Home > histories, queering domesticity > Cheshire Calhoun, “Constructing Lesbians and Gay Men as Family’s Outlaws”

Cheshire Calhoun, “Constructing Lesbians and Gay Men as Family’s Outlaws”

September 30, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

“Constructing Lesbians and Gay Men as Family’s Outlaws”

Cheshire Calhoun

Chapter 6, Feminism, The Family and the Politics of the Closet. 2000. [PDF]



Constructing Lesbians and Gay Men as Family’s Outlaws

It remains to make good on two promissory notes from the previous chapter.
As I mentioned at the outset of that chapter, lesbian feminists have
constructed extensive and pointed arguments against lesbian marriage, motherhood,
and family. Because those arguments are so compelling from a feminist
perspective, they need to be addressed at length. Second, the previous
chapter invoked, without defending, the thesis that being unfit for marriage
and family has occupied a central position in the social construction of what
it means to be gay or lesbian. Because putting the family at the center of
lesbian and gay politics looks, on the surface, reactionary rather than revolutionary,
some hefty evidence that the subordinating construction of gay and
lesbian identity centers around their being family outlaws is in order.

In sections I and II, I summarize feminist and lesbian feminist critiques of
family, marriage, and motherhood. In section III, I critique lesbian feminist
reasons for eschewing a political agenda that endorses family, marriage, and
mothering. There, I will pick up a theme central to Chapters 2 and 3. In
lesbian feminist arguments against lesbian marriage, motherhood, and family,
lesbians’ difference from heterosexual women persistently drops from view
because feminism has under-theorized lesbian and gay subordination as an
axis distinct from gender oppression. In section IV, I trace the historical
construction of lesbians and gays as outlaws to the family. There, I will suggest
that heterosexuals’ claim to be naturally fit for family life was purchased by
promoting the view that gays and lesbians have in excess the very traits that
threaten heterosexuals’ abilities to maintain a family. Because the idea that
lesbians and gay men are unfit for family is so central to the ideological
construction of lesbian and gay identity, family issues belong at the very center
of lesbian and gay politics. In the concluding section, I will argue that making
family a political priority is not, as is sometimes argued, a conservative move.
What is at stake is not the right to participate in a traditional form of family
life but the right to define what counts as a family.

I. Feminism and the Family
Feminist analyses of the family, marriage, and mothering have been driven by
a deep awareness that the family has been a primary site of women’s subordination
to and dependence on men. Feminist analyses have also been driven by
a deep awareness of the oppressive effects of gender ideology about women’s
natural place within the family as domestic caretakers, as reproductive beings,
and as naturally fit for mothering. It has been the task and success of feminism
to document the dangers posed to women by family, marriage, and mothering
in their lived and ideological forms.

The ideology of the loving family often masks gender injustice within the
family, including battery, rape, and child abuse.Women continue to shoulder
primary responsibility for both child rearing and domestic labor; and they
continue to choose occupations compatible with child care. Those occupations
are often poorly paid and replaceable, and do not provide benefits and
opportunities for career advancement. The expectation that women within
families are first and foremost wives and mothers continues to offer employers
a rationale for paying women less. Women’s lower wages in the public
workforce in turn make it seem economically rational for women to invest in
developing their husband’s career assets. Because no fault divorce laws now
assume that men and women have equally developed career assets (or that
those career assets could be developed with the aid of short-term alimony)
and because they fail to treat the husband’s career assets as community property,
women exit marriage at a significant economic disadvantage.1 Women’s
custody of children after divorce, their lower earning potential, the unavailability
of low cost child care, the absence of adequate social support for single
mothers, and, often, fathers’ failure to pay full child support, all combine to
reduce divorced women’s economic position even further. The result is the
feminization of poverty. The ideology that a normal family is a self-sufficient,
two-income family is then mobilized to blame single mothers for their
poverty, to justify supervisory intervention into their families, and to rationalize
reducing social support.

This picture, although generally taken as a picture of women’s relation to
the family, is not, in fact, a picture of women’s relation to the family. It is a
picture of heterosexual women’s relation to the family. It is a picture whose
outlines are determined by an eye ever vigilant for the ways that marriage,
family, and mothering subordinate heterosexual women to men in the private
household, in the public economy, and in the welfare state. It thus fails to
grasp lesbians’ relation to the family.2

It has instead been the task of lesbian-feminism from the 1970s through
the 1990s to develop an analysis of lesbians’ distinctive relation to the family.
However, in its arguments for rejecting lesbian motherhood, lesbian
marriages, and lesbian families, lesbian-feminism, too, has failed to make
lesbian difference from heterosexual women central to its analyses. It is to the
promise and, I will argue, the failure of lesbian-feminism to grasp lesbians’
distinctive relation to the family that I now turn.

