When someone asked gay writer Ethan Mordden how he could live without a family, he responded that his friends were his family. But the person who questioned him didn’t understand his answer: “He said, ‘no – I mean a family like playing with them and learning from each other and living with them inseparably’, and I said ‘that’s what we do’. And finally he sort of got it, that my family is my buddies.” And like a healthy family, friends help us through difficult times, know us inside and out, and treat us honestly, directly, and compassionately.
When you’re LGBT, friends become an essential part of your life. Many of us grew up with a group of people who were “family” in name only. Others of us lost many of our family members once we came out. As a result, we create families of choice, developing intimate and long-lasting groups of support.
Caring friends are critical to your physical well-being as well as your emotional health. In fact, there’s a link between having strong social support and increased immunity: Good friendships literally ward off illness. Having a good circle of friends enhances your emotional health by increasing self-confidence and improving self-esteem. Watch small children at play some time with this thought in mind: a child at play is like an adult at work. Likewise, you’re also “working” when you are at play with your friends. You work to feel special, to be approved of, and to be acknowledged. You also make time to enjoy yourself, to relax, and to indulge in the good feelings of being around others.
As important, friendships give you a sense of belonging. As LGBT individuals, we have a history of feeling different, of not being a part of the group, of “being picked last on the team.” These experiences make it even more critical for us to surround ourselves with people who accept us. Having friends increases feelings of self-worth, which cause you to take better care of yourself; you’re more likely to exercise, eat well, and not over-indulge in alcohol and other drugs. This results in a chain reaction known as an “adaptive spiral.”
In fact, it’s in the daily encounters with friends that you define yourself. Your identity is strengthened and maintained through your friendships and the people you meet within the LGBT community. Friendships allow you to link personal identity with membership in a larger community, where you share personal tastes, politics, religious views, and sexual styles with like-minded individuals.
For many of us, friendships are inextricably woven into our narrative histories and coming out stories. So, when you tell people who you are, who you hope to be, and who you are becoming, you’re finding a sense of place within a larger community. Networks of friends are also at the root of LGBT efforts to develop a collective identity, to build communities of choice, to organize a political presence, and to create residential, commercial, and sexual spaces. As a result, your participation in a LGBT community, its neighborhoods, and organizations helps nurture your identity and strengthens friendship networks. For example, attending a LGBT film festival, going to a Pride event, or even hanging out in a coffee shop enhances your sense of community and provides safe places to make new friends.
Thus, friends become the mechanism for not only learning about and maintaining your LGBT identity, but also for entering the LGBT communities; for organizing into social, religious, and political groups; and for providing you with a sense of history and collective identity. Friendships are the route to understanding ourselves as individuals and as citizens of a larger world. Friendship is one of the essential ingredients for a healthy and happy life and a force that can help us achieve dignity and equality in today’s world.