Occupy the Family

I live in Colorado Springs.  Colorado Springs, the home of the religious right,  Ted Haggard,  Focus on the Family, and until recently,  Love Won Out.  Just your average two mom, three kid (infant twins and a preschooler), one dog family living at ground zero for the religious right. So one might expect that we regularly encounter images like this:

or this:

But the reality is surprisingly different. While I occasionally see the “Marriage = 1 Man + 1 Woman” bumper stickers and there’s always the protestor or two at Colorado Springs Pride Parade (Stop laughing. There is a Colorado Springs Pride Parade. Seriously.), we more typically encounter scenes like this one:

I’m at the local natural foods store, grocery cart piled high with organic veggies waiting to check out, one twin in the ergo, one sitting in the grocery cart. The stylishly outdoorsy, REI clad 50-something women behind me starts to ask about the babies:

REI Woman:  Aw, are they twins?

Me (with a smile):  Yup.

REI Woman:  Do twins run in your family?

Me:  Nope.

REI Woman:  They must run in your husband’s.

Me:  You mean my female partner’s family?  Nope.

REI Woman:  Oh, so you adopted them?!

Me:  Uh, no.  Lesbians have uteruses.  We can have babies.*

REI Woman:  Oh, so, how did you get pregnant?  Was it through IVF?  Where did you get the sperm from?

Me:  Those are kind of personal questions, don’t you think?  Would you ask a straight person those questions?

Or my partner’s conversation at the grocery store with the bagger:

Grocery bagger: Are you breastfeeding them?

Partner: No, their other mom does.

Grocery bagger:  So, where did you get the daddy?

Now, for those of you who read queer parenting blogs, are queer parents or are raising twins, some of this may not seem so strange. Queer parents are often asked wacky and sometimes inappropriate questions when it comes to their reproductive practices (for instance read this).

Queer parents (and parents of twins) are what Erving Goffman calls “open persons.”  Open persons are people who are stigmatized in some way, such that others feel they can ask them questions they would not usually ask of strangers.  For Goffman, the self is sacred and, as with other sacred objects (crosses, holy water, communion wafers), people behave in very specific ways so as not to profane it. Usually strangers maintain this sacredness through specific interactional rituals (what we think of as being polite), in which one does not ask questions about others’ bodily or intimate practices that could possibly defile the sacredness of the self.** However, for those who have visible stigmas, the self has already been profaned and as such, they lose that zone of privacy usually granted by strangers.

The question becomes, for me, how to deal with being an “open person.”  I don’t particularly enjoy being stigmatized, such that I don’t get accorded the same respect around issues that are usually considered private (reproduction for instance) that others do.  On the other hand, as queer scholars have pointed out, the fact that reproduction and sexuality belong to the realm of the private is itself problematic (See, for instance, Lisa Duggan’s The New Homonormativity:  The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism).  As such, maybe there is room for queer activism at the grocery store. I think about this a lot and, as I see it, I can respond (or, in Goffman’s terminology, manage stigma) in three general ways:

Option 1:  It’s none of your damn business!

This is usually my first reaction.  And the reaction of many queer parent bloggers. Reproduction belongs to the realm of the sexual.  The realm of the sexual is private.  After all, strangers don’t usually ask seemingly straight people how they get pregnant, right (though this may be different for parents of multiples)? So when complete strangers ask me these questions I feel othered and intruded upon and my response is annoyance and anger.  After all, it’s not my job to education them about queer pregnancy processes or the details of my (quite boring) personal life.

Option 2:  Educate

This is what the calm, rational part of me argues for.  In many of these cases I’m the first gay person/gay parent these people have met (to their knowledge).  I feel like I should be carrying a card with a link to the Human Rights Campaign website so I can show them that GLBTQ people are just like them: we have babies, go grocery shopping, and pay bills just like they do.  We don’t usually bite and we are every bit as boring as your average straight person. I could give a brief explanation of the typical ways different families are made (with the help of this fabulous new book!) and then briefly detail the legal hurdles same-sex couples then have to jump through to make sure that their children have legal parents.

