cw: blood, family
The oath of blood brotherhood (siblinghood) is an ancient ritual that is taken when two people prick their finger and suck the others’ blood from the wound to pledge an alliance of loyalty. Stories of blood covenants dating back to biblical times tell of sworn oaths forged by rubbing self-inflicted wounds together and commingling blood (Leviticus forbids the drinking of blood). The Hebrew word for covenant is derived from a verb which means “to select the best,” and is apparently closely related to the words for “choice meat” and “fattened.” Another known way to forge a covenant was slicing an animal in half, cooking it, and symbolically joining together in banquet. In doing so, one would obviously choose the best and fattest animal to sweeten the deal. I like to think of blood covenants as the proverbial “choose your fighter,” and also “I would die for you.”
I’ve been creating blood pacts since I was five, very casually joining my bloody fingertips with my friend’s in order to bind us in a league of sisterhood for all of eternity. Lord knows you don’t get to choose your biological family, so the opportunity to select the best of the best for blood siblinghood is an excellent hack. Long before I knew what it was called, before I knew I was queer, I was searching for chosen family. In queer community the concept of chosen family is ubiquitous because so many of us have strained or no relationships with our families of origin. Intergenerational families of societal Others without blood or legal ties not only sustained but created many facets of queer community from ballroom to leather.
In the 1977 queer cult classic (re-released in 2019 by Nightboat Books), The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions, Larry Mitchell penned the tear jerking pinnacle of chosen family. Mitchell drew inspiration from his own chosen family at the Lavender Hill commune in upstate New York that he shared with a group of his gay and lesbian friends. In a passage titled “Sons and Fathers,” the faggots create a rite of cleansing where friends play the part of father and son. These friends heal each other as traumatic events are “reenacted until the spell of dead generations is broken. With a scream of laughter the faggots see, and for a moment they love each other freely, fathers making love to sons, and sons making love to fathers.” Page after page we witness in word and image the beauty of queer chosen family in a not-so-mythical world of men’s destruction. Perhaps the most well known line in the whole book, “We gotta keep each other alive any way we can ’cause nobody else is goin’ do it” reads like an incantation. The Women Wisdom provides us this queer psalm; a prayer of care and love in the midst of so much devastation.
I remember the first time I was old enough to realize that maybe my family was fucked up. When you’re a kid you don’t know any better until you see it, so these things always unravel in comparisons. In sixth grade I started middle school where several elementary schools had merged into one. Suddenly I had friends from the next town over who lived in houses with lawns and trees, with swimming pools, and dedicated snack cabinets that were always stocked. Their parents drank water instead of alcohol, soberly drove us to social destinations, and everyone seemed to like each other. In my elementary school I had never even been to most of my friends’ houses, I assume for the same reasons they had never been to mine. I was staring at a glaring contrast between what my home was like and what a home could be. People from different neighborhoods had completely different ways to be a family. Maybe less stretched for other resources, there was more happiness to go around?
I have always made really intense, inseparable friendships with other girls. It was kind of like serial monogamy, but for friends. In All About Love, bell hooks describes my particular experience pretty accurately, “since we choose our friends, many of us, from childhood on into adulthood, have looked to friends for the care, respect, knowledge, and all-around nurturance of our growth that we did not find in the family.” She hits home when she says “friendship is the place in which a great majority of us have our first glimpse of redemptive love and caring community.” It now makes sense to me that the friends I was closest to also happened to have caring, ideal family situations. Spending time at my friends’ houses felt like visiting an exciting, foreign country when the farthest I’d ever been was the Jersey shore. I was the monster child feeding on sweet, foreign familial love that permeated the air, and I couldn’t get enough. Parents that were present, involved and definitely not addicts, delicious! These friends saved me, distracted me, and most importantly provided me with safe places to be that weren’t my house. Before senior year of high school when I could finally drive, I relied on a particular friend whose mom knew about my situation at home. She would drop everything to rush over and pick me up and whisk me away to her house on the other side of town where I was greeted with warmth and comfort.