II. Lesbian-feminism, the Family,Mothering, and Marriage
In evaluating lesbian marriage, motherhood, and families, lesbian feminists
took as their point of departure feminist critiques of heterosexual women’s
experience of family, motherhood, and marriage. Lesbian feminists were
particularly alive to the fact that lesbians are uniquely positioned to evade the
ills of the heterosexual, male-dominated family. In particular, they are
uniquely positioned to violate the conventional gender expectation that they,
as women, will be dependent on men in their personal relations, will fulfill the
maternal imperative, will service a husband and children, and will accept
confinement to the private sphere of domesticity. Because of their unique
position, lesbians can hope to be in the vanguard of the feminist rebellion
against the patriarchal family and the institution of motherhood.

As we saw in Chapter 2, in the 1970s and 1980s, lesbian feminists used feminist
critiques of heterosexual women’s subordination to men within the
family as a platform for valorizing lesbian existence. Lesbian feminists like
Monique Wittig and Charlotte Bunch argued that the nuclear family based on
heterosexual marriage enables men to appropriate for themselves women’s
productive and reproductive labor.3 Because lesbians do not enter into this
heterosexual nuclear family, they can be read as refusing to allow their labor
to be appropriated by men.

Lesbian feminists also used feminist critiques of heterosexual women’s
confinement to the private sphere of family and exclusion from the public
sphere of politics and labor to argue for a new vision of lesbians’ personal life.
In that vision, lesbians would reject the private family. They would opt instead
for a politicized life of connection to other women outside the family. Janice
Raymond, for instance, argued for the feminist value of historical all-women’s
communities, such as the pre-enclosure nunneries and the nineteenthcentury
Chinese marriage-resisters’ houses. There women combined intimate
friendships, community, and work.4 On Raymond’s and others’ view, passion-
ate friendships, centered around a common life of work, could and should
replace the depoliticized, isolated life within the nuclear family.

As this emphasis on communities of friends suggests, lesbian feminists took its
being a good thing that lesbians do not participate in heterosexual, male-dominated,
private families to mean that lesbians should not participate in any form
of family including lesbian families. For instance, lesbian feminist legal theorist
Ruthann Robson rejects recent liberal legal efforts to redefine the family to include
lesbian and gay families that are functionally equivalent to heterosexual ones.5 She
argues that, in advocating legal recognition of lesbian families, ‘we have forgotten
the lesbian generated critiques of family as oppressive and often deadly’.6 In
particular, we have forgotten the critiques of the family as an institution of the
patriarchal state, of marriage as slavery,7 and of wives as property within
marriage.8 Rather than seek to have lesbian families recognized and protected,
Robson recommends resisting organizing lesbian relationships around the category
of the family. In her view, the category ‘family’ should be abolished.

Feminist critiques of heterosexual women’s experience also supplied the point
of departure for lesbian feminist critiques of lesbian motherhood. Lesbian
motherhood, on this view, represents a concession to a key element of
women’s subordination—compulsory motherhood. By refusing to have children,
or by giving up custody of their children at divorce, lesbians can refuse
to participate in compulsory motherhood. They can thus refuse to accept the
myth ‘that only family and children provide [women] with a purpose and
place, bestow upon us honor, respect, love, and comfort’.9 Purpose and place
is better found in political activities in a more public community of women.

Sensitive to the power of the myth of female fulfillment through motherhood,
lesbian feminists challenge lesbians contemplating motherhood to reflect
more critically on their reasons for doing so, and on the political consequences
of participating in the present lesbian baby boom. Ellen Lewin speculates
that lesbian motherhood may simply serve to reinforce the gender
ideology of women’s fulfillment through motherhood. Thus, increasing media
attention to lesbian mothers, in her view, may reflect ‘the calcification of the
old construction of gender in terms of motherhood and the simultaneous
defusing of the threat to traditional gender categories the lesbian and gay
movement and feminism seem to have achieved.’

