When your pets are your chosen family

·8-min read
Photo credit: Zahra Suleman - Getty Images
Photo credit: Zahra Suleman - Getty Images

My mam has long since resigned herself to the fact that she will not be receiving any grandchildren from me. Not only do I not fancy kids – replicating myself in a smaller form doesn’t particularly appeal – but I also have PCOS, or Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, which makes it more difficult than most for me to reproduce. In a way, it’s kind of lucky that I lack a maternal instinct towards children.

Or at least, I lack it towards human children. My pets – a jackawawa named Cherry Pie and a black cat named Mosh Pit – are the main recipients of any parental emotion I find myself possessing. It wasn’t until recently that I started to consider whether this affection towards animals (in particular, the ones that I own) could possibly be associated with my own queerness. At the very least, the names I chose are camp as hell.

Pets and queer “chosen family”

It’s proven that queer people generally are more likely to own a pet than their straight counterparts. To some, it may feel like a stretch to say this is because queer people have a deeper connection with their pets. But others strongly believe that the LGBTQIA+ community find their relationships with animals to be particularly special.

If you are a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, you will be familiar with the term ‘chosen family’ – if not, let me summarise. A chosen family is exactly what it says on the tin: A family unit made up from people not biologically related. While these familial relationships aren’t always between those who have no or limited relation with their actual flesh and blood, more often than not they are. And there is a particular kind of power in these chosen families as they reject the nuclear moulds of what family love can or should be.

Photo credit: Zahra Suleman - Getty Images
Photo credit: Zahra Suleman - Getty Images

Steffi, a 23 year old queer bisexual believes the concept also applies to the animal kingdom. “I have a cat called Benji and he’s my world. I think queerness necessitates softness and tenderness, and my cat quite literally is a soft fluff ball.” She tells me, “He is kind and instantly loving, which is something queer people look for in chosen family – that instant recognition of acceptance – and it might sound silly but I get that from my cat.”

How Steffi feels about her pet may seem OTT to those outside of the queer community, but from my experience it’s a truth shared by many within our community. Steffi also goes on to consider often even the choice of pet can be a signifier of queerness. There is the obvious trope that lesbians own cats, for example. Or as Steffi puts it, “I used to own five rats and I feel like rats are such a queer pet to own because rats are also, in their own way, queer animals – they’re so misunderstood and considered ugly or gross by lots of people but they’re actually super sweet and loving and smart.” She continues, “Plus they can also, literally, be gay. There’s a whole queer-weirdness connection because you can feel misunderstood together.”

Viewing animals as “queer comrades”

As well as finding an affinity with animals from a familial point of view, many of the people interviewed for this piece found a solidarity between themselves and animals due to shared experiences of rejection by cis-heterosexual society.

Charlotte, a 29 year old lesbian who owns four ferrets agrees, claiming from her own experience that, “Generally queer people tend to be more empathetic to animals because of the issues and injustices they face themselves.” The street, it seems, goes two ways – the unconditional love expressed by pets soothe queer people’s souls and, similarly, queer people can especially appreciate this specific brand of unconditional love. Particularly in a world where micro-aggressions and outright homophobia can lead you to question if unconditional love even exists.

Louise Futcher, a queer MNCS accredited therapist, explores the concept further. “I’ve noticed that generally queer people tend to view their animals as comrades, family, whereas more normative people can view their animals as possessions and there’s a definite hierarchy where the animal is expected to perform roles or behaviours.”

Louise further elaborates, detailing the ways that a queer attitude towards pet parenting might actually help animals to flourish into their own idiosyncratic characters. “I think queer people are more considerate of animals’ needs, because as children they were (and often still are) expected to perform certain roles and/or behaviours so they have far more empathy,” Louise explains. “They seem to be more likely to allow the animal to express themselves and be delighted at their quirks – whether that’s cheeky or grumpy or chonky – rather than trying to force them to be a certain way. Again I think that’s due to increased empathy from being forced into more ‘respectable’ boxes themselves.”

