Choosing your own family members can be life-saving. Here’s why these Canadians did it.

Click to play video: 'What exactly is a ‘chosen family’?'
What exactly is a ‘chosen family’?
WATCH: What is a "chosen family" and who has them? – Oct 7, 2018

Right before Christmas 2012, Jenna Toppan had a falling out with her parents.

It was just months after she had come out, a reality her parents didn’t want to accept.

I knew that to protect myself I needed to walk away from them, literally at that moment and in a larger sense,” the 28-year-old from Toronto told Global News. She picked up the phone and called another family member, one who lived blocks away. He had already known what was going on in her household and invited Toppan to join his family for dinner. 

This family member Toppan referred to isn’t a biological family member — it’s a person she hand-picked to be part of her seven-person chosen family.

READ MORE: DNA tests reveal 10 half-siblings across western Canada — ‘I always wanted a sister’

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“His family is amazingly warm and welcoming and non-judgmental,” she continued. “I was moved by their openness and ability to make me feel like one of them. I still appreciate it so much to this day.”

Jenna Toppan (left) with one of her chosen family members.

Chosen families are exactly what the name suggests: choosing family members, either friends, co-workers, relatives or even ex-partners to form a bond that’s like blood. Often, like in Toppan’s case, chosen families are a result of people not having habitable relationships with their biological family members or other times, they are a larger community of people who can support one another or who have similar needs.

Choosing families

Elisabeth Sheff, educator and CEO of Sheff Consulting Group based in Atlanta, said author and scholar Kath Weston was the first person who popularized the term “chosen families” in the ’80s. After doing research on gay and lesbian families in San Francisco in that time period, the term that was originally used to  describe these families was “fictive kin.”

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“These weren’t fake families,” Sheff explained.

Weston also wrote Families We Choose, and soon, the term “chosen families” was being used by academics as well as people in the queer community.

“It becomes a super useful term and its popularity indicates how important it is for people to have family connections.”

And not all chosen families are alike, in fact, there is no one way to create one. They could be a mix of friends or co-workers who spend holidays together or an extension of a biological family or even a mix of both. Sheff said the most common type of chosen families are friends who are close, reliable and emotionally intimate.

Chosen families also don’t always replace biological ones. Sometimes, people in chosen families have close relationships with their siblings or one or both parents. They can also be close to their whole biological family, but feel more of a family connection with their chosen families. Size can also vary — some chosen families are tight-knit groups of five to eight members and other chosen families don’t have a cap.

“[These are family members] that will lend you money, let you move in with them or take care of you when you are sick,” Sheff continued, adding this was incredibly important for gay men in the ’80s during the AIDS epidemic because many of these men didn’t have family they could turn to.
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Choosing families

Merlin Hargreaves, 37, of Toronto, can’t keep track of their chosen family members. “I choose my family every day, I believe you constantly choose to be family with your loved ones,” they said. “The people I choose respect me, see my whole self and stand with me.” 

Hargreaves also allowed their daughter Eleanor to choose members of their chosen family, often people she feels safe with. “Mostly she chooses cousins,” they explained.

“She has four biological cousins, but she’s included several other kids in her list of cousins without any prompting from us. My wife’s longtime friend Trina has three [little ones] that Eleanor has adopted into her very own chosen family. We all go to a cottage together once a year, it feels just like when I was little and hung out with my cousins in the summer.”

READ MORE: Queer on the Prairies — author documents history of LGBTQ community in Sask.

They said for many queer people, a chosen family not only replaces a biological one (Hargreaves however, has a good relationship with their biological family), but it often ends up being a safe haven.

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“A lot of queers of my generation were disowned by their families of origin and had to make families of their own to survive. We all need love and belonging.”

Meika Palmer of Quebec City said her chosen family includes everyone from current and former co-workers to other parents. “I chose these people very carefully and selectively over the past eight years, having moved away from blood relatives in 2010.”

Meika Palmer (bottom row, second from the left) poses with her chosen family members.

Once after having a bad morning, she remembered running into one of her chosen family members on the street.

“[She] read the situation perfectly without having said more than five words. She offered, “Want to come over for dinner?’ Just like that, the stress fell away and our burning eyes gave way to tears of laughter as we all communally bitched about life with young kids.”
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Meika Palmer (left) with other members of her chosen family. 

For Thanksgiving this year, Palmer’s home will look the same as it has in the past: foldable chairs, people spilling into rooms, food made in different kitchens, running kids and adults drinking wine. “It’s really almost exactly like celebrating with blood relatives except the cultural diversity represented in the people and the food is on a whole other level, which is always exciting.”

The importance of acceptance

Sheff said the importance of these units boils down to support and safety. And while not every queer person has a toxic relationship with their biological family members, chosen families are often more acceptable.

“For those who feel judged or rejected … [or] think about the shaming, blaming and guilt, it’s just not that appealing for a lot of people. They find more support, acceptance and love from their chosen families,” she said.
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READ MORE: Halifax café with queer community space coming from former Smiling Goat baristas

Toppan has two biological siblings she is still close with and Sheff said siblings often act as a bridge between chosen families and biological ones.

Jenna Toppan and her chosen family.

But for Toppan, this chosen family means the world.

“They’ve allowed me to embrace parts of myself that I’ve kept hidden or shadowed for a long time. My partner has given me the confidence to fully embrace who I am. My friends give me the confidence that I can make mistakes and not be exiled or punished unfairly – likewise for things that are beyond my control,” she continued. “My chosen family reminds me that I’m still incredibly lucky to have this chance to be who I am and what I want to be.”

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