In resisting motherhood, lesbians not only reject the myth of women’s
fulfillment through motherhood. They are also freed to devote their lives to
public political work for lesbians and women. Thus, resisting motherhood is
seen by lesbian feminists as instrumental to effective political action. Nancy
Polikoff, for instance, claims that ‘[t]o the extent that motherhood drains the
available pool of lesbians engaging in ongoing political work, its long-term
significance is overwhelming’.11

Finally, lesbian feminists have argued that resisting motherhood is politically
important because being a mother disables lesbians from publicly
occupying the identity ‘lesbian’. Lesbian mothers are virtually automatically
assumed to be heterosexual, because lesbianism and motherhood are
culturally imagined to be incompatible. Thus, lesbian motherhood facilitates
the closeting of lesbian existence. Even when lesbian mothers are
careful not to pass as heterosexual, their motherhood works against their
being publicly perceived as deviating from the category ‘woman’ in the way
that lesbians are standardly thought to. ‘My experience’, observes Polikoff,
‘is that straight women clearly feel that my choice to have a child balances
my choice to be a lesbian and makes me more normal, easier to understand,
woman, less of a challenge to their lives.’12 And in her study of lesbian
mothers, Ellen Lewin argues that motherhood enables lesbians to claim a
less stigmatized place in the gender system; in particular, it enables them to
claim for themselves the conventional womanly attributes of being altruistic,
nurturant, and responsible—attributes that lesbians typically are
stereotyped as lacking.13 Because ‘wanting to be a mother is a profoundly
natural desire . . . achieving motherhood implies movement into a more
natural or normal status than a lesbian can ordinarily hope to experience

In evaluating lesbian (and gay) marriage, lesbian feminists begin from the
observation that, historically, the institution of marriage has been oppressively
gender-structured. Lesbian feminists have been skeptical of the gender-based
arguments for same-sex marriage discussed in Chapter 5. The historical and
cross-cultural record of same-sex marriages does not in fact support the claim
that same-sex marriages will revolutionize marriage. On the contrary, the
same-sex marriages that have been legitimized in other cultures—for
instance, African woman-marriage, Native American marriages between a
berdache and a same-sex partner, and nineteenth-century Chinese marriages
between women—have all been highly gender-structured. Thus, there is no
reason to believe that ‘ “gender dissent” is inherent in marriage between two
men or two women’.15

Lesbian feminists also assume that pursuing same-sex marriage rights will
make it more difficult to critique the institution of marriage. In their view,
proponents of marriage rights, if they hope to suceed, must necessarily offer
nonrevolutionary and assimilationist arguments. They must stress the similarities
of gay and lesbian relationships to conventional heterosexual ones
rather than their differences.16 By attempting to have specifically marital relationships
recognized, marriage rights advocates reinforce the assumption that
long-term, monogamous relationships are more valuable than any other kind
of relationship. As a result, the marriage rights campaign, if successful, will
result in privileging those lesbian and gay relationships that most closely
approximate the heterosexual norm over more deviant relationships that
require a radical rethinking of the nature of families.17

Finally, lesbian feminists have rejected the argument that lesbians and gays
need marriage rights in order to have the same privileges that heterosexual
couples now enjoy, such as access to a spouse’s health insurance benefits.18
Distributing basic benefits like health insurance through the middle class
family neglects the interests of poor and some working class families, as well
as single individuals, in having access to basic social benefits. If access to such
benefits is the issue, then universal health insurance, not marriage, is what
needs to be advocated.

III. Lesbian Disappearance
The difficulty with the lesbian feminist viewpoint described above is that it is
one from which lesbian difference from heterosexual women persistently
disappears from view.

First, lesbian feminists judge the value of family and marriage for lesbians
largely by looking at the heterosexual nuclear family’s effects on heterosexual
women. Lesbians are to resist family and marriage because heterosexual
women have been treated as property and their labor appropriated by men
within gender-structured heterosexual families. But to make this a principal
reason for lesbians’ not forming families and marriages of their own is to lose
sight of the difference between lesbians and heterosexual women. Lesbian
families and marriages are not reasonably construed as sites where women can
be treated as property and where their productive and reproductive labor can
be appropriated by men. It thus does not follow from the fact that marriage
and the family have been oppressive for heterosexual women that marriage
and the family would be oppressive for lesbians. Patriarchy may be at work in
gender-structured heterosexual marriages. It is not at work in lesbian

The alternative argument—that creating lesbian families will not remedy
the gender structure in heterosexual families—drops lesbians from view in a
different way. Here, heterosexual women’s interests, not lesbians’, provide the
touchstone for determining what normative conclusions about the family and
marriage lesbians should come to. Lesbians are to resist forming marriages
and families of their own because heterosexual women’s struggle against the
institution of marriage and family will not be promoted, and may in fact be
hindered if lesbians endorse the value of marriage and family. This line of
reasoning ignores the possibility that lesbians may have interests of their own
in marrying and forming families. Those interests may conflict with heterosexual
women’s political aims.

