Monday, October 26

Navigating Toxic Family Members During Turbulent Times

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by BJ Colangelo

Carrie Buckley first knew their relationship with their father wasn’t going to be salvageable back in 2016.

“I cut ties with my father during Trump’s first campaign,” they say. “Our fight started with the Dakota Pipeline and kind of exploded from there.”

Buckley’s story is not unique and the discussions surrounding the Black Lives Matter uprising and the calls for defunding/abolishing police are causing many folx from a variety of different backgrounds to endure something all too common for many queer people: familial estrangement.

According to a study from the True Colors Fund, a nonprofit specializing in assisting unhoused members of the LGBTQ+ community, LGBTQ+ youth are 120 percent more likely to experience homelessness. Despite LGBTQ+ youth representing only seven percent of the total youth population, approximately 40 percent of youth experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQ+. This is an abhorrent statistic, and a sobering reminder that many LGBTQ+ folx are connected by lived experiences much harder to process than hanging up the same flags in our windows.

There’s an unsettling trend I’ve been noticing on social media, and it’s a massive upswing in people admitting they’ve had to cut off or have been cut off  by their family members for having anti-racist opinions, attending protests, or for refusing to stay silent when racist Aunt Sandra feels the overwhelming need to comment, “All Lives Matter.”

“It’s okay to be sad and hurt that your family isn’t supportive or is ignorant,” says Elizabeth Russell. “But it helps to feel that I’m breaking the cycle.”

I  want to recognize the frustration many have about how these conversations are long overdue, and the complacency people–namely white people–have had about excusing the generational bigotry in their families. These criticisms are more than valid, and they need to be acknowledged. However, this delay in conversation doesn’t change the fact that every single day, folx are cutting ties with family members and that pain is also very real.

“Those people have had every opportunity to be the person you need in your life, but you’re the better person for walking away because they couldn’t be what you needed,” says Russell. “Blood isn’t absolute, but it can be a learning point!”

The families that we are born into aren’t always the ones that we need. Unfortunately we’re living in a culture where familial obligation serves as a bonding agent stronger than any substance on earth. Entertainment, marketing, and even the laws in our country heavily emphasize the vital importance of maintaining a “nuclear family,” so for those questioning whether or not they need to prune the branches on their family tree, there’s generations of social conditioning that need to be dealt with.

Considering the generations before us were also slammed with that “blood is thicker than water” narrative, a lot of folx might be experiencing a massive amount of guilt surrounding their familial estrangement. These feelings are normal and valid, but being made to feel guilty is incredibly toxic and can cause even more undue stress and heartache. First things first, do all that you can to rid yourself of that guilt. Never, ever feel guilty about doing something for yourself that is necessary for improving your quality of life.

“It’s okay to be sad about that,” says Carrie Buckley. “But if it is a toxic relationship and it is damaging your mental health, then it’s better to walk away and channel that energy into making a difference where you can.”

For many queer people, we exist in a world of “chosen families”: relationships that we treat as seriously and as deeply ones typically connected by blood relation. Despite everything in the American culture trying to tell us otherwise, sometimes the people that are going to serve as the most affirming presences in our lives are the ones that we’ve found by chance and kept around by choice. For those that may be feeling lost after losing a familial connection, surrounding yourself with friends and online communities was a common suggestion across everyone interviewed for this piece.

“Understanding that it is okay to create our own families is a huge one,” says Dani Dickinson. “When my sister hits me with the ‘but we are family’ line, it used to really knock me down…but since creating my own family, it has no impact.”

As a young queer person, Nikki Zielinski didn’t know if she would be safe or allowed to come home at night, so she’d sleep at the coffee shop where she worked after closing shifts, or try to find a friend that would be willing to let her crash yet again. However, after a coworker told her in no uncertain terms that she was welcome in her and her partner’s home whenever needed without question, Zielinski’s life was changed forever.

“I didn’t realize until I’d truly internalized her generosity that THIS was what family was, or was always supposed to be—a person or group of people I could turn to when I was desperate, in need, whether failing or succeeding, for comfort and shelter,” she says.

Just as we break up with romantic partners when the relationship becomes unsalvageable or bad for our well being, we need to normalize the practice of breaking up with virulent family members. “I would not wish the things I felt, thought, or believed as a young person on anyone else, but I know that I would not have found my true family had I not been alienated from the one into which I was born,” says Zielinski. “If I’ve ever been courageous, it was only because they were beside me telling me I could be.”

One of the quickest ways to protect your heart and mind is to set up safe, strong, and secure boundaries for yourself. I’d be remiss to write this article without acknowledging that my own wife hasn’t spoken to her father in over ten years, a relationship severed completely after she came out as transgender.

“Outside of the misgendering texts on the holidays immediately after coming out, the last time I saw him or his side of the family was four years ago at my brother’s funeral where he stayed on the other side of the room and avoided eye contact,” Harmony Colangelo says. “The only time he’s ever attempted to make amends with me was for his own conscience, and not because he actually cares about me,” she says. “I didn’t and do not need that in my life.”

Separating from a family isn’t easy. What will I do for the holidays? Do I block them on Facebook? What do I do about milestone events in the future? Don’t I owe it to them for raising me to make this work?  All of these questions are completely normal to ask yourself, and countless members of the LGBTQ+ community have had to ask themselves those very same questions.

Ultimately, it’s going to be up to each individual how they want to move forward. For some, it’s a matter of only calling on important days and a limited view on social media, but for others, a complete no-contact separation is needed. Regardless of what path is needed in your life, know that you’re not alone. LGBTQ+ people have been surviving and thriving with our chosen families for generations, and there are plenty willing to welcome you with open arms to “Friendsgivings” and won’t leave you hanging when you need a ride to the airport.

“There will never be a shortage of people willing to embrace you like family,” says Colangelo. “We’re all just like hermit crabs, if we outgrow one shell, it’s okay to move on to the better fit.”


BJ Colangelo is a recovering child beauty queen that fancies herself the lovechild of Christopher Sarandon in “Fright Night” and Susan Sarandon in “The Hunger”. BJ is a social emotional theatre teaching artist and a professional horror film journalist and theorist. She writes about horror, wrestling, sex, kicking pancreatic cancer’s ass, and being a fat queer all over the Internet. Her work has been featured in publications like Blumhouse, Medium, Playboy, Vulture, Birth. Movies. Death., Autostraddle, and The Daily Dot, and has contributed essays to the books When Animals Attack!, Creepy Bitches, and Hidden Horror 101. Follow her on Twitter.

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