We Are Family Podcast, Episode 4: Mob Queens’s Michael Seligman on Coming Out as an Adopted Child and Finding His ‘Found Family’
This week, Michael Seligman—producer on RuPaul’s Drag Race, director of a new film called P.S. Burn This Letter Please, about LGBTQ history, and co-host of the podcast Mob Queens—talks with host Julia Dennison about being adopted, gay, and what family means to him.
While researching the life of mafia wife Anna Genovese for the podcast, Michael found his first biological family member through a DNA test. In this emotional episode, we learn about Michael's journey to meet his biological family, the close relationship he has with the family who raised him, and the support he's received from his "found" LGBTQ family.
As for being on the podcast, Michael says, "I didn't realize I would get so choked up at times. Family is so important to me, whether it's my family of origin/birth family, my 'family' family, or my found family of LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters. I think that's why I get so emotional when talking about all the people who have influenced my life and helped to shape me."
Want more LGBTQ stories for Pride? Go back and listen to episode two—with The Breakfast Club actress Ally Sheedy and her son Beckett Lansbury who is transgender—or episode three—about Shaun T's long, winding path to parenthood—right now!
Upcoming episodes and topics this season include:
- Foster Care
- Parenting with disabilities
- Divorce, co-parenting and blended families
- Single-parent households
- Multicultural parenting
- The family you didn't know you had
Listen to episode 4 right now: Parents.com/FamilyPod-Ep4
Plus, follow along here:
Michael: It's like you're looking at this name on a website and, and, and seeing like, Oh my God, that's, that's me. It's like sliding doors. Like that could have been my last name. I think there's always this bit of trepidation, like, is this Pandora's box that you're about to open? Once you walk through this door, you can't walk out of it again.
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Julia: Hi, I’m Julia Dennison…
Shaun: And I’m Shaun T…
Julia: And this is We Are Family, a podcast from Parents magazine. This show is all about celebrating the different ways there are to build and be a family—and how beautiful that diversity is.
Shaun: This month on the podcast, we’re celebrating something that’s near and dear to my heart as a member of the LGBTQ community—Pride.
Julia: And today, we’ve got a great guest for you: Michael Seligman.
He’s a producer on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and the director of a new film called P.S. Burn This Letter Please, about LGBTQ history.
And he’s the co-host of the podcast Mob Queens.
Shaun: Ooh, Julia, tell me more about that!
Julia: So Mob Queens charts the life and adventures of New York City mafia wife Anna Genovese.
She was a really facscinating, complicated woman who ran drag clubs and gay bars in lower Manhattan in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s—providing a space for community at a time when a lot of LGBTQ people weren’t able to live and love openly.
Shaun: That is fascinating!
Julia: But there’s more—while Michael was doing a deep dive on Anna, he realized he had a personal story to share on the podcast. He was adopted as a baby, and when he started searching for his biological family, he found out they were Italian immigrants—like Anna Genovese.
Shaun: Wow. Plot twist.
Julia: I talked to Michael about finding family—and not just the biological cousin he ended up connecting with on the show. An important source of support for him—and a lot of others in the LGBTQ community (as I’m sure you’re aware)—is something he calls “found family.”
Shaun: Julia, I can’t wait to hear more. And then I want to go binge all of Mob Queens…
Julia: Oh, it’s so good. You’re going to love it.
Julia:I am a huge fan of Mob Queens. I'm obsessed. I can't wait for another season of Anna Genovese. Like I just wish that I could go back in time and meet her in person cause she sounded fabulous. So it's the story of a New York drag club owner, entrepreneur, and badass mob wife. But you also talk about it being about family and finding family. And that's a lot of the podcast. Can you talk a little bit about what that means to you?
Michael: For sure. Well, I was adopted when I was a baby. I was four weeks old when I landed at my parents' home. And, um, you know, I'm the second of three kids. I have an older sister who's also adopted and then a younger brother who is not.
