Families of choice in LGBTQ communities provide comfort, support and safety throughout a lifetime. A strong personal network has significant benefits for LGBTQ people of all ages. During June and July, in celebration of Pride, we will explore the concept of families of choice through individual interviews.
Interviewee: Phyllis Anne Johnson
Relationship status: Widowed
Neighborhood: Roseland on Chicago's South Side
Activities: Affinity Community Services, coordinates programming for Trailblazers ( 60+ LBT women of color ) affinity95.org/acscontent; and WACCT: Women of All Colors and Cultures Together, co-founder
Windy City Times: What is your definition of family?
Phyllis Johnson: Well I think of family basically as family of origin, I'm just wrapping my head around the family of choice idea. I've always had family of choice, 'go to' people. But I mostly think of family as the folks you don't choose. The folks you are connected to by fact of birth.
I've thought that for a long time, even when I wasn't sure I belonged in my family. But I think now of family of choice as including those other people; my nephew and niece, my best friend from high school, people from Affinity activities and other friends I've gathered.
WCT: Was there for you any distinction between casual friends and those you could rely on?
PJ: No, they were all friends, some were friend-friends, and some were acquaintance-friends. And go-to people are definitely friend-friends but they have their limitations. Like they might be homophobic, but love me.
WCT: What do you do to stay connected to all the people in your life you count as friend-friends, or close friends?
PJ: Facebook! Facebook and texting. I stay connected to one of my work brothers, we were family from different moms and dads, through Facebook. Others I run into at events.
WCT: Who are the members of your family of choice?
PJ: My sort-of daughter [Chris Smith]we decided on that terminology a long, long time ago, even before [her mother] Robbie [Smith] and I were married. Her best friend from childhood who I've become very close to, my niece, my nephew, my momeven though at 95 she's not really a fall-back person. My best friend from high school.
WCT: Are they family to each other?
PJ: Well my sort-of daughter and her friend of course are related to each other through their own wonderful friendship ( chuckles ), and my niece fits in with them more, and my nephew is less engaged. I think all of them recognize my friend in Boston, but she's in Boston. Oh and my brother in New York! I always get sound advice from both of them. When I was really in the totally acute stages of grief, those are the people that kept up with me, which was amazing.
WCT: You've had different life experiences where people have really been there for you, and it solidified the relationship in new ways, is that fair to say?
PJ: Yeah, yeah, I always thought of some of the Affinity folks as my wife's friends, not really my friends. But then I found out as she was dying that I'm a very lucky person …
WCT: That they were your friends?
PJ: That they were.
WCT: And has that changed your expectations for what family of choice means for your future?
PJ: Yeah, I'm very very grateful and I'm very lucky. It changed my expectations. It changed how how I relate to people. When they are in difficulty I notice.
WCT: What does it mean to you to be a family member to someone?
PJ: In some ways I feel obligated to my mother, like everybody, that's why you have kids. She was sort of there for me, so I'm going to be there for her. But at the same time I'm acutely aware I don't, my kids are all four-legged. They are wonderful but they aren't going to go to the grocery store for you. The ability to be supportive of someoneI think it's a really special gift. I enjoy being able to check in and reach out to people.
WCT: You seem to be going down the path of aging. How do you see your family fitting into that picture?
PJ: I feel like they would help me out like they did when I lost Robbie. I had a friend who went grocery shopping and that was really wonderful.
WCT: Would you be comfortable talking about how you and Robbie were family to each other?
PJ: Oh, so, you think family is going to support you and be there for ups and downs, push you when you need a little shove, hug you when you don't. One of the things I miss most is when Robbie was in the kitchen making her saladshe actually really did eat healthy for lunch! And I'd just lay on her back or shoulder when I needed a little Robbie support.
We began to nourish each other's likes. When we were in each other's space we both felt better. I knew that she was totally in my corner and I knew I was totally in her corner. And we'd joke with each other. I was lucky enough to get to ask her to marry me, it was great. She's still the only person I could imagine spending my life with.
WCT: For many LGBTQ people, traditional family isn't safe. Do you have any advice for people who want to create meaningful relationships or family of choice?
PJ: I learned it backward, so that is the advice I'd give. I would look and see who shows up, and what's happening when there's trouble. See who you can depend on, and for what. Just like your family of origin you can't depend on each member for everything, sometimes you can't depend on them for anything. Which is okay, and is not about youwhich is a hard-won lesson. But you'll find that there are people who genuinely care about you, it's better to not question it but to observe it. I began to realize I had people who were showing up for everything, and they counted to me a lot. Human life is a team sport, as humans we all need a team.
Interviews are conducted by guest writer Jacqueline Boyd, owner of The Care Plan, the country's first LGBTQ-centered healthcare-management company. For more information and resources, The Care Plan can be reached at 630-479-0083 or The-care-plan.com .
On Friday, June 10, Chicago-based national board members of SAGE ( Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders ) will host their annual SAGE & Friends reception. This year, SAGE will honor U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, co-chair of the Congressional LGBT Caucus, for his advocacy on behalf of LGBT rights and older Americans. SAGE will recognize Phyllis Johnson and Toi Williams for their pioneering Affinity Community Services' Trailblazers, and for their grassroots advocacy on behalf of LGBT older adults in Chicago.
The event will be 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the Wyndham Grand Hotel, 71 E. Wacker; visit SAGEUSA.org/chicago.