The doting queer pawrent

Because of this close connection between queer people and their pets, and the way we treat our pets, a trope has arisen of the over-doting gay pawrent. Often our favourite dog or cat influencers get called “gay icons” and accumulate millions of followers thanks to the social media management of their queer owners. And even if the pets aren’t attracting thousands of followers, a dedicated IG page detailing their day to day adventures is common among queer pet owners. Extending the idea of pets as a part of a chosen family, positioning the petstagram as alike to the baby photo books of years past only strengthens the argument there is a special connection between queer people and their pets.

Yet as the LGBTQIA+ community happily refers to their furry friends as family, the heterosexual parents of human kids speak out about the use of the term “pet parent” as delegitimising. While I don't personally feel qualified to comment on the differences between having pets and having children, Louise sees this argument as a reinforcement of heteronormativity.

“Heteronormativity loves to strictly define relationships: the configuration, the limits, what they should look like, how they should be enacted. Anything outside of these strict definitions is viewed (often unconsciously) as subversive and therefore potentially destabilising.” They continue, “Heteronormativity believes that this type of doting love is reserved solely for human children, and is bizarrely threatened by it being applied to animals. I think it’s possible for a human and their animal to have a parent-child dynamic, for an animal to understand that this human is their guardian and caregiver and to feel affectionate and caring towards them, and for a human to feel protective, nurturing, and accepting of their animals, and deeply delighted by them.”

It’s important to note that this parental urge for queer couples is indisputably more difficult to be filled with human children than their cis-heterosexual counterparts. For starters, the majority of queer people have to automatically think about fertility treatments or adoption as routes into parenthood, when many of their straight, cisgender counterparts are able to conceive through plain old shagging. And despite huge breakthroughs over the past few decades, adoption, IVF, surrogates and even sperm and egg donors, may be harder for the LGBTQIA+ community to access and, even when available, for them to afford. Filling the family urge with furry friends deserves more respect in society – especially when it's a compromise forced on some queer people.

All of this reinforces the importance of redefining what family and our relationships mean in the queer sphere. In a world built around upholding the nuclear family and heteronormativity, it makes sense that the special connection between queer people and their pets may be seen as overly intense to an outsider.

Pets and LGBTQIA+ wellbeing

This article is far from the first to discuss the relationship between queer people and their pets, and whether these relationships have a deeper meaning than their heterosexual counterparts. Even scientific studies have been conducted that prove that the kind of unconditional love provided by our fur families can be beneficial to queer youth. Another finds that having pets is “life saving in every way” to elder members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Ernest, a 59-year-old Black gay man with HIV and severe depression is quoted in the above study as crediting his dog as motivation to stay alive. “If there hadn’t been him, I would’ve had no reason to ever get out of bed, [for] many days, many weeks, but because he has to be walked twice a day, every day, that excuse is out the window.” He continues, “I have to get up and because I have to get up, I have to take medicine and I have to eat. He’s been my lifeline.”

While this concept – needing to look after another and therefore, needing to look after yourself – isn’t necessarily solely applicable to queer people, it is worth noting that issues with depression are considerably higher in the queer population due to isolation from cis-heteronormative society. And so this use of pets as motivation and appreciation of their place in the family is more likely to be seen in queer people too.

All in all, the relationships we queer people have with our pets are particularly special due to a number of reasons but I'd argue that it boils down to the openness wee have towards appreciating the specific kinds of love that our pets can offer.

Be that a judgement-free space for self-expression or an unconditional love or a kinship we may struggle to find elsewhere, the importance of pets to the queer community is similar to our relationships with one other within our community. A mutual understanding that, as outsiders to the norm, the love we give and the love we receive in a world that makes it difficult to share love is priceless.

Gina is a writer, editor and co-founder of The Fat Zine. Follow her on Twitter here.

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