At Christmas, the meaning of family is heightened. Despite inevitable arguments about politics and strops thrown during Monopoly, the season is synonymous with relatives coming together. But what if you don’t have a good relationship with your family, or would simply rather spend it away from them?
It’s an age-old saying that “friends are the family you choose”, but for LGBTQ communities in particular, this concept couldn’t be more important. This is sometimes due to necessity – many face homophobia, rejection or estrangement from their families, with only 47% feeling they can be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity with those they’re related to.
For some, creating their own support network is a way to move away from the traditional ideas of what it means to be “related” to someone. Instead, they create their “chosen family” – one where they deliberately select the people they want to play a significant role in their lives. And at Christmas, chosen families are many LGBTQ people’s companions of choice.
“They are a group of people that I don’t feel like an ‘other’ with,” says Rachel*, 32, who is spending the season with her girlfriend and their mutual friends, many of whom also face homophobia at home. “I can talk about queerness and left-wing politics with them, without worrying about getting a horrible comment thrown at me.” Rachel, who has a good relationship with most of her biological family, has a sibling who is unaccepting towards her sexuality – so she’s decided not to put herself in an uncomfortable space this year.
“I work hard all year,” adds Rachel, “and don’t want to put myself through unnecessary stress. Being with this group will just be easy. It’s a place where I can just be myself.”
This also rings true for Kate, 38, who says the idea of “home” doesn’t bring positive feelings for them and many of their friends: “A lot of us are LGBTQ+ and want to be authentic to ourselves rather than return to places of discomfort.”
The political climate makes things worse, Kate explains: “[My friends and I] are a mixture of ethnicities and nationalities, and some of us feel nervous in the places we grew up after elections, here and abroad. It feels difficult to predict where you might face hostility as a marginalised person, so carefully planning who you spend Christmas with can offer some much-needed stability.”
Forming a chosen family isn’t always easy, though – and it’s for that reason Carla Ecola, 34, facilitates Outsidermas in London, a Christmas celebration open to LGBTQ people who might not have family to spend the day with. “Christmas is a religious holiday and many people in our community can feel ostracised by our families or our faith for living our truth,” says Carla.
“Christmas is the campest holiday to get together for. I’m really surprised we didn’t start the whole thing.”
Outsidermas offers different Christmas pastimes, from art to acupuncture, karaoke to movies, plus a giant pizza delivery. It’s run by The Outside Project – the “UK’s first homelessness and crisis centre for LGBTIQ+ people” – and is a vital source of support, considering nearly one in five LGBTQ people have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. “For our community, there is no build-up or breakdown to becoming estranged from family,” says Carla. “Many of us just come out and suddenly find ourselves on the street.”
The project is about togetherness, and it won’t ignore the complex factors that drive people into isolation. “Estrangement is a unique experience, but it’s not the only reason we have higher rates of homelessness,” adds Carla. “There are systemic issues, like barriers to education, employment, healthcare, housing and a desperate lack of crisis services.”
At Outsidermas, there’s a quiet room where support workers are on hand for people who are homeless or at risk of it. Having organisations like this are important, believes Carla – and we need more similar services nationwide at Christmas. “Across the UK, space for our community is prescribed to us during LGBTIQ+ history month and Pride,” they say.
“I find this performative, as the focus is often on how inclusive local politicians and corporate companies are. If they are looking to make a genuine difference to the welfare of our community, they need to fund LGBTIQ+ services and spaces that are led by us for us all year round.”
Other nationwide charities also offer support for the community ahead of Christmas, such as Akt, working in Bristol, Manchester and Newcastle; Birmingham LGBT in the midlands; and MindOut in Brighton. The issue, though, is that they don’t all have services available on Christmas Day. For those who need a safe, listening ear, the LGBTQ helpline, Switchboard, remains open from 10am-10pm every day.
Behind closed doors, Christmas with a chosen family looks different from person to person. For Kate, who will be celebrating at home with friends, it will be low energy, but high quality. “We will share food, ignore each other to read, praise Stormzy and be glad for one another really,” they tell us. “There will probably be many of us still in PJs. It’s about nurturing one another in the way we need, and sometimes that’s just quiet companionship.”
Michele, 21, who says she has a difficult relationship with her mum, and whose dad passed away, has a long itinerary of activities for her and her chosen family. “On Sunday we had a big pub lunch, and on Monday we watched movies and wrapped presents,” she says.
“Chosen families are people who you decided were supposed to be in your life.”
“On Christmas Eve, my friend and her family host a small neighbourhood party and I’ve been nominated to make fun cocktails for everyone,” she says. “My friends also make a special Christmas Eve dinner for me, as my family used to celebrate on the 24th. Christmas Day will involve lots of food, presents, love and fun.”
The concept of unconditional love often widely goes unquestioned, says Michele, but in some contexts she believes that can be toxic. “A lot of families expect you to be nice to them no matter what they say, because they’re your family.” Instead, she says, there’s something to be said for a love that is more intentional.
“The value of chosen family is that you can surround yourself with people you chose to love and care about, rather than people who may not share your values,” says Michele. “Chosen families are people who you decided were supposed to be in your life. I think that’s ten times better.”
Useful websites and helplines:
- London Lesbian & Gay switchboard (LLGS) is a free confidential support & information helpline for LGBT communities throughout the UK | 0300 330 0630
- Manchester Lesbian and Gay Switchboard is a free support, information and referral service for the Manchester and North-West area | 0161 235 8000
- Stonewall for more information on other LGBT services and helplines | 08000 502020