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Consider This: They say you can't choose your family, but some people do

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As we emerge from the holiday season, when a lot of people traditionally spend a lot of time with their families, we wanted to spend a few minutes talking about what family means beyond, you know, your biological relatives. For many, family is about more than just DNA. It is about deep connections. And it is chosen.

LEXX BROWN-JAMES: Chosen family are really people who you bring in for intimate relationships, especially when you're devoid of those close family relationships.

KELLY: That is Dr. Lexx Brown-James. She's a marriage and family therapist based in St. Louis.

BROWN-JAMES: I think more and more we're moving to chosen families because we're starting to see that there is true value in community. So instead of being an individualistic culture - so everybody kind of out for themselves or they only have their nuclear family - I think, specifically with COVID and coming through multiple pandemics and multiple losses and radicalizations of beliefs, we're starting to find that community is really how people are learning to survive.

KELLY: ALL THINGS CONSIDERED producer Brianna Scott and intern Mallika Seshadri spoke to a few people about what chosen family means to them. Here's Brianna with their stories.

BRIANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: Sirianna Arthi knows how crucial it is to find a supportive community. She's 30 years old and originally from South India, now living in Philadelphia. And growing up, she had a very rigid concept of family.

SIRIANNA ARTHI: I had this view of family as, I should be, like, not only completely loyal to the family that raised me, but that was it - that was family.

SCOTT: She says that view started to evolve when her adoptive parents didn't believe her when she said she'd been abused by a family member. So Sirianna began to meet people in her life who were more of a family to her than her adoptive parents, like these two girls who lived in the house next to her growing up.

ARTHI: The two of them and their parents and their partners, they all had a conversation without me where they all sat down and they were basically like, all right, Sirianna is our family. So when we refer to her, we want to refer to her as, like, our sister.

SCOTT: This chosen family for Sirianna, it doesn't feel chosen to her. She says they just are her family.

Someone else who has adopted many people into their chosen family is drag queen Juanita More from San Francisco. She's a mentor to those she's adopted as her drag children. Juanita remembers when one of them, Dulce de Leche, sought her out.

JUANITA MORE: And they came up to me one night and said, I really have something really important to ask you, and I'm really nervous about it. And I said, go ahead; tell me. And they said, I really want you to be my drag mom. I looked at them and smiled. And I said, let's talk about this in one week. I go, I need one week to think about it.

SCOTT: She ended up saying yes, and she's glad she did. But she had to think about it because she takes the role of drag mom seriously.

MORE: In the 30 years that I've been doing drag, I have become mom to so many people. To this day, when I'm out in the community, someone, every single time they sees me, says hi, Mom. How are you? I love hearing it, and I don't take it lightly. And the reason that I don't is 'cause I really respect the drag lineage of being a drag mom.

SCOTT: Juanita has met the biological families of some of those in her community, and she recalls cooking dinner for a friend and his birth mom one Mother's Day.

MORE: And at the end of the meal, she said to me, I want to thank you so much for taking my son into your life. I see the beautiful person you are. It was so hard for me to let him go from home, to go to college, away from where we lived. And I now know that he's in good hands.

KAISA LIGHTFOOT: When I think of chosen family, I think about a lack of obligation. And I think about how it is a choice. Every time we hang out, it's chosen. Every time we hang out, it's out of love.

SCOTT: Kaisa Lightfoot is 32 years old and lives in Washington. There's one event that reminds Kaisa why it's crucial to have a chosen family. One year, she made a birthday cake for a friend.

LIGHTFOOT: That was her first birthday cake she'd ever had. That was her first birthday that she'd ever been celebrated in her life. And she was super quiet. She told me a couple of years later that that was just such a profound thing. She had never been celebrated. She had never had a cake made for her because she mattered.

SCOTT: Kaisa and her wife have an expansive chosen family made up of former foster children, friends from across the country and an Afghan family they helped resettle. She says many in their group are also queer.

LIGHTFOOT: There can be such a pit or a hole created by the lack of acceptance from the people who are supposed to accept you. And why not be that for other people? Why not find that for yourself when you can?

SCOTT: Forty-five-year-old single mom Jody from Alabama feels similarly. She asks that we use her first name only because she wants to protect the privacy of her three minor children who are part of the LGBTQ community. Jody has a tight-knit group of friends who have been there for her for simple things, like helping her pick up her kids from school when she couldn't.

JODY: They really, really came together, and they supported me in a way that I'm not sure I was aware that you could really get from other people because I've had such questionable amounts of support from my own family.

SCOTT: And for tougher things, like coming together to stand up for her children who were being bullied in school.

JODY: Those people showed up with me to talk to the principal and, you know, to support me and my child. It's incredible how friends can really pass that line and become family.

SCOTT: Dahnite (ph) is 28 years old and lives in Atlanta. They don't want to use their last name because they aren't out to their family as queer. So chosen family for Dahnite has been essential.

DAHNITE: Constructing those relationships and friendships and working really hard on them has saved my life. And I don't say that lightly. A part of my family - one half of my family is going through actual genocide and war and famine in Ethiopia right now in Tigray. And I could not have survived the really horrible moments without my friends.

SCOTT: Dahnite says that their chosen family has helped them expand into the person they are today.

DAHNITE: I've never been in a familial setting like that, where I was allowed to be just myself and I wasn't putting on a mask. It was almost uncomfortable to be able to relax in that way. But it was also very emotional 'cause my friend and their mom were very affirming to me. I really felt protected and loved in the way that someone's child should be.

SCOTT: And 26-year-old Tatiana Durbin (ph) from Ohio has this advice for people who are trying to find their chosen family.

TATIANA DURBIN: Especially for the youth who feel so disconnected from others, to not be afraid to reach out and to look for the people around them who are walking with them and in the same direction. And if they can't find the love and the respect that they're looking for with their biological family, to take the risk on forming a family for themselves because it's so beautiful, and it's so uplifting.

JODY: If I had to describe family in one word, I guess I would say...

ARTHI: Fluid.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Involved.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Belonging.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Support.

DAHNITE: Warmth, yeah.

LIGHTFOOT: Love.

MORE: It's love.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCOTT: Brianna Scott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brianna Scott
Brianna Scott is currently a producer at the Consider This podcast.
Mallika Seshadri