There isn’t a queer in the world who doesn’t pine for the perfect family. It stands to reason since the vast majority of us have complicated—to say the least—relationships with our parents. Even those of us lucky enough to be born into accepting families still long for that place where we are safe at last, where there are no shameful secrets, where we are held and nourished and protected as perfectly as a baby bird still in its shell.
This is why the concept of chosen family is woven so deeply into the fabric of queer-community culture: where the bonds of blood have failed us time and again, we hope that our friends, lovers, and mentors will fill the void. We dream of relationships that stand the tests of time and gay drama, for better or worse, in sickness and in health. Shut out of the heteronormative institutions of marriage and the nuclear family for most of history, queers have traditionally turned to more daring and creative notions of kinship and sharing the future.
When I was first entering the queer community in the urban centres of Vancouver and Montreal, I often heard other young people talking about their radical plans for growing up together. Some of us longed for monogamy and middle-class domesticity—for a gay version of the kind of existence our parents had taught us was worth wanting. But it was more popular, especially among university queers with asymmetrical haircuts and penchants for citing Michel Foucault in everyday conversation, to lean toward polyamory and collective living.
Gay marriage, the university queers said (often with more than a hint of superiority), was bourgeois and passé. We were going to build queer urban-housing collectives, gay land shares in partnership with Indigenous nations, trans-inclusive lesbian nature communes run by consensus. We would take in scores of LGBTQ teenagers kicked out of their houses by their parents and teach them the ways of the radical queer. We would learn how to grow crops and make our own vegan cheese. We would raise chickens and cows and free-range unicorns and go riding across the fields, our multicoloured hair flowing in the wind.
I poke fun at the revolutionary overenthusiasm of university queers because I was one of them. I disavowed capitalist individualism, decried assimilationist gay politics, denounced the nuclear family. I wanted to escape the trap, which my parents seemed to have fallen into, of endless striving for material success and consequent perpetual dissatisfaction. I wanted to live differently, vibrantly, with my friends in an endless circle of share and share alike.
We looked to the legends of movements past and present for inspiration: Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, who founded the STAR house for trans sex workers in New York; the gay faerie sanctuaries of the 1970s and the faerie enclaves that still exist, scattered across the world; the radical care work done by the lesbians and gays of ACT UP during the AIDS crisis.
The lineage of radical queer kinship runs deeper than blood. Why would we ever need marriage and babies and condominiums when we had the revolution and one another?
The problem is that the revolution never arrived (or, at least, it hasn’t yet). The babies, however, did.
I have a running, private joke that I hate babies—“queerspawn,” or the children of queer couples, most of all. It’s not a funny joke, really, unless you take it in the lighthearted yet bittersweet spirit in which it is meant. Allow me to explain.
I don’t really hate babies. As a general rule, actually, I like them very much. They’re quite cute, and they have good skin, and when they’re clean, they smell like fresh bread. Any of my child-rearing friends will tell you that I am rather good with babies for someone who doesn’t have any of their own. I know how to hold them and change their diapers, and I am an excellent sport when they spit up on my good clothing.
So, no, my problem isn’t with babies in and of themselves. My problem is that babies seem to be stealing all of my friends and, with them, my hopes for the future.
I suppose I ought to backtrack. Between entering the community in our late teens/early twenties and growing into our late twenties and early thirties, the radical queers of my generation seemed to undergo a fundamental political and relational shift. We became more jaded, less idealistic. Our chosen families began to fragment, torn asunder by romantic breakups, political falling-outs, and in some cases, intimate-partner violence and sexual assault. The community began to feel less like an actual community and more like a scene comprised of various cliques loosely bound together by aesthetics and fuzzily defined politics.
The older my queer cohort and I get, the further away our dream of creating a life with our chosen families seems to slide. The white punk trust-fund kids—ironically the most vocal in their denunciation of gay assimilation back in our teenage days—were the first to go: one by one, they cast off their anarcho-punk ripped denim and slunk off to law school. Then, many of us who were raised by racialized and working-class parents and taught to always have a backup plan started to pursue whatever options for economic stability were available: nonprofit jobs, art and academic grants, commercial sex work.
Of course, not all of us had access to the same opportunities, and that is still the case. Some queers are more upwardly mobile than others. Some queers have no choice but to live collectively, hand to mouth, sharing whatever space and resources are available.
But, even across the various economic classes the queer community of my adolescence has broken into, I am noticing the tide turning. We still want kinship and intimacy. We still want a future. But, all around me, I see queer acquaintances and friends settling into monogamy (or something like it) and nuclear units (more or less). That is to say, more and more of us are settling down, getting married, and having babies (give or take the marriage part).
I probably should have seen it coming. I know that it isn’t a bad thing, strictly speaking, or even at all. People marched and fought and died, after all, so that we could get married and raise children. I know this.
I know this.
Between 2017 and 2019, nine babies were born into the network of friends and acquaintances that I call my queer community. And more are on the way. Every day, I talk to at least one person about their plans to give birth and raise a child. Their eyes are always so full of life, so full of hope and fervour.
I used to see my friends’ eyes shine that way when we talked about living together, starting a collective, learning how to cultivate food from the land. Growing old together. Dying together.
A new life coming into the world is a joyful thing, and we rightfully celebrate that. For queers, whose bodies and rights to reproduction are always called into question, childbirth and child-rearing take on an especially deep significance.
So when my friends burst into the room, eyes shining, overflowing with both excitement and anxiety to tell me the news about their forthcoming babies, I celebrate with them—I truly do. I want to be there; I want to do right by them.
