Coping with sexual and gender diversity easier with supportive organization
Monica Conaway was raised as a boy, but at the age of 13 she started to develop breasts. With no Adam's apple and the hips of a woman, Conaway said she was relieved when doctors finally told her she was intersex. Conaway looked for guidance and soon discovered she wasn't alone.
"Years ago when I was searching for answers to why I was having problems medically I got directed to the New Directions Group where I got help and answers. Basically it's because of them that everything's been more positive and I just felt a great gratitude," said the 45-year-old Calgarian.
The New Directions Group is a part of Calgary Outlink, an organization that helps people with sexual and gender identity issues. The organization allows members to come together and offer support and knowledge that biological families are unable or refuse to provide. Calgary Outlink creates group settings where members of the LGBTQ community can share experiences, offer support, even find what they call a "chosen family."
Brett Aberle, a Calgary Outlink community support worker who identifies as queer and transsexual, explained his biological family denied his orientation and gender and told him that it wasn't real.
"For me, chosen family is the people who will support you no matter what. If you're going through hard times, or, like myself, gone through depression, abusive relationships, a chosen family are the people that are there for you when those things happen. For me, I know my friends have been a lot more supportive of me instead of my biological family," he said.
Both Conaway and Aberle chose families of their own, and both said they have witnessed members of their community being disowned or facing conflict with biological families.
Conaway, who is transitioning from male/female to a full female, said she expected her dad to "blow up and disown" her. However, he told her that she has his support. Conaway said she also has support from her 19-year-old daughter who accepted her decision and said "it was the right thing."
But not all family members were happy with her decision to live as a woman. Conaway said her mom's side of the family, her 17-year-old daughter and her ex-wife are not speaking to her. She said that's why she surrounds herself with friends that behave like a biological family would.
"Chosen family is when you have people that you consider your family even though they aren't necessarily members. They are the people you're closest to and who give you the support that a family member would. They help you out when you're having problems and give you answers when needed. They don't sugar coat anything for you, they tell you as it is, but they also love you unconditionally," said Conaway.
Calgary Outlink volunteer Trent Warner explained that his family is very supportive of him, but they live further away. His roommate, Casey Tapsay, provides him the daily support and comfort that he needs when he cannot communicate face-to-face with his own family.
"A chosen family is kind of the opposite of that old saying, 'you can choose your friends but not your family.' It rejects the traditional idea of family for those who don't have that option. When your parents or grandparents, or siblings won't be there for you, some people are forced to find different options for their family. They can choose the people who give them love, celebrate and support them to be a larger part of their lives. Chosen families work in the same way as a regular one, but by nature can be more supportive and fruitful, without being hierarchal," said Warner.
Conaway, Aberle and Warner all explained that people struggling with who they are and don't have the support of their biological family can find supportive groups through Calgary Outlink. By participating in a group setting individuals know that they are not alone they said.
"Being a part of this community is not a bad thing... People don't have to put up with shit or be treated like anything less than they deserve and are respected as a human being," said Aberle.
- By ANNA MAJOWSKI