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How My Chosen Family—and New York City—Changed My Life

Levi's #2

Out joins forces with Levi's this June as we wear our Pride on our sleeves (literally) and celebrate chosen family. Below, Out editor-in-chief Phillip Picardi shares his perspective on what home and family mean. Click here to shop the collection at Levi.com. This year, 100% of net proceeds from Levi's Pride collection will be going to OutRight Action International, an international LGBTIQ human rights organization. 

When I stepped out onto the sidewalk, my father’s car safely out of view and nothing but the noise of New York City around me, I felt something I had never quite felt before.

Home.

No matter how hard my parents or siblings tried, the house I grew up in was not exactly a haven for a young, gay teenager—especially not one who was attending a Catholic high school. And while I wrestled with adolescence head-on, navigating the ins and outs of my identity in typical, teenage seclusion and angst, there was always an underlying, irrepressible simmer at my very base. I was always feeling misunderstood, misrepresented, and cast aside—and these feelings were constantly being portrayed as a symptom of hormones or a flair for the dramatic. That was, I’d later learn, only partially true.

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It wasn’t until I moved to New York, attending my first semester at NYU, that I began to understand what it felt like to be myself. For the first time, surrounded by a predominantly queer friend group, I could be exactly who I wanted to be. I didn’t have to hide the way I dressed, acted, or modify my behavior to accommodate others. Where I had previously made myself the butt of every joke—using my gayness as a punchline to appease the jocks and other male figures in my life—I began to realize I was deserving of more than just laughter. Where I would normally try to be the “good” gay and blend in to the lives of my peers, I now found myself on the dance floor next to Suzanne Bartsch and Amanda Lepore. Every survival instinct I had built in myself, all of the things that taught me to shrink and conform, slowly began to melt away. And in their place, an entirely new person was born.

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But that new person—this new “me”—was, luckily, born into a chosen family of people who were all on similar paths. In my tiny dorm room above Washington Square Park, a dozen of us congregated to laugh, drink, fight, and learn with each other—although I think we were actually unlearning everything that had been taught to us our whole lives. It was there we’d discuss everything from the early seasons of Drag Race (one of us is now a famous New York drag queen) to the overlooked sexual health lessons that directly appealed to our relationships (one of us is now an emergency medicine resident).

But beyond those tangible things, we also had to learn how to love each other. What was so hard about the group of us congregating every day for hours was that we didn’t always have the right language or tools to support one another. In our environments, we had each been (more or less) the “only gay” or “only queer” in our classrooms. Now, we were thrilled to be surrounded by likeminded people—but a sense of competition also arose in our dynamic. How, we wondered only to ourselves, could we be there for one another, while still discovering our very selves?

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Our straight peers seemed unencumbered by such nuances. Sometimes, it felt like they were living an accelerated version of young adulthood, largely getting to bypass the awkwardness of dating, virginity, and even true friendships. I looked at them with a piercing envy: Why do they get to have and do it all?

That jealousy, though, was sorely misguided. Looking back, I can see that my immediate adulthood was about confronting all sorts of things I had been taught about myself and others, and figure out how to dismantle the ideals instilled in me that were judgmental, harmful, and downright problematic. I could never have done so without a group of friends who would call bullshit in the blink of an eye, and analyze every word out of your mouth until you were left wondering why and how you ever formed that thought in the first place. The things we challenged each other on, among face masks and last-minute essays, were about love, relationships, respect of identity, bodily autonomy, self-expression, politics, and beyond. There, we began to mold the worldview that would challenge what currently dominated and existed. We began to queer our own perspectives—to evolve beyond what was expected of us.

I sometimes shudder to think of what would happen to me had I never found this chosen family. Looking back on so many of our tribe now, I know one thing to be true above all: We’d be so damn proud of who we are today. And isn’t that what it’s all about?

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To find out more about Levi's Pride collection benefitting OutRight Action International and shop your favorite looks, visit Levi.com.

Tags: Fashion, Pride
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