Option 3:  Occupy the Family

 Queer families have radical potential.  Why pretend that they don’t?  Why embrace the “we’re just like you” rhetoric when research is indicating that we’re not necessarily, in a lot of really good ways. For instance, children raised by parents in same-sex relationships are less likely to adhere to normative (and problematic) gender practices and ideologies. Judith Stacey and Timothy Biblarz comprehensively review studies on families headed by same-sex parents (primarily lesbian families) and find that boys from these families tend to be less aggressive and more nurturing. Girls in these families are more likely to aspire to non-stereotpyically feminine careers (doctors, lawyers, engineers and astronauts).  Boys in these families tend to have sex at later ages and girls are less sexually constrained than children from heterosexual families.*** To my mind, when queers reproduce, we are raising a revolution, and it’s not clear that we should hide that fact behind a “we’re just like you” rhetoric.

Similarly, in these discussions do we really want to reify the notion that reproduction is necessarily related to sexuality and that sex is something that is/should happen between two (and only two) monogamous people who are in love? These grocery store discussions provide the opportunity to highlight the myriad ways babies get made and their potential for disrupting heteronormative notions of families where children have two biological parents of different sexes. They can also challenge the increasingly visible homonormative narrative of family making (as portrayed by the popular tv show Modern Family and discussed here). These sorts of discussions could highlight the fact that children could have multiple parents/caretakers/relatives, of a variety of sexes and/or genders with a variety of biological and social relationships with each.  Discussions could also introduce the idea that children can also be created in  wide variety of ways, between friends, with or without genital contact, through the procurement of a jar of sperm, with or without one’s own egg or sperm, and the often humorous discussions future parents engage in when trying to determine how to go about building a family for which there is not a blueprint.  The important thing about these responses is that they can challenge typical assumptions about families, childrearing, childmaking, sexuality, and relationships such that they bring to the forefront the radical possibilities of queer families.

As it stands, I vacillate between these three approaches, often depending on how much sleep I got the night before, how grumpy the babies are and how receptive the other person seems to talking about these issues. The fact that these questions come from well intentioned, possibly even liberal folks often makes my negotiations harder.  It’s easy to respond to a angry, bible thumping homophobe, but less easy to navigate how to challenge heteronormativity and (benign-ish?) ignorance when it comes from someone who doesn’t seem motivated by the politics of hate and fear. Fortunately, having three kids means a lot of future grocery store visits in which to try out and refine a variety of “Occupy the Family” strategies.

*Right, not all queer identified women can have babies or have uteri.  But, I figured baby steps would be the best plan of attack in this situation.

**Bathrooms, not surprisingly, are a particularly tricky place to maintain the sacredness of others.  For a great discussion of how we do this, see Spencer Cahill’s essay, “The Interaction Order of Public Bathrooms.”

***See the press release for a short summary of their findings.

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5 Responses to Occupy the Family

  1. Thanks for this column, CJ. I am stunned by the questions people feel free to ask when reproduction/gender/sexualities are involved, and though it seems to me to extend breathtakingly across family configurations, your situation really foregrounds what all the intrusive silly questions are about. What I especially value about your column is the “occupy the family” point.

  2. Great post CJ! You should make a little zine similar to US! magazine’s “Just Like Us” column where they show celebrities doing mundane things. *sigh* Yes… I read US! when I’m checking out.

  3. This was great! Thank-you.

  4. solucas says:

    Great article. Too young to be raising kids so I have a lot of time to figure out my own reactions in the grocery store, thanks!

  5. prairienymph says:

    There is something about babies in general that makes people forget boundaries. When I was pregnant I often had strangers touch me without consent or ask if I was married to the father. While I know its augmented by being visibly queer, perhaps some of it is how our society tends to treat reproductive women as public property.

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