Second, resistance to sexist practices and oppressive gender ideology
connected with the family is presented as a distinctively lesbian task within
feminism. In fact it is a broadly feminist task whose burden should be equally
shared by heterosexual women and lesbians. Both lesbians and heterosexual
women have reason to resist the construction of mothering as an unpaid,
socially unsupported task. Both have reason to reject women’s confinement to
the domestic sphere and reason to value participation in politically oriented
communities of women. Both have reason to resist their gender socialization
into the myth of feminine fulfillment through mothering. Both can have
justice interests in objecting to a social and legal system that privileges longterm,
monogamous relationships over all other forms of relationships and
that does not provide universal access to basic benefits like health insurance.
All of these are broadly feminist concerns. As a result, the lesbian feminist
perspective does not articulate any distinctively lesbian political tasks in relation
to the family, marriage, and mothering. Instead, lesbians are submerged
in the larger category ‘feminist’.

Finally, the specific forms that lesbian and gay subordination take and the
related stigmatizing ideologies simply do not inform lesbian feminist analyses
of lesbian families, marriage, and mothering. What governs the lesbian feminist
perspective is above all the political relations between men and women.
To a lesser extent, lesbian feminists also attend to class relations and the political
relations between those who are in normative long-term, monogamous
relations (whether heterosexual or nonheterosexual) and those who are not.As
a result, the radicalness of lesbian and gay family, marriage, and parenting is
measured on a scale that looks only at their power (or impotence) to transform
gender relations, to remedy class-related inequities, and to end the privileging
of long-term, monogamous relations. Not surprisingly, lesbian and gay families,
marriages, and parenting fail to measure up. But this ignores the historical
construction of lesbians and gays as outlaws to the natural family and
their resulting displacement from a protected private sphere.

Unlike heterosexual women, lesbians have not been assumed to have a
natural place within the family as domestic caretakers, reproductive beings,
and naturally fit mothers. On the contrary, as I shall elaborate shortly, both
lesbians and gays have been assumed to be unable to sustain long-term relationships
and to be nonprocreative, dangerous to children, and ruled by
sexual instincts to the exclusion of parenting ones. Moreover, unlike heterosexual
women, it is not their powerlessness within the family that marks their
subordination but rather their denial of access to a legitimated and socially
instituted sphere of family, marriage, and parenting.

Among the array of rights related to marriage that heterosexuals enjoy, but
gays and lesbians do not, are the rights to legal marriage, to live with one’s
spouse in neighborhoods zoned for single families only, and to secure US residency
through marriage to a US citizen; the rights to social security survivor’s
benefits, to inherit a spouse’s estate in the absence of a will, and to file a
wrongful death suit; the rights to give proxy consent, to refuse to testify
against one’s spouse, and to file joint income taxes.

Lesbians and gays similarly lack access to the privileges and protections that
heterosexuals enjoy with respect to biological, adoptive, and foster children.
Sexual orientation continues to be an overriding reason for denying custody
to lesbian and gay parents who exit a heterosexual marriage. Indeed, the
heterosexual grandparents or other family members of the extended family
may be given custody priority over lesbian or gay parents. Gays and lesbians
who do gain custody of their children remain at continued risk of later losing
custody if their sexual orientation was not made known to the court at the
time of the original custody decision and later does become known.19 And
custody and visitation may be conditional on lesbian or gay parents’ abiding
by special restrictions.20 Gays and lesbians fair equally poorly with respect to
adoption and foster parenting. Even when adoption is successful, joint adoption
generally is not—nor is adoption of a partner’s biological child. As a
result, lesbian and gay co-parents have neither legal rights to nor responsibilities
for the children they parent. Should the adoptive or biological parent die,
for instance, the co-parent has no legal claim to custody of the child.

