‘You can choose your friends, but not your relatives’ – a sociological essay

‘You can choose your friends but not your relatives’. How accurately does this saying reflect contemporary family/personal life?

Although contemporary Australian society’s attitudes towards LGBTQ people have changed toward a more accepting stance, the role of community remains an invaluable facet the queer identity. Previously, nuclear family values framed and delayed processes of sexual identity formation, facing queer youth with little choice and fear when coming out. Access to communities and chosen families provide opportunity to identify and find solace outside of the related-family unit. Additionally, LGBTQ families are defined by the choice to form a family unit, even against legislation which favours the nuclear family. Further, the diversification of families work to broaden ideas about gender roles and sexuality.

The pure definition of family is changing within today’s society. Although previous nuclear family values promoted “a heterosexual conjugal unit based on marriage and co-residence” (Silva & Smart, 2004, p. 1), the modern application of the term family is defined by choice and individualisation. Although parentage and biological relatedness remain a factor in intimate life, family based on friendship function “in a world where the individual becomes the central reference point” (Silva & Smart, 2004, p. 3). Thus, in the contemporary social setting, friends, room-mates and de-facto partners could be considered as a part of a common family unit: “family appears as a context of fluid and changeable relationships… a site for intimacy and emotional growth” (Silva & Smart, 2004, p. 3). This contemporary definition of friends as a proxy for family functions fittingly within the queer experience. Though the contemporary cultural position on LGBTQ rights in Australia reflect the values of individualisation to an extent, queer youth previously endured marginalisation due to their inherent otherness. Furthermore, though the climate for coming out may be safer that previously, the LGBTQ community “provides the sort of support and the safe haven from danger that the biological family might offer its members in other circumstances” (Russell & Bohan, 2005, p. 1). The process of coming out to family is inherently partnered with sexual identity development in young people. Although Australian society’s cultural standing towards queerness is neutral at best, heteronormativity within policy and national image “might unwittingly be implicated in some of the difficulties experienced by younger queer persons” (Cover, 2011, p. 117). Accompanying the task of identity formation in adolescence, sexual identity can be “influenced by a variety of factors such as parents and family values, cultural norms, religious beliefs, and societal expectations” (Bosse & Chiodo, 2016). These influences will either assist or hinder the needs of LGBTQ youth, especially through “coming to terms with a sexual minority or nonbinary gender identity” (Bosse & Chiodo, 2016). Regardless of their cultural setting, queer youth share common challenges “related to acceptance in their families, schools and communities” (Bosse & Chiodo, 2016). Thus, this common experience of otherness within the LGBTQ community may offer a life line to queer youth.

The utilisation of community as family has always maintained an invaluable presence to the queer experience. Even for queer youth who lack representation or role models have the ability to identify with members of the LGBTQ community, particularly in the contemporary, online age. Safe spaces remain essential to developing LGBTQ youth, specifically “a safe, supportive environment where they can develop emotionally and socially into happy, healthy LGBTQ adults” (Tropiano, 2014, p. 165). Queer youth may not be afforded safe spaces in home or school life, thus, “the internet offers LGBTQ youth a potentially ‘safer space’, an anonymous space where they can practice same-sex friendships, coming out and intimacy” (Tropiano, 2014, p. 166). Moreover, the It Gets Better Project was integral to shifting the online narrative of queer youth suicide following the deaths of Billy Lucas and Justin Aaberg in 2010 (Tropiano, 2014, p. 154). YouTube “proved to be a viable alternative to face-to-face encounters” (Tropiano, 2014, p. 155), especially for those isolated by social and cultural otherness. Moreover, the YouTube movement provoked genuine discussion amongst LGBTQ identifying youth, with regards to “[feeling] different and alone… coming out … [and that] ‘It Gets Better’; what their life is like now in regard to relationships, friends, family and careers” (Tropiano, 2014, p. 159). Most importantly, the IGBP movement encouraged queer youth to get involved and express their perspectives, providing positive role models and identification. A positive outcome for the common experience of otherness.

However, access to these online communities and safe spaces are subject to exclusivity, particularly due to the requirement of internet access linking with socio-economic status. Thus, an unhappy home life leaves LGBTQ youth cornered, as “parental rejection and abuse are generally coupled with the discovery of a teen’s sexual orientation” (Martin, 1996, p. 170). Furthermore, queer youth are “overrepresented in the homeless youth population” (Abramovich, 2012, p. 29) due to varied reasons including homophobia and transphobia-based family conflict: “Psychological abuse from family members affects queer youth more than any other group of adolescents” (Martin, 1996, p. 169). LGBTQ youth who are subjected to homelessness are under “constant threat of violence, drugs, harassment, and illness” (Abramovich, 2012, p. 32). Regarding homeless queer youth, the Trans demographic is arguably the most vulnerable, with “most shelters segregated by birth sex, which increases the risk for gender discrimination and gender violence to occur within shelters.” (Abramovich, 2012, p. 43). Moreover, this outcome of rejection from the home proves detrimental to queer youth, especially on the grounds of identity formation: “Emotional abuse by parents directed at a child’s sexual orientation is one of the most traumatic aspects of coming out as a young person” (Martin, 1996, p. 195).

