queer and the family

Sometime last year, I came across this little gem of a paragraph on the blog “Adventures in Deconstruction” by Mary Bryson, a queer theory professor at UBC. She’s referring here to a gathering of people at her home for Christmas:

[…] [P]lease don’t think ‘queer’ is about the sex/gender of who folks cozy up to. It’s just about affirming a principle of kinship that is other than blood ties. And of course, many people who I really wanted to celebrate with DID have family things happening that were good and wonderful, and so couldn’t be celebrating with us last night. So it was far from the whole queer family. But maybe that’s all there ever is anyway — that particular queer family, that night, in that place, and f*ck the idea that there is ever a “whole” anything. What I do know for sure is that there was a lot of love in our house last evening.

I hung onto that paragraph for quite some time after reading it. In fact, as part of a longstanding personal tradition, I inscribed it onto the front page of my agenda for this year. It’s a strange little habit I acquired many years ago – sometime within the last couple of weeks of any given calendar year, or the first few of a new one, I seem to come across one or two quotes that really strike me. Perhaps my mind is somehow open to new thoughts in a way it isn’t at other times, I don’t know. All I can say is that I take it on faith that whatever strikes me has some sort of importance, and so I write it down in my agenda so I can refer back to it throughout the year and figure out what it’s trying to tell me. Call it quirky, call it superstitious – I just find it to be an interesting exercise in thought.

So Bryson’s quote really grabbed me, and tonight I find myself turning it over in my mind. Why? Maybe because I’ve been thinking lots about one branch of my queer family – composed of the Spawn, the Spawnlet, the Moms, and my ex, T, who helped create the little ones, along with a number of other quirky characters – because we co-authored an essay for the anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families, which was just recently published. And while I recognize that blood ties are involved in the production of spawn, my own blood has naught to do with it, and yet they’re still family to me.

Maybe it’s because there’s been another death in the family – not my own blood family this time, but that of another member of my queer family, and I’ll be flying out to a funeral later this week because of it (straight from teaching workshops on fisting and non-monogamy in Montreal, no less – oh, what a weird life).

And that reminds me of how I felt when I turned around to leave the church after my grandfather’s funeral this spring, and was quite startled to see that two members of my leather family, D and R, had tracked down the location of the funeral proceedings and shown up, sitting quietly in the back of the church until they saw me leave and came to offer warm hugs. I was surrounded by people who are blood-related to me, but the sight of my leather family people struck me really strongly, in a way that made me realize how I knew exactly who my family was in that room, and my definition didn’t necessarily line up with that of many others present. I love many members of my blood family, but I didn’t choose them. The presence of leather family in that particular setting reminded me that the power of choice trumps just about everything for me, including blood.

(Just for the record, I consider certain members of my blood family to be chosen family as well. I realize this is an odd superimposition, but it’s an important one to me because that choice has been mutual, active and ongoing for years in a way that makes our relationships meaningful on a level that blood alone does not.)

D was musing on the phone with me, months later, about the nature of family. She told an anecdote about another leather family member whose father had made a statement to the effect that “you can always count on family” (by which he meant blood family), and she nearly laughed in his face. For some of us, our experience tells us – no matter how we might like it to be different – that you cannot count on blood family as a matter of course, that blood is often no better than a broken promise. And the very idea that his statement might be true in some sort of automatic fashion, evident to all and universally unquestionable, was downright funny, if in a morbid sort of way.

Of course, I understood right away, as D knew I would. D wondered out loud if perhaps our faith in queer family, in leather family, in chosen family, is as strong as it is precisely because our own experiences of blood family have not borne out the traditional promise of unfailing support and unconditional love, any more than our own lives have borne out the traditional expectation of heterosexual monogamous marriage and childbirth upon which the idea of “unconditional” so often rests. Perhaps it’s precisely because we’ve forged our family ties by choice and by dint of effort rather than by virtue of shared genes and assumed kinship. But perhaps there’s an element of pain in there too – perhaps, if our families had all been the places of safety and kindness we’d have liked them to be, we might have been able to buy in. Does that mean we’re all damaged and dysfunctional? No, or at least, no more so than anyone else. But it does mean we have lived experience that foregrounds a different understanding of family, and one that we’ve chosen to make beautiful in our own ways.

So when Bryson writes about “affirming a principle of kinship that is other than blood ties,” I get what she means. My kin are a wild mix of generous-hearted, ethically-minded and pervy-living leatherfolk; lovers, former lovers, never-were lovers who are nonetheless far more than the simple word “friend” could encompass; people who’ve held me through sorrow and whom I’ve supported through illness and strife; brothers and uncles and cousins with whom I share a certain family resemblance and a deep connection as well; younglets whom I’ve had the pleasure of helping to name, babysit, feed, read to, and (in the case of one not-so-young younglet) even take shopping for a first strap-on.

To think about it, I’m not actually sure they’ve ever all been in the same place at the same time. It’s a funny thought, that some of my family members haven’t ever met one another. But as Bryson also writes, “maybe that’s all there ever is anyway — that particular queer family, that night, in that place, and f*ck the idea that there is ever a ‘whole’ anything.” And like her, what I do know is that there’s a lot of love.


3 thoughts on “queer and the family

  1. I’ve been blessed with one of those better blood families. What ups and downs we had were matters of personality or timing, not any fatal flaw or cruelty. We fall out, we make up, that sort of thing. They’ve taken things in stride, like any queerness on my part, that other families would turn into a matter for stake burning.

    That said, there are members of my family more chosen than blood. Over the years, my mom and I have worked to be friends. We’ve worked hard because we saw that besides being close as mother and daughter, we shared other interests and commonality of experience. And frak it all, we LIKE each other. She worked to build the same with her mother. We’ve both got chosen families of our own, why not chose each other?

    Damn lucky, that’s all I know.

  2. “For some of us, our experience tells us – no matter how we might like it to be different – that you cannot count on blood family as a matter of course, that blood is often no better than a broken promise.”

    Yes. This.

    And for some of us, “you can always count on family” means just the opposite, that your family must always be able to count on you. Heaven help you if you run out of love and time and energy to take care of them, for you have become the enemy.

  3. I am intrigued by the idea of queer as a familial thing. I have a group of people for whom I am a sibling/mother figure, and all of them except one (a straight cisman) are queer – a genderqueer asexual, a gay transman, a bi transman, a lesbian. Well, and one teenager who hasn’t said anything about his sexuality yet. They’re my brothers and sisters and siblings more firmly than the biological ones – I love my biofamily, but we’re just not that kind of close. I was thinking recently that one of the reasons that queer people bond in this way is that we’re more likely to go through traumatic or just trying experiences – my seven-person group have seen eachother through coming out to parents/family, name changes, gender identity crises, closeted relationships, institutionalization, abuse, going on hormones, getting off medication, and mostly all without the support of our biological families. We turned to eachother, in various combinations, and supported one another emotionally and sometimes physically.

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