What comes into view in this picture of the legal inequities that lesbians and
gay men confront is the fact that the family, marriage, and parenting is a primary
site of heterosexual privilege. The family has historically been and continues to
be constructed and institutionalized as the natural domain of heterosexuals only.
It is a domain from which lesbians and gays are outlawed. This distinctively
lesbian and gay relation to family is what fails to make its appearance within
feminist critiques. But so long as the politics of denying lesbians and gay men
access to the family remains out of view, distinctively lesbian and gay interests in
family, marriage, and parenting cannot make their appearance; nor can distinctively
lesbian and gay political goals in relation to the family.

A constitutive feature of lesbian and gay oppression since at least the late
nineteenth century has been the reservation of the private sphere for heterosexuals
only. By ‘private sphere’, I do not here mean a zone of privacy beyond
the reach of the law. I mean instead the domain of those intimate and familial
relationships that are fundamental to western, industrialized societies’ social
structure and that stand, at least ideologically, in opposition to the public
sphere of wage labor and politics. This is the sphere of romance, marriage, and
the procreative family. Because lesbians and gays are ideologically constructed
as beings incapable of genuine romance, marriage, or families of their own,
and because those assumptions are institutionalized in the law and social practice,
lesbians and gays are displaced from this private sphere. It is to the
construction of lesbians and gays as outlaws to the family that I now turn.

IV. Familial Outlaws
Like ‘woman’ and ‘man’, ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’/’lesbian’ are oppositional
social categories. This is to say two things. First, articulating how
women differ from men or how lesbians and homosexuals differ from heterosexuals
is central to developing cultural understandings of what it means to be
these kinds of persons. Thus, cultural articulation of the content of these
paired categories proceeds in tandem. Second, because systems of subordination
are organized around these categories, the differences that make a difference
to how persons of these types are esteemed, what opportunities they are
offered, and what restrictions are imposed on them are particularly central to
the social construction of these identity categories. Thus, although social
understandings of manhood or heterosexuality may shift over time, one may
expect those shifts to be ones that preserve the higher standing of men and
heterosexuals. In what follows, I want to suggest that the historical construction
of the oppositional categories ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’/’lesbian’
has in large part been a matter of articulating their different relation to the
family. In particular, the idea that lesbians and gay men differ in ways that
make them outlaws to the family has been central to social understandings of
what it means to be gay or lesbian. As we will see, the content of the social
categories ‘lesbian’ and ‘homosexual’ shifted over time from an emphasis on
gender deviance during the 1880s to 1920s, to an emphasis on sexual excess
during the 1930s to 1960s, to an emphasis on ‘pretending’ familial relationships
during the 1980s and 1990s. These shifts in emphasis make sense if we
look at what was happening to the heterosexual family during each of these
periods. In each period, different worries about the stability of the heterosexual
nuclear family surfaced that were connected to family members’ challenges
to pre-existing familial norms. In the 1880s to 1920s it was especially
norms governing (women’s) gender behavior; in the 1930s to 1960s, it was
most critically norms governing (male) sexuality; and in the 1980s and 1990s
it was, above all, norms governing acceptable family composition that were
most centrally challenged. In short, in historically specific ways, heterosexuals’
violation of familial norms threatened to undermine the stability of the
family. In the face of this, constructing lesbians and homosexuals as different
from heterosexuals in a way that makes a difference to their social standing
was accomplished by projecting on to gays and lesbians the most virulent
forms of family disrupting behavior.

In tracking the correlation between historically specific worries about the
stability of the heterosexual nuclear family and historically specific ideologies
about gays’ and lesbians’ unfitness for family life, I do not mean to claim that
anxiety about the family was the sole factor influencing social understandings
of what it means to be lesbian or homosexual. I do mean to claim that it was
an important factor. The construction of gay men and lesbians as highly stigmatized
outsiders to the family who engage in family disrupting behavior
allays anxieties about the potential failure of the heterosexual nuclear family
by externalizing the threat to the family. As a result, anxiety about the possibility
that the family is disintegrating from within can be displaced on to the
specter of the hostile outsider to the family. One recent example of this
phenomenon occurred during the US Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)
debates. In response to the view that recognizing same-sex marriages would
undermine the family, opponents of DOMA pointed out that the threat to the
family was being mistakenly displaced on to lesbians and gays. Opponents
observed that the real threat was from heterosexual family members’ misbehavior
and from (presumably heterosexual) Congressmen’s failure to install
adequate social supports for the family in the form of health care, day care,
employment, a livable minimum wage, and affordable single family homes.

