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The Cultural Necessity of Queer Families

To a certain extent 1993 really was the year of the queer.
Jillian Sandell

Issue #12, March 1994

To a certain extent 1993 really was the year of the queer. It was a year in which the media paid an unprecedented amount of attention to issues affecting sexual minorities (a few of the more prominent stories were gays in the military, the march on Washington, lesbian chic, gay and lesbian Clinton appointees, celebrities coming out, the AIDS stamp, and the making of Philadelphia). But one issue that seemed to crystallize and summarize many of the ongoing discussions was the debate about lesbian and gay families. As a media event it foregrounds two key issues: first, lesbian and gay access to public institutions, and second, the notion that queers can be visible only so long as they fit within the prevailing parameters of acceptability.

The emergence of queer families represents a major historical and ideological shift against the prevailing assumption that to claim a lesbian or gay identity means leaving one's family behind and foregoing the chance of establishing families of one's own. However, what interests me is not only that this shift has occurred but the way in which the debate around it has been represented in the media. So far discussion has been almost entirely organized around the family 'content' versus 'structure' opposition, in other words a debate about whether gay families are inherently assimilationist or inherently progressive. This way of understanding the family clearly owes a debt to feminist discussions of the family in the last two decades, and it is a useful place to start, but it is not a model that can be used without question.

It may well be a truism to say that there is no 'traditional family'. Indeed, the very concept of 'family' means different things to different people, since it is always inflected by factors such as class, race, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexuality. What strikes me as interesting is that most writers continue to act as if the traditional American family does exist, and use it as a reference point for discussions of lesbian and gay families. Thus, while the family is not an institution but a constantly changing social and cultural construct, it nevertheless continues to function as an institution with very real power relations.

In my discussion of queer families I will show how the structure of the debate leaves certain questions about the family unasked, and suggest that the tacit acceptance of gay and lesbian families may not necessarily indicate a decrease in homophobia but may rather be signaling the way in which they have become a 'cultural necessity' of late patriarchal capitalism that, while strategically viable, is not unproblematic.

A growing number of gays and lesbians are now forming families and having children, and they are doing so in an open and self-identified way. The word 'self-identified' is important here because as many theorists, most notably Michel Foucault, have argued, while homosexual acts have always occurred, the concept of having a homosexual identity tied to those acts is historically quite recent. Similarly, men and women have, for years, formed committed same-sex relationships, and had children, but what is relatively new is for men and women to self-identify as being part of a gay or lesbian family, and to have children within that identity.

Last year there were a number of significant legal changes that pushed forward the demand for gay families. In June, Hawaii became the first state in the union to suggest that the ban on same sex marriages may violate equal protection guaranteed under the state's constitution. In September, Massachusetts joined Vermont in recognizing the custodial rights of the domestic partners of gay and lesbian biological parents. And at least two dozen major corporations, and many universities, now extend spousal benefits to same-sex partners. Of course, for every step toward rights for gay families there were also steps backward. Two of the more prominent ones last year were: the case of Sharon Bottoms in Virginia, who lost custody of her child because she was a lesbian; and in Texas where commissioners publicly opposed (although this was later overturned) Apple Computers extending benefits to partners of gay employees. Nevertheless all of these events contributed to making the national debate over the definition of the family more high-profile.

There are, of course, huge differences between gay men and lesbians getting married and/or creating families. In the context of AIDS, gay men (and, to a lesser extent, lesbians) vowing 'till death do us part' clearly has its own particular, and poignant, set of meanings. Similarly, lesbian couples face different and probably fewer difficulties in terms of having and raising children. However, what interests me is that it is a particular monolithic version of queer families that are always talked about, and so a combined discussion of lesbian and gay families seems entirely appropriate. Also, as a point of reference I will use the terms 'queer', 'homosexual' and 'gay' interchangeably and will use 'gay men' or 'lesbians' when being gender specific.

