We hear the phrase “chosen family” thrown out a lot in the queer community. For photographer Justin J. Wee, it took him a while to find his people after relocating to New York from Sydney, Australia. But once he did, he wanted to show just how much he loved and appreciated those who might not be blood relatives, but are family just the same.
This November, he hosted a Friendsgiving celebration with his chosen fam, where he cooked a cozy, soul-warming meal – and then took beautiful shots that illustrate just how much he loves everyone who was invited to have a seat at the table.
INTO: What does “chosen family” mean to you?
Justin J. Wee: Chosen family is the well I’ve journeyed to day after day in search of sustenance, strength, and support. It’s the family that has always folded understanding into their love of me, never once saying that they’d love me, but would not seek to understand me. Chosen family is the reason that 17 year old me chose to stay.
What is the significance of a chosen family for queer people that’s different than a biological family?
Queer people need chosen family in varying ways, so its significance to any one person reflects that for sure. On a personal level, my chosen family were the first people to help disentangle myself from a self-loathing and shame that my muscles knew very intimately. These two familial groups sat on opposing sides of the spectrum of acceptance, and in retrospect, I’m grateful for that. The rejection of me by one party, propelled me to find and nourish relationships that filled me in a way that I had missed, without a lot of the familial guilt that a lot of queer POC experience. In many ways, coming into my queerness without the weight of familial expectation allowed me to become the person I am much faster (though it still feels like it’s taken forever).
Finding and connecting with friends that are considered family is not always easy. How were you able to find your people?
When I left high school, I had very few friendships that felt real and true, so for university, I moved to the other side of Sydney, a bus and a train ride away, to start taking roots.
Being conscious of the fact that I had a chance for a “re-do,” socially speaking, at this point of my life was a big part of the shift that started gifting me with members of my then chosen family. When you’re in an environment like high school, so many of the relationships you develop are situational, and not being able to take a break from those dynamics means that your body starts to adopt the same patterns of behavior. I had begun to react to people in ways that I knew they expected of me. It felt performative, except the performance was rooted in the satisfying of their malice, which harmed my sense of self. When I left that environment, I told myself that I’d work against the way my body and brain had been programmed, and I think that was really the moment I started being able to internalize what little of the self-worth I still had in my reserves.
Cooking was also a huge part of the journey towards chosen family. I’ve always loved to cook, and ended up living a stone’s throw away from my university campus. So when I realized that almost all of the people I had started befriending weren’t able to cook, making them breakfast before our class seemed like a natural thing to offer up. Cooking is a real labor of love. A plate of food indicates that you’ve spent time, money, and effort on someone. I always tell people that regardless of how good the food is, if someone has cooked me a meal, my gratitude for that gesture runs deep. It could be a super gourmet meal, or a plate of dinosaur nuggets. And I think most people would feel like that too.
Describe your chosen family in 5 words.
The shoulders I need most.
The holidays can be a crazy, stressful time. What does the role of a chosen family play during the holidays?
In light of how politically divided the nation is right now, I’m sure that chosen family is proving to be a sacred space for so many people. I think there’s a lot of emphasis placed on how people who live in liberal bubbles need to “do the work” and try to connect with people who believe differently to them. As important as that is, it’s also equally important that we value self-care, and that we’re real about how much work we’re capable of doing. I had a friend over Thanksgiving who kept texting our group thread because he was having a continuous fight with his family about him wearing two small hoops, connected together, in his ear. He overheard conversations his father was having with other relatives where he said, “gay people are just going to continue forcing themselves on to society until they are accepted” (in a way, true though, lol #thequeeragenda). It sounded really draining.
How does spending time with chosen ones impact your mental health and emotional well-being?
When I’m with my chosen family, I know that I’m around people I don’t have to explain myself to. There’s so much relief associated with that. I never feel like I have to make concessions, or uncomfortably compromise myself. My brain just doesn’t have to perform the same rigorous gymnastics routine that it’d be doing around blood family.
Having said that, it’s also been important for me to understand that chosen family now might not be chosen family forever. As we leave the door open to changing ourselves, the people we love do the same. So chosen family can be bittersweet too because the truth is that there is no ‘real’ sense of permanence to those friendships (though that is certainly the hope!). I’ve found that being able to reflect with pride and joy on the people who were once members of my chosen family, as opposed to sorrow and longing, is really important. Loving your chosen family also means accepting that transition is a thing, and that we are all on our own journey.
Because of that, I’m also really grateful for the small ways in which my blood family and I have experienced healing. Maybe one day I’ll have the sort of family unit that I was always so envious of.