Some of the most rewarding aspects of my life revolve around family. My definition of family includes so much more than a group of people who are genetically related or bound by the legal contract of marriage. I have children in my life who call me Aunt Heather, yet their parents are not my “blood relations,” as we say in the South. I have friends who serve as sisters, brothers, and eccentric aunts. (I’m still waiting to welcome the rich uncle who takes me on dream vacations into my family. I’m sure he’ll materialize soon.) If I limited my understanding of family to the people who share my DNA, I’d probably feel pretty lonely because most of them live really far away. Instead of feeling limited by other people’s understanding of family I’ve developed my own that’s about surrounding myself with people who help lift me up when I’m down. And hopefully I do that for them too.
When a lot of folks who identify as LGBTQ hear the word "family" they think about rejection. It wasn’t that long ago that coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer* meant permanent separation from family. In some places, it still does. TV and movies haven’t always helped the situation by mostly telling stories about LGBTQ people who were unhappy, violent, or sadistic. It seems there’s been an idea that family life – in whatever form that may take – is not accessible to LGBTQ folks. Or that LGBTQ people are not capable of creating or participating in happy, healthy families. I’m not buying that.
I find that my LGBTQ counseling clients often need help to overcome the negative stories they’ve heard about themselves in relation to family life. Some LGBTQ clients fear rejection when coming out to their families, or they’re looking for help in crafting new networks when their families of origin aren't welcoming. Or maybe they long to expand their families through adoption, surrogacy, or fertility, but they’ve internalized messages that this path isn’t for them and don’t have a clue where to start. My heart grows three sizes each day that I’m able to help clients like these find more connection in their relationships and authenticity in their lives.
If you’re struggling with issues of family and identity, try this exercise. Make a list of the people you spend the most time with or those physically closest to you. Now make a list of people who know you best or that you can tell anything to. Is there some overlap? Those folks might be your chosen family. If your lists don’t overlap at all, ask yourself if it’s safe to share more of yourself with the people you spend the most time with. Or if it’s possible to spend more time with those who know you best. Family relationships can be hard, but when we can expand our notion of who fits the family mold, finding support gets a little easier.