Some argue that legal recognition of gay and lesbian marriages is the key to equality. In a feature article in The New Republic, openly gay editor Andrew Sullivan suggests that equal access to marriage is, more than anything else, 'the critical measure necessary for full gay equality'. Sullivan organizes his argument around the idea of civil equality, seeing the right for gays to form families as the affirmation needed to integrate gays and lesbians fully into civil society. Sullivan rejects what he calls 'the paradigm of victimology' and advocates replacing it with one of complete integration. For Sullivan, the demand for same-sex marriages reflects the trend within the gay rights movement away from sexual liberation in the 1960s and 1970s toward the second wave for equal rights in the more conservative 1980s and 1990s. Such a shift parallels similar changes within feminism, from the earlier women's liberation movement to today's emphasis on affirmative action and gender equality. However, whereas liberation suggests a desire to make fundamental changes within the social order, the push for rights and equality can leave society untouched: liberation demands respect, equality merely asks for acceptance. Sullivan's goal is for gays and lesbians to be accepted and assimilated into straight society.

Not everyone accepts the gay marriage agenda so wholeheartedly. In an article in The Advocate, Chris Bull questions such a position and asks whether the new hot issues of 'family values, queer style' is 'a sign of the community's maturity or the first step towards assimilation and, ultimately, invisibility?'. He thus restates and makes explicit what is implicit in the debate in general. He discusses the case of Bob Paris and Rod Jackson, who fused their respective surnames saying that 'having a family name is one way to show the world that we are as deserving of first class citizenship as any non-gay married couple' The Jackson-Parises reappeared last month on the cover of Out, together with an extract from their forthcoming book in which they discuss how they went from being pro bodybuilders to spokesmen and posterboys for gay marriage. In The Advocate article, Bull goes on to present a range of opinions from people within the queer community who put forward their respective positions for or against gay marriage. The arguments all fall within the opposition mentioned earlier — that gay marriage represents either an assimilationist move that will weaken queer politics, or that it is essential to challenging heteronormative society.

Not all of the contributions to the media debate have been written by or for gays and lesbians. In June last year a lesbian couple made the cover of Newsweek under the heading 'Lesbians: Coming out strong, what are the limits of tolerance?' While it was not specifically about lesbian families, the article implicitly said a lot about this particular magazine's position in the debate. The cluster of stories inside the magazine were all about lesbians but with a clear division between those stories about 'mainstream' lesbians and those on the 'fringe'. Those represented as being on the fringe were dykes on bikes from a gay price march, lesbians in the military, and political activists. They all wore clothes conventionally coded as lesbian or presented themselves in such a way that it was obvious they were queer. They were also shown in public, especially urban, spaces, and so were in some senses doubly visible.

In contrast the article portrayed lesbians considered part of (or assimilating into) the mainstream; couples such as Diane Morgan and Kristen Cichocki who organize the annual Northampton lesbian festival. Morgan, we are told in the text (in case we miss it in the photo), has a blond bob and wears lipstick, and she could pass as straight. Similarly, the couple on the front cover that are surrounded by the question, 'what are the limits of tolerance?' clearly represent the kind of lesbians that can be tolerated: genial-looking and appearing gender normative. All of these couples appear in non-public or domestic spaces, and in case we miss the point, the caption accompanying one couple says 'safe at home'.

Newsweek may be ambivalent about lesbians but it clearly realizes that the so called traditional family is not without its problems. A quick glance through the rest of the magazine reveals a number of articles that concern what we might call the 'straight' family: two on absent fathers, one on the charade of the then recent Japanese royal wedding, and a report on the Woody Allen-Mia Farrow custody/child abuse case. In the context of the whole magazine, lesbian couples are acceptable, but only when discreet, conventional and especially when conforming to heteronormative societal values.

My final example of media representations of queer families returns to the gay press, specifically to an article in Out by Michelangelo Signorile on the 'Bridal Wave' happening in Hawaii. The aspect of Signorile's article that strikes me as being particularly interesting is the way in which the forces of capitalism are adding their own particular inflection to this debate. Hawaii exudes diversity, and people of different races, colors, ethnicities and religions intermarry with little social stigma. Many people therefore see it as unsurprising that Hawaii should also embrace same-sex marriages, especially since there is evidence that same-sex relationships existed and flourished in precolonial Hawaii.

