When you ask most people to define ‘family,’ they’re likely going to conjure up a story of mother, father, one or more children. Straight (or perhaps bi, if they’re feeling generous), and definitely cisgender. This is the ‘family’ in the eyes of much in the nation, the one that so hotly needs to be defended from the evils of the modern world. And you know, a lot of families do look like that. Which is great. I’m very happy for those families just like I’m happy for all people who find love and the people they want to share their lives with.
But they aren’t the norm anymore. And I am really tired of seeing people throw terms like ‘nontraditional families’ around, because queer families aren’t ‘nontraditional,’ they aren’t new, they are complex and beautiful and wonderful and they are here to stay, and everyone needs to deal with it. And before anyone jumps in to ask, they have family values too, and they deserve a place at the table — a place they are very much shunted out of, often dangerously, even in a world that has ostensibly legalised same-gender marriage (it’s of note that many people think the issue of queer families is resolved now that people can marry same-gender partners).
My family is huge and sprawling and wonderful. Only one person in it is genetically related to me. My family is my father, certainly, but it’s also the deep web of queerplatonic relationships I have with people. They’re not just ‘friends.’ They are my family. We may not be lovers and we may not live together and we may not share bonds of blood of fostership, but they are my family. And within them, there are tiny nuclei that are also their own families, but very few of them take on the form of cis man/cis woman. Many of them don’t have children and aren’t planning to. Others have children and some have adopted or fostered, or used assisted reproductive technology because they can’t or don’t want to have children on their own. They’re cis and trans, or something else altogether.
It’s not just about two mothers mothering together — though I know plenty of women in that precise position. It’s about triads and even larger poly relationships parenting as a collective. The ‘third’ parent isn’t a third wheel or an indifferent appendage, but an active and engaged part of the family, a true parent, part of the reason why poly people are lobbying for changes in the laws surrounding birth certificate format — because I have more than one family member who would be powerless to do something if anything happened to her child and the other parents weren’t available or were unable, as for example in the event of a serious car accident.
It’s about queerplatonic families raising children together as intentional families, where it’s possible that no one has a romantic or sexual relationship with anyone in the group, but they’re still living together, raising children, and operating as a family, because that’s what they are. But in the event of auditing by child welfare, or discussions about who is allowed to make medical decisions, take children out of school, and control other aspects of a child’s life, many very invested parents are legally cut out, utterly dependent on the mercy of the court, with the potential to be entrapped in legal wrangling while their children sit in limbo.
Even without children, these collectives — romantic, platonic, sexual, asexual, any combination of any number of things — are families. This makes many conservatives uncomfortable, unsurprisingly, but it also appears to distress liberals, who dislike thinking about disruptions to the order of things. Same gender marriage was unthinkable in many progressive communities until relatively recently, something many people may not want to admit, and young activists may not be aware of. Poly families now are just starting to appear in the media, and while some journalists try to write sympathetic, smart, attentive profiles, many others are very careless, and say harmful things about poly, perpetuating stereotypes and making it more dangerous to be out. Intentional families are even harder to spot in the media, and when they are profiled, it’s as a gawking novelty, just like poly relationships.
How weird, that someone would want to do this! Who’s the man! Who wears the pants! Who sleeps where? These are all things the media lingers over, unable to deal with what it’s facing, which is that the family is more complicated than two people bound by marriage and their descendants. This kind of reporting serves to further distance families from the world, making it harder to earn social progress like changes to birth certificates, more accepting legal forms (how do you sort out the deed to a home, for example?), more awareness in workplaces when it comes to welcoming people and their family members. (Hint: Don’t invite me and my family to your house unless you’re ready to host 30 people — and their extended families, and theirs, and theirs…)
Many people living in close poly and intentional families tend to play it close to their chests because the consequences can be serious. Discrimination is certainly a risk and a valid concern, whether on the job, in housing, or in other settings. In some professions, it’s basically impossible to be out if you want to advance at all — if you are, you need to be under a completely different name and in settings that do not overlap at all. Want to allow a journalist to interview you for a profile? Be prepared to ask for a pseudonym and obscured identifying details. There are also potentially serious legal issues, particularly for people who are coparenting, not least because nosy nellies like to make other people’s families their business, and all it takes is a well-placed report to the wrong person to trigger a dehumanising and humiliating investigation by child services, disrupting a loving and supportive home.
Queer families, for whatever value of queer they are, deserve protection too. Because they shouldn’t need that adjective. They’re not queer. They’re families. While their members may talk about queering the family and challenging social attitudes about how families function, as they should, at their core, they’re families, and they shouldn’t feel pushed to excuse or justify their existence.
Image: our first mothers day, essie, Flickr