Kids in my elementary school used to say like, “Oh, well, who are your real parents?'' and I’d say, well, I live with them. They’d go, “No, no, no. Your REAL parents.” I'm like, I live with my real parents. What do you mean? Um, but for me, you know, I'm a very kind of naturally curious person. And just the idea of family and what makes family and, having come from this, sort of, you know, mixed family or a blended family. I don't look that much like my brother or my sister, and they sort of look alike, even though they're not biologically related, but they're sort of fair-skinned and beautiful, blue eyes and they have, you know, light brown hair and, I’m sort of dark olive and black hair and hazel green eyes. I always had this curiosity about stuff. So, you know, in digging into the Anna Genovese story and how she came up in this kind of like lower-income family in Italy, and rose to the top of the game there and had the family that she was born into, the family that she married into, the Genovese family. And then the family that she created, um, at the drag club, Club 82 where she worked. And, you know, for me also being a gay person, we often talk about having a found family. And so there's just all these different layers of what it means to be family.
I have my biological family. I have the family that I consider my family, the family I grew up with, my parents who raised me. And then I also have this found family, which are my LGBTQ brothers and sisters that I found as an adult.
Julia: I love that. So Mob Queens is all about tracing the family history of Anna Genovese. And then as part of that, you start to go into your own family history and make that part of the podcast too, which I loved. I was curious to know if that was the plan all along or if tracing Anna Genovese's history inspired you or, if it was sort of part of the whole process from the beginning.
Michael: There was not a plan to, uh, to, to delve into my personal story at all when we started out. We talk about on the podcast quite a bit, we talk about this idea of kismet and things that sort of, you know, coming to be, and, um, while we were digging into Anna's story, just sort of randomly, I started a new health care program, and as part of it, they, uh, they invite you to do a DNA test to, um, you know, just sort of see if you have anything kind of lurking in your genetics that you might want to get in front of health-wise, and being adopted, every time I go to a doctor or a dentist, you know, you fill out these forms, like, do you have a history of this in your family or that in your family?
And I always have to say, don't know, don't know. I don't know. I don't know. And it's, it's embarrassing and it's frustrating.
And so I thought, Oh my gosh, yeah, let me, let me get in front of this. Find these things out. And so while we're digging around into Anna's world, I get these results back and find that I have a biological cousin. A second cousin. And it is the closest thing I'd ever had to biological family.
And so while we were doing Anna's story, you know, I started kind of digging into this and got in touch and our producer, Clare Rawlinson, had the amazing insight to say, I feel like this is all part of the same story and all part of the same journey. And then we started just kind of folding that into the Anna story. So it's like a little peek behind the curtain.
Julia: I love that. And you said a person has a right to know their story. Can you talk about that in the context of coming from adoption? What did you know about your birth family growing up and how did you think of your own personal story as an adoptee?
Michael: You know, obviously having an older sister who's two years older who was adopted and then me, my parents were always very open about the fact that we were adopted. And I know that's not the case in all situations where adoptees don't know until sometimes later in life.
They were always very, kind of, they just always put it out there that if we ever wanted to find our biological families, our birth families, that they would be helpful in that regard and in whatever way that they could be.
You know, they were closed adoptions, so it wouldn't be necessarily an easy thing, but certainly, if we ever had that feeling. And I just appreciated that because I think, yeah, in terms of knowing where you come [from], first of all, knowing that you're adopted I think is really important. And, it's hard for me to understand why parents would not share that information with a kid 'cause I think, you know, it was always an integrated part of who I am in my identity.
Also, my sister and I, it was funny, we both kind of felt this interest in knowing who our biological families were. Not that we didn't love our own mom and dad, but you know, again, me, like not really looking like the people in my family, I had a curiosity and a desire to know more. And it wasn't until after my parents passed away that we kind of started that journey in earnest, my sister and I. I don't know, even though they were sort of very, like, open about it, we also felt like a funny kind of guilt. Like, you know, I don't want you to feel like I need to find something other than what I have.
And, this idea of who you are and what shapes you, you know, is it biology? Is it nature or nurture that makes you who you are? And I think on this journey, I've discovered that it is both. You know, I have my physical self, and, and then I have the person that I became because of my mom and dad.