However, the tacit support for same-sex rights seems to rest heavily on the anticipated tourist boom it will bring. Thus Hawaii may have embraced queer families on the basis of consideration for equal rights but also, significantly, because of the revenue it may bring to the state. Since Hawaii's economy relies heavily on tourism, especially honeymooners, such a boom is worth taking seriously. Some, however, fear that the influx of same-sex couple in Hawaii could drive heterosexual tourists away, killing an already dying tourist industry, which would lead to economic disaster. No-one knows for sure to what extent either case will be true, but the forces of capitalism are playing a major role in deciding whether or not Hawaii should court or resist self-identified homosexual couples. The acceptability of gay families in Hawaii is still debated in terms of assimilation or transgression, but not only in terms of assimilation into straight society, but also into reproducing capitalist relations. As I will discuss later, this formulation of the debate in Hawaii merely makes explicit what underpins discussions elsewhere — that the parameters of acceptability for queer families has a lot to do with the need to reproduce the social and material conditions of capitalism, and that the relation between the family and capitalism is an economic one.

I want to move now to the work of Kath Weston, a cultural anthropologist whose book, Families We Choose, discusses how gay and lesbian kinship relationships often challenge some of the assumptions we have about the family within capitalism. Weston's project is to deconstruct the opposition between blood kin and chosen kin and to discuss the historical shift whereby 'gay' and 'family' are no longer mutually exclusive terms. Weston discusses the way in which gay kinship ideologies have transformed, rather than copied, existing kinship relations, and that they have often evolved like networks that cross household lines and erotic ties. Whereas debates in the media about queer families almost always equate family with 'couple' or 'couple with children' and emphasize the issue of same-sex marriage, Weston shows that in fact many gay people consider their family to be more than just their sexual partner and/or children. Like 'straight' families, gay families remain the focus of affective life, but they also often incorporate sharing material and emotional resources, organize co-parenting arrangements, provide support for friends with ARC or AIDS, have a common history and show other signs of solidarity. Importantly, they also often include ex-lovers, a trend that rarely occurs after divorce or break up among heterosexuals, and a fact that reiterates the point that gay families are not only based on sexual relationships and that the transition partners make from lover to friend contributes to the creation of a queer community based on non-sexual, as well as sexual, ties.

The families in Weston's book bear almost no relation to those discussed in the media. While I do not want to fall into the trap of attributing either the media or Weston's research with some kind of special truth status, I think it is interesting that mainstream representations of queer families present one version of the story while Weston and other researchers present another quite different one. This is an example of what Noam Chomsky, in Necessary Illusions (1989), calls the illusion of democracy in the media. For Chomsky any notion of democracy within media culture is illusionary because discussions always happen within the 'bounds of the expressible'. Thus, it is not so much that Weston's research is 'the truth' but that despite the apparent 'debate' about gay families in the media, crucial issues about what exactly constitutes a family remain unasked. I will leave the specifics of Chomsky's model to one side for now, but I think it is still a useful way to explore the implications of why only certain kinds of gay families are being discussed in the mainstream (even mainstream gay) press.

The extended kinship networks of which gays and lesbians are often a part are the kinds of families that, according to Weston, gays and lesbians have 'chosen' to create. Indeed, many of her informants invoked a utopian aspect to their chosen families, saying that they have been able to create what was rarely available to people — a family environment that was emotionally and materially supportive, and made up of people with whom they had a special and close relationship. While I'm sure we can all relate, on some level or other, to the desire to be able to remake one's family, it seems to be problematic to valorize, so unquestioningly, the element of choice and individual power invoked by these people, and I think it's worth thinking for a moment about the implications of buying into these utopic desires. By substituting the logic of creation and selection instead of biological reproduction, the discourse on gay families allows people to think they have power to alter the circumstances into which they were born. In desiring to remake one's family in a new image, these people are subscribing to the ideal of individualism so celebrated in American culture. If all that queer people need to do to feel like they are part of a community is to make individual changes in their families, the need for collective action is undermined. Changing families will certainly have wider consequences to society, but it nevertheless leaves all kinds of other institutions that perpetuate homophobia, unchanged. However, I suggest that while the 'families we choose' are not a substitute for political action, neither are they inherently individualistic. Rather, what is necessary is to ensure that the individual and 'chosen' family are contextualized within the community at large.

