What Makes a Family?
“I believe that biology is not destiny.”
by Andrea James ’89
My view of family is shaped by being an adoptee, a transgender woman, and a youth advocate. That gives me a different perspective, and I’ve thought more about what it means to be a family than most.
In our society that’s organized around reproduction, many have what I consider a narrow view of “family,” imagining it strictly in biological terms.
I believe that biology is not destiny.
My brother and I are both adopted and not related biologically. I can’t imagine that biologically related children are any more connected than we are. We ate the same food, have the same fond childhood memories, and shared many of the same activities. We even both attended Wabash and were members of the same fraternity!
My brother has reconnected with his birth family through mutual interest, whereas I have no interest in doing so. That’s not because I’m not curious, but because I believe that adoption typically happens under very difficult circumstances, where someone is unable to care for a child and relinquishes that child voluntarily or involuntarily. In either case, it’s done in the best interest of the child, but I imagine that is a decision connected to a very difficult time in the lives of the parents.
I’ve never been interested in connecting with my birth parents because I thought it might be upsetting to the parents I know and love. They are my parents. Period. End of story. Even though they were always open about adoption and gave me all the information I need to reconnect with the people who gave me up for adoption, it has always felt to me as if that would somehow feel like a loss to my parents, even though they never said anything of the sort.
Transgender people have long had to make our own families. Many of us were routinely kicked out of our homes or ran away as children. Many were bullied so badly in school that they left, even if they were quite bright, so they never had the opportunities I did. For that reason, many trans people form small families, a mentoring system of “houses,” and each house has a “mother.” (If you’re interested in this, I recommend the film Paris Is Burning.) I’m an online mother who has used the Internet to help trans people in need for 20 years. I like to say I have 10,000 daughters!
On my last Wabash visit, I screened my film Alec Mapa: Baby Daddy, about a friend who adopted a child through foster care. America has 400,000 children in foster care, 100,000 of whom need a family right now. The film encouraged several families to take in a child through foster-adopt, and I could not be happier to have paid it forward.
I would not be who I am without the love and support of my many families, including my Wabash family. I hope you will open your heart to a broader sense of family. It will change your life for the better.
Andrea James ’89 is a writer and filmmaker. Her most recent project, Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric, is currently airing on the National Geographic Channel.