Queer families and exclusionary marriage activism
I am a wholehearted supporter of marriage equality in Australia. I have voted YES in the postal survey despite its problematic political and financial implications. In this paper, though, I critique the queer framing of elements of the marriage equality debate from the perspective of sole parent families; specifically, the problematic discourses the marriage debate perpetuated about sole parent families. In her book, The Perils of Marriage Equality, (2015) Katherine Franke questions the process of normalization of marriage equality, and advocates for ‘recognition and respect for a variety of marriage and family forms’ (p. 223). Franke is critical of a marriage equality position which ‘too often depended on equating state recognition of relationships with legitimacy and on valuing marriage in a way that denigrated non-marital family forms’ (p. 113). This can leave non-married parents as constituted as lacking in the ‘something special’ that we tag on marriage, this perpetuates stigma, pathology and injury in relation to both children and intimates within kinship relations beyond the marital code. According to Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS, 2016), there are 959,543 sole parent families which make up 15.8% of all Australian families. 81.8% of these sole parent families are headed by females. Sole parents and their families are beyond the marital code and as a sole parent of fourteen years, I experience much of the marriage equality discourse as affective violence. In some ways this affective violence is more deeply felt as it has been sent from my ‘home’ team; queer and alternative kinship.
Sole Parenthood as Shameful Nonplace
In 2004, I become a sole parent of an eight month old baby, dumped out of a ten year marriage, blindsided, dumb and discarded. Butler (2004) calls this a ‘nonplace’ – a conflicted space that didn’t equate to anything I knew or had experienced;
[t]hese are nonplaces in which one finds oneself in spite of oneself; indeed, these are nonplaces where recognition, including self-recognition, proves precarious if not elusive, in spite of one’s best efforts to be a subject in some recognizable sense (p. 108).
My reaction to becoming a sole parent is one of shame and vulnerability. Michael Warner (1999), states that shame ‘attaches not to doing, but to being; not to conduct, but to status’ (p. 28). In being dumped, my status changed to ‘being’ a sole parent. Warner links this sense of shame to ‘a hierarchy of respectability’ (Warner, 1999, p. 49). He nominates marriage as a hierarchical social norm that denotes respectability. This hierarchy exists because ‘marriage sanctifies some couples at the expense of others. It is selective legitimacy … if you don’t have it, you and your relations are less worthy’ (Warner, 1999, p. 82). Although Warner is discussing same-sex marriage, the point remains relevant for sole parents whose families ‘don’t have it’ (marriage) and therefore are often seen as lacking legitimacy. Having a new-born baby as a sole parent felt, to me, like a slide down the hierarchy of respectability. I experienced a sense of shame for myself and my child as a ‘less worthy/legitimate/valued’ family.
Sole Parenthood as Diverse Queer and Alternative Kinship
Queer theory shifting away from its home of sexuality and LGBTIQ issues can support an exploration of diversity in families. In my work I consider the experiences of sole parents and their families; the joyfulness and rich nature of sole parent families. It is not a common discourse. Queer theory’s usefulness is to contest heteronormativity and to challenge the ‘naturalness’ of the hetero – including the expectation that the ‘ideal’ family structure is a ‘nuclear family’ that only allows for a masculine male heterosexual parent, a feminine female heterosexual parent and their shared biological children. In my research I argue that sole parents are queering the heteronormative family. Sole parents traverse through and across lines of gendered binaries in relation to feminine mothering and masculine fathering in a way that is foundational to the privilege of the hetero nuclear family. I argue that exploring the experiences of sole parent families can shift ways in which we constitute kinship and contests the prescribed nature of the nuclear family.
