And while I am still playing catch up with that show, it made me think about all the chosen family members I’ve encountered in my life.
I first heard about the concept right at the beginning of college when some family shit was popping off with another fellow immigrant friend of mine. She had dejectedly shrugged at the entire ordeal, with a bitter laugh saying that “you can’t choose your family.” And my queer Black friend looked at her, deadly serious, and was like “Yes the fuck you can.”
The concept of a chosen family is, even now, something I am still trying to wrap my head around–partly because it goes against most things I was told as a wee lass.
I talk about my Nigerian-American/Immigrant heritage all the time, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t even consider the role that that background played in my mind and why it gets so funny whenever I hear the words “chosen family.”
You see, the idea of your [born] family, and you know, other traditional values were hammered into my prepubescent and adolescent Nigerian-American brain so much that the idea that I could actually choose who I wanted to fuck with was…odd. And on top of this, even though my precocious mind challenged this family mandate from a pretty young age, I couldn’t help but feel some sense of guilt for feeling the need to reject my [born] family.
Now I found that the concept of a [born] (read: traditional) family and the supposed strength and duty-bound nature of its ties tended to go well, (or at least make sense), for individuals who didn’t have an almost cartoonishly evil, manipulative, or abusive family like mine. But unfortunately, my example occurs way too often for folx like me—especially if they are queer or identify under some part of the LGBTQIA+ banner.
And even with me knowing this, the guilt remained, ringing pretty loud in my head. But my resolve and want for peace and stability was louder. Mostly because the more I thought about [born] families, the more I started to think they were a sham.
I mean…what’s in a [born] family? What’s the point? How is it supposedly better than a “chosen family”? Yeah, yeah, yeah. At its core, you born by a pair of muthafuckas in close proximity to other muthafuckas (if you have siblings) and it’s all completely random. And if you’re lucky, you’ll actually like each other when you’re all grown and your parents are old.
Yeah, we’re all blood and whatnot and there’s always someone on deck to recite that tired ass “blood is thicker than water” quote to justified these arbitrary connections, but then they conveniently forget the entire part of that quote which states that “the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.” Which really means that the bonds forged via this battle we call life, tend to be a bit stronger than mere genetics.
So, with that being said, what makes it special again?
Explain it to me like I’m four.
That’s the line of thinking I was working with. So it should surprise no one that as I got older, the concept of a [born] family became less and less appealing to me, only because I figured that if this so-called family we were all going on about happened to be, let’s say, random fuckers on the street that I had just met, I wouldn’t even be bothered by them and I definitely wouldn’t put up with half of the bullshit (and abuse) that I had dealt with from my own.
Anyways. Fast-forward a couple of years and I was suddenly really interested in my queer friend’s “yes the fuck you can” speech about choosing your family. However, by the time she finished explaining what the hell a “chosen family” was, I realized that I (and my brother—a story I’ll tell later) had actually been assembling my own chosen family for years and was just learning to put a name to it now.
It first occurred to me when I thought about my middle school and high school years and who I referred to as my stand-in parents—specifically dads. Of course, I had a “dad” of my own who was technically “present,” if “present” represented the lowest bar known to man. But I had quickly learned that with the type of “dad” I had, it was a wonder why I needed other enemies. Like, at this point, Satan himself would have probably been a better “dad” than the one I actually got.
But I’ll spare the gory details for a later date—or therapy. Whichever comes first.
Luckily for me, one of my best friends’ (also Nigerian, so she knew the struggle) dad was super quick at picking up on my predicament, particularly because he had known my dad in his youth and the only thing worse than knowing my dad as an alleged “adult” and “parent” was probably knowing him in his heyday—which I imagined sucked for my stand-in dad. Still, my stand-in dad took it upon himself to include me in things or even talk to me about the shit going on in my life or at home or at school. And this continued way into college, thankfully.
The other side of my chosen family was also cool and was formed by my other best friend’s eclectic Black American family, who very quickly accepted me into the fold as soon as they found out that their notoriously anti-social daughter had uncharacteristically made a new friend. This was also as early as middle school and continues even now.
It probably shouldn’t have been a big deal that I was comfortable with all these random groups of people that I had assembled for myself and comfortable referring to them as “my chosen family,” but it was quite a relief to know people who recognized all my quirks and differences, acknowledged them, saw them, and did not seek to destroy them, crush them, or snuff them out…like some other family I know.
At the very least, members of my chosen family had always accepted me and attempted to understand my different quirks, even if they were stepping way out of their element by doing so. And it was this kind of encouragement and understanding that kept me coming back to my hometown to visit them for the holidays, even though holidays were notoriously blech to me (because FAMILY) and I notoriously refrained from celebrating them with my born family.
Again, I always felt kind of guilty for doing this kind of thing and honestly, said guilt used to make me ponder about how annoying Catholic guilt must be and simultaneously pray for every Nigerian I knew that had the honor of being both Nigerian and Catholic.
Still. My college conversation taught me that I should not have to force myself to be around people who gave no fucks about me or didn’t want to deal with the “non-traditional” parts of me.
Even if it was the holidays.
Even if they were “family”.
That said, it wasn’t always perfect with my “chosen family”. They had their own shit to deal with in their “born” families and I often butted heads with them over the idea of discarding toxic family members (I knew it was necessary; they wanted me to find “a better” way), but they never diminished my feelings or made me feel small for having them to begin with. Their cishet-ness also sometimes bled through when I was talking to them about new terminology that was emerging to explain different facets for queerness, but they always circled back to make sure they understood.
My chosen family never made me feel like my life was unimportant. I never felt like a non-factor or that I was invisible when I was with them. And most of all? On top of getting to be myself, I never felt like I was in danger for wanting to live the life that I was living.
And that’s the important thing.
And so many people who are granted that freedom from jump street take it for granted.