The construction of gay men and lesbians as outsiders to the family also
facilitates stigma-threatening comparisons between misbehaving members of
the heterosexual family and gay men and lesbians. Such comparisons can be
used to motivate heterosexual family members’ compliance with gender,
sexual, and family composition norms.21 Lesbian baiting—that is, accusing
women who fail to comply with gender norms of being lesbian—is one familiar
example of such stigma-threatening comparisons.

The 1880s to 1920s
This period witnessed significant challenges to the gender structure of
marriage. By the mid nineteenth century, the first wave of the feminist movement
was underway, pressing for changes in women’s gender roles within the
family. First wave feminists pushed for legal reforms that would recognize
women as separate individuals within marriage by, for example, securing
women property rights within marriage, and that would give women access to
divorce. They also pushed for increased access to higher education and
employment as well as for contraception, abortion, and (through the temperance
movement) control of male sexuality, all of which would free women
from a life devoted exclusively to child bearing and child rearing.

Women’s push for greater economic independence and for the redefinition
of women’s gender role coincided with a shift to an increasingly urbanized
and industrialized way of life and with it the organization of the family
around wages.While potentially liberating for women, the dependence of the
family on wages also threatened to undermine the family itself as it drew both
children and women into wage labor, and as men faced unemployment and
inability to support their families. As a result, the end of the nineteenth
century and the beginning of the twentieth saw a number of reforms designed
to protect the family against the effects of industrialization: child labor laws,
protective legislation for women limiting their hours and working conditions,
the growth of day care, the first official concern about unemployment.

First wave feminists’ explicit critique of women’s gender role within the
family, combined with the changes in children’s, women’s, and men’s roles in
the family that resulted from the family’s dependence on wage labor, posed a
challenge to the gender structure of the family. Because the early twentiethcentury
gender ideology tied gender tightly to biology, women’s violation of
gender norms was interpreted as having significant biological repercussions.

From the mid nineteenth century, physicians argued that ‘unnatural’
women—that is, ‘over’ educated women, women who worked at gender atypical
occupations, and women who practiced birth control or had abortions—
were likely to suffer a variety of physically based mental ailments including
weakness, nervousness, hysteria, loss of memory, insanity, and nymphomania.
22 Worse yet, their gender-inappropriate behavior might result in sterility
or inability to produce physically and mentally healthy offspring. In particular,
they risked producing children who were themselves inappropriately
gendered—effeminate sons and masculine daughters.

Not only could departure from women’s traditional gender role as wife and
mother have dire physical and mental consequences for both herself and her
offspring, she herself might be suspected of being at a deep level not really a
woman. Indeed, she might be suspected of being one of the third sex, a sexual
invert. Although what distinguished the invert from ‘normal’ women was her
gender inversion,what distinguished her from merely nonconforming women
was the source of her gender deviance. Medical theorists postulated that, at a
biological level, sexually inverted women were not real women. Some imagined
that inverts were really hermaphrodites. Others, like Havelock Ellis,
imagined that they possessed an excess of male ‘germs’.23 Others, like Krafft-
Ebing imagined that the invert was a throwback to an earlier evolutionary
stage of bisexuality (which for him meant bigenderization).24

The sexually inverted woman’s attraction to other women was simply a
natural result of her generally masculine genderization. The masculinization
of her sexual desire entailed that the sexually inverted woman would play the
part of a man in her sexual relationships with women. She would, as it were,
wear the pants. If heterosexually married, she would adopt the masculine
gender role with respect to her husband, who was himself likely to be sexually
inverted and willing to play out a more feminine gender role.25
Because the discernible evidence of inversion was the nonconformity to
women’s conventional gender role, the line between the nonconforming
sexual invert and the nonconforming feminist was often blurred. Feminist
views and feminist-inspired deviance from gender norms might be both
symptom and cause of sexual inversion. Like sexual inverts, feminists threatened
to disrespect appropriate gender relations between women and men in
marriage. One author of a 1900 New York Medical Journal essay, for instance,
‘warned that feminists and sexual perverts alike, both of whom he classed as
“degenerates”, married only men whom they could rule, govern and cause to
follow [them] in voice and action’.26

