(Photo by Annie Spratt)

Clara Barnhurst

Coming out demonstrated once and for all that I had chosen my family poorly. There are many other clues to be found, but being forced from the house for the sake of an inconvenient truth clinches it. We all make bad choices. We all trust the wrong people. We probably all choose the wrong family once in a while. Trouble is, we need people to survive.

My story is not unique among transgender folk. I came out, they didn’t like that, I was forced away. It’s a simple story that many share. It doesn’t make it hurt any less. One therapist told me that true abandonment can’t happen unless someone is given access to the parts of you that can be abandoned. Some folks get fast tracked into that space: parents, certain friends, sometimes siblings. Sometimes, we just trust that deeply. Sometimes we believe what we’re told about how certain relationships work.

When I was homeless and trying to find a way forward, I had to trust people. I had to trust the D&D house, the friendship group that took me in. I had to trust the support worker that approached me offering a shoulder to cry on. I had to trust my family of origin and my boss. I wasn’t in a state to take care of me, so I had to trust them.

Trust is the hardest thing to give. The psychologist at the gender clinic told me a couple of weeks ago, in so many words, that she could help if I trusted her. Trouble with that is she has nothing to lose. I’m the one with a death grip on a branch trying to not get lost at sea. She’s the one working with the gatekeepers. There is no incentive for trust, but my circumstances demand that I trust her a little.

I had to trust the D&D house because I needed shelter and they offered it to me. It was a choice of the moment, out of necessity. I was lucky that they ended up being true to that trust; I chose that family well, but not because I thought it through.

My ex was also a choice of the moment. Caught up in the emotion, understanding that if I wanted to stay with her we would need to get married. You can’t just move countries for a girlfriend. I said later that entering into that family as fully as I did was a product of circumstance rather than an actual desire to be married. I liked being married, but I wouldn’t have done that without the added pressure of immigration.

Chosen family is often thrown at us same as we are at our family of origin. I was lucky to have a family of origin that loves and supports me unquestioningly; my need to choose family is fairly low without a crisis to drive trust. Had my family of origin been closer to me, most of the folks I’ve met and now count as chosen family wouldn’t know me.


That appears to be an exceptional circumstance for transgender folks. Families of origin reject their transgender family members all too often, creating a string of crises that is remedied by caring souls that accept a person. They see a need for help, they offer and it’s taken. I don’t know if every person in that position automatically trusts their helpers enough to add them to their chosen family. I did. Maybe that is a flaw of mine. Maybe I trust too quickly. Support in crisis doesn’t mean support forever, though I wish it did.

(Photo by Heidi Sandstrom)

My fiancée was not chosen out of crisis. Far from it, I didn’t think much of her when we first came into contact. The story of our meeting - too long to recount here - is a string of meetings where we didn’t talk. I don’t want to marry her for any reason other than I love her and it feels right. There’s no need for marriage at all.

That contrast sticks with me when I consider my ex, usually in the wake of divorce paperwork gracing my doorstep. It was a marriage of convenience: we loved each other, but we couldn’t be together without it. I chose her as family too quickly because of circumstance.

That doesn’t mean the marriage was doomed. Lots of folks do this. Many succeed. We didn’t and that’s a shame, but being transgender meant the odds were stacked against us. The many other problems weren’t going to be addressed alongside that; I chose badly.

My best friend happened to me; I was quite wary of embracing what she had to offer. Reluctant to trust, battered down by her exuberance and persistence. I’m glad she won out, but it shows how I also chose wrong. It’s very easy to get this wrong. How do we know who to trust? We don’t. The people we are wary of can be the companions we long for and the people we immediately love can be the poison that kills us.


As my life becomes more stable, it’s interesting to see how my friendship group is changing. People I considered close chosen family are drifting away and others I met since are gaining proximity. Some I’ve only met a little while ago - handing out trust quickly again. Gotta watch that, but then I think to myself how lonely I would be if I didn’t pull people to me.

We need people. We can’t survive on our own; those folks we come across are our lifelines. Trust isn’t a choice very often, even if deep trust is. We don’t know who will be our family until we trust them and we don’t know if they will follow through until we stress that bond. In a world of total uncertainty, we just get to see who sticks.

If a person hasn’t got a reliably supportive family of origin, the process of choosing family becomes essential. More dangerous and with more hinging on it. You don’t have to be transgender to have an unreliable family of origin. You don’t have any way of knowing if you’re choosing your family well. I know I haven’t done a very good job of it: folks I invited in haven’t come through, folks I was reluctant to let close have been all that I needed and more. It seems to be a fifty-fifty shot, but we have no choice but to keep throwing the dice.

Comments (1)
No. 1-1

Thank you for this article. It is so relevant for me right now as emotionally I am still very raw after complete rejection by family of origin and many of my old friends. The truth of what you are saying is evident, it is only by having a supporting community network that we regain our lost resilience. We really do need each other.

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