My Queer Chosen Family Helped Me Survive. Now, I Have to Pay It Forward.

"Chosen family isn’t just a blessing; it’s also a responsibility."

I built my chosen family around french fries.

When I first came out as transgender in 2012, going out for comfort food with my LGBTQ loved ones was my way of maintaining a sense of normalcy amid all the drama, chaos, and paperwork of my transition. Have fried potatoes shortened my lifespan? Almost definitely. But the company of good friends has surely lengthened it.

At Leon’s Full Service in Decatur, Georgia, we would share a basket of European-style frites with a wide array of unconventional dipping sauces, like massaman curry and goat cheese fondue. When I was with my Johnson City, Tennessee, friends at Mid City Grill, we would order a platter of hand-cut bacon cheese fries with ranch dressing or, as I like to call it, “America on a plate.”

But wherever I was, whomever I was with, and whatever we were drizzling on our crispy potatoes, I knew in those convivial moments that I was loved, that I could do this, and that I would be okay. That’s the power of LGBTQ chosen family: By doing something as mundane as taking you out to dinner, they can accomplish something as consequential as making life seem possible.

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Almost eight years later, I’m finding myself on the other side of the table: This summer, a journalist friend told me she was transgender. I had known her for years and never suspected it, but all of a sudden, I was her “possibility model,” as actress and transgender advocate Laverne Cox might put it—proof that she could transition and be happy.

Overnight, the time my friend I spent together took on an added meaning: In the same way that it had been so important for me to gather queer kin around me during my time of need, it would mean a lot for me to show up for her.

Apparently, if you’re openly LGBTQ for long enough, a funny thing happens: You stop having to come out to people and people start coming out to you.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by this development. But I’ll admit to not thinking this far ahead. In the solipsism—and yes, the selfishness—of my “baby queer” days, I saw myself as the protagonist and my queer chosen family as supporting characters. They donated clothes to me, they picked up the phone for me, they offered a shoulder for me to cry on. When I first read sociologist Kath Weston’s famous description of LGBTQ friend groups as “an alternative form of family,” I thought, “Yes, so true—and I am the nucleus of that family.”

My chosen family—and my remarkable partner—aided me through all aspects of my transition, from finding an apartment to rent as a newly-out transgender woman in Atlanta, to convalescing from sex reassignment surgery in San Francisco. I don’t know how I could have done it without them because I literally couldn’t have done it without them.

Now that the tumult of transition is far behind me, it would be easy to duck out and just take the life that I have been given without reciprocating the generosity that was extended to me. But chosen family isn’t just a blessing; it’s also a responsibility. If you’re here today because of other people, I am learning, you need to be like Haley Joel Osment circa 2000 and pay it forward. There is joy in surrendering the spotlight and becoming the supporting player in someone else’s story.

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Of course, that’s a kind of transition in and of itself: a shift away from the inward focus of my 20s toward what I hope will be a more considerate decade. Already, I can tell this phase of life will be just as challenging, if not more so, than the years I spent surmounting major transition milestones. Being a good friend can be hard. As a career-oriented Capricorn, I am especially guilty of not showing up for my friends while expecting them to show up for me. Ultimately, though, I can’t blame the alignment of the stars for the dereliction of my friendly duties: The fault lies with me for every missed special occasion, every unanswered phone call, and every postcard collecting dust. I try—I really do—but as I get older, my shortcomings as a friend are more painfully apparent.

These days, as I strive to be present for my newly-out transgender friend, I am also deepening an appreciation of what my own chosen family did for me. Not that my friend isn’t lovely, of course, but that “baby queer” phase seems unavoidable—and so I must stand by as she hops on that same well-worn wooden rollercoaster, the rhythms of which I know too well: All the excitement comes at the beginning before the ride comes to a grinding halt, and then you have to get off and go live.

After I came out, my chosen family—many of whom had already been out as LGBTQ for years and in many cases decades—patiently watched me throw my hands up on that ride without rolling their eyes because they knew it was just a vital first step. The least I can do now is follow their example; the best I can do is to be there for my friend both during and after that rollercoaster, giving her the same support I was given all those years ago.

So far, I’m doing it the only way I know how: over french fries. Next week will mark our third visit to Leon’s Full Service since she came out. When we’re there, we don’t have tearful conversations about LGBTQ stuff; instead, we just joke and eat, and I know that this simple sharing of space does something even if I can’t see what it’s doing. When you’re someone else’s chosen family, you put in the time and trust in the process. Fortunately, we like the same dipping sauces.

Samantha Allen is the author of "Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States" and a GLAAD Award-winning LGBTQ journalist.
@SLAWrites