That excessive gender deviance rather than sexual excess or sexual orientation
occupied center stage in constructions of lesbians’ nature makes sense
given the cultural context in which late nineteenth and early twentieth century
medical theorizing occurred. The medical category of sexual inversion made
it possible to condemn as pathological women’s violations of conventional
gender norms, especially since the behavior of sexually inverted women and
feminists was sometimes indistinguishable. At the same time, heterosexual
women’s social standing was preserved, despite their gender-deviant behavior,
by attributing an excessive and biologically based gender inversion to inverted

The idea that this new medical category of sexual inversion was created in
direct response to first wave feminists’ challenge to gender norms is not new.
Both Lillian Faderman and George Chauncey, Jr., for instance, have argued
that given both the influence of feminist ideas and the burgeoning of
economic opportunities for women, there was a cultural fear that women
would replace marriages to men with Boston marriages or romantic friendships.
27 One response to that fear was greater attention to the ideal of
companionate marriage, and thus to making marriage more attractive to
women.28 A second response, however, was a cultural backlash—or as
Chauncey describes it, a heterosexual counter-revolution—against Boston
marriages, romantic friendships, schoolgirl ‘raves’, and same-sex institutions.
The pathologizing of both gender deviance and same-sex relationships
brought what were formerly taken to be innocent and normal intimacies
between women under suspicion of harboring degeneracy and abnormality.

The pathologizing of relations between women was not confined to
medical literature. As Lisa Duggan has documented, newspapers sensationalized
violent intimate relationships between women, such as the case of Alice
Mitchell, a sexual invert, who intended to elope with and marry Freda Ward
and to cross-dress as a man, adopting the name Alvin.29When their plan was
discovered and the engagement forcibly terminated, Alice Mitchell murdered
Freda so that no one else could have her. Duggan argues that Alice’s clear
intent to forge a new way of life outside the heterosexual, gender-structured
family marked her as dangerous. In sensationalizing cases like Alice’s,

[t]he late-nineteenth century newspaper narratives of lesbian love featured violence as
a boundary marker; murders or suicides served to abort the forward progress of the
tale, signaling that such erotic love between women was not only tragic but ultimately
hopeless. . . . The stories were thus structured to emphasize, ultimately, that no real
love story was possible.30

Not only was no real love story possible, no real family relation was possible
either. The fully gender-deviant woman was someone who was not only
pathological and doomed to tragedy, but who was constitutionally unfit for
family life. Her masculinity unfit her for the marital role of wife, unfit her for
the task of producing properly gendered children, and unfit her for any stable,
intimate relationships. The cultural construction of the lesbian was thus, from
the outset, the construction of a kind of being who was, centrally, an outsider
to marriage and motherhood. This image of the doomed, mannish lesbian
could be used to motivate heterosexual women’s compliance with gender
norms. In addition, attributing the worst forms of gender deviance to a third
sex externalized the threat to the heterosexual family, suggesting that the
heterosexual family was not in fact being challenged from within by real

The 1930s to 1960s
The US economic Depression of the 1930s and World War II in the 1940s
created a new set of threats to the stability of the heterosexual family.31 During
the Depression, many men lost their traditional gender position in the family
as breadwinners as a result of both massive unemployment and a drop in
marriage rates. The sense of a cultural crisis in masculinity was reflected in
numerous sociological studies of ‘The Unemployed Man and his Family’.32
Men’s traditional position in the family and family stability itself was additionally
undermined during World War II, which brought a rise in the
frequency of prolonged separations, divorce, and desertion.33

Compounding the shifts in gender arrangements within the family,
brought on by the Depression and World War II, were newly emergent understandings
of women’s, men’s, and children’s sexuality. Estelle B. Freedman
argues that ‘by the 1920s the Victorian ideal of innate female purity had disintegrated’
and with it the symbolic power of female purity to regulate male
sexuality.34 The idea of female sexual satisfaction, the use of birth control, and
the possibility of sexuality outside of marriage all gained increased acceptance.
The 1930s Prohibition era speakeasy culture also contributed to a
climate of increasing sexual permissiveness. And the publicizing of Freudian
ideas underscored not only the sexuality of women, but the sexuality of children
as well. The sexualizing of women and children meant that both might
fail to be merely innocent victims of male sexual aggression; they might
instead play a role in inviting male sexual transgressions.35 Sexuality itself now
posed a challenge to the stability of the family.

