Here’s an experiment: Try sending out a message to all of your friends that goes like this:
We are finally set to move this Saturday! Please come and help us – we need all the help we can get.
Now, watch all your friends scatter like mice.
Two friends of mine who are strong LGBTQ and trans activists really did move this weekend, and they really did make a request similar to the one I posted. To be fair, not all of their friends did the scatter dance – in fact, quite a few of us showed up and did some heavy lifting. But “who shows up to help you move” is a good metaphor for identifying your close-knit, go-to community. Think about each of these questions:
If you needed moving help, who would you call?
If your house caught on fire, who would you stay with?
If you had a crisis at 2 o’clock in the morning, who would you call?
If you were arrested and thrown in jail, who would you call? (You can only call one person, so this person REALLY needs to step up.)
Who shows up for you no matter what, even when it’s inconvenient, expensive, uncomfortable, or scary?
For most of us, the answer would most likely be: My family. Because family members step in when our needs are out of the friend zone. (Well, not that kind of friend zone.) Even the most devoted friends have limits – they’ll help you in a crisis, but maybe not at 2 A.M. And that’s when we turn to our families. However, for some of us in the LGBTQ community, friends are the only family we have.
Many of us have great relationships with our families. Today, in 2014, it is far more likely that families will have a more positive and accepting response if their child comes out as LGBTQ. However, schisms are still common among LGBTQ people and their families. Your family may have outright rejected you, or your family environment may feel chilly and hostile. You might have moved away so you could live in a more LGBTQ-friendly environment, and so your family might not be geographically accessible in a crisis. (Having moved from suburban New Jersey to California 20 years ago, I feel the effects of this routinely.) So when we have an urgent need, or when we’re experiencing a crisis, we have to rely on a different kind of social support network – assuming that one is in place.
Back in the early 1990s, anthropologist Kath Weston wrote a book titled Families We Choose, which described the kinship networks lesbian and gay people often form in lieu of biological family ties. Back then, it was much more common for LGBTQ people to be cut off from their families in some way, and friends took the place of family. In fact, the word “family” has become a code word in the LGBTQ community: I think he’s family translates into I suspect he’s gay. And it’s common to see friends in the LGBTQ community stepping up in ways you wouldn’t ordinarily see in straight culture. For example, in the documentary film Gen Silent, Krys Anne, a transgender woman dying of lung cancer, is cared for by members of her local LGBTQ community, some of whom she’d only known for a few weeks – because her biological family had disowned her.
It’s beautiful and romantic to think about the LGBTQ community as a close-knit network that fills all of the needs of biological family. For some people, that is an absolute reality. For others, though, especially for those whose LGBTQ identities are more fringe-y, it’s a less likely reality. Consider these anecdotes (all of which actually happened):
A woman leaves her polyamorous quad relationship and sues the remaining triad for full custody of their child, claiming that polyamorous relationships are sick and the work of the devil. The triad pleads with their local poly community to publicly support them. No one comes forward, and the judge rules that the triad are unfit parents because of their polyamory.
A woman is taken to court by her ex-husband, who is suing for full custody of their son. She is in a BDSM relationship with her new boyfriend, and her husband is claiming that she is an unfit parent. Her BDSM community stays silent, and the woman loses custody.
In both of these cases, the people in question were heavily involved in their respected communities. They had, in many ways, “chosen families” – people they spent holidays and celebrations with, people they turned to in times of need. But when it got hard, these “chosen family” members retreated, probably for self-protection.
Recently, I read an article written by Belinda Campos, who is a researcher at UC Irvine. In this particular article, she wrote about a concept called “familism,” which involves respecting the role of family in one’s life, and prioritizing the family over the self. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you always get along, or that you always agree on everything. It’s more about showing up, physically and emotionally, even if you don’t feel like it. It’s about not making things all about you.
This concept is the cornerstone of Latino culture, which revolves heavily on la familia, and it is also a strong value in Asian cultures, which tend to be highly collectivistic. Based on her research findings, Campos noted that people with higher levels of familism had (1) higher perceived social support, and (2) better psychological health. Moreover, even though familism was more common among Latino and Asian participants, White/European participants with high levels of familism had these same outcomes. Feeling like you’re part of a team, and having people in your life who are willing to take one for the team, so to speak, has social support benefits and psychological health benefits.
As we march through Pride month, I think about this with respect to our collective LGBTQ communities. Do we have a sense of “familism” among us? Are we willing to go to bat for each other, even when it’s hard, scary, inconvenient, and uncomfortable? Or, when the Pride parade is over, and life gets hard, do we scatter like mice?
I will leave you with those questions. And, if you are an LGBTQ person, or if you identify as an ally, how do you contribute to a sense of “familism”?