Problematic Queer Attacks on Sole Parenthood
Ann Crittenden’s (2001) book The Price of Motherhood positions motherhood as the most important and least valued job in the world and regards nuclear families as ideal because they are, ‘proving every day that two parents are better than one’ (p. 119). Similarly, Anthony Giddens (1998) rehearses debates of the disintegrating family in his book The Third Way. Giddens (1998) refers to the ‘breakdown’ of the family due to increased divorce rates and calls for a ‘restructuring of parenthood’ (p. 95). He then goes further to argue that sole parent families are at a disadvantage economically but also from ‘inadequate parental attention and lack of social ties’ (Giddens, p. 93). Associate Professor Paula Gerber (2010) argues that it is in the best interests of children for same-sex marriage to be legally recognised. She argues that a ‘negative impact’ occurs when children from heterosexual families are privileged through access to the stable and nurturing environment of marriage. Gerber (2010) states that children who do not ‘enjoy the recognition and support that comes with marriage may suffer psychological harm as a result of the prohibition on their parents marrying’ (p. 33). This is a brief glimpse of academic discourses that constitute sole parenting. I am keen not to reproduce and participate in negative discourses relating to sole parent families. I understand them as not only problematically descriptive but also productively reinscribing troubling parameters of the ‘ideal’ family. I cite these few examples in order to illustrate how negative social discourses about sole parents continues to proliferate, and is reflected in social policies; this repetitive loop becomes normative, a ‘citational legacy’ (Butler, 1993a, p. 171).
Challenging ‘The Best Interests of the Children’
As one of these sole parents queer writers and marriage advocates are discussing, I find it very politically and affectively difficult to align my support for marriage equality to the associated position of marriage as something ‘in the best interests of children’. Paula Gerber (2012) wrote in the Drum (ABC) that ‘children who are raised by married parents (be they same-sex or opposite-sex) benefit from the legal and social status granted to their parents. Quoting national and international research Gerber states that, ‘All of these studies demonstrate that it is in the best interests of children to allow same-sex couples to marry’. Here, the argument for marriage equality is that marriage, in whatever form, is in the best interests of the children.
The official marriage equality organization takes up this position in support of a YES vote. It advises that in response to the question from people who may question voting yes:
Don’t children do best with a mother and a father?
Decades of research confirms that children do best in a family with loving parents, regardless of whether those parents are straight or gay. And LGBTI people have been successfully parenting in Australia, including adopting, for many years. Marriage equality won’t change this but will offer stronger security and belonging to all families.
Questions you can ask:
Does it seem fair to exclude some children from the security that comes from marriage?
(sourced from http://www.equalitycampaign.org.au/conversations)
I am disappointed and strongly opposed to this marriage is ‘in the best interests of children’ argument. I don’t support a position that effectively puts forward one person’s rights, at the expense of another. It seems problematic to argue for difference to be validated while, at the same time, diminishing the difference of others. ‘For the sake of the children’ tends to pass the negative conventions down the line and I think lessens the clarity and ethics of care that I have associated with the queer activist community. It is un-ethical for one group who are arguing for respect and space for their construct of ‘durable intimacy’ (Berlant 2011, p. 3), to shift the profound threat towards another construct of togetherness. I also want to argue against constructing a position that demands justifying, explaining or legitimating kinship or familial relations. I suggest that this position to support marriage equality is similar to a ‘tolerance’ argument, that you show tolerance for difference, but shape it to illustrate a lack of ‘tolerance’ for an alternative way of living and being.
Challenging ‘Straight’ Arguments for Queer Concerns
Perhaps my reticence towards elements of the marriage equality debate is the tendency towards straight/conventional arguments for queer concerns. It is the ‘suffusion of the ordinary with fantasy’ (Berlant, 2011, p. 14), that I feel is central to the marriage debate and my response here. The ordinary sense of family and intimacy is bound to the fantasy of the ‘good life’. My concern is that in the current marriage equality debate, the re-shaping of the ‘good life’ which has a legacy from heteronormativity, shifts towards sex-same coupledom. This re-shaping broadens who can access this construction of the ‘good life’, but it does so at the expense of those individuals living their lives outside of coupledom whom it excludes. I argue that as a sole parent, my familial conditions only become damaging when regulatory norms and social discourse exclude me and grind into my experiences of my ‘good life’. This othering of ‘sole parenting’, making it ‘not quite right’, illegitimate, I suggest, is a form of exclusionism that a queer position should be theoretically and politically reticent to take.