One of the ways in which this utopic potential of queer families can be contextualized within a collective politics is to think about the way in which it relates to broader social and economic conditions. In what is an otherwise excellent discussion of the kinds of families that gays and lesbians choose, Kath Weston ends by saying that the reproduction of social arrangements that occur in families lies beyond the concerns of gay people. Yet I would argue that this is precisely what we do need to look at because in many ways it helps explain why certain kinds of queer families are appearing in the media. Capitalism has, as many feminists have pointed out, been instrumental in the constitution and organization of the contemporary family. The romantic ideal of the family often masks the economic function of the family, that of reproducing and socializing the workforce, and serving as a unit of consumption. In other words, the family is functionally necessary for capitalism because it reproduces capitalist social relations.

Capitalism also plays a crucial role in the kinds of identities available to homosexual people. In his article, 'Capitalism and Gay Identity' (1983), John D'Emilio argues that it was in fact the spread of capitalism that facilitated men and women being able to define themselves as homosexual. In pre-industrial colonial America, the family centered household was crucial to the economic system of this country and the mode of production based upon family labor meant that heterosexuality was a precondition for economic survival. Anyone with an erotic or emotional attraction to members of the same sex would find it hard, regardless of whether or not they acted on these feelings, to transform such an attraction into an identity. The shift in the nineteenth century from artisanal to industrial capitalism provided the pre-conditions necessary for lesbian and homosexual identities to emerge. Capitalism allows, and encourages, men (and to a lesser extent women) to work outside of the home in the marketplace, as part of the paid labor force, meaning that more and more people can survive economically outside of their familial unit. The necessity for personal relationships to be tied to familial economic units decreases, and sexuality enters the realm of 'choice'. Later on the recognition of the possibility of establishing non-erotic ties among homosexuals constitutes a key historical development that paves the way for a lesbian and gay 'community'.

Thus, we have an interesting situation where both the modern family and the modern homosexual identity (and to a lesser extent the homosexual community) are products of late capitalism, yet they are also in a sense opposed to each other and rely on the negation of each other for their identity. The discourse on queer families has emerged in a particular sociohistorical and material context, and I would suggest that one of the reasons that there is such a proliferation of debate about gay families right now is because of the perceived decline of the traditional family. Of course we need to remember that to invoke the 'family' is already to invoke a myth. Queer families means more than just some same-sex couples wanting to get married and raise children. Similarly, the so-called traditional family is far from being a unified concept. The passionate public response to the Moynihan report in the 1960s signaled a prolonged era of national conflict and confusion over what kinds of kinship and gender relations are to count as family in post-industrial America. The Moynihan report was just the first of many challenges to the so-called traditional family. Others include feminism, reproductive technologies, abortion rights, adoption, teenage single mothers, surrogate motherhood, the rising divorce rate, blended families, and the increased reporting of child abuse and other dysfunctional familial patterns. In other words, the last few decades have witnessed major reconfigurations of the terrain of kinship. The issue of which relationships receive legal recognition, social legitimacy and institutional and cultural support remains a highly political one.

Therefore, it is not so much that the traditional family is in decline these days since, in many ways, it never even existed. But the myth of the family is proving harder and harder to sustain, as the juxtaposition of the stories in Newsweek demonstrate — the most affirming and positive pictures and stories in the entire issue were of the three lesbian couples variously situated in their private and discreet worlds. Thus, the tacit acceptance of queer couples into the fold of 'family values' has a double effect of acknowledging that homosexuality exists while perpetuating and disciplining 'the family'. Only certain kinds of queer families are accepted, those that conform most closely to the mythic heterosexual couple, and least threaten traditional familial kinship patterns. Those not conforming, such as the extended families Weston discusses, or the 'fringe' lesbians in Newsweek, are excluded from the debate and a new opposition is set up for those queer people who don't fit in.

