Learn / What Is a Chosen Family?

What Is a Chosen Family?

Kayla Gill
 February 1st, 2024|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

Key Points

  • Found families are actively chosen by their members and built on mutual support.
  • They're especially helpful for LGBTQ+ folks and others facing rejection or adversity.
  • Building a chosen family starts with assessing your existing connections.

Chosen families are often developed as a replacement for, or addition to, biological families. 

These families have a profound impact. This is especially true for LGBTQ+ folks who face rejection and homophobia, and anyone who doesn’t have adequate support from their family of origin. Here’s a look at the benefits of chosen family, plus practical steps you can take to create these vital connections.

Chosen Family vs. Family of Origin: Finding Support Beyond Blood

While families of origin play a significant role in shaping us, they don’t always offer an ideal environment or sufficient support for navigating life’s challenges. Our birth families may not have the emotional maturity to accept our changing realities, and they may not be the best source of support for recovery. In fact, addiction is usually a product of unresolved trauma, which often has its roots in early childhood

This is where the dynamics of chosen families shine.

Defining Found Family 

So what is a chosen family, exactly?

Unlike families that we’re born into, found families are actively chosen by their members and built on shared values, experiences, and understanding. They provide an important refuge from adversity, and a sense of belonging that members may be missing elsewhere in their lives. 

Challenges of Chosen Families 

However, challenges can arise within chosen families:

  • Unclear legal status: Limited legal rights make issues like medical decisions or inheritance more complex for chosen families. But diverse family structures are gaining legal recognition,1 with several U.S. states requiring employers to allow sick leave to care for anyone who is the “equivalent of family.”
  • Social stigma: Societal expectations toward “traditional” families can cause others to judge or misunderstand chosen families.
  • Normal family challenges: No family is perfect—and that includes chosen family. Your found family can have disagreements and rifts just like any other interpersonal relationship. 

Despite these hitches, the strength and support found in chosen families often exceed conventional family structures. And that’s especially helpful when facing challenges around addiction and mental health.

Finding and cultivating a robust support system is crucial to your healing journey, and to life in general. If your relationship with your birth family isn’t entirely supportive, chosen family can be a great way to gain validation and find your place in the world. 

Why Chosen Family Matters in the LGBTQ+ Community

Chosen family is vital to many LGBTQ+ people who, despite significant progress in recent decades, still encounter deeply impactful homophobia and abuse. Even today, 39% of queer people say they’ve been rejected by family2 members or friends—if they tell their families at all. Just 56% say they’ve come out to their mother, and 39% have come out to their father. 

For people who face rejection from their birth families, the safety of found family is even more critical. One study on the meaning of “family” in queer communities3 found that “Biological family is sometimes associated with words that instigate fear, danger, and insecurity, while the concept of chosen family is associated with words like trusting, like-minded, understanding, welcoming, loving, committed, etc.

Found family relationships in the queer community were formalized in the ‘70s by the ballroom scene, where trans people and drag queens live together, take the name of their house, and refer to each other using family terms. 

Found Family and LGBTQ+ Homeless Youth

Chosen family is especially important for young queer people, many of whom face housing instability because of rejection or violence at home. 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ+.4 

One trans woman named Star recalls how her chosen queer family5 helped her survive after leaving home at 19:

In high school I was living with a homophobic uncle who gay bashed someone…He said ‘I bashed them because they didn’t tell me what they were. I need to know… what are you?’ I ran away. Then, after coming out as trans at 18, someone I was staying with gave me two weeks to leave. At 19, I got a one-way train ticket to San Francisco.

Star ended up homeless at age 20 after facing struggles with housing and employment. It was her new queer community that eventually connected her with work and housing.

“I was cast in a queer cabaret—I lived in a shelter and went to rehearsals,” said Star. “When my time was up at the shelter, I was able to get a sublet through my new connections.” 

Even for people who aren’t facing homelessness, chosen family can be a lifeline in a world of otherwise inadequate support. 

