Chosen Families: Reflecting on Radical Love within the Queer Community

by Alex Welch, Emerging Member Manager

If I were able, I would not choose most of my family. 

I grew up in an emotionally abusive and neglectful household where I did not feel safe or loved in the way every child needs. Intergenerational trauma has spread emotional loneliness, substance use, and mental illness like wildfire through my family. 

Queerness provided extra fuel to the emotional loneliness I felt. I came out to my mom at 16. “Okay?” she asked, dismissively, as if it didn’t really matter, seemingly blind to the courage and strength I had mustered to even share that with her. “Go do the dishes.”

While comical at first, I have since understood it as another example of the emotionally detached way my parents responded, of how my emotional needs had always been disregarded and diminished. I was one of the lucky queer teens whose parents didn’t disown and kick them out of the house (at least 28 percent of LGBTQ youth are unhoused), but that does not negate the fact that support was lacking. 

The divide between my family has widened, as experience and values have reduced the common ground we share. My family does not celebrate my queerness; it is yet another thing we don’t have in common—yet another significant part of who I am that is not seen, understood, or emotionally supported. After a lot of therapy, distance, and boundary setting, I now have emotionally estranged, superficial relationships with everyone but my older sister. 

Alex Welch, far left.

Chosen Families

Long before shows like Pose, queer people have been finding chosen families in the absence of biological/legal families. The It Gets Better Project defines a chosen family as “a group of people who are not necessarily biologically or legally related, but who play significant roles in each others’ lives, providing unconditional and mutual love and support.” When every system and cultural norm is working against you, your chosen family offers a place of safety and support. Their mere existence is revolutionary. Chosen families have helped queer people survive and experience radical love and joy at a time when their rights, and in some cases their very lives, are threatened.

Every family looks different, especially if you get to choose who is in it. There may be chosen mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, or maybe just a large group of siblings. In my experience, a chosen family is one that knows and loves you deeply, encourages and supports you to grow into your best self, and holds you lovingly accountable when you make mistakes. 

For those of you who have experienced what Recovery Cafés are all about, that will likely sound pretty familiar!

Recovery Cafés can be the birthplace of chosen families

People in recovery have often burned bridges with their biological families. While some are able to reconnect and rebuild those relationships, that is not always possible or in the best interest of their recovery. Most of us in recovery, especially those estranged from biological families, will need the love and support that a chosen family can provide.  

A Recovery Café is a healing community—a place for all people who have suffered trauma and exclusion. A Café can also be the birthplace of chosen families. Cafés already serve many of the functions that chosen families do. We just don’t call them that. The use of the word family, for many, legitimizes the deep bonds with individuals we choose to share our lives with. Maybe the family designation helps us remember who we can lean on in times of struggle and celebration. 

Embracing chosen families means making a space that is more inclusive to queer people. Radical love includes all of those left out of our larger culture—and that includes queer people. When we see that our chosen families are celebrated in a space, that space becomes a little bit safer for us. We don’t have to define chosen families; we just get to share our love for them. Perhaps you could have an event to celebrate chosen families in your community, or hang pictures on the wall of all the chosen families continuously being built in your space.

My Chosen Families

June 1, 2023 marked my third year living in Seattle. I didn’t know if I’d ever find my chosen family. That all changed when I was hired to work for the Recovery Café Network. This work gave me the sense of community I needed to find my chosen family. I’m lucky enough to have a few of them. Without their support, my recovery journey would not have come as far as it has.

My chosen families have helped cool the embers of the deep traumas that kept me from being known and loved. With their support, I continue growing into the person I’ve always been but never had the chance to be. 

Alex Welch serves as an Emerging Member Manager for the Recovery Café Network. Before joining the team in November 2021, they earned their Master of Public Health in Health Policy and Law from Boston University’s School of Public Health. Alex has worked in community engagement, policy, and program implementation settings.