Note to reader: In this article, we will be utilizing the term queer to encompass the LGBTQIA+ community in its entirety, including gender-nonconforming, genderqueer, and nonbinary identities.
During college, I often felt homesick. I would experience this longing to go home, and when I finally did, I was disappointed. What I longed for had never really existed, or at least not where I imagined it would be. Being accepted fully, being seen and loved and celebrated, is not something my birth family could offer. While we still have a relationship, their love comes with stipulations and conditions, including the condition that I hide parts of myself.
That’s not the case with my chosen family. Since coming out as queer in my teens, I have never underestimated the importance of the people that have shown up for me again and again and again. When I’m feeling insecure, angry, whatever, my friends and partner, now chosen family, have been there. They’re there when I’m trying out a new recipe, celebrating a birthday, or on a walk and need someone to chat with. And when there’s yet another attack on LGBTQIA+ rights, they’re there to rage with me.
Being a queer person in this world has become more frightening and less safe by the day. Ideally, people would be accepted for who they are regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. They could feel free to be themselves without the fear of being persecuted and ostracized (or worse), not just by society at large but too often by their friends and family as well. Many queer individuals have had to find a new community and a ‘chosen’ family to support them when their family and community don’t support them or reject them for living their truth. And while it could be argued that family and community are important for most people, having access to that type of support can be life-saving for the LGBTQIA+ community.
We know that there is a significant disparity in the mental health challenges faced by those in the queer community when compared to their cis/hetero counterparts, but the reasons why are complex and might be less apparent or altogether misunderstood. It’s essential to consider the specific mental health challenges faced by queer people, why these issues are so prevalent in their communities, and how having the support of their friends and family can make a marked difference in their overall well-being.
Why Do So Many Queer People Have Mental Health Struggles?
The fact that queer people experience a disparity in the mental health challenges that they face relative to their straight/cis counterparts is relatively well known, but we don’t often speak about why this occurs. Many queer people struggle with high rates of depression and anxiety, and this can largely be traced back to the way they are treated by society as a whole. The discrimination, rejection, and even hatred they encounter can be incredibly damaging, and it can lead to feelings of internalized homophobia or transphobia.
Queer individuals, particularly youth, are also at a higher risk of suicidal ideation and self-harm. In 2023, the Trevor Project conducted a national survey on LGBTQ youth mental health. It found that LGBTQ youth are at increased risk of suicide and that more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth considered suicide within the past year. The study also reported that 67% of LGBTQ young people reported experiencing anxiety symptoms, and 54% of LGBTQ young people reported experiencing symptoms of depression. This risk is often associated with experiences of bullying, victimization, or violence due to their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. The lack of social support and feelings of isolation can further exacerbate this risk.
It is also not uncommon for queer folks to be more vulnerable to substance misuse and abuse to cope with the hardships they face for living in their truths. According to the 2021 and 2022 National Surveys on Drug Use and Health, “lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults are more likely than straight adults to use substances, experience mental health issues including major depressive episodes, and experience serious thoughts of suicide.”
Another study by Meyer analyzed data from a nationally representative sample of middle-aged adults. The study found that lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals reported higher levels of psychological distress, major depressive episodes, and alcohol-related disorders than heterosexuals. Meyer offers a framework for understanding this excess in the prevalence of such problems in terms of minority stress, explaining that stigma, prejudice, and discrimination create a hostile and stressful social environment that causes mental health problems. Substances like drugs and alcohol can be used as a means of self-medication to alleviate emotional distress or numb painful experiences.
Further, studies indicate that the pressure to conform to societal norms around gender expression can make gay and trans people have a higher risk of developing patterns of disordered eating and body dysmorphia. And tragically, some of the people most vulnerable to attacks and violence in our society are LGBTQIA+ and gender nonconforming, so PTSD is also very prevalent in their communities.
If you are queer, the above information will not likely come as a surprise. You have likely lived with the suffering often inherent in navigating a society that continues to reject and condemn your very existence. You may have experienced rejection at the hands of your given family or have experienced constant microaggressions and requests that you only share certain parts of yourself. And hopefully, you understand that your mental health struggles are not a result of any defect within you but instead a result of a defect in our society.
Why is Chosen Family So Important?:
Rejection from one’s family of origin can severely impact the mental health of queer people. Countless studies validate that parental rejection is associated with health risk behaviors and poor psychological and physical health outcomes among LGBT individuals. LGB adults with higher levels of family rejection were more likely to report attempted suicide, high levels of depression, substance use, and other potentially risky and harmful behaviors. Parental rejection negatively affects health among both trans and cis adolescents.
Conversely, studies reinforce that family support and acceptance are associated with greater self-esteem, social support, general health, less depression, less substance abuse, and less suicidal ideation and behaviors among LGBT youth. This highlights why it is crucial for LGBTQIA+ folks who can’t find acceptance from their family of origin to seek out a chosen family to love and support them.