Response-able Queer, in Closing
Marriage is one way of framing and experiencing kinship and intimacy:
One might point out that all objects/scenes of desire are problematic, in that investments in them and projections onto them are less about them, than about what cluster of desires and affects we can manage to keep magnetized to them (Berlant, 2011, p. 24).
The cluster of desires and affects that we project into the marital state are not exclusively found/felt there. The utility of queer theory is the capacity to interrogate the experiences of a category whilst questioning the category itself. As Youdell (2011) reminds us, categories are useful tools to investigate experiences because to ‘identify inequalities is to call up a range of categorizations of identity’ (p. 22). I am aware of the risk that refusing one regulatory norm can re-instate another, or as Youdell (2011) states, a slip into transformative narratives ‘that call up one regulatory discourse to displace another, and which effect one set of subjectivations to replace another’ (p. 116). It is this displacement that concerns me in relation to queer positions and kinship and the exclusion that can be embedded into elements of the marriage equality discourse. ‘In the face of what appears, we must ask what disappears’ (Ahmed, 2006, p. 90). I suggest that the kinship and familial bonds of sole parent families have disappeared within the marriage equality ‘in the best interests of children’ discourse, which is an example of ways in which ‘the discursive condition of social recognition precedes and conditions the formation of the subject’ (Butler, 2013, p. 19).
Queer activism and theoretical frameworks have been mobilized because of exclusions. They must now be responsible and responsive to how the term and its activist potentials towards subversion are mobilized within the development of Australian marriage moving forward.
ABS. (2016), 2016 Census QuickStats. Website. Accessed: 10/10/17. Retrieved from: http://www.censusdata.abs.gov.au/census_services/ getproduct/census/2016/quickstat/036.
Ahmed, S., (2006), Queer Phenomenology, Durham, Duke University Press.
Berlant, L., (2011), Cruel Optimism, Durham, Duke University Press.
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Butler, J., (2004), Undoing Gender, New York, Routledge.
Butler, J., (2005), Giving an account of oneself, New York, Fordham University Press.
Butler, J., (2013), Critically Queer, In, D.E. Hall & A. Jagose, (Eds), The Routledge queer studies reader, London, Routledge, p.18-31.
Crittenden, A., (2001), The Price of Motherhood: Why the most important job in the world is still the least valued, New York, Henry Holt and Co.
Franke, K., (2015), The Perils of Marriage Equality, New York, NYU Press.
Gerber, P., (2010), The best interests of children in same-sex families, Law in Context, Vol. 28, No. 1, pp. 28-42.
Gerber, Paula (2012), Marriage Equality, Myths and Misconceptions, Retrieved from: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-05-15/gerber-marriage-equality/4010980.
Giddens, A., (1998), The Third Way: The renewal of social democracy, Cambridge, Polity Press.
Talburt, S., (2000), Subject to identity: Knowledge, sexuality, and academic practices in higher education, Albany, State University of New York Press.
Warner, M., (1999), The trouble with normal: Sex, politics, and the ethics of queer life, New York, Free Press.
Youdell, D., (2011), School Trouble: Identity, Power and Politics in Education, London, Routlege.
Genine Hook studied Sociology and Education (Secondary) at Monash University and a PhD at the Faculty of Education at Monash University in May 2015. Her thesis explored sole parents at Australian universities and was awarded the Vice-Chancellor’s Commendation for Thesis Excellence in 2015. Her first book, Sole Parent Students and Higher Education: Gender, Policy and Widening Participation, was published by Palgrave Macmillan (UK) in July 2016. She works at The University of New England teaching Sociology: Family and Children in Society; Youth and Delinquency; and Mixed Methods. Her research considers gender, higher education, family-based violence and queering familial norms.