What Constitutes a Family? Don’t Ask Conservatives.

What Constitutes a Family? Don’t Ask Conservatives.

What Constitutes a Family? Don’t Ask Conservatives.

Conservatives are developing legislation around “the basic social building block of the family.” The right to kinship in whatever form it takes is on the line.

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The American family has changed. There is no dominant form that family takes anymore. More people live unmarried, in multigenerational households, or in blended families. More women are primary breadwinners. More children are born without married parents. The Covid-19 pandemic produced new categories of interpersonal dependency in the form of “bubbles,” “quaranteams,” and “pods,” which combined friends, relatives, other people’s children, and even divorced or separated partners. For many people, it is no longer possible or desirable to leave home, marry, purchase property, and have children.

Threatened by these changes, the conservative movement wants to resurrect a narrow vision of the “traditional” family. To do so, they have unleashed an unprecedented legislative campaign targeting LGBTQ+ rights, especially those of transgender people, and shattered the rights to reproductive freedom. In the aftermath of Roe v. Wade, many have been quick to point out the hypocrisy of Republican policies that purport to be “pro-life” only until birth. In response, conservatives now argue that they must begin to develop legislation around “the basic social building block of the family.”

But what counts as “family” is an open question—and one that progressives have a stake in fighting over. Indeed, the changes in American kinship have created expanded possibilities for fostering intimacy, care, labor, pleasure, and belonging. Anyone who finds themselves outside of the “traditional” family, regardless of their sexual or gender identity, should ally with LGBTQ+ people to defend the right to kinship in whatever form it takes.

Queer kinship first emerged in the early 1990s as a concept in anthropology to describe the ways that LGBTQ+ people develop bonds outside of the heteronormative family. Kath Weston’s groundbreaking Families We Choose (1991) documented how LGBTQ+ people, often ejected from their home and family unit, make lasting intimacies that are not structured around legal or blood relations. Yet queer kinship is not limited to LGBTQ+-identified people. As our research shows, queer kinship takes many different forms. It can include but is not limited to: polyamory, non-monogamy, platonic partnerships, polycules, adoption, surrogacy, assisted reproduction, multigenerational friendships, peer parenting, diasporic intimacies, and more. What counts as queer kinship changes drastically over time, from romantic friendships to ongoing sexual play partners. This is because it is a creative way of forming bonds without a clear road map for how they should look.

Increasingly, even those who do not identify as queer seek out alternative stories that depict how belonging can look. As The Hollywood Reporter noted, the most popular television dramas in 2021 focused on “chosen family.” Their most iconically queer example is FX’s Pose, which depicts the vibrant house- and family-structures in Black and Latinx drag culture in the midst of the HIV/AIDS crisis during the 1980s and ’90s. But their list also includes Bridgerton, The Boys, and The Mandalorian, which aren’t directly about queer life but do rethink the contours of the family.

Such expansive understandings of family are welcome, but there is a danger of idealizing kinship in ways that erase the systemic violence that shapes intimate bonds. In the context of LGBTQ+ cultures, chosen families are not insulated from intimate-partner violence or racial discrimination. And we should never forget that our nation has privileged the white, patriarchal, and heterosexual family while destroying others, including our genocidal history of forcing Indigenous communities to conform to normative kinship in the name of “civilization.” A founding moment in United States kinship law lies in the 1662 colonial Virginia doctrine of partus sequitur ventrem, which dictated that children of enslaved women would inherit their mother’s legal status. As Black feminist scholars have long noted, slave owners had a property incentive to rape enslaved women and produce more children, legally making enslaved Black people “kinless” insofar as their inherited status as property denied them marital and parental rights. Much more recently, under Donald Trump, undocumented migrant families were forcibly separated between April and June 2018, and some have yet to be reunited.

In short, our nation is adept at shredding familial bonds when it serves white supremacy and economic superiority. Rather than approach “family” as a timeless institution or a romantic ideal, then, we would do better to advocate for the freedom to organize intimate and communal bonds in ways that enable and sustain many kinds of queer kinship.

Heterosexual and cisgender people have a real stake in this struggle. In the aftermath of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling striking down Roe v. Wade, the US Supreme Court is poised to eliminate not only the rights to same-sex marriage but also the rights to contraception and assisted reproduction. And in June, Alabama borrowed the rationale and even the wording of the Dobbs decision to argue in federal court that the state, not parents, has authority over a child’s right to receive gender-affirming care. Similar anti-LGBTQ+ legislation has caused the parents of trans children to flee from states like Texas out of fear of imprisonment and violence. LGBTQ+ or not, some people are being forced to become parents; others are denied the ordinary rights granted to parents.

This moment lays bare the reality of a nation that has long sought to control the bodies, bonds, and reproductive lives of its people.

The goal of the conservative movement is clear: to enshrine the white, heterosexual, and patriarchal family as the only acceptable form of kinship; and to enforce conformity to that ideal, even if it requires stripping away the rights of anyone who would dare to imagine an alternative.

Our goal must be equally clear: to support politically and economically the many different forms of kinship, including those that do not travel under the sign of “family” and especially those that the nation has stigmatized, criminalized, and cruelly ruptured.

Queer kinship can be a rallying cry for anyone and everyone who wants the freedom to pursue different forms of belonging together.

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