And, you know, you look at my brother and sister and I, and we're all very different. We have different personalities and we look different, but we have these same values and same types of way of looking at the world. And I think that was because of the way that our parents raised us and how they shaped us.
So it's like one set of parents made me, and the others sort of molded me.
Julia: I love that so much. Michael shares more about connecting with his biological family, after the break.
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Shaun: Welcome back to We Are Family, a podcast from Parents magazine. I’m Shaun T. This episode, we’re talking about adoption. My co-host, Julia Dennison, spoke with Michael Seligman, host of the Mob Queens podcast. While researching the life and times of mafia wife Anna Genovese, he stumbled upon a new chapter in his own story. Through a DNA test, Michael learned the name of his second cousin—the first biological family member he’d been able to find.
Julia: Talk us through those emotions that were going through your head.
Michael: It was kind of a mix of emotions. You know, it's like you're looking at this name on a website and, seeing like, oh my God, that's me. It's like sliding doors. Like that could have been my last name. Like before I even reached out, of course, you know, like going through the internet and trying to find things and information and see what I can kind of find before because I think there's always this bit of trepidation like is this Pandora's box that you're about to open? Once you walk through this door, you can't walk out of it again. And do I want to know this information? You know, part of me as a writer, I think I’m a storyteller, I tend to live sometimes in a little bit of a fantasy world.
Over the years I've certainly created these ideas of what I would want my birth family to be in this sort of romantic and you don't know. I mean, what are you going to get? So I think there was at first a little bit of excitement and then trepidation. Is it going to be information that I'm excited to know? Is it information that is going to be hard to know? But I made that phone call and spoke to my cousin and it was so absolutely wonderful. And I'm so grateful that she was the sort of Sherpa to kind of get me over this, or through this because she was so open and so forthcoming.
And so kind of excited to know me and my story as well as sharing the story of where I came from.
I don't think I could have had better luck in terms of her being the one that kind of took me through that door.
Julia: Michael’s cousin served as a go-between for the rest of the family. She told them he had reached out to her, and passed a message to his biological mom—who ultimately decided she didn’t want to be in contact.
Michael: I 100% completely understand because I don't know the circumstances, that my birth mother didn't want to have a connection, at least not yet. That she wasn't ready for that. You know, this was something that happened decades and decades in her past. You know, the thing that I always felt growing up, and especially like around my birthday or, or things like that where I, I did feel a certain sense of connection with my birth mother at least… I would often put myself in her shoes and think, OK, if I was this young person who gave up a kid at an early age under who knows what circumstances, did I do the right thing?
And, so I always just wanted my birth mom to know that she made such a great choice because I had such a great life and I had parents who loved me and my siblings so much and wanted to have a family so much. And we're so grateful. And, you know, so to me, like the sort of closure of that was having the opportunity to message to her to say, we don't, we don't have to be friends.
We don't have to know each other. I need for you to know, for my sake, I need you to know that you've made a good choice.
Julia: I thought that was so poignant and moving in the podcast, just how much empathy you had for your birth mother and how much you could kind of understand her, the understanding of her decision and everything. That was, you know, really, kind of amazing to hear.
So you're a storyteller. So I wanted to ask you a question about narratives. In this show we talk about the narratives we’re fed around family, what society tells us about what it means to be divorced or a single mom or an LGBTQ parent, for example. What are some of the narratives you think of that we’re fed about adoption and how do you think that those should be corrected or reframed, if at all?
Michael: Ooh, that's a good question. You know, to me growing up, and it's hard to speak for other people, but the way my parents framed it, was that you were chosen, you weren't, you know, sort of blood of my blood or bone of my bone, but you were… Sorry. I get a little emotional.
Julia: Of course.
Michael: You know, you were born in my heart and, you know, that's how we were raised. It's funny, my mom, God bless her, when she got pregnant, I think I was a little over 2 when my younger brother was born and she was so worried that she was going to somehow love this kid more than she loved my sister and I, because he was a part of her, you know, physically.
