We can all recite the cultural fairytale about the American family: A man and a woman meet one another, date and fall in love. Wait—let’s really go for the fairytale stereotype: He’s handsome and tall. She’s pretty and petite, perhaps just a few years younger than he. He has a well-paying job and hers is fulfilling, if not well-paid. They have a big wedding, with lots of photos showing them in their fancy clothes–white dress, fine suit. They marry and buy a house together and have two children; the boy is born first, then a girl. Ideally, this is how it goes.
Even if we find the fairytale foolish and think there’s nothing wrong with non-adherence to it, this story is in our cultural consciousness. No one reading that scenario fails to recognize it, and thus we are each aware of the points at which our family deviates from it. We live in comparison to it. And, therefore, it takes awareness and effort to develop public policies to normalize a range of families. It takes effort to be a non-adherent who still takes pride in having a happy family. Further, if the image above is indeed what your family looks like, more or less, it’s tough not to act like you’re normal and others aren’t. It’s tough not to act like you “deserve” the “good life,” and everyone else is just a little sad in the ways they don’t measure up.
Now back to reality. Realities–plural. Here’s the truth of it: Sometimes people meet and marry and have children. Often people start having sex with one another before marriage, and sometimes children result. Sometimes marriages involve sexual fidelity, sometimes not. Sometimes multiple sexual partners are a planned part of loving relationships, sometimes not. Some people have children without marrying. Some couples can’t have their own children because neither is able to give birth, either because of fertility issues or because both are the same gender. (And yes, sometimes people of the same gender have sex, fall in love and even marry, either because same-sex marriage is legal where they live or they gain state support by concealing or changing one of their genders.) All of this has been happening for all of recorded time. All of it. Families are complex, and we construct them both in accordance with and in opposition to cultural norms and laws.
Much of America has been watching the discussion and testimonies about same-sex marriage, thanks to the Supreme Court’s recent examination of DOMA and Proposition 8. Reporters and commentators don’t often help their audiences to see public policies and practices, such as marriage, as being a way for government to apply structure to the myriad ways that humans find to arrange their lives and interpersonal relationships. But it might help if we started thinking that way, and asking ourselves who benefits from our current sanctioning of certain relationships.
We could start by acknowledging reality: Families and gender roles vary. There are now and always have been myriad ways to raise healthy, happy children. It’s not up to politics to allow, or not allow, family diversity. Policies and politics do matter to queer and other non-normative families, however, because they help children access resources and opportunities and to feel that their country values them. And that’s good for everyone.
Some participants in public discussions are acting as though queer people have only recently been given the option to have children—as though it’s a right that must be bestowed by some outside group or government. It is only this way of thinking that makes queer parenting seem abnormal.
In past times, if two men or two women wanted to have a child, they simply found a family member or friend with a child that wasn’t being enthusiastically parented. People make their own arrangements to parent, now and historically. Furthermore, two women who want to parent and have the means to do so have always been capable of carrying off the deed as long as one of them is fertile—and I’m not talking about artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization here. Those are modern developments. Throughout human history, women have become pregnant independent of long-term relationships with men. To put it bluntly, sperm is free at any bar. A woman may not have her pick of the sires, but our cultural practices around male and female sexuality almost ensure her success.
So, what are we really saying when we discuss whether or not queer people should be “allowed” to have families? We’re discussing whether we’re going to let children in queer families have the social support and opportunities of other children who come from family structures we legally recognize and have rendered somehow “right” and “beautiful” and “worthy.”
It’s time to wake up from the fairytale and construct policies that support to all of the ways humans can think to create families. We do that by accepting the reality of human diversity. When kids are allowed to get back to the business of discovering the world, rather than managing hatred and bigotry, we all benefit.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons