When I was in my early teens, I had four family rings made, one for me and three as gifts. You remember, the kind you could order from Consumers’ Distributing, with a row of bright birthstones meant to represent each person in your family. Pink, pale blue, dark blue and green. One each. The catch? They weren’t for me and my siblings. They were for me and my three best friends, the women whom I was close friends with for well over a decade before our lives went in different directions. (Though we’re still hooked up on Facebook, of course.)
That was my first experience of creating and valuing family outside the bounds of my blood relations, and it seems to have been a rather accurate predictor of the years to come… though I never would have guessed what the future would look like at the time.
A couple of weeks ago, Boi M and I had a rather last-minute gathering in our living room. We called it the Family Day Living Room Picnic, and we invited people to join us whom we felt were part of our queer family.
It was really neat to try and come up with the guest list. Not to mention a menu that could accommodate a bunch of vegetarians, a gluten sensitivity and a number of allergies and intolerances to things such as, say, the chemical component that makes spicy foods spicy. Make that a potluck and… yeah. There were lentils.
All this inviting came about because Boi M and I realized that hey, we had a brand-new statutory holiday to celebrate that’s supposed to be all about family, and dammit, we have family. Lots of family. So much family it’s hard to keep track of sometimes. And like many queers, the people we consider family only sometimes and in some circumstances overlap with those who are blood-related to us.
We queers have got a longstanding tradition, as a community, of creating chosen family. In past generations, I think this was a necessity to a greater extent than it is for many of us today; being queer is no longer an automatic ticket to familial exile, so while that unfortunate reality still exists for a lot of people, today many of us are creating most intriguing blends of chosen family that include the conscious choice to maintain loving relationships (gasp!) with people who share our gene pool as well as those who do not. Being queer is also no longer an automatic ticket to childlessness, so many of us are incorporating queerspawn into our chosen families – and you bet your ass those kids are chosen. Sometimes they’re not only chosen but worked for, or fought for, like crazy, whether it’s about battling homophobic sperm banks, canvassing dozens of potential donors, choosing a progressive adoption agency or fostering network, or coming up with complex arrangements between people of incompatible sexual orientations to create a new little life together.
Kinda wild, when you think about it.
For me, my chosen family is made up of numerous overlapping circles. There’s my chosen queer family – a group of five fantastic women whom I’ve been close friends with for many years now. There’s my leather family (and here the overlap begins), which is rooted in my Montreal tribe the Unholy Army of the Night, and is made up of women (including two of the aforementioned chosen queer family members) and trans folks with whom I’ve shared countless experiences of relationship and play, some of it silly and some of it profound, some of it sexy but most of it not.
My leather family also includes my two bois, and a couple of other lovers and play partners; that’s when leather family starts to become poly family, which is when you have to toss in a couple of exes and extend outward to include a few layers of the poly ring. (This is sometimes where things get blurry. Is my sort-of ex’s girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend part of my poly family? What if I hook up with his husband? Hmmm. You see how this can quickly become very confusing indeed.) There’s my blood family, of which some are more chosen than others – my brothers are most definitely of the chosen variety, I’d walk over hot coals for them. And there are assorted tykes, including most notably the the Spawn (who, for those new around here, is the charming three-year-old result of a reproductive collaboration between my ex, T, and the wonderful mamas M and E – howzat for complex? – and to whom T is spuncle and I am spaunty) and my platonic life partner’s daughter Princess Firefighter (to whom I am occasionally daddy, yay for gender fluidity).
Not everyone could make it, and some didn’t even get invited for various good reasons including “they live in another province,” but just for fun, let me run down a few people on the list. That list included my sometime-lover J, who’s godfather to the Spawn. It included the pair of local leathergirls who decided sometime last year that it would be fun to introduce me and Boi M (little did they know how right they were!). It included Boi M’s friend B and her boi, A, bringing the number of daddies on the list up to one and the number of bois up to four (and not a seed-bearer in the bunch). It included my oldest friend, her wife, and their own brand-new spawn, whom I’ll call the Bean. It included Boi M’s cousin, a wonderful, articulate young queer we both like rather a lot, and the young trans guy that Boi M is mentoring. It also included my three brothers – y’know, the traditional kind, i.e. male-bodied people produced by the same womb that produced me.
It wasn’t the first time I’ve had in recent weeks to think about how I define family, what it means to me, who’s included and how it all works. Marcus McCann of Ottawa’s Capital Xtra interviewed me for an article on queer family, and also interviewed the mamas. It was published just before the holiday itself; Marcus does an excellent job of picking apart the concept and analyzing its component parts,and the mams have lots of good stuff to say, so do check it out.
In case you can’t tell, I’m pretty sold on the idea of family. It feels important to me on some gut level that I can’t necessarily explain with articulate political statements.
What’s intriguing to me is to see how some folks I know react to the whole idea. Among other things, one of the people on the Living Room Picnic list wrote back to me saying that she couldn’t make it: “I’m hanging with the offspring today and doing it because I love them, not because of some state-sanctioned reminder to act heterosexual.” I hear her. The messaging around Family Day has ranged from suspiciously neutral to overwhelmingly straight in tone. On the other hand, two other guests were only able to show up partway through the day because they’d spent the morning on security detail for the enormous celebratory gathering of queer families at Toronto’s City Hall… so clearly there’s some room being made in official spaces for people who don’t fit the mama-dada-1.2-kids- picket-fence-and-dog model.
But beyond justified grouchiness about heterocentric Family Day messaging, another friend of mine is completely unfriendly to the family thing no matter how you slice it. And she’s hardly a grumpy single: she’s a lifelong non-monogamous gal who, a couple of years ago, hooked up with her mother’s best friend’s daughter, who at the time was still married to her ex-husband and fostering five kids. The three of them became co-parents for a while until hubby moved out on very good terms; now my friend is one of two parents in charge of the whole crew. And despite her actively chosen legal responsibility for these children, and her deep love for her partner, she still thinks we should scrap the idea of family and come up with something else entirely. I’ve asked her about this but I still don’t feel I have a really solid grasp of her politics, so I’m not going to try and represent them here, but needless to say I want to pick her brain some more.
As for me – certainly I’m way more interested in defining family the way it makes sense to me than in buying into the whole “nuke-you-ler family” imperative. Valuing family? Yay! Family values as defined by the neo-Christian Right? Blech. I want family to mean what it feels like to me, dammit, not what my genealogy dictates. Fuck that. Family is what we make it, and for me, I want it big and sprawling and complex and beautiful and above all, spilling over with love. Do I need a state-sanctioned holiday to remind me to celebrate that? Hardly. I’ll celebrate it much as I’ll define it – exactly as I please.
But hey, it was a great excuse for a picnic.