She didn't want to do anything different with my brother than she did with my sister and I, so she wouldn't breastfeed him. And she got a lot of flack for that from people who were like, you know, that's terrible. You should breastfeed your baby. And she's like, but I didn't breastfeed my other babies and so I don't want to have a connection there. And it's funny because we never felt like she felt any differently about any one of us. We were all exactly the same in her eyes and my father's eyes, you know, they raised us the same, they treated us the same. And she was like, you are my baby the second you arrived on our doorstep, you know?
I've heard stories from other friends, you know, as I got older, friends who were having trouble getting pregnant and having kids, biologically and thinking about adoption and it was so funny that people would share this information with me, but they were like, well, it's a little weird like you don't really know what you're going to get. And I don't know, like it's somebody else's child. And you know, I really rather have a child of my own. And certainly, in the gay community, I know a lot of guys that go through and women that go through all of this effort to have biological kids and it costs a lot of money.
And I often think like, “Well, do you want to have babies that look like you or do you want to be a parent?” Because there are a lot of kids in the world that need parents desperately and if being a parent is what you want, like go adopt a kid that is already out there in the world. And I don't judge anybody for the decisions that they make. I totally understand wanting to have a child that looks like you and is a part of you, and has things about you that you want to pass down. I completely understand that. But you know, sometimes adopted kids turn out pretty good too, you know, you might be surprised.
Julia: I love that, I feel like since becoming a mom, any story that is like at all about kids and parenting and all of that kind of a tugging at the heartstrings, I'm just, you know, mascara running down my face. [both laughing] But yes, I mean, you make so many good points and it's not even like your biological child may necessarily even look like you. And I'm curious too, because, you know, we always as families with biological children, you're always saying, “Oh, he has his dad's eyes,” or, “Oh, like, you know, you can see this trait in from his mother in him or her.” But I can imagine, even when you're not biologically connected, you must see traits that you got from your parents in you.
Michael: Oh, absolutely. You know, in terms of who we are as people, my sister and brother and I are so much alike. You know, we, we have the same values. We have the same outlook in a lot of ways on the world. Um, you know, and those are the things that we were raised with: being good to others, being helpful. And to me that is so much more important than the color of my eyes or, or, you know, the tone of my skin or anything else. So I think we definitely are our parents’ children.
Julia: We have this new sort of interest, or maybe it's always been there, but you know, now that we have an Ancestry.com and 23andMe and, whether you've been adopted or not, everybody's sort of exploring their own personal histories in a bigger way. Do you think it's important to know your history and ancestry? I know it was a big part of the podcast. And why is that important to people, do you think?
Michael: For me, I think, I think it absolutely is important to know your history and to know where you came from. It just creates such a tremendous sense of empathy for other people and their struggles. And, you know, finding out about my biological family. Um, them being Italian immigrants who came, um, you know, we're very poor. We're farmers. And that's very different from the family that I grew up in. My parents were college educators.
My sister also found her biological family through Ancestry and discovered that despite the fact that she is, you know, very fair skinned and blue eyed and, you know, was like a little blonde baby was like 30 percent Black, and that she had this very rich, amazing heritage, um, in, in, you know, ancestors that, that were a part of Harlem's history.
And that gave her this sense of pride in, in her biological past. We all have these stories that we tell ourselves, but then the stories that are the truth of our, of who we are, um, I think are sometimes different and, and how you sort of integrate that to me, like I said, I think it just creates this, this sense of empathy for, for just otherness.
Julia: Do you have any kind of practical tips for anybody who's looking to kind of dig into their history deep into the depths of Ancestry.com or anything?
Michael: You know, my favorite way to spend a weekend is with Google. We have an intimate relationship. And I think, it's just to me if I have two bits of information, I feel like I can go on a deep dive and spend hours and days and weekends, just kind of searching for things. And sometimes you get it right and sometimes you don't.
But, again, I think it's just kind of digging in and it's just searching for some kind of a truth. And yeah, I mean, in terms of practical tips, I think obviously the DNA tests are a great way to start. And then, you know, if you find anybody that's, you know, closer than a second cousin, like a second cousin and close to third cousins can be almost everybody.