In 2017 I had some sessions with a sort of reiki healer where I was trying to do some inner child work. In these sessions I would lie on a massage table in a dark room covered in blankets. My guide would lead me into a deep meditative state where I would visit myself in various stages of my childhood. One time, in yet another effort to reparent fractured versions of myself, I saw thirteen year old me leaving my childhood home. I had called this friend whose mom would save me many times. This time, when her Dodge Durango pulled up to rescue me from my mother disaster of the week, I climbed in the back seat to find that it was grownup me behind the wheel. Not only was I driving, but the SUV was full of my adult friends. The family I built came to kidnap little me and show her that her future is abundant. I had chosen the best fighters for her team.
As an adult, I’ve become preoccupied with the significance of choosing a new family for yourself when the one you were born into is already great. Time has made me skeptical of forming a covenant with those who are loved and accepted by their biological family—I am self-aware enough to name this for what it is. One, a fear of abandonment, as in, the chosen family is a loose commitment when you have other options. Two, close friends with close family always turn out to be a constant rubbing of salt in my familial wound. Three, the pity causes them to force their families on me. Four, how do I even bond with people who weren’t mistreated by the very people who gave them life? Five, I’ve never taken well to the idea of being second-best.
In I Hope We Choose Love. A Trans Girl's Notes from the End of the World., Kai Cheng Thom sums this all up very nicely in her essay about chosen family “The Ties That Bind, The Family You Find, Or: Why I Hate Babies.” She says that “The lineage of radical queer kinship runs deeper than blood.” To which I ask, for whom? Thom is rightfully hurt when chosen family members start to break off and create their own families, both by shifting politics and deprioritizing her to prop up a normative family structure. She brings to light these same questions I’ve been pondering my entire adult life, “What does it mean to be part of a chosen family when it must abide with biological and legal family?... Is chosen family another way of saying second-best family?” These may be rhetorical questions to which Thom gracefully asks us to respond with love, but so many of us are short on love and we already know the answers. When chosen family is your only option, it just hits different.
The last time I went back to my hometown for Christmas I remember a few things—my dad (who I had come to visit) was nowhere to be found, and I spent Christmas Eve with the family of one of my oldest friends. That night we all sat in front of the fireplace making small talk, me realizing it was much harder to fit in to other people’s families when it wasn’t linked to my survival. I spent a great deal of my teenage years in this house. I was in eighth grade when I gave my first blowjob in the basement bathroom. The back wall in the house had floor to ceiling windows overlooking the pool where I convinced my friends at sleepovers to skinny dip. It was in this house that I learned how some parents ask, even encourage, their children to talk about their feelings. At the end of the night her mom took me aside, got really close to my face, and with her hands on my shoulders she asked me a question I will never, ever forget. “Have you found a mother yet?”
I remember hearing somewhere that the mantra of family-apologists “Blood is thicker than water” is actually a bastardized version of the original, much better version ”The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.” Again, I am struck by the legacy of blood brotherhood in this new version of revisionist hope. Finally, people might stop romanticizing the family! (Because I am obliged to tell the truth, my research concludes that these two sayings cannot be historically linked, but let’s go with it.) Whoever said that blood is thicker than water has never felt the power in the ocean on a crowded summer day at Riis beach, wading in water that has carried a century’s worth of queer ancestors holding each other afloat. Blood is certainly not thicker than the tears flowing from hearts broken by parents who didn’t know how to love. Whoever says that blood is thicker than water has definitely never had their own faggots named Lilac and Pinetree and Moonbean and Loose Tomato and Hollyhock to help them get response-able again.
I started writing this on Mother’s day, perhaps to answer the question that my old friend’s mom asked me almost ten years ago. No, I have not yet found a mother. It saddens me that for all the love available in this world, the imagination only stretches as far as mother. What I have stumbled upon, instead, is the expansive legacy of something far better.
“She made the mistake of first asking about mothers—that is, about his... He told her coldly that he found mothers to be overrated sorts of persons.” -Sassafras Lowrey, Lost Boi