But there is also a certain heaviness that settles in the chambers of my heart of hearts: a slow acceptance of what it means when your chosen family member, to whom you are neither spouse nor co-parent, is having a child: your place in their life has changed. The meaning of your bond is different, perhaps not lessened but deprioritized. I know this: I was a family therapist, for God’s sake.
Babies irrevocably alter the ways in which new parents interact with the world around them, the community, and the future. To be a good parent means to put the well-being of the child first—before friendship, before political projects, before anything else. And, in the capitalist society we live in, which largely separates child-raising from community by emphasizing the nuclear family as its building block, this means that parents are set apart from nonparents, often irrevocably. In our society, parents are meant to put their children before anyone else, and nonparents are given no role in the raising of children outside of heavily regulated professions like teaching and social work.
Before gay marriage was legalized in Canada and many parts of the United States, it was common for queer activists to offhandedly refer to heterosexuals as “breeders.” This isn’t to say that queers didn’t have children before the advent of gay marriage—queers have had and raised children throughout history (though often covertly). Rather, it signified a markedly different relationship to family and generationality.
Because queers had limited access to the benefits of the nuclear family—such as inheritance, parental rights, and care work—and because the line between friends and lovers is so often blurred in the queer community, friendship took on a kind of deep and lasting primacy for queers that does not exist in heteronormative society. Generational knowledge is passed not from parent to child but through an informal system of mentorship.
When queers are sick and dying, it is our friends, not our family, on whom we most often rely for care. When we are suicidal, our friends talk us down. When we are broke, our friends lend us money. When we are beaten up by homophobes and transphobes, evicted by our landlords, kicked out by our parents, thrown out or assaulted by our partners, our friends take us in.
For so much of my life, I have lived by this unwritten law: Queers take care of queers. No one else will.
What does it mean, then, that so many of my queer cohort are pairing off and having children? On the one hand, it means that queer rights have come very far indeed, at least for some. On the other, it means that our understanding of queer kinship must necessarily change, probably for better and for worse at once.
What does it mean to be part of a chosen family when it must abide by biological and legal families? That is to say, if my chosen queer sibling gets married and has a baby, where do I fit in? Is chosen family another way of saying second-best family?
I’ve taken a turn toward the cynical in the past few years. Once, I would have said I’d die for the ideals of chosen family and a revolutionary society. Now, having literally risked my health and safety a time or two for those ideals, I have become much more concerned with my individual, material well-being.
I live alone. I refuse to do activism unless it directly serves my own purposes. I prioritize time alone, economic sustainability, a very small number of friends, and my romantic partnership (not always in that order). My parents would be proud—or, at least, they’d say, “We told you so.”
Who is going to share my life with me? Who is going to fight with me, take care of me, grow old and die with me? Whom will I take care of? Whom would I die for? I think about these questions all the time these days. I still have a chosen family, but I think queers are confused about what we mean by the word “family,” unsure of where we are going and what we hope to become.
Perhaps it is immature to begrudge my friends their babies. I wonder if every young adult, queer or otherwise, goes through this period of transition, of wondering where they belong as they watch new biological families spark to life all around them. I wonder if I am supposed to give up my fantasy of collective living and free-range unicorn husbandry and get serious about finding a boyfriend, a husband, with whom to settle down.
The truth is that I have thought about having children of my own. A more revolutionary trans woman—the kind I think I am supposed to be—would dream about living in polyamorous configurations, agrarian communes, collectives where children are raised by intergenerational pods of kindred spirits. Yet, in my heart of hearts, I dream of raising babies with a sweet and hapless heterosexual man in a suburban home with shiny stainless steel appliances and a front lawn. We would spend sleepless nights tending to our colicky baby, fret over grades and school lunches, argue about whether to force the kid to take piano lessons (I would be a firm yes on that). We would worry ourselves sick over our child’s first sleepover, first drunken party, first car accident. We would try not to hover too much as they grew up and away from us. We would make each other promise not to die first.
But I am a post-transition trans woman. I cannot have babies, not in the biological sense. Adoption is theoretically possible but, in reality, a giant challenge, given that child-welfare agencies tend to systemically discriminate against trans people and regard trans women, in particular, with suspicion.
As for finding that lifelong partner with whom to grow old and die—well, all trans women know that romantic love is like hope: at best, a fickle creature; at worst, a dangerous beast.
There is a scene at the end of the classic children’s novel Peter Pan when Peter comes to find his beloved Wendy in London—only to discover that, in the time he has been away in Neverland, Wendy has grown up, gotten married, and had a daughter. A compulsive caregiver to my friends, I have always thought of myself as Wendy among the Lost Boys of the queer community, but now I am beginning to understand how Peter must have felt.
Sooner or later, we all must leave Neverland. But where do we go next?
What does it mean to grow up? To face the future? What do queers owe one another, and what do we owe ourselves? These are the questions that our queer generation is facing, as did the ones before us. Although some might say that growing up means assimilating into heteronormative society, this is not really an option for many queers. It is not an option for me.
The world is collapsing all around us, geopolitically speaking. Climate change and the resurgence of fascism in the Global North are the tip of the proverbial iceberg. We are living in the beginning of the end, in the apocalypse. We are living in a time of flame, and the old dreams are dying: capitalism, communism, individualism, collectivism.
We must choose to place our hope in the magic and resilience of queers, in our capacity to break apart and reform, to invent possibility from ash. I choose to believe that we can do it, that there will be a place for me somewhere in the swirling chaos we call the future. I choose to believe that we can mourn what we used to be and love what we are and honour what comes next.
We can live and celebrate life. Together.
Reprinted with permission from I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World by Kai Cheng Thom (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2019).