color photograph of a pride celebration in a grassy park with trees in the background. people sit and stand close together on the grass, and a black queer couple dances in the foreground. one is shirtless and wears khaki pants, and the other wears a white shirt with a pride flag tied around their shoulders and flowing with their movement
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JUNE 28: People dance in Loring Park after a Pride and Black Lives Matter march on June 28, 2020, in Minneapolis. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

A new law expanding family and sick leave took effect on Jan. 1 in California, allowing employees to take leave to care for a “designated person,” which can be a blood relative or a nonrelative the employee considers family. The bill faced some opposition from the California Chamber of Commerce, which stated that the law “provides no definition of who qualifies, leaving it up to the employee to self-identify—which means essentially anyone could qualify.” While seen as negatively impacting employers, the fact that “essentially anyone could qualify” is monumental for employees—especially Black and Indigenous people. 

Colonial powers have long upheld the white heteropatriarchal standard of family as the most moral, healthy, and productive familial model. Meanwhile, Black and Indigenous communities have come under attack, with the nation-state having a vested interest in disrupting our families. 

“In addition to the dispersal of families, the nuclear family model discourages African-rooted practices such as community fostering, fictive kinship, social fathering, and other means by which Black people have counteracted the shearing forces of white supremacy,” wrote Andray Domise in an examination of how the patriarchal nuclear family structure was forced on traditionally matriarchal Black families by colonizing powers. Likewise, U.S. authorities demonized the extensive networks of kinship within Indigenous families. According to Leo Kevin Killsback’s work on traditional Indigenous kinship and sovereignty, what worked to disrupt Indigenous American sense of family and belonging “were the assimilation-based policies that destroyed traditional kinship systems and family units … [The] colonial forces, through law and policy, reinforced white male patriarchal kinship and family systems.”

In the white imagination, the othering of Black and Indigenous identities, kinship, and collective communal structures became aligned with—and demonized alongside—queerness. This served to further legitimize the view that white cisheteropatriarchal identity was necessary to uphold and align with national identity, placing it at the center of American life with the nuclear family. For as long as there have been colonial powers, there has been resistance to their oppressive ideals—especially the notion that only white supremacist, cisheteropatriarchal, and capitalist standards can define family. We have found resistive and joyous ways to create our own queer, non-nuclear families and to build communities fostered through solidarity, empathy, and care.

This is why the new law in California is so important, especially as fewer and fewer households adhere to a traditional nuclear family structure. It affords employees the level of autonomy and control that we all should have, the ability to define family by our own individual or cultural standards and values, rather than the nation-state’s directives. 

Hopefully, other states will adopt this model and extend it beyond family and sick leave. Legislation like this will benefit an untold number of people, but especially those working to preserve anti-colonial family structures and practices. Until then, found families will continue to thrive despite the lack of recognition through official channels, particularly among queer communities. Being abandoned or disowned by one’s family of origin is, unfortunately, a common queer experience. Many queer circles become havens for people who have departed from or were pushed out of families that refused to accept their queerness.

On the other side of the country, in Florida, where LGBTQIA+ people are under constant attack—and where California’s new law seems out of the realm of possibility—one grassroots group is modeling what it looks like when queer people define their own families and prioritize community care.  

Found Family Collective is a group of Florida organizers and activists who wanted to provide queer communities with a support system, offering the love and protection they deserve. “The world is tough and deadly; our families should be the opposite,” said Blacck Roze, one of the core organizers of the group. Found Family Collective actively works to create spaces and experiences that are welcoming and affirming for their queer kin, something in stark contrast to what many queer people experience within the workplace and unsupportive families of origin, both of which can subscribe to cisheteropatriarchal ideals.

Andy Rivero Perez, an Indigenous activist and co-founding member of Found Family Collective, stresses the importance of familial relationships in a person’s psychological development. 

“The first relationship a person forms sets them up emotionally and psychologically for the rest of their life,” Rivero Perez said. “The first relationship being the one with their caretaker. What happens when that first bond is, from the onset, flawed and broken?” 

The pain of not being accepted by the family you were born into, the feeling of not belonging or mattering, is a feeling that Found Family Collective seeks to be a balm for. Co-founder Cet Mohamed-Moore describes queer people’s search for found or chosen family as “seeking a soft landing that feels like home.” 