Anybody, you know, but second cousins, now you're saying you have the same great grandparents, which is like a much smaller circle than having the same great, great grandparents. It's just kind of starting with there and asking questions and like, well, what part of the world are you in and what's your last name and what's your mother's maiden name? And then obituaries are a fantastic way of finding out the sort of family dynamic, because, you know, often when a person dies, they'll list, you know, the spouse, the children, the grandchildren, the spouses of the children and grandchildren. And you can kind of find a lot of information that way, which has always been helpful in terms of, you know, like in our research with Anna and my own research with my family.
Julia: So I want to go back to something that you talked about earlier. So in your recent film, P.S. Burn This Letter Please, you document the stories of LGBTQ people, many of whom are rejected by their family of origin because of their sexuality or gender identity, but they build their own communities and they find their own ways to support and love one another.
I think you, you quoted RuPaul as saying, “Our family of origin isn't always the family that lifts us.” And I love that. I would love to hear about what that means to you and what you've learned about chosen families through your work documenting the LGBTQ lives.
Michael: I think there is a shift that's happened certainly in my lifetime. I grew up, you know, in the ‘80s mostly where being other, being LGBTQ was not, necessarily a badge of honor. I think I had sort of this double whammy of like, OK, I'm already a little different then, you know, my family, and then having this kind of also secret identity, which, I kept to myself throughout my life until my early twenties, it was so hard because I, you know, more than anything, and I don't know if this is a factor of being adopted, but the kind of dark side of that, is that while my parents were very supportive and, like I said, they were very, you were special and you were chosen and you know, that whole thing. There's also the sense of somebody gave me away, and as I said, I have so much empathy for that choice, but, on a kind of soul level, there's a feeling of disposability. And, so I grew up with this tremendous sense of not wanting to disappoint my family, and I thought in my little kid brain that, if I told them this secret about me, that I would be disappointing them in some way, which could not have been more opposite of what actually happened when I came out to my parents because they were just so, like, loving and just as supportive as they had ever been.
My dad said, “when we decided to adopt you, we said, we're going to love this kid no matter what.” Then that didn't change because of something I told them. And it's certainly something that I couldn't really help myself, being gay is not a choice, it's just part of who you are and you have to come to terms with that.
And, you know, as much as they loved and wanted to understand me, there was a disconnect there because they hadn't had that experience of what that was and what that meant. And we had many, many wonderful conversations about it as I got older and became more authentically myself.
But it was really finding that community, those people who had gone through those same things and had those same feelings. And were able to connect with me in a way that I had never connected with other people. I grew up in New York, but moved to Los Angeles in my mid-twenties and that's where I kind of met the family. My found family that I have now, which are my gay, lesbian, and transgender friends and family who lift me up and support me in a completely different way that my parents weren't necessarily equipped to do.
And so I think for LGBTQ people of all stripes, it's important that we go and we find those others that are like us, that can help us better understand ourselves. And I think in all of this searching, ultimately the goal is to better understand ourselves so that we can have these kind of integrated lives and have a sense of pride of who we are. And I think pride is just acknowledging that we are just as special as anybody else. We're not more special, but who we are is special.
And I think that you know, like in researching these stories of LGBT people, especially back in the 1950s where the movie takes place and a lot of the podcasts, these were people who were ostracized and kicked out of their families forcibly, you know, and had to go and find something. Some other place and some other group of people that could understand them and lift them up and make them feel good about themselves. And, and in those days, that was survival. You know, now it's like, you know, kids are coming out at 12 and getting, you know, like, yay, my son's gay, we're gonna throw a coming-out party.
And isn't that wonderful? And I think it's so, like, it boggles my mind. Like, I can't even imagine that in growing up, but, you know. Sorry, I think I'm totally off track...
Julia: No, absolutely. I mean, it's, it's such a beautiful thing. So, you know, family's complicated at the best of times and you don't choose the family that you're born into or that you're adopted by and there can be a lot of complications with your traditional family. What advice would you give somebody who feels like they don't fit in with their family, or maybe they're looking for that concept of family elsewhere?