The coming out process is a significant part of exploring and cementing a sexual identity. Interchangeable with the conflict of adolescence, “acceptance or rejection at this point is critical” (Coleman, 1982, p. 473). Generally, queer youth disclose their sexual identity to their parents and immediate family members first, seeking positive reinforcement. After gaining acceptance from parents and loved ones, “positive conceptions of themselves are built and self-esteem increases” (Coleman, 1982, p. 473). Most notably, this positive reinforcement sets the tone for self-acceptance and identification going forward: “For the first time, they can perceive acceptance for who they are” (Coleman, 1982, p. 143). Parents who fail to accept and support their child will promote patterns of suppressing and “concealing this information from everyone in the future” (Coleman, 1982, p. 143). Alternatively, LGBTQ youth may attempt to seek this acceptance out from a source outside of the family.

Upon experiencing loss of family due to misplacement or rejection, young queer people tend to seek out sexual or non-sexual intimate bonds. Regardless of familial support, close kinship bonds defined by common experiences of otherness which “negotiate their relationship to the outside world” (Lewin, 1993, p. 976). Negotiated as a separate entity to biological family, “’families we choose’ incorporates the meaningful difference that is the product of choice and biology as two relationally defined terms” (Weston, 1991, p. 40). Certainly, within the contemporary grounds set by individualisation, these community-based ‘chosen families’ offer the love and support of a family. Even within contemporary society, relationships defined by choice including kin-based cloisters maintain significant whether or not a young person is supported by their biological family.

The concept of ‘families of choice’ is now being applied quite literally to the emergence of Rainbow Families. Carefully negotiated through the utilisation of donor and surrogate conception, “same-sex partnered families are characteristically diverse with regard to mode of conception or family formation, and family structure” (Dempsey, 2013). Alternatively, same-sex parented families are also formed through the means of adoption and foster care “although in Australia the former is much more common than the latter” (Dempsey, 2013). Australian legislation has made steps to validate these family units, gaining “considerable legal recognition” (Dempsey, 2013) including the availability of LGBTQ-centred reproductive clinics. Additionally, amendments to the Status of Children legislation enables “the legal recognition of lesbian co-parenting couples, irrespective of which partner gave birth” (Dempsey, 2013). The obvious next step in legitimising these families is to grant them equal access to marriage, authorising them equivalent rights under Family Law.

The parenting demographic, styles and outcomes vary considerable in same-sex parented families. Education and labour force participation levels are higher, with “same-sex couples more likely to hold a Bachelor degree or higher qualification” (Dempsey, 2013) and “more likely to be in highly skilled occupations than people in heterosexual couples” (Dempsey, 2013). Notably in lesbian parented families, “equity in divisions of paid work and domestic labour between mothers and co-parents has been found to be the rule rather than the exception in lesbian-parented families” (Dempsey, 2013). Lesbian mothers and co-parents devote more time to their children, with “greater parental awareness and problem-solving capacity, had higher quality interactions with children, were more available to them” (Dempsey, 2013). Children of same-sex couples tend to be well-adjusted, although they may experience a higher “worry about being teased, harassed or bullied, particularly by peers in the school environment” (Dempsey, 2013). Notably, social support from the surrounding community including “friends, families and other community members” (Dempsey, 2013) can assist in explaining variance in the children’s wellbeing. Moreover, these supplementary interactions “can assist in mediating potentially adverse effects of… discrimination” (Dempsey, 2013). Therefore, the communities which encase the queer experience also work to improve the ‘chosen family’ experience.

The queer experience, like the collective experience of finding an identity, finds commonality within feelings of otherness. Whilst attitudes and support of LGBTQ youth sexual identification varies, today there are undoubtedly more resources to support vulnerable queer youth. Although contemporary attitudes of neutrality may not change this collective feeling, the othering of the queer experience is powerful in its ability to unite a community. Moreover, whilst it is true that queer people get to choose their families through community, Rainbow Families are defined by choice as well as the support of the LGBTQ community.



Abramovich, I. A., 2012. LGBTQ Youth Homelessness in Canada: Reviewing the Literature. Canadian Journal of Family and Youth, 4(1), pp. 29-51.

Bosse, J. & Chiodo, L., 2016. It is complicated: gender and sexual orientation identity in LGBTQ youth. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 25(23-24), pp. 3665-3675.

Coleman, E., 1982. Developmental Stages of the Coming-Out Process. American Behavioural Scientist, 25(4), pp. 469-482.

Cover, R., 2011. Queer Youth Suicide, Culture and Identity: Unliveable Lives?. Burlington: Routeledge.

Dempsey, D., 2013. Same-Sex Parented Families in Australia, s.l.: Australian Government.

Lewin, E., 1993. Lesbian and Gay Kinship: Kath Weston’s “Families We Choose” and Contemporary Anthropology. Signs, 18(4), pp. 974-979.

Martin, S. R., 1996. A Child’s Right to be Gay: Addressing the Emotional Maltreatment of Queer Youth. Hastings Law Journal, 48(1), pp. 167-196.

Russell, G. M. & Bohan, J. S., 2005. The Gay Generation Gap: Community Across the LGBT Generational Divide. The Policy Journal of The Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies, 8(1), pp. 1-7.

Silva, E. & Smart, C., 2004. The New Family?. s.l.:s.n.

Tropiano, S., 2014. ‘A Safe and Supporting Environment’: LGBTQ Youth and Social Media. In: C. Pullen, ed. Queer Youth and Media Cultures. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 159-166.

Weston, K., 1991. Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship. ebook ed. New York: Columbia University Press.



Published by Ella Pace

Ella is a film critic currently working and studying in Melbourne, Australia.

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