They say blood is thicker than water, but for those in the queer community, the definition of family stretches far beyond something you're born into. When you're struggling to find acceptance or feel a sense of belonging, creating a support system or “family” of your own — one where you can be intentional about who you choose to be a part of it — is where real self-discovery and healing can begin.
This holds true for Richie Shazam, the non-binary creative multi-hyphenate who shared her story for H&M’s My Chosen Family campaign. For her, chosen family has played a pivotal role in helping her come into her own, acting as her ride-or-die support system as she faced a lack of acceptance, navigated discovering her true identity, and forged a career path that spans multiple industries.
"Chosen family is the people you choose, and the people that choose you," she explains. "They're seeing your rawness and vulnerability, and they're working to help give you space to exist.”
It's a special closeness, a deep loyalty, and a mutual understanding of the queer experience that sets these relationships apart from close friends and romantic partners. For decades, the term "chosen family" has been used to define bonds within the queer community, which was initially considered a lifeline. "Back in the '80s and '90s — during the historical, groundbreaking formation of queer identity — chosen family was really about survival for people that didn't have [blood] families that accepted them," says Shazam. "They found the people that could be their surrogate families and take care of them."
These relationships are just as important in 2022, as LGBTQ+ folks navigate oppressive and restrictive legislation and policies, along with the hate crimes that plague the community. In a country where “Don't Say Gay” — the bill that restricts some public schools from teaching students about sexual orientation and gender identity — exists, parents who support their trans children are threatened with investigations, and murders of transgender people, particularly those of marginalized communities, are at an all-time high, these strong support systems are what lift one another up to continue pushing forward.
For Shazam, it begins with an instinctual bond between like-minded people. Growing up in New York City, a place with thriving queer and creative communities, she found a sense of belonging outside of her unsupportive household by mingling in the spaces she’d find people with similar experiences and interests. When her family’s opposition forced her to find support elsewhere, she was able to make those important connections to others, eventually meeting her "best-friend-slash-soul-sister" Briana Andalore and her partner Ben Draghi, who star alongside her in this campaign.
"I feel very fortunate that we found each other and built on our relationships," she says. "As humans, we're always evolving and changing. Identity isn't fixed; it's constantly transforming, so finding people who are there for all of these ebbs and flows and are down to be on that journey with you and see you for who you are is so powerful. They taught me to own the authentic individual I've always been and really feel it from within."
Shazam's family comprises equally accomplished creatives who support one another, both personally and professionally (she's collaborated with Draghi on video projects, and she often calls on Andalore to style her, including for this campaign). And she can count on them to be there for every milestone in her career, whether that's modeling, photography, or her upcoming foray into film.
While she credits them for teaching her invaluable lessons of self-discovery and self-acceptance, they've also helped her traverse her darkest moments — like being rejected by her religious Guyanese family. After she left home, they were the ones to house her, give her the clothes off their backs, and feed her when she couldn't feed herself — "You know, very real, raw things that I couldn't ask my [blood] family for because that door had been closed. They picked me up in my most vulnerable state.”
Shazam knows she's been fortunate in finding her people, which is why she urges queer, trans, and non-binary folks to take advantage of social media to connect with and cultivate families of their own. "For younger people coming up, it's a lot easier to find your communities in your town or city or elsewhere thanks to technology," she says. "There are so many powerful queer spaces and queer sanctuaries in cities across America and around the world that one can find — it's a lot more accessible than it once was.”
Also more accessible is the help necessary to navigate the many hardships they may face, thanks to organizations like The Trevor Project. For the third year, H&M is helping fund its crisis intervention and suicide prevention resources and services to provide year-round support to LGBTQ+ teens and young adults. From June 15 through June 17, they’ll be matching all donations made on Trevor Project’s website up to $150,000.
But it's important to remember that family is not one-size-fits-all, Shazam says, and only you can define what it means to you. Chosen family should include the people you can both laugh and cry with, who will lift you up no matter what, and, most of all, help you step into your truest self: "They should embrace all those beautiful facets of yourself that you may be scared to project onto the world, and teach you not to be scared to take up space and speak from your chest and your heart," says Shazam. "That's been a common thread amongst my family — and I strive to teach others the same thing."
To hear more stories of chosen families from around the world, check out H&M’s global My Chosen Family campaign here.