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'Chosen families' ruptured: How Covid-19 hit an LGBTQ lifeline

Traditional families are bound by blood, but chosen families are bound by love, friendship and shared differences.

Fantasia McKenzie, 35, comes from a big family. She has too many nieces and nephews to count, and at least five children, some who now have children of their own. A lesbian from the Bronx, New York City, McKenzie calls them her “chosen family,” a common phrase LGBTQ people use to describe nonbiological bonds they’ve forged in the absence of biological family.

“I became an adult, and I made my own family,” said McKenzie, who met most of her long-term chosen family members at Sylvia’s Place, an LGBTQ homeless youth shelter in Manhattan, and at nearby New Alternatives, a drop-in center for queer youth, when she was a young adult.

Fantasia McKenzie, who lives in the Bronx borough of New York, has a large "chosen family," though she has been unable to get together with them due to the pandemic.
Fantasia McKenzie, who lives in the Bronx borough of New York, has a large "chosen family," though she has been unable to get together with them due to the pandemic.Courtesy Fantasia McKenzie

McKenzie said her biological mother loved and accepted her but was too housing insecure to provide a stable home for a child. Throughout her youth, McKenzie bounced from one unstable housing situation to the next and eventually wound up at Sylvia’s Place and later at New Alternatives, where she began to make bonds with other LGBTQ youth that would become her chosen family.

“We're older now, so relationships aren’t always what people expect them to be,” McKenzie told NBC News. “We don't speak every day. We don't see each other every day, but when we do, it’s like we never miss a beat, like we were never apart from each other.”

For the past decade, McKenzie would gather with her entire chosen family at the annual New Alternatives holiday party — or, as she likes to call it, the “family reunion.” This year, however, the pandemic has forced the center to cancel the yearly event and instead distribute to-go meals and Christmas “party bags” at the door.

“You see everybody. You see who had kids this year, how big the kids got,” she said of the annual holiday event. “It's better than catching up on Facebook, because you get to interact personally. Now you can hold the baby you been watching grow up on Facebook, you know? We don’t have that this year. We can't socialize. We can’t meet up with each other.”

‘The only family that we know’

LGBTQ chosen families exist all over the country, in cities big and small and across state lines. Some can trace their roots back to shelters, others foster these bonds within their local communities. Traditional families are bound by blood, but chosen families are bound by love, friendship and their shared differences. Many people in LGBTQ chosen families were shunned by their biological families due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, though there are those who have more complicated relationships with their birth families.

Since chosen families often don’t live together, many have been unable to see each other during the pandemic and, in some cases, have even lost close ones to Covid-19.

Tanyun Monta'ge, center back row, the patriarch of "The House of Monta'ge," enjoys a meal with his "chosen family" in Jackson, Miss.
Tanyun Monta'ge, center back row, the patriarch of "The House of Monta'ge," enjoys a meal with his "chosen family" in Jackson, Miss.Courtesy Tanyun Monta'ge

Tanyun Monta'ge, 45, is the patriarch of one of the largest chosen families in Jackson, Mississippi: the House of Monta'ge. The self-described "rainbow dad," who is transgender, estimates there are about 50 members in his family, including his wife, Malita Joy-Brooks, who helms the family with him.

“I have children, my children have children, my children's children have children. I have brothers. I have sisters. They may have children,” Monta'ge said of his chosen family.

Monta'ge said most members of his “house” or family were disowned by their biological families, an experience he said he shares. Over the years, most of his children have moved out of state and have started families of their own — both biological and chosen. He said birthdays and holidays were normally times when they would reunite, but the pandemic has prevented them from gathering.

“We did get together for Thanksgiving,” he said of years past. “That was like the highlight of everybody coming home.” This Thanksgiving, he said they gathered virtually over Zoom instead and may do the same for Christmas.

Sybastian Smith, 39, one of Monta'ge's "rainbow sons," said the pandemic has “taken a toll on our community.”

“These are the only family that we know, the only family that we have, and not being able to see those folks, have physical contact with those folks for so long has definitely been mentally detrimental to a lot of our community members,” he said.

LGBTQ people are more likely to have fraught relationships with their birth families and are less likely to form biological families of their own. A 2016 report published in the journal Pediatric Clinics of North America cited research that found one-third of gay, lesbian and bisexual youth experienced parental rejection due to their sexual orientation. And a 2013 Pew Research Center survey found that 35 percent of LGBTQ adults are parents, compared with 74 percent of adults in the general public.

