“There’s something truly strange about living in a historical moment in which the conservative anxiety and despair about queers bringing down civilization and its institutions (marriage, most notably) is met by the anxiety and despair so many queers feel about the failure or incapacity of queerness to bring down civilization and its institutions,” Maggie Nelson wrote in a memorable passage from last year’s The Argonauts. Indeed, even as same-sex marriage and its “partnership” effect on heterosexual marriage— encouraging more egalitarian, choice-based unions — are heralded by progressive types, the system is hardly smashed.
Marriages and families like the ones Nelson describes are becoming more legally acknowledged and recognizable in culture. Modern Family’s pioneering gay dads seem almost dated, even conservative, now. On Transparent alone there are so many different kinds of relationships, it’s hard to keep track. And why should we? The show dares us to count. A trans woman and a cis woman, a cis woman and a trans man, two bisexuals, and so forth. But even away from Jill Soloway’s subversive gaze, mainstream sitcoms like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and network dramas like The Fosters celebrate interracial, queer “chosen” families.
For people seeking to start and sustain families that deviate from old norms, though, the resources are scant. “For Dads: Have you been staying up all night thinking about all the things you and your partner won’t be able to do once the baby arrives – seeing the world, taking up exotic hobbies, getting that golf handicap down…?” I laughed out loud upon receiving this very special email from the What to Expect When You’re Expecting website, one of the Internet’s many mom-to-be resources that fail to account for families that don’t look “traditional.”
Yet that initial laughter was followed by a moment of ruefulness. Sure, this spectacularly conventional dispatch was funny, but it also underscored the real dearth of resources for any couple or family that doesn’t jibe with the “she worries about parenting, he worries about missing golf” paradigm. A friend of mine starting a family with her same-sex partner said that her pregnancy book for lesbian couples forbade coffee, an out-of-date recommendation that seemed symbolically cruel. Why should a parent-to-be have to choose between an up-to-date book and one that makes her feel welcome as a reader?
I started to wonder why, when the culture itself appears to be changing at a breakneck pace, it’s still so hard to find guidance that feels relevant, comprehensive, and inclusive at the same time. Normative assumptions in the advice and resource aisle of the bookstore, silly as they seem, remain emblematic of a much bigger exclusion. We may be celebrating families of all different stripes in entertainment — but are we supporting them as a society?
Today, in many states and cities across the US, gay parents still have to adopt kids birthed or fathered by their spouses, paternity leave hasn’t caught on at all, and people of all sexual orientations who choose to forego marriage and kids entirely remain marginalized. There are few legal benefits for whatever long-term relationship outside of marriage people might want to formalize with friends or partners, while immigration policy still relies on strict definitions of marriage to unite families.
The massive culture shift of the past decade has broadened extant institutions, rather than creating new ones. Nelson sums up the complicated question that inevitably follows awe at our era’s social progress: how do we amend rituals and celebrations, from the blind date to the baby shower, to be more inclusive of the many, many formerly excluded folks who want to opt in — while still allowing space for those who opt out entirely?
This can be a hard line to toe, especially with the capitalist impulse suddenly embracing “alternative” family structures that may be lucrative. “When all these publications that refused to publish gay wedding announcements then changed their logos to pride logos [after gay marriage was legalized], I thought, ‘Welcome to the party, you’re quite late,’” says Meg Keene, founder of wedding website A Practical Wedding. (Sample articles: “What Happened When I Asked My Genderqueer Bestie to Be in My Wedding,” “Here Are 30 Ethical Engagement Rings You Can Get Excited About.”)
A Practical Wedding, started eight years ago, is one of only two sites I was directed to when I was attempting to be a feminist bride, back in 2010. Six years later, just weeks away from the birth of my first child, the task of being a feminist (distinct from merely a crunchy and “natural”) mom-to-be is equally daunting — and I feel like I have to choose sites and books that contain most comprehensive, up-to-date information, even though they don’t necessarily reflect my values.
Before we get any further, let’s acknowledge that the problem we’re discussing is a relatively good one to have, the result of a lot of progress made relatively quickly. It’s 2016, era of the unorthodox family arrangement, the mainstreaming of gay marriage, transgender and genderqueer visibility – and even the sensitive, involved, millennial dad. On Twitter, on blogs, and increasingly in our pop culture, we hear stories about unique family structures, introducing new paradigms for dating and partnership. Rebecca Traister’s warmly received new book All the Single Ladies (a year after Kate Bolick’s memoir of singledom Spinster and Meghan Daum’s child-free anthology Shallow, Selfish and Self-Absorbed) proclaims that we’re living in a golden age for single women, platonic friendships, and delayed marriage, and backs up that thesis with years’ worth of research and reporting.
