These days, schoolteachers are busy figuring out ways to help children draw family trees without limiting them to ancestry, blood and marital relations. Instead of the traditional patriarch/matriarch plus descendants, children are encouraged to depict their family members as leaves on a tree, or planets in a solar system, to name and claim relations that may not have arrived in their lives via legal marriage, adoption or genetics. Families are complex.
For almost 20 years, I directed family programming at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in New York City. My thinking on families grew directly out of thousands of interactions with LGBT families and their needs, up close and personal, over a long period of time. Every day, I took phone calls and responded to emails -- about 50 per week -- from people seeking answers, support, service referrals, direction, or just someone to listen to their family-related frustrations. The job provided a snapshot into how we "family" (yes, now a verb, an action word). My exposure to such diverse, inventive, unusual family constructions convinced me that what is urgently needed for LGBT families and all those other messy, complicated, variegated families out there are social and legal protections that support all kinds of families, not only those headed by two cohabiting married people -- gay or straight.
Thanks to the hard work of dedicated activists, I'm pretty sure that same-sex marriage rights are soon to be encoded in the law. So what's coming up on the queer family liberation agenda?
Families Can't Be Contained!
In recent years, there's been an undeniable trend toward a more elastic understanding of what families look like. In the case of donor insemination, fewer lesbians are choosing anonymous sperm donors, opting instead for the possibility of ongoing relationships between donors and offspring. In surrogacy situations, men express the desire for substantive connection with gestational carriers as well as egg donors, who are increasingly willing to meet and know the gay men who have created embryos with their eggs. People are seeking siblings through online sperm donor sibling registries, and gay men and lesbians (as well as straight folks) choose each other to become co-parents, making babies and raising them cooperatively without being intimate sexual partners -- all with ever greater frequency. Adult adoptees (with social science supporting open records as in their best interests) have helped to shift the adoption industry to accommodate their need for access to biological family information and contact, access that often leads to two families -- the family of origin and the adoptive family -- both active in the adoptee's life. Groups of single seniors are coming together, committing to care for one another as they age. Across the board, the lived reality of actual untidy families reveals that the notion that we'll be protected for good and all simply through marriage is woefully inadequate.
So what agenda will serve LGBT families, and diverse families of all kinds, moving forward? To begin with, comprehensive health care reform, retaining the goal of universal health insurance based on personhood rather than couplehood, and including affordable, accessible reproductive health services made available equitably for all; immigration reform that recognizes diverse families beyond same-sex binational couples; retention and expansion of domestic partnership and other outside-marriage protections that recognize primary familial relationships that may be a sibling, an elderly parent, or a BFF; pay equity for women; poverty relief programs that are not dependent on conformity to a particular family structure; and the liberation of Social Security survivor benefits from current limitations (let us decide for ourselves who will be counted as our survivors after decades of contributing our wages into the Social Security fund). Our ongoing activism must involve making sure that "family" is defined generously in upcoming legislation and regulatory and social reform.
History demonstrates that for besieged communities, a more inclusive definition of family has been essential for survival. Living on the margins, a small family means fewer helpers and more vulnerability. In supporting only families formed through marriage, we channel community resources toward buying into the post-World-War-II suburban failure that is the nuclear family -- two parents and a couple of kids, living in isolation. I don't think we want to be a movement that accommodates the "majority," most-but-not-all. We've been saying for 40 years that our minority status shouldn't be grounds for leaving us out. Our advocacy can't stop with striving for access to an institution that by its very definition leaves most of us, our families, and all manner of families behind.
What we need now is a progressive family agenda that removes discrimination against unmarried people and recognizes and accommodates the family diversity and complexity we know is in fact the norm. Are you with me?