“The weight of having to [pretend to] be something other than what you are is exhausting. That’s a load we learn to take off when we’re with our chosen family,” Mohamed-Moore explained.

Heteronormative family models, as encapsulated in the nuclear family structure, are also breeding grounds for abuse, according to the co-founder.

“Chosen family models are closer to extended kinship models of family than the nuclear family,” Mohamed-Moore said. “Where there are family bonds that people have consented to being a part of, there are agency and truly seeing each other in a way that doesn’t happen when people are resentfully bound to each other by blood relations alone.” 

In that way, chosen families are ancient, Mohamed-Moore remarked, because “the extended kinship networks of our pre-colonial ancestors precluded the abuse, shame, and lack of accountability that now runs rampant.”

Angel D’Angelo, another co-founding member of Found Family Collective, has six years of this kind of grassroots organizing experience. D’Angelo told Prism that Found Family Collective was “formed out of pure anger, like much of queer movement has.” In the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando and Florida legislators’ unyielding attacks on queer and trans communities, D’Angelo and the others see a clear need for an organization like Found Family Collective. However, the group does not exist to respond directly to anti-queer and trans harms, but to focus on the community’s capacity for joy. 

“Working together and combining our different lived experiences, we decided that Found Family events centering joy, instead of centering trauma, was the way to go,” D’Angelo explained, clarifying that this doesn’t mean that politics are avoided. “We decided that queer liberation politics could be taught to people who are coming in with joy—through conversation, games, and activities—instead of just protesting every negative thing that happens and then going home.”

Roze says they have felt a connection to “the lonely and outcast” since they were very young and said the love, support, and encouragement they have received from folks within Found Family Collective saved their life. What draws them to this work is wanting to see other queer folks be loved and supported. 

“With Found Family Collective, I can be and do more than I ever could alone,” Roze said.

According to members of the collective, even LGBTQIA+ people who remain on good terms with their families of origin may still have a need for what the group offers. It’s an alternative space that provides options for queer folks to either replace unsupportive given families or supplement them. 

D’Angelo is lucky to have a given family that is very supportive, but he still felt the need to cultivate a chosen family of queer kin who could understand his lived experience and who would have knowledge on how to navigate it. He found family among drag performers. 

“It is through my drag family that I’ve seen mutual aid in real-time, as queer people go about protecting one another,” D’Angelo said. “Because of the powerful and organic experiences I’ve had, it’s my hope that more queer people are able to find the same.”

Rivero Perez said that Found Family Collective wanted to create something on a smaller scale but with a large impact. 

“Something that we wish was a thing when we were younger,” Rivero Perez said, expressing a hope that Found Family Collective will grow in popularity and that more groups like it will take root. 

As for Roze, they want Found Family Collective to be known as a space where communities are built in which everyone feels valued and has a voice, and where mistakes don’t define individuals who are encouraged in their growth.

“Found families are often places we learn to protect ourselves and where we find others who are willing to protect us. [They] are created out of the need for survival and a desire to thrive,” said Mohamed-Moore. 

This year, the collective is partnering with a self-defense training company with the aim to host self-defense classes for the community so that people can better protect themselves and their queer kin. As for long-term goals, D’Angelo hopes that Found Family Collective can help create community wellness-based mutual aid societies like the ones organized by immigrant cooperatives in Florida’s Ybor City during the late 1800s and early 1900s. These societies had their own hospitals and schools, and offered health care, burial insurance, life skills training, and community for groups excluded from main Tampa. 

“We think a similar thing can exist for those of us under the rainbow,” the co-founder said.

For those “under the rainbow” and those in Black and Indigenous communities who have long embraced extended care networks, found families are a path to “decolonial waymaking,” as Mohamed-Moore put it. They offer alternatives to the dominant understanding of family, honoring social kinship and care models that embrace a larger, interdependent community. The expansion of family and sick leave in California, giving employees the opportunity to define family in their own way, will allow more people to practice this form of care.

Support the work of Found Family Collective here.

Sherronda J. Brown is a Southern-grown essayist, editor, storyteller, and the author of Refusing Compulsory Sexuality: A Black Asexual Lens on Our Sex-Obsessed Culture.