(NEW YORK) -- Jessica Parker, 40, didn't transition until she was in her 30s.
She suppressed her identity in her conservative, central Texas town out of fear of rejection or violence. But as more and more LGBTQ people came into her life, she finally felt safe enough to come out, identifying publicly as a woman.
"I feel more myself than ever," Parker told ABC News in an interview. "I've been happier than ever. It's been a struggle, certainly, but it's been great and I have a good trans community now."
Her "chosen family" -- the close circle of LGBTQ friends and allies she has cultivated -- understands the beauty and power of the LGBTQ community and they've become a lifeline for her.
When facing rejection from family members or feeling lost about the challenges faced by the LGBTQ community, that's where a chosen family steps in. Local activist groups, LGBTQ alliances or clubs, or dedicated spaces like queer bars are often the birthplaces of many chosen families.
As anti-LGBTQ policies and legislation proliferate across the country, finding such a community has become a vital tool. For many queer people, a chosen family can be a means for survival.
"That's what's beautiful about the trans community," said D. Ojeda, a senior national organizer at trans advocacy organization National Center for Transgender Equality. Their pronouns are they/them and they identify as nonbinary.
"What makes us so resilient is that we tend to really be resourceful in making sure that our communities get what they need, even if external forces don't protect us."
Increase in anti-LGBTQ legislation
2021 was a record-breaking year for anti-LGBTQ legislation, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Legislatures in 2022 are moving full steam ahead with these ongoing efforts -- including bills or governmental directives in Florida, Texas, Alabama, Indiana, and more that target these groups.
Recent bills and laws range from attempting to ban some trans children from sports; to banning trans people from the bathroom corresponding with their gender; to banning curricula featuring LGBTQ subjects in some classrooms.
The trans community has taken its safety into its own hands in many cases. Ojeda says trans activists have been dispatched to barbershops and hair salons, health clinics and other service locations to assess a businesses' acceptance of trans people.
When someone needs a jumpstart on their car, or when someone needs moral support during a health care procedure -- a chosen family will ensure that someone will be there to lend a helping hand.
They say it's because other LGBTQ people often understand the collective struggles, queer joy and nuances of the community in a way only they may understand.
"We're always looking out for each other," Ojeda said. "Even when outside forces want to make sure that we don't exist -- that's going to be an impossible thing to do. Because our community is resilient. We definitely have this strong, unified force. This is our chosen family.
Building a strong network
It's why Parker, Ojeda and Ricardo Martinez, CEO of LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Texas, encourage LGBTQ youth to find or build a strong moral support system that understands the challenges of being part of the community.
A chosen family can save lives, they say.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), LGBTQ community members are at a higher risk for experiencing mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety disorders and suicidal ideations.
Transgender individuals, in particular, are at risk -- they are almost four times as likely as cisgender people to experience a mental health condition and suicide, NAMI reports.
The organization also found that discrimination, prejudice, denial of civil and human rights and family rejection are oft the source behind this disparity.
"I've made a tremendous amount of friends [in the LGBTQ community], which brings me a tremendous amount of joy. But also heartbreak, right?" Martinez said, referring to the onslaught of anti-LGBTQ legislation and sentiment.
However, he said the heartbreak is short-lived.
He added, "Regardless of what powers are trying to attack us, I know that I can pull back on many of the families that I've met, who affirm the identity of their children, folks who I've met on the ground who are incredible advocates that have tremendous power not only in their words but in their actions."
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