Because LGBTQIA individuals often face unique challenges, including societal discrimination, prejudice, and stigma, having supportive friends and family members is vital to their overall emotional well-being. They can provide comfort, understanding, and acceptance and provide a safe space for expressing thoughts, feelings, and experiences without fear of judgment or rejection. Supportive friends and family members can also help queer folks develop a positive self-image and self-acceptance. This support can facilitate the exploration and understanding of one’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. It also allows individuals to embrace their authentic selves, develop a sense of belonging, and find pride in their identity.
People in the queer community may also experience feelings of isolation and loneliness due to the challenges they face, including a lack of acceptance from society or their immediate environment. Because humans are social creatures, being ostracized in this way can be incredibly distressing. When friends and family can provide support, they act as a crucial social network, offering companionship, love, and a sense of belonging. This connection helps combat the isolation that some queer individuals may experience and promotes social integration.
Having a chosen family can be a vital lifeline for many queer folks who can’t find support from or are outright rejected by their family of origin. It’s human nature to want to feel like you belong, and without that source of connection and understanding that your family of origin is meant to bring, many queer folks find themselves feeling lost and hopeless.
How Do I Find and Choose My Chosen Family?
Finding a chosen family is not always easy and straightforward, and it may require stepping outside your comfort zone. To find a chosen family, it could help to remain open to new connections, actively engage in activities and spaces that align with your interests, and be patient in finding people who genuinely resonate with you. Building a chosen family is a process that can often unfold naturally as you create connections and nurture meaningful relationships. You deserve to be loved and accepted. We all do. Here are some additional suggestions that might help you find your chosen family:
Find local support groups, community centers, or organizations that provide safe spaces and resources for queer individuals. It may also help if you try attending meetings, events, or workshops so that you may connect with like-minded people who share similar experiences.
The internet has become a prominent role in how many people connect, so it might be wise to explore online platforms and social media groups focusing on queer topics, interests, or identities. Engage in discussions, share your experiences, and connect with others who resonate with your journey. This can be particularly helpful if you live in an area with limited queer community resources.
Get involved in LGBTQIA+ activism, advocacy, or volunteer work so that you might connect with others who are passionate about queer rights and equality. Working together towards a common cause, especially when it intersects with your lived experience, can help foster meaningful connections and build a sense of community.
Pay attention to how you feel when you’re around friends and loved ones. Does it feel safe to be your full self? You may already have people in your life ready and eager to embrace you; the only way to know is if you start sharing yourself with them and pay attention to how you feel when you do. If you notice that your vulnerability is met with care and appreciation, these friends may well develop into your chosen family.
Therapy and support groups can also help to find your chosen family. Not only will this benefit your general mental health, but being in a supportive space and sharing with those who can resonate and empathize with your experiences might also help you build connections.
If you are fortunate enough to have LGBTQIA+ and nonbinary individuals in your life who trust you enough to share themselves with you, show up for them. Your support and allyship are essential.
How Can I Be a Better Ally?
Take the initiative to learn about the experiences, hardships, perseverance, and history of the queer community. It’s difficult to know how to effectively show up for your LGBTQIA+ loved ones or even the community at large if you don’t understand where they’re coming from. Read books and articles, watch documentaries, and listen to LGBTQIA+ voices to gain more insight.
Reflect on Your Own Biases:
We all have biases, it’s an unfortunate part of being human, but we need to make an effort to look inward when those biases serve to actively or passively suppress the rights and freedoms of those most vulnerable. Take the time to reflect on any preconceptions or assumptions you may hold and actively work on challenging and unlearning them. Engage in self-reflection and be open to growth and understanding.
Speak Up Against Discrimination:
As important as it is to know when to take a backseat and allow LGBTQIA+ to speak for themselves, part of being a good ally is also knowing when to speak up for them. Challenge homophobic, transphobic, and discriminatory language or behavior when you encounter it. Be an advocate for equality and social justice. Don’t be afraid to use your voice and privilege to support LGBTQIA+ individuals and educate others about queer issues.
According to a study in which LGBTQ+ individuals were invited to consider allyship, many believed that being a good ally includes humility. That means listening more than you speak and centering discussions on queer issues on the community instead of on yourself.
For many reading this article, there’s already an understanding of the struggles of the queer community, including mental health struggles. I hope that, at the very least, reading about these studies and the impacts of rejection and isolation will validate the importance of creating and protecting our queer families, our chosen families. Being seen by and celebrated by your chosen family can allow for the homecoming you have always wished for. And it may also invite grief for what may have been if you had access to this support and unconditional love sooner. For some, while they know they long for something different, stepping into and creating a chosen family may feel daunting, especially if what you’ve learned is that it’s essential to cordon off and hide parts of yourself. If you need help navigating this process, please reach out. We are here and want nothing more than to celebrate you for exactly who you are.