the community will rally other members of the community around them, to try and make sure that person is safe. We all have a shared understanding that rejection from your biological family can be fatal."
Making sure a young trans person is safe can mean ensuring they have somewhere to sleep, cooking them a hot meal or simply being a stable presence in their life. It can also mean signposting them to professional advocacy services which can support trans people accessing healthcare and long-term housing.
Dr Jack Doyle, a trans advocacy worker with MindOut Brighton and Hove, explains how important chosen families are for young trans people. "It’s a survival thing and I see this with pretty much all of the young trans people I work with," he tells me. "Often we are forced into situations where we need some of the older LGBTQ people to care for us and they do so with varying degrees of success."
I ask Dr Doyle if he has advice for young trans people who have been rejected by their biological family. "Reach out to local trans groups and, importantly, trans people you have similar interests and hobbies with," he says. "Often when you’re coming out and facing rejection, you can be really open to people who tell you what your experience should look like. Learning about transness involves learning about a variety of experiences."
While chosen families are important for building a community and a sense of intergenerational belonging, ideally young trans people should be able to do this with the support of their biological parents rather than as a way to survive.
Dr Doyle tells me that, for supportive parents, the most important thing is to "acknowledge that your family now has the potential to include a community that you may not be part of." He continues: "If you are supportive as your child gets older, some of the important relationships in their lives are not necessarily going to include you. And that's okay. That's not a loss, that's an addition."
Having a chosen family outside of a biological family, even if that biological family is supportive, can be essential for the wellbeing of young trans people. Freddie describes the joy of finding a chosen family outside of traditional models: "There’s such a fierce love when you’ve mutually decided to be each other’s family."
I ask if they have any advice for young trans people rejected by their family. They pause for a second, then tell me: "There are people out there who you haven’t met yet, who love you so deeply. Maybe you haven’t found your people yet, but they will be there. They are waiting for you, you’ve just got to make it until you find them."
*Name changed at the request of the interviewee
If you are a young person and you don’t identify with the gender you were given at birth, visit trans youth charity Gendered Intelligence as they can help. Their website has resources for therapists and support for individuals and families.