James Carroll

For some people the word family is synonymous with children – either having them or being them.  Families are both born and created. LGBT+ people are also of course part and parcel of families whether that is their birth families or their family of choice.

The word family and the relationships within it can sometimes have distinct definitions in LGBT+ communities. Indeed, the community itself is sometimes referred to as a 'family'. The characters and names ascribed to those that make up a family are as variable as families themselves. Such vocabulary may take on distinct but aligned and complimentary meanings when used by those on the rainbow spectrum. Common family nouns have been adopted (lived and owned) and applied to relationships that others may think of more as friendships than families. The word sister for example can be a term of endearment unrelated to shared parentage. The word mother can be applied to a person eschewing the characteristics of a loving matriarch.

Vocabulary can be nuanced, fluid and sometimes confusing. I cannot be the only family lawyer who has had to explain that I am not referring to a Russell-Cooke colleague when referring to my partner. Though not limited to the LGBT+ community, some may ask why, in 2021 when we have equality, there is any nuancing in language. The answer is that it hasn’t always been 2021; or more so, there are places where even in 2021, language, especially when referring to one’s sexuality or gender, needs careful nuancing or even disguising. Words are powerful and language can be inclusive but it also can be hurtful and cause pain.

What does 'family' mean to me? My family is diverse and that diversity has influenced or perhaps caused me to become a family lawyer. Despite what I do for a living and the constant debate about the validity and value of relationships, I know what family means to me: family doesn’t come from blood or from a piece of paper – it isn’t defined – it comes from love and lives in the heart. That's why, to me, family can mean whoever you choose it to mean – you can include and exclude whoever you want from your definition of family.

I'm lucky though. The reality for some LGBT+ people is that they still have no choice – they are the excluded ones. These few words therefore are my way of saying I am proud – of my family, both birth and chosen, and also of the family law and LGBT+ communities of which I am a part. As we go through LGBT history month – I would encourage us all to take a moment and think about what family is to us rather than merely how the law defines it.

Adapted from a post prepared for Resolution: the association for family lawyers