From ‘grandmothers’ to ‘twins’

New Alternatives Executive Director Kate Barnhart said her drop-in center helps about 250 queer youth a year. While some of the organization’s clients come from families that can’t afford to take care of them, she said, most have been disowned by their parents for being LGBTQ or choose to leave because their families don’t accept them. As a result, many form families of their own, she said.

“It gets quite involved; sometimes I feel like I need a diagram,” Barnhart said of the complicated relationships that evolve out of chosen families, which can include everything from grandmothers to nephews to twins (for chosen family members who develop an extremely close bond).

She estimated there are about four “main” chosen families that have developed out of New Alternatives alone. More experienced family members — those who have been in the family for the longest — typically take on the role of mother, father, aunt or uncle, but they aren’t necessarily ranked by age. For example, sometimes “parents” will take up “children” who are older than them. Barnhart said families typically take in new members when more experienced members spot youth on the street who look like they need help and bring them to Barnhart, who helps them find shelter and other needs. She said many will also share resources like money and food stamps and help one another stay safe on the streets.

“They really rely on each other, even the ones who don’t like each other,” Barnhart said. “If there's a threat, our young people band together across their differences. They look out for each other.”

Adding to the complexity, people in chosen families may decide to start their own families.

Sybastian Smith, second from right, and members of his "chosen family" in Atlanta.
Sybastian Smith, second from right, and members of his "chosen family" in Atlanta.Courtesy Sybastian Smith

Smith, a transgender man, joined the House of Monta'ge in the late 1990s after he started participating in LGBTQ pageants at local gay clubs and other venues around Jackson. It was at one of those events where he met Monta'ge, who became his mentor. Smith has since moved to Atlanta and started a small family of his own — the House of Armani — with about 10 people. Before the pandemic, he would get together with family at restaurants about once a month, he said, but now he sees them mostly on social media. A medical assistant, Smith said he often reaches out to younger family members — from both his Jackson and Atlanta families — to remind them to wear masks and socially distance.

“There have been some LGBTQ folks in Mississippi that have passed away, that have died from Covid this year, so I just want my kids to know that it’s really real,” he said.

Monta'ge also worries about his family members and has been encouraging them to make sure they have medical and burial insurance. Several of his family members have gotten sick with Covid-19, he said, though none of them severely. However, other LGBTQ families in Jackson have lost members to Covid-19, he said, including a woman in her 30s who was popular in the community. Though she wasn’t a direct member of his family, her death had a “very strong impact,” given how interwoven chosen families in Jackson are, he explained.

‘I’m missing a whole child right now’

In New York City, LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness were already being pushed to the fringes by soaring costs of living. Now, the pandemic has made survival even more difficult. The city has closed off many of its public spaces, where young people panhandled or performed for tourists, and many of the programs they relied on for basic needs like food and shelter have been cut, according to Barnhart.

Research that predates the coronavirus pandemic found that a staggering 20 to 45 percent of youth who are homeless identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer. Among young people ages 18 to 25, LGBTQ people have a 2.2 times greater risk of becoming homeless than their non-LGBTQ peers, a research brief by the Williams Institute at UCLA Law noted.

Many of these young adults depend on the more than 260 LGBTQ community centers throughout the U.S. for urgent needs. During the ongoing health crisis, however, many of these centers are reducing hours and services or shuttering.

Maryse Pearce, a program manager at the Stonewall Community Foundation, a nonprofit that offers microgrants for LGBTQ people, said many of the grants go to young people who have lost family support. Usually, it distributes about 100 microgrants a year, she said, which recipients use to pay for basic needs like food and rent. But this year, due to the pandemic, they’ve given out several hundred microgrants, primarily in New York City. Pearce said the pandemic is making many of these young people desperate.

“Something that we've seen in this pandemic is that a lot of queer youth have moved back in with family that are not supportive,” she said.

McKenzie said she continues to be housing insecure. She recently got a full-time job at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island and is staying in a friend’s apartment in the Bronx. Her biological mother died from a heart attack in May, she said, after pandemic restrictions prevented her from getting medical care. Not being able to see her chosen family during the holidays, as well as her four-hour round-trip work commute, adds to McKenzie’s stress, she said. On top of that, she said one of her chosen children — a daughter who is street homeless — has gone missing.

“I’m missing a whole child right now,” McKenzie said, adding that while she’s “anxious” about the situation, she’s optimistic her daughter will resurface.

“You pray for the best, and you hope for the best, [but] prepare yourself for the worst as much as you can,” she added. “Thank God for keeping the loved ones that you did keep, and pray that you keep some more, as time goes by.”

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