'A place for you': Why chosen family can be a lifesaver for LGBTQ people over the holidays
Despite greater acceptance, some gay and transgender people search for family in their friends
On Christmas Day, 15 years ago, Nathan Smith and Yumi Webster walked into a theatre bright and early — then exited to a dark, early winter's night.
The pair, along with Webster's husband Jason and her sister-in-law Natalie, devised a plan to see three movies back-to-back.
Rather than turkey and stuffing, they gorged on cinema staples: popcorn and candy.
That Christmas stands out to Smith after a decade disconnected from his biological family.
"My chosen family was really good at not letting me be miserable," the 43-year-old Ottawa author said.
Chosen families, often close friends but sometimes relatives outside of parents and siblings, offer love and support where biological family can't — or won't.
For LGBTQ people, these "relatives" can be an unavoidable reality following family rejection or violence.
The concept became better-known in the mid-to-late '80s as the AIDS epidemic gripped the world, according to historian Elspeth Brown. Same-sex partners and close friends were frequently barred from hospital visits, either by law, which did not recognize same-sex unions, or biological family.
"I think, quite critically, the family of choice made it possible to survive," said Brown, a University of Toronto associate professor.
Smith's parents severed ties with him at 18, cutting off communication and closing his bank accounts, he says. They learned he was gay two years earlier and didn't support his sexuality.
He was forced to drop out of university in his first year and scrambled to find a job. As he worked to save enough money for first and last month's rent, he couch surfed with drag queens and "bears" — typically older gay men — who surrounded him like family.
"They just opened their arms and welcomed me," Smith said.
"And, I mean, there's nothing better than a bear hug."
No nuclear family
The concept of chosen family doesn't exist in an LGBTQ vacuum. People living away from family, immigrants and refugees, or those who've lost loved ones, might have their own.
But it holds particular significance to LGBTQ communities, according to Brown.
Despite greater acceptance of sexual and gender identity, challenges — that may arise during gatherings — remain.
For instance, biological family may intentionally call a trans person by their birth name — commonly known as "deadnaming" — or use incorrect gender pronouns.
The value of chosen family is amplified when considering youth homelessness. In a 2016 survey by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, nearly 30 per cent of homeless youth, aged 13 to 24, identified as LGBTQ. They also reported experiencing higher rates of involvement with child protection services compared to their straight and non-transgender peers.
Chosen family, then, are "the ones who love you and who support you and have a place for you," Brown said.
"[They're] the people that get you through these holidays that are, frankly, set up around very normative family structures."
For Smith, who no longer has those typical family structures, friends like Webster fill a much needed gap around the holidays. When the two met, there was an instant connection, and Smith easily slid into Webster's family fold.
"It just felt very natural to say, 'Well, what are you doing for Christmas?'" Webster said.
As if describing a scene from a wholesome, made-for-TV holiday film, Markus Harwood-Jones and Ams Sweiger fondly remember Christmas two years ago.
The pair sat around a hearth sharing dinner while Walter, a "regal" looking wiener dog, basked in the glow of a fire.
Sweiger — who uses the pronoun they — had returned from a less-than-perfect holiday gathering with their biological family and Harwood-Jones, 27, was dogsitting the pup.
"I feel like it was one of those moments where the holidays actually felt good," said Harwood-Jones, a queer and trans writer and artist.
He first met Sweiger, a 26-year-old non-binary child and youth worker, a year earlier when they moved into the Phoenix Next, a Toronto home they rented for LGBTQ people.
Harwood-Jones left his parents' home at 17 due to queer- and transphobia. "They hadn't really ever been the parents I needed," he said.
"[Chosen family] just gives you so much more strength than you have when you're isolated."
Neither are spending the holidays with their biological family this year, though Harwood-Jones is close with his grandparents in Winnipeg, and Sweiger is working to strengthen the relationship with their mom in northern Ontario.
But their kinship helps them work through the challenges.
"You can become empowered when you're surrounded by that kind of safety net," Sweiger said.
On Saturday, Harwood-Jones and Sweiger celebrated the winter solstice with friends. They marked the shortest day of the year with a brunch — "a gay brunch," Harwood-Jones added — complete with song and magic.
While Smith's chosen family has ebbed and flowed as members moved, others passed, and new ones — like his husband's "amazing" parents and sister — came into the picture, Webster is a constant.
Though they usually spend Christmas apart these days, a small part of her — and her family — hangs on Smith's tree each year.
When Smith hosted his first, "worst" Christmas in 1996, the bargain bin fake fir he bought on Dec. 24 had only one decoration and some candy canes on it.
His friends laughed at the austere tree but came to the rescue the next year. They started an annual ornament swap.
Now, among the decorations that adorn his tree is a thumbprint from Webster's son.
"It's amazing," he said. "I look back and think, 'Wow. These people I spent Christmas with now have children, and the children have grown up.'"
"Now they're giving us little presents to put on our tree."