“State College is a great place to raise a family.”
I hear this quite a bit. I heard it when I was being recruited to move to the area. Walkable neighborhoods, good schools, arts and entertainment options, beautiful parks, strong community and school athletic and music programs. I mean, it sounds like a great place to raise a family.
I wouldn’t know. I’m not raising a family here. But, I think about doing so a lot.
The concept of “family” in the Queer community is… complicated. At least that’s my take as a gay man. The world around us tells us that the family unit is the most important thing. That’s a fine societal expectation, if the expectation is also that parents and family members love their children – unconditionally. The experience of coming out, living authentically, and receiving the care and support we need is a major test for most families. Too many of our parents and family members fail this test. This story isn’t about them.
This story is about our family of choice.
The people who step up. The people in our lives who care, who show up, who support, who cheer on, who hold hands and wipe away tears, who provide safety and security, who speak up, and who love us just as we are.
Members of our chosen families fill the roles often vacated by other members of our own families. A chance to be brother – like standing next to Eric on his wedding day. Kristofor and Ali for giving me the opportunity to be an uncle to Roman and Emmett. John for being there to protect and comfort when slurs came hurling out of car windows. Malena and Neil for inviting me to serve as the officiant in their wedding. Patrick for honoring me with a place in his chosen family. Or, Chris for coaching me through the finances of adulting.
They celebrate with us, sit with us, mentor us, teach us important life skills, and they love us.
(Quick pause: I should, for my mom who I know will be reading, share that my parents were amazing… once I gave them a chance to be amazing. After I came out, they didn’t always know how to talk about it or ask questions that I might want them to, but they nailed the unconditional love part.)
When I moved to State College in 2012, it meant moving away from many in my chosen family. If that wasn’t daunting enough, just the thought of having to make a new group of friends in my 30’s was enough to overwhelm. I arrived in town head down, career focused, hopeful that the life I envisioned for myself would be possible… but not waiting for the world to catch up with that vision. Remember, in 2012 gay marriage wasn’t legal in Pennsylvania and there was no guarantee of finding an adoption agency willing to work with Queer want-to-be parents. And, I’d be doing it all on my own.
Slowly, that began to change – the all on my own part.
Katie cried and celebrated with me when gay marriage became legal in Pennsylvania. Katie, Kim, other Katie, Spud, Darcy, Nikki, Jeff, Lindsey, and others had groceries and food to eat when I got back to town after my dad died. Brandon never hesitates to answer the call when the world is just a little more unkind to us than I have the capacity to manage that day. Nikki came in clutch with a Shop-Vac when I bought my first house. Sarah walked me through the process of buying a home step-by-step. Jordan hated running the Eastview Terrace steps with me… but he always showed up. Spud and Brad taught me everything I know about social entrepreneurship and place making. The staff, coaches, and friends at OrangeTheory miss me when I don’t show up. I even have my own mug at Happy Valley Brewing Company.
And then, my community elected me to Borough Council, where I served as the first openly gay elected official in State College. I got us to our first perfect score on the Municipal Equity Index. I also helped make the rainbow crosswalks happen. It was because of my chosen family that I was able to give others in my community the confidence to start calling State College home.
Indeed, State College has turned out to be a great place to choose a family.