Such a triumphant moment for eschewing convention was hard to envision even a decade ago, when Lindsay King-Miller was a queer teenager who assumed she’d never be able to get married. Now – thanks to a series of small legal victories and one giant Supreme Court decision – she’s a married mom, with her genderqueer partner as the gestational parent. She even teaches at her old high school, where she’s encountering a generation not that much younger, but much more open about differing sexualities and gender expressions. King-Miller has spent much of the last few years penning her popular online advice column for sites like The Hairpin and Fusion. (A recent installment: “Can I call myself ‘queer’ if I’ve never been with another woman?”).
King-Miller’s book, which grew out of that column, is aimed at younger readers who are worried more about navigating crushes and bisexual stigma than being excluded from marriage. “The landscape has changed so much in such a short period of time that people don’t feel like they have a roadmap,” she says. “There are role models in terms of LGBT adults who have done amazing things, but it’s such a changing world that the things those role models went through and the things you’re going through today are different.” Now that she’s tackled some of the building blocks of finding an identity and happiness, King-Miller hopes, in the future, to write about queer parenting and family-building, an area where there’s a gaping hole in advice literature.
Around the same time as King-Miller was a teenager in Colorado, frustrated bride-to-be Keene founded A Practical Wedding as a means to help all couples planning to wed evade the wedding-industrial complex and its fraught, gendered expectations. “Years ago I was swimming upstream,” she says. “Feminism was not the buzzword that it is right now, we weren’t sure marriage equality was going to happen soon, and gender-neutral terms were not really a common thing. Fast forward eight years later to now, and instead of swimming upstream, we’re at the forefront.” Indeed, one only has to look at the surge of feminist content at glossy women’s magazines like Cosmopolitan and Glamour to see how fashion and service publications have embraced, at least in part, a new model.
Part of the power of projects like Keene’s and King-Miller’s arises from the online platforms where they launched, during a wave of Internet-based feminism that has gained momentum over the last decade. In the past several years, this sensibility has started to bleed out into the physical world, influencing everything from pop stars on Twitter to advertising campaigns, and creating a frontier where even straight people use the term “my partner.”
And yet, less has changed about the way we see dating, marriage, and childbearing than this shift might suggest. “There’s an inconsistency between the new rhetoric of liberation which says we can have whatever we want and structure our lives however we want to, and the broader economy based on heterosexual, heteronormative marriage,” says Samhita Mukhopadhyay, an editor at Mic, former editor of Feministing, and author of 2011’s Outdated: Why Dating Is Ruining Your Love Life. “All your friends still get married,” she says. “But they’re getting married later.”
Like King-Miller and Keene, Mukhopadhyay’s writing about dating has sought to provide an antidote to persistently sexist and lopsided contemporary advice-giving. And she notes that laws around immigration, adoption, and other rights that enable people to form their own units of partnership still lag behind where they should be for our supposedly enlightened age.
Meanwhile, Keene is somewhat suspicious of how much the wedding industry is actually opening itself up and becoming more liberal. “The weddings presented by the industry are still so, literally, monochromatic,” she says. “White, upper-middle class, and homogenized.” (Even Keene’s own book, A Practical Wedding Planner, features a generic white lady with long fingers and luscious lips on the cover, it should be noted — though Keene noted it consciously avoids portraying a straight couple).
In most communities away from the Internet and liberal enclaves, families or individuals who deviate from the mom, dad, and picket-fence norm are still isolated, only given a chance at “belonging” when they pass for something more predictable. Maggie Nelson writes about how her family looked straight one night, allowing them to connect with others: “You pass as a guy; I, as pregnant. Our waiter cheerfully tells us about his family, expresses delight in ours,” she writes of her genderqueer partner and herself. But their gender expression, she feels, hides the essential truth of their humanity:“On the inside, we were two human animals undergoing transformations beside each other, bearing each other loose witness.”
We have come a long way in allowing families to be like Nelson’s rather than just passing for straight once in a while. We’ve still got a long way to go, though, before we reach the point where we acknowledge that each little cluster of “human animals” is part of a larger group but also entirely unique — and deserves to be treated as such.