Families are expected to provide unconditional love and support. But after coming out, many people in the LGBTQ community find that these things are conditional.
That’s why queer people often create “chosen families” — networks of LGBTQ people who offer support when biological families won’t. They take care of your dogs when you’re on vacation. They’re your children’s aunties and uncles. They’re even caregivers when you enter the final years of your life.
A new photo series, titled The Families We Make, shows the powerful connections between older and younger generations of queer people, and how crucial these chosen networks can be for sustaining a community and movement.
The series features notable LGBTQ activists from a range of identities in the community, including Edie Windsor, Bamby Salcedo, Jacob Tobia, and Raymond Braun. Many of them met for the first time through this project.
The Families We Make was created to raise awareness of Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), the country’s largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBTQ elders.
The nonprofit’s newest event, SAGE Table on May 18, invites people to host or attend a meal with LGBTQ people of different generations, with a focus on bridging generational gaps in the queer community — especially between elders and young people.
The series includes 11 portraits, each featuring a pair of activists, captured by New York City-based photographer and activist Levi Jackman Foster over the past two months. Like SAGE Table, The Families We Make promotes the importance of cross-generational interaction within the LGBTQ community, particularly younger queer people valuing the lives and work of older activists who came before them.
“I was a kid in a candy store,” Foster says. “I laughed and cried more times in the past two months than I have in the last decade.”
Matthew Riemer and Leighton Brown, the creators behind the Instagram account @LGBT_History, helped identify and research all of the activists for the project. Digital and social marketing professional Michael Hoffman worked closely with Foster on the overall creative concept and social media strategy for the project.
Foster had wanted to coordinate with SAGE on a project for years, but he was truly inspired to connect with the organization after the death of his mother last summer. In the time leading up to her death, he thought about what life would look like for him and his community in their final years.
“Taking my mother’s last portrait before her passing from pancreatic cancer last summer, I had an epiphany,” Foster says. “My mother had her children and loved ones around her for support when her day-to-day got difficult, but who will I have? Who will my LGBTQ family have to take care of them when they face the inevitable difficulties older people face?
“Who will pass down the stories of LGBTQ seniors – many of whom were disowned by their families?”
Older members of the queer community are twice as likely to live alone and twice as likely to be single as straight elders. They are also three to four times less likely to have children. Many LGBTQ elders are estranged from their biological families due to stigma around their identities.
To help curb this isolation, many LGBTQ groups, including SAGE, encourage younger queer people to connect with the generations who came before them to create a family network.
“So many LGBTQ people are estranged from our birth families because of religious beliefs or discriminatory narrow-mindedness,” Foster says. “In some ways, coming out breaks the idea of family, so many in our community have to pick up the pieces and start over with those who understand us.”
Foster hopes the photo series will inspire younger members of the queer community to reach out to elders to learn from their experiences and perspectives, especially through a SAGE Table event on May 18.
“We all need family — people who can take care of us, and who we can take care of, when no one else will,” Foster says. “That is what SAGE Table and this photo series are about.”