Michael: Well, I think it's kind of a natural thing, you know, for all of us at some point to want to leave our family of origin and go out and explore the world. For me, it was a physical move and I knew that. I needed to make kind of a radical change in my life at a young age because I knew that who I had in me to be was very different than maybe what a lot of people thought I was, and I didn't want to be around people who are going to say, well, that's not who you are.
And I think when we allow ourselves to become more authentically who we are, we kind of shine a light for other people to be more authentically who we are. You know, my parents, when I came out, they were like, “Oh, we're, we're sorry for you because we feel like this is going to be a hard thing for you to be gay.”
Because that's what they thought. That's what they grew up with. And then once they saw how much joy being myself, you know, made me such a more happy person and a more joyful person. I was able to come back home and just be the joyful kind of Michael that they always wanted me to be. That little kid that they loved so much before I started to have all these like, oh, I'm different and I have to hide and I'm full of shame and blah, blah, blah, and low self-worth.
And so I think getting out there in the world, whether it's just getting online and finding a community group, or getting out into the world and doing things that just light you up. You know, maybe it's a hobby, maybe it's a sport, maybe it's a vocation or music or something.
And you just get out and talk to people and, you know, it's not going to be necessarily the first person you talk to, but I think putting yourself out there. And, you know, finding that person that kind of mirrors back to you who you are and allows you to kind of see the reflection of who you are and the beauty of who you are.
Julia: I love that. I feel like so much of it is about just accepting your uniqueness as a human and not making assumptions about what that's going to be one way or another, depending on where you come from.
Michael: That's like why we got all those colors in the rainbow.
Julia: Right. I love that. So one last question. what advice would you give parents who are considering adoption, or maybe they have adopted. Any thoughts from a child who grew up to be an adult, having been adopted?
Michael: There was never a time when I didn't know I was adopted. I don't remember ever having a conversation where we sat down and were like, OK, we have to tell you something. So I think for parents it's always making that a part of the narrative and letting your kids understand that. It doesn't matter if your kid is adopted or biological, you never know what you're going to get, but just to love them unconditionally and if your desire is to be a parent, then you know, a child is a child.
Julia: I think kids are a lot more aware of things than we sometimes give them credit for. And I love that kind of theme of being honest with your kids. And I think that applies to all kinds of setups. I mean, I co-parent with my ex. So, we're divorced and my daughter’s, you know, almost 4, so she's still young, but I still think it's important just to be upfront about it and, you know, not hide these things that make our families unique and I think that's a really great point.
Julia: So this has been so wonderful, Michael. Thank you so much for talking to me here.
Michael: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed this conversation. A lot of emotion (laughs)
Shaun: Julia, WOW. You know how you and Michael were crying during this interview? I had tears listening to it too… So much of his story resonates with me — as a gay man who had my own journey of coming out to my family. And now I’m raising my two sons, it just gets me thinking about how I’m going to support them and love them unconditionally as they grow up.
Julia: I love that. Don’t make me cry!
Shaun: I won’t! But I will say thank you all for listening and helping us celebrate Pride month. I know a lot of you have a coming out story of your own—whether it was you coming out, or a family member coming out to you.
Julia: And for more great stories about LGBTQ parenting, head to Parents.com.
That’s all for this episode of We Are Family.
I’m Julia Dennison.
Shaun: And I’m Shaun T.
Julia: And we’ll catch you next time. Check out the Mob Queens podcast, and you can learn about Michael’s new film, P.S. Burn This Letter Please on Instagram at @psburnthisletterplease and on the web at psburnthisletterplease.com
Thanks to our production team at Pod People: Rachael King, Eliza Lambert, Susie Armitage, and Lene Bech Sillisen. This show was recorded in New York and Arizona, edited in New York City, and can be found wherever you get your podcasts. You can find out more at parents.com/podcast. You can find Parents on Instagram at @Parents. And you can follow Shaun @ShaunT, and Julia at @juliadennison.