The first time I learnt about chosen families was in my mid-20s. I had queer community in my life for the first time, and my peers were giving me crash course in LGBTQ media, including the 1980’s documentary Paris is Burning. In Paris, I saw queer people who had been rejected by their biological families respond by forming fiercely loyal social units. When they used the word “mother,” it had nothing to do with blood or gender. They formed a “chosen family” to create a safe place for themselves, as a counter-point to their day-to-day experiences of vulnerability.
The same was true of Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin’s series of novels, and its 1993 TV adaptation, which became a staple on its own. It was easy to see why this concept became such a touchpoint within Western queer culture—it is an intuitive response to the oppression of queer people.
But recently, the concept of chosen family has become mainstream. At the 2015 season finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Miley Cyrus, who was in the audience, said, “meeting Mama Ru was a dream come true.” While Cyrus is queer, she has also inherited privilege and career success from blood family; her life is as distant from the experiences of the trans women and POC drag queens of Paris as any queer person can get. But claiming some kind of association with the concept of chosen family has become cool. I mean, the Gap has even co-opted it for a Pride 2019 ad campaign. Being part of a chosen family is becoming a stamp of LGBT cachet—a cachet that celebrities and companies want to cash in on.
That’s why, when Netflix announced their revival of Tales of the City, released just in time for Pride season, I was as hopeful as I was skeptical—was Netflix looking to cash in, too? Maupin’s series of novels, the first of which was published in 1978, were some of the first books to depict queer culture and he extensively explored the instinctive and necessary formation of chosen family through the fictional characters who live at San Francisco’s 28 Barbary Lane. But as it turns out, I didn’t need to worry. Instead of exploiting the topic of chosen family, Netflix’s revival of Tales of the City celebrates chosen families in many forms. It also digs into the complexities of when a support system that used to be counter-culture becomes the ‘new’ normal—and it made me rethink what I want from a chosen family altogether.
Chosen families provide necessary support
My dad kicked me out when I was a teenager, and while my sexual orientation wasn’t the only reason, tension surrounding his belief that my bisexuality was “just a phase” was a huge factor. By the time I met other queer people in my mid-20s, I craved the unconditional care of a family. I wanted a space where something as intrinsic to me as who I love wasn’t shunned as an inappropriate topic, or delegitimized. I wanted a reprieve from the sexual harassment I faced when I outed myself in other social situations, such as my workplace. Chosen family felt like it could be the answer.
This aspect of the role chosen families play in queer lives is deeply honoured throughout this version of Tales of the City. In fact, it’s steeped with layered representations of these families. There’s the queer burlesque co-op bar (the Body Politic, named after Canada’s famed gay liberation magazine) where several of the characters work without their sexuality, bodies or gender being policed. Then there’s the 1960s flashback episode which explores a group of trans chosen sisters keeping each other alive in a far less LBGTQ-friendly time in San Francisco. And of course, the relationships between everyone who lives at 28 Barbary Lane count, too. Tales of the City puts it bluntly: chosen family is about creating queer safe space through lasting and unconditional solidarity.
Family can be complicated—and chosen families are no exception
While chosen families can be a place of safety and validation, they can also be a place where cultural norms are introduced and enforced. Those norms might not be the pressure to be straight, but they can still be stifling. One of my first girlfriends was in a L Word-type chosen family (all cis women, and all femme presenting). She and her chosen sisters had each other’s back big time— but they were also attached to the idea of exclusively being with other lesbians. Much like in the TV show The L Word, I felt I was only welcome if I kept my bisexuality quiet.
In this way, sharing a certain world view—perspectives that are sometimes oppressive or outdated—can be the price of admission for being part of a chosen family. We see this exact issue play out in Tales of the City, when Michael takes Ben, who is in his 20s, to a dinner party. Looking around the table, all of the guests appear to be older, wealthy, cis, white gay men. Ben is the only millennial and the only POC. When one of the men uses a transphobic slur during casual reminiscing, Ben doesn’t let the comment slide. He is subsequently subjected to a tirade about why the white gay men present have earned the right to be problematic because of the hell they lived through.
It’s a cringe-worthy scene—but it’s also moving. It’s awful watching Michael say nothing while Ben is being told off for doing the right thing, but we get the myriad of reasons Michael is quiet. The older men at the dinner party did survive through banding together, and their trauma may have some of them feeling like they don’t have capacity to care about anything other than themselves. But the comfort zone of their chosen family also means that they can isolate themselves from the wider world and never actually have to take responsibility for perpetuating harmful language or develop deeper capacities.
What chosen families mean to me, today
For the trans women in episode eight, the 1960s flashback episode, it was very much a, “you’re one of us, or one of them,” world. I now identify as trans, and I sobbed through the episode because I feel a profound love and debt to the trans people who came before me. And I had an impulse run through me, the same way I did when I watched Paris is Burning, to keep the history of those who came before us alive by replicating the dynamics of their chosen families in my own life.
But Tales of the City also made me realize that the function of a chosen family in the ‘60s, ‘70s or ‘80s can’t be entirely the same the same as it is today, because the circumstances have changed so dramatically. Watching Tales, I realized that what I want out of chosen family isn’t the unconditional support that the residents of 28 Barbary Lane show each other, even though that’s what I used to think would make me whole.
As Michael reflects towards the end of the series, sometimes unconditional support can foster stagnance. The cachet associated with chosen family right now risks reducing chosen family into a fashion statement, and that’s a problem is because it dishonours the history of where chosen families came from. But the idea that chosen family is a social unit in which individuals isolate themselves in comfort zones, and where ideas and norms internal to that unit cannot be challenged, doesn’t honour the queers who came before us, either. Watching Tales of the City made me realize that what we deserve out of chosen family today is a group of people who push us to grow and evolve, as a queer people, within the larger community, rather than as an island within it. We can show real love for what chosen families mean to queer people, in the past and now, by demanding that chosen family continue to be a building block of queer strength, and a way that we construct a place for ourselves as part of a wider society.