This effect is symptomatic of normalizing discourses, and Chomsky gives us a way of understanding this. So, to return to my earlier point, what are the aspects to this debate which remain 'unexpressed'? One aspect is the complete denial of gay men and lesbians' social identities and the communities of which they are a part. Most of the debate about queer families has centered on 'the family' and whether or not to participate in it. Yet, the family is always understood as lovers and/or children. By ignoring the social, non-erotic, aspects to family the potential of 'families' (in the sense that Kath Weston invokes) as part of community building is ignored. Queer people are by no means the first to create different kinds of families and to deconstruct patterns of kinship to create communities. As many writers have pointed out, both the white working classes, and many ethnic and racial groups in the United States, often create family and kinship patterns that in no way resemble the mythical American family and are similar to those described by Weston. In fact, 80% of the population does not live in a nuclear family. Just as 'alternative' queer families rarely enter into the 'family media debate', so too the extended families within non-white and non-middle-class communities remain hidden. This is clearly an ideological move to sustain the myth of the American family. By emphasizing the social aspects of queer identities, there is a greater potential for gays and lesbians to make alliances with, and draw attention to, the large number of people living in non-traditional family groupings. This would mean building upon a sense of queer community that is not only based on sexual identities, but on social ties, thus facilitating connections with other communities.

There is a sense in which such a claim can seem reactionary. After all, hasn't there already been a total evacuation of any discussion of gay and lesbian sexuality in the media? The recent movie Philadelphia is a good example, where despite being about a gay man with AIDS, the sexual nature of his relationship is completely ignored and sanitized. However, there is still a sense that claiming the identity of a sexual minority reduces that identity to sex alone, ignoring the many other social aspects. Reducing gays and lesbians to merely sexual beings tends to segregate them as a species apart, ignoring the many areas of shared experience outside of the realm of the sexual.

For gays and lesbians being married and/or part of a family is often a highly symbolic act. The fact that in both the recent marches on Washington so many people participated in mass weddings demonstrates the symbolic importance of desiring acknowledgment for gay and lesbian couples. There are also many legal and financial benefits to having one's family status recognized by the state, yet once again these derive from assimilating into capitalist society wherein it is monogamous couples who receive preferential insurance, health and tax benefits.

Maintaining the debate at the level of pro or anti family, where family means a couple or a couple with children, does little to challenge the status quo. I am not suggesting that gay men or lesbians should stop fighting for family rights, whether that means marriage or the recognition of partners in other ways. What I am suggesting is that we make visible some of the other ways in which the notion of family can be incorporated into a queer politics, in a way that does challenge existing society.

As Weston suggests, there is a utopian aspect to 'choosing' one's family and creating one's own communities. However, embracing family does not mean abandoning community and we need to contextualise the utopian potential within a more collective framework. Social networks act as an important link between individuals 're-creating' their lives and the structure of the community at large. Whereas factors such as race, class, religion and gender can fragment communities, these social networks can reconnect different groups of people in important emotional, social and material ways. Whereas the earlier queer community was built primarily on sexual identities, the possibilities for a community built on social identities is increasingly possible and should be harnessed for social change. The kinds of queer families represented in the media debate are culturally necessary to sustain capitalism, but for those of us opposed to such a system the alternative families are also culturally and strategically necessary. Affiliations based on interests, rather than specific identities, have truly utopic possibilities because then people are motivated to change social structures. Families of all kinds are mired in the reproduction of social relations. By emphasizing and strengthening the social networks that gays and lesbians have established, the reproduction of a more equitable kind of social relations may begin.

Jillian Sandell is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective. She is a graduate of the Australian National University and is currently employed as a reader in the film studies program at UC-Berkeley. She can be reached at the following internet address:

Copyright © 1994 by Jillian Sandell. All rights reserved.