The word “family” inevitably conjures something different for everyone. It might remind you of the 2.4 children you long to have some day, along with a semi-detached house and a driveway. It might make you think about the last row you had with your parents over dinner, inspiring a teenage eye roll (even if you are 25). It might trigger pain or sadness, if you don’t speak to your biological family, for example, if they rejected you for some of your life choices or the way that you naturally happen to be. It might make you think about the Kardashians, the Trumps or the Royal Family. Or it might speak to you about those special people you’ve met over the years, the ones you’ve actively decided to surround yourself with. The meanings of family are myriad, but what we can be sure of is that it’s no longer just about birth or biology; it’s about who you choose to break bread with.
Ask almost anyone queer or queer friendly what a constructed family looks like, and they’ll likely point you in the direction of Jenny Livingstone’s famous 1990 documentary, Paris Is Burning. A study of the Harlem ballroom scene, the film meets the members of vogueing “houses” put together by queer people of colour in New York City who, more often than not, are estranged from their biological families because they are gay, trans and/or queer. In these houses, a leader figure will take on the role as “house mother” or “house father”, and look out for their adopted “children” – usually younger, more vulnerable people who have found themselves alone in a racist and homophobic environment. As voguing legend and house mother Pepper LaBeija puts it in the film, “When someone has rejection from their mother and father, they get out in the world and they search for someone to fill that void.”
Paris Is Burning is a beautiful, flamboyant testament to our ability to form tribes, and a poignant reminder that family is what you make it. But skip forward to today, and in the 27 years since the film was made, the need for these protective tribes has far from waned. Kia LaBeija, who is the current overall mother for Pepper’s house – the Royal House of LaBeija – says it still provides queer people of colour with a what she calls a “survival family”, a group of people you call home when you have no place to go. They have meetings, they look out for one another, they compete in voguing competitions; “A house can provide a sense of community, acceptance, mentorship, life long friendship and love,” she says with warmth. In a world that can be hostile to minorities, sometimes a house is about safety, explains Kia, but other times, it’s just about pure, unadulterated enjoyment.
Ask almost anyone queer or queer friendly what a constructed family looks like, and they’ll likely point you in the direction of Jenny Livingstone’s famous 1990 documentary, Paris Is Burning.
As the designer Charles Jeffrey puts it, describing the family he met at his club night LOVERBOY, “Family is a warm, safe space – where you can always be your most authentic self, or at least a version of yourself you aren’t always brave enough to be.”
Stop to look at social changes and you’ll quickly see how, in 2017, the idea of the nuclear family is unravelling. Developments in fertility technology mean we can have kids later and later. Apps and internet interconnectivity mean we have more partner choice than our grandparents’ generation. The economy plays just as big a part as technology, too. For a whole generation of young people in Britain the housing market may never allow for home ownership, meaning people are more cautious to start a family, and yet, as the gender pay gap gradually closes, women are relying on men economically less and less, making us rethink our choices about when and how to settle down. For a mixture of these reasons, less people are getting married in the UK and US than ever before, and as such, the number of children born to unmarried parents is on the rise. Add to that the fact that more and more people are identifying as something other than heterosexual and all in all, the idea of family as we once knew it – boy meets girl and girl has baby – seems to be somewhat doomed.
While the traditional family shifts shape, takes longer to arrive, or never happens for some of us at all, we are forming our own families, both online and off. Be it through activism, art collectives or club nights, we are searching for like-minded people to “fill the void”, and in doing so, proving that family today is less about flesh and blood and more about the family you build for yourself. For the rapper Father, of Atlanta music collective Awful Records, starting a family of musicians meant taking on a role as a patriarch, but it also meant having people around him to watch his own back. Being the first of his friends to pop off commercially put him in a position of guidance, he says, and going on to establish and be the head of a record label further drove that home. “Over the past couple of years I’ve housed friends, helped them pay debts, given them advice,” he says with pride, before adding that family relationships works two ways. “It means having people to stop me from going off the deep end, so when you’re fucking up they can come from a genuine place and tell you, ‘aye, get your shit together!'”
For London drag family Denim, it’s about finding mutual humour, shared politics and people who are there through thick and thin. Drag “mama” Amrou Al-Kadhi has faced so much rejection from his biological parents because of his homosexuality; he says the word ‘family’ actually sends a pang of fear through his stomach. In Denim though, he’s built a new, surrogate family in the four other queens he performs with. “Denim really fills a void that I’m missing from my own family, there’s a constant source of support and belonging,” he explains. “My family are Muslim and Arab, so there is a lot of love but with that, a lot of fire and tension. This exists in Denim too – we often disagree about things as we negotiate our politics collectively, so we are constantly challenging and pushing each other, like any family.” Fellow Denim drag queen Tom concurs, explaining that the group have been through so much together over the last seven years of knowing one another that there’s almost a “blind faith in the constancy of the relationships” – which is, to him, what family is all about.
The meanings of ‘family’ are myriad, but what we can be sure of is that it’s no longer just about birth or biology; it’s about who you choose to break bread with.
Kia, Tom and Amrou are keen to express how constructed families can provide a sense of belonging or safety in numbers, particularly for marginalised people. The current political climate sadly means there’s more of a need for this type of family than ever before. In Brexit Britain, alongside the rise of the far-right in Europe and under a Trump Presidency, the West feels divided – with right-wing governments comes less equality, and with less equality comes more fragmentation. In a bid to pool together and find solidarity we are making ties with people who see the world the same as us – identity politics reflecting who we are better than party politics. “Activist groups give you a sense of family not only because you end up spending a lot of time together but because you have common goals or political identities,” explains Harry Jefferson Perry, from London, who is part of a solidarity group called Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants. He gives the example of the Women’s Marches that took place across the globe earlier this year – in almost every country the protests were organised by a crew of women with no activist experience and who didn’t know each other before. They bonded over the need to do something.
While our political future is precarious, as is the future of the nuclear family as we once knew it, the future of our constructed families looks brighter than ever then. Especially when the tools we have to form them – social media, in particular – keep on getting more and more powerful. Now, it’s our responsibility to keep imagining the potential of these families, how they will serve us personally and politically. Charles’ advice is not to be afraid to go to places that might bring people into your life whom you wouldn’t normally meet. Some of his most meaningful relationships were formed on the dance floor of the club, he says, a home away from home. Amrou’s advice is to remember that just like with a biological family, your found family might not always get along, but that “the push pull of familial relationships is what makes them unique and dynamic.” These families prove that, today, the old proverb “blood is thicker than water” need no longer apply. In 2017, biological family is great, if you have it, but the people we meet are the people who really make us.