“You can’t choose your family!”. It’s one of those sayings that has such ubiquity it’s become a truism. You say those words to pretty much anyone (in this place and at this time) and they’ll know what you mean. It generally means they might drive you mad sometimes, but hey, they’re family. It generally means that we have to put up with them cos, you know, we didn’t get to choose them. They were given to us as a complete and non-returnable package.
I guess for most people it’s a statement that makes sense. Most people enjoy relatively “good” relationships with their families. They have their quirks and their foibles, but on the whole, they’re an OK lot. There may be an odd outlying cousin or aunty or grandparent that doesn’t get much of a look in at Xmas, but most are welcomed into the fold: bad jokes, poor taste in jumpers and slightly odd political views notwithstanding.
Working as a relationship counsellor attachment theory is a useful tool, so I spend a lot of time looking at the further reaches of the family, as well as asking my clients to revisit and review some of the closer relationships they had growing up. We learn to “do” relationships whilst watching those around us do theirs. And sometimes they are good at it and sometimes they are not. But, as with any body immersed in a system, we don’t always know how or in what way they are good, or not. We have nothing to compare with. Getting the adult to rethink their childhood experiences can open up conversations about how relationships are done in the here and now.
And this is especially true when I am working with LGBT+ clients. Many LGBT+ people grew up in incredibly loving, warm, safe families. But families that were loving, warm and safe whilst they were operating in their cis-heteronormative bubble; assuming their child was cisgender and/or heterosexual. Following all the usual tropes about gendered behaviours and attitudes. Discussing the future opposite sex partners in a blissfully unaware manner, assuming this would be the path their offspring would take.
Sometimes parents are not “just” heteronormative, they are actively trans/homophobic. They express negative views of sexual and gender diversity, not realising that every utterance is a blow to the identity of the child, just starting to learn about their place in the world (and in some cases doing this deliberately in attempt to control the sexual or gender identity of the child). And this leaves the child in a confused state. They are loved and cherished and cared for. But they also know there is this forbidden element of themselves, an element that causes pain and confusion. So how are we, as young LGBT+ folk, to square the circle of the loving parents who hate this elemental part of ourselves?
We hide. We deny our existence. We base our relationships on a fabricated version of ourselves. We know they love us, so we do what we feel like we need to do to maintain our family relationships. After all, we can’t choose them, can we? But then through fate, courage or stupidity, the truth is out. The family now has to adapt: either learn to accept their offspring for who they are, or don’t, and the relationships break down. It is often a journey to acceptance and there are wonderful organisations like PFLAG (Parents, Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays http://www.pflag.co.uk/) and Mermaids (http://www.mermaidsuk.org.uk) out there, as well as counsellors working in this field, to help families as they deal with these situations.
For many LGBT+ people, that initial “coming out” to family is followed by an immersion in “gay culture” – whatever that may be. In general, it may mean meeting like-minded people. Fellow travellers on the outskirts of society, each finding their own way through the morass of normativity to establish an identity that feels true and authentic, rather than one that meets the needs of people around them. We start to form our own queer families. We do get to choose who is in these families and we get to create them in our image rather than us being forced to present the image they want of us.
Like all families, these families experience problems. We fall out with people, we meet new people. The membership of the family changes as people grow and change within it. Time, distance, births, deaths, all of these things affect us both within our birth (or adoptive/fostered) families and within our new, chosen families.
So when I’m working with LGBT+ clients, I find it helpful to explore families in all their formations. I try not to just assume that when I ask about their family history I am only talking about the ones they had “no choice” over. I try to include also the family they may have chosen to escort them, for better or worse, through life’s many and varied challenges and joys. And to try and understand what this means to them. Do they recognise it as a family and if so what does that bring? And how do these “families” inter-relate? Do they meet? Do they have shared values? If not how does the client manage the complexity of having different personas in different family situations? If they don’t see themselves as having a queer family, of course that’s OK too.
Talking about family relationships then, can have very different meanings for LGBT+ clients. As counsellors, we need to be alert to these differences, and be ready to explore the various meanings with our clients so as not to exclude their experiences. To ignore their queer family is to ignore their identity. And that’s already happened enough.