Explore LGBTQ+ Treatment Centers

Benefits of Chosen Family

These meaningful connections impact multiple areas of life: 

Emotional Support

Many people are attracted to chosen families because they feel accepted and valued for who they are—an experience they may not have had with their family of origin. When you’re in mental health or addiction recovery, a safe space for vulnerability is essential to your healing progress. 

Reducing Isolation

Loneliness is a part of life. But excessive social isolation can lead to anxiety and depression, or worsen symptoms of existing mental health conditions. Chosen family builds in a social safety net that lets you know you’re not alone through life’s ups and downs.

Healing Developmental Trauma 

Parents are just people with children. They may not be fully equipped to raise their kids to be secure, emotionally mature adults. All of us deal with some degree of developmental trauma.6 Chosen family can provide the nurturing, acceptance and understanding we lacked in childhood, filling in the gaps where our birth families fell short. 

Mutual Aid and Tangible Support

Chosen family can be a reliable source of practical help in times of need. This might take the form of financial assistance, caregiving, or help during an emergency.

Resilience Against Adversity

If you have a history of complex trauma, you may have a heightened stress response.7 That can be further compounded by minority stress related to your sexual orientation or gender identity. If that’s the case, you may feel more empowered to deal with life’s challenges with the unwavering support of found family members in your corner.

Diverse Perspectives

Because chosen families bring together people from various backgrounds, they often offer more diversity in perspectives, experiences, and cultures than biological families.

Improving Relationships With Your Family of Origin

Breaking cycles of generational trauma8 is extremely difficult to do on your own. If your goal is to heal your relationship with your birth family, it can be easier to do so with the support of your found family. 

Coming out to my birth family is an ongoing process, and one that is incredibly scary for me. I couldn’t have done it without my found family’s support, because as accepting as my family has been, that acceptance was never guaranteed,” says GLAAD contributor Pallas Gutierrez. “Without a found family who would accept and love me9 to rely on, my relationship to my birth family would be very different.

Your chosen family should give you the freedom to show up in the world as your true self: someone with valid thoughts, emotions, and the right to exist, just like everyone else. 

If you don’t have a chosen family, how do you go about finding one? 

How to Find Your Chosen Family

Daniel Blevins, founder of the group Stand In Pride, says to build a chosen family,10 start by assessing connections you already have: 

Take stock of the people who are around you, people who make you feel safe. Who checks on you? Who’s concerned about your well-being? Who’s making sure that you’re OK? Just having that connection with someone who instinctively knows when you’re not OK, I think that’s a good indicator that you’re more than just friends.

LGBTQ+ rights organization Family Equality11 also suggests asking yourself these questions: 

  • How do you define family?
  • What do you see when you picture your chosen family?
  • What family roles are important to you?
  • Do you need help? If so, how?

Then, write down 1-2 friends you’d like to strengthen your relationship with. Think of how you can approach your friendship with these people more intentionally. When you’re ready, expand that list to 5-10 people. 

Connect Online

Several online communities exist to connect queer people with supportive community:

  • Stand in Pride has both international and local community chapters.
  • Free Mom Hugs holds local events throughout the U.S. and Canada.
  • Findhelp.org lets you enter your zip code to find help with logistical needs that a family member might normally help with. 

Remember to choose your family well! These should be people you feel comfortable with, feel like you can be yourself around, trust, and who truly have your best interests at heart. 

Tip: Good relationships are reciprocal. An even flow of giving and receiving, talking and listening, is a sign of a healthy friendship. If you constantly feel drained after hanging out with someone, or have to explain to them how to be a decent friend, take these into account as potential red flags. 

Find Other Support in Addition to Your Chosen Family

If you’re looking to kickstart your healing journey and make healthy connections in the process, rehab can be a great launchpad. Community is a key component of most treatment programs, with rehab peers, group therapy, support groups, and existing social connections all playing a part in your healing. 

Browse LGBTQ+ friendly rehabs to find a program that meets your needs and reach out to admissions staff directly.  

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