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Father’s Day, Queer Families, and Gay Marriage [22, June, 2009]

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For Joshua

I was ready to ignore Father’s Day.  I find such commercialised holidays tiresome and problematic, given that they are both hypercommercialised and overly sentimental (and perhaps those two traits are never too far apart).  They hearken to the days when gender roles were more prescriptive.  Mother’s Day, for instance, allows both card companies and politicians to wax on about the nurturing and caring roles of women in the lives of their children, as if their lives are to be defined entirely by the extent to which they tend to every sneeze and bruised knee.

But this year’s Father’s Day was different in one respect.  For the first time, we have a Black President, who happens to be the son of a man who left his wife and child.  Obama’s life story, of being raised by a white mother and grandparents from Kansas in Hawaii, and of making his way through University via scholarships, is held up as both an example and a deviation from the conventional narrative about growing up as a Black man in the United States.  The discourse around young Black men and women in particular is both intensely racialised and racist.  On the one hand, we have the bald presentation of statistics like: “An estimated 24 million American children are growing up with absent fathers, and a disproportionate number of them are African-American.  Those children are at higher risk of falling into lives of poverty and crime and becoming parents themselves in their teenage years.”  On the other hand, it’s also clear that we’ve internalised the logic of such statements to also mean that Black men and women (and the emphasis is often on the men) are inherently incapable of becoming successful and productive members of society (however we choose to define that) and also inherently incapable of being good fathers.  At the end of the day, we diagnose this issue to mean that Black youth are a drain on the economy and our collective resources.

What all of this ignores is the lack of support for single parents, particularly lower-income single parents, a great number of whom happen to be Black.  In the absence of universal health care, decent wages across the board, free or affordable day care, and full support for public schools that could provide an excellent education to all students, we still expect single parents, whether male or female, to perform what religious folk might call miracles.  They are expected to be there at all times for their children and support them financially and perform as exceptional role models.  In all the talk about young Black men needing male role models, we ignore the sexism of the implication that having “only” maternal figures in their lives is somehow dangerous and damaging to them.  Or that a lot of single women, like Obama’s mother, did or have done pretty well by their children.

This isn’t to deny that there are parents who shirk their responsibilities, but to question the lengths to which we’ve allowed the wagging fingers of today’s neoliberal politicians, who’re fully invested in the privatisation of resources, to tell us what bad parents we’re being to our kids while refusing to lift a collective finger to actually provide much-needed support for parents.

All of this came to mind as I listened to and read Obama’s Father’s Day speech this year.  The talk of absent fathers made me think about how queers in particular have, for the most part, forged entirely different ways of configuring our families.  The discourse around Father’s Day and Mother’s Day is wrapped around the fiction of a loving and nurturing family.  But I couldn’t help thinking of my many queer friends and acquaintances who left their bio-families long ago to seek shelter from torment and abuse and set about, very deliberately and intentionally, to create their own kinship groups of care.  I’ve known people who ran away as teens and made their way to other places, often cities, where they forged their networks of friends and chosen families.  In today’s post-Wil-and-Grace world and Gay Straight Alliances, it’s easy to forget that young queers aren’t always living in safe environments with their bio-families.

It’s also easy to forget that the gaycon discourse around “marriage equality” threatens the kinds of relationships that cannot be defined either by marriage or by conventional notions of romance and attachment.  If we are to believe the condensed History of the Gays that’s being written around, marriage will be our saving grace.  And we will all be able to retreat into some suburban fantasy where the grass is always green and where the love of gays will be defined purely by the marriages we will finally be able to enter into.

That fantasy, of course, is just that: a fantasy.  Marriage will not solve the problem of homophobia and bigotry and there will be always be queer kids fending for themselves in a world filled with instability and trying their damnedest to find support outside the families into which they were born.  What’s more, and this is the part that we’re really trying to ignore within the marriage movement, queers are always going to be incapable of maintaining “normal” relationship clusters that look exactly like what we imagine the straight world looks like.  I know from a friend that several single gay men found themselves being hit on by gay couples looking for threesomes – at a gay marriage convention.  I don’t want to wander into the weird terrain of bio-essentialism, to assert that queers are just inherently from everyone else.  I think it’s just more likely that everyone is really pretty queer, and by everyone I mean a lot of “straight” people as well.  I don’t think that monogamy is necessarily unnatural; I have several beloved queer and non-queer friends who enjoy it enough to try it over and over again.  But part of being queer, which is to say, to be like most of us, is to want to try out forms of attachment that make no sense within the carefully mandated requirements of the state.  That means, for instance, acknowledging that you can have intense friendships with people with whom you might or might not have sex even as you are involved in a conventionally defined relationship.

Which is why queers/gays and lesbians who think that they can actually fool themselves into settling into the kind of marriage that even straights left behind in the 1950s are well and truly fucked in the worst way possible.  What makes us queer, and the real reason for marriage’s steady attrition (despite all the attempts to prop it up on the part of the Gay Right) is that the kind of marriage we think we want has no relationship to the kind of marriage we ought to really be fighting for.  Which is to say: if we had the guts to continue with marriage in the way it was being reformulated – with fewer restrictions on divorce, with fewer benefits and rights and privileges attached to it, and as a contract that resembled a civil union rather than as one more way for the state to mandate relationships and extract value from us — we would be a lot better off today.  Instead of continuing the trend of making marriage a more sensible but less necessary part of civic life, the gay marriage movement has chosen to resurrect the worst aspects of marriage by screaming: “Marriage for health care!  For benefits! Without the sanction of state-endorsed marriage, we will no have full equality!”  The point should have been to continue turning marriage into a social contract that isn’t so deeply embedded in the mechanisms of the state.  Instead of which, we’re demanding that the state should be even more intertwined in our lives.

Which brings me back to Father’s Day and families.  Lots of us have fathers and mothers for whom we can be grateful.  But perhaps we could also try to remember, in all this talk about fatherless children, that some mothers, a lot of whom are lesbians who don’t need men, thank you, do a pretty good job on their own.  That the discourse around bad (read: Black) fathers is a horribly racist one.  That queers, so often endangered by their bio-families, have learnt to seek and find safety in our chosen ones.  And that marriage, on the terms set by the rabid gaycons who’d like to return to a state of marriage that makes most straights shudder in horror, threatens the very bonds that we’ve worked so hard to make and keep.

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