Heterosexual men’s sexuality became a particular focus of concern. Partly
in response to men’s dislocation from their gender position within the family
during the Depression, the cultural construction of masculinity underwent a
shift from being gender-based to being sexuality-based. In his historical study
of New York gay culture during the first third of the twentieth century, George
Chauncey argues that sexual categories for men underwent a significant transformation
during the 1930s and 1940s. The gender-based contrast between
fairies (effeminate men) and men (who might be ‘queer’, ‘trade’, i.e. heterosexual
men who accepted advances from homosexual men, or strictly heterosexual)
gave way to the contemporary sexual binarism between homosexual
and heterosexual. Real manhood ceased to be secured by simply avoiding
feminine behaviors and instead came to rest on exclusive heterosexuality.36

The sexualizing of masculinity, however, meant that hypermasculinity
could result in sexual excess. Symbolizing male heterosexual desire run amok,
the figure of the heterosexual, psychopathic rapist became a focus of social
concern during the sex crime panics of 1937–40 and 1949–55. But even if
male heterosexual desire posed dangers, male homosexual desires risked
greater excesses. During the sex crime panics, gay men were depicted as
violent child molesters and seducers of youth. The image of the dangerously
sexual homosexual received added reinforcement during the McCarthy era’s
purge of ‘sex perverts’ from governmental service on the grounds that they
threatened not only the nation’s children but its national security and the
heterosexuality of its adult population as well.37

During the 1950s and 1960s, psychoanalytic descriptions of homosexual
and (to a lesser extent) lesbian pathology further entrenched the equation of
homosexuality with excessive sexuality. One particularly striking feature of
psychoanalytic constructions of homosexuality was the insistence that,
because of their multiple psychological defects, neither homosexuals nor
lesbians were emotionally competent to experience genuine romantic love or
sustain stable intimate relationships.

In 1962, Irving Bieber and his colleagues published the results of a nine
year study, begun in 1952, of 106 male homosexuals and 100 male heterosexuals
who were undergoing psychoanalysis.38 Conducted by the Research
Committee of the Society of Medical Psychoanalysts, the study claimed to find
that homosexuals are ‘compulsively preoccupied with sexuality in general and
with sexual practices in particular’.39 Not only are gay men fixated on sex, but
what they want out of sex is not a romantic relationship but escape from the
anxieties produced by heterosexual contact, a substitute for the affection never
received from father, and, above all, a large penis. As evidence for sexual
desire’s overshadowing place in gay men’s emotional subjectivity, Bieber
observed that ‘homosexuals were more often excessively preoccupied with
sexuality in childhood’,40 and ‘[s]ignificantly more homosexuals start sexual
activity before adolescence than do heterosexuals and more homosexuals are
more frequently sexually active during pre-adolescence, early adolescence, and

Compounding this obsessive preoccupation with sex, were crippling anxieties
that meant that homosexuals’ attempts to do more than sexually couple
would inevitably be undermined by feelings of fear, hostility, rage, and jealousy
toward their partners. Bieber observed that the ‘warmth, friendship,
concern for the other’s welfare and happiness’ that occurs in heterosexual relationships
are, for gay men, unsustainable:

[I]n the homosexual pairing, hostile and competitive trends (overt and covert) often
intrude to prevent a stable relationship with a partner.We found many homosexuals
to be fearful, isolated, and anxious about masculinity and personal acceptability.
Ambivalence leads to impermanence or transiency in most homosexual contacts. The
inability to sustain a relationship frequently arises from an inability to bring social and
sexual relations into a unity. This problem is well illustrated by the superficial and
evanescent quality of social activities often carried on at bars and in ‘cruising’.42

Bieber’s teammate, Cornelia Wilbur, issued the same judgment about lesbian

Female homosexual relationships are characterized by great ambivalence, by great
longing for love, by intense elements of hostility, and by the presence of chronic anxiety.
They do not contribute to the individual’s need for stability and love:43

They cannot do so because the frequency of hostile eruptions, verbal and
physical fighting, and general destructiveness within these relationships
renders those relationships impermanent.44 That same-sex relationships are
destructive and impermanent was not a view peculiar to the Research
Committee. It was shared by psychoanalysts generally during the 1950s and
into the 1960s.Writing in the late 1960s, Charles Socarides, a psychotherapist
equally as influential as Bieber and even more unsympathetic, condemned
same-sex relationships for their ‘destruction, mutual defeat, exploitation of
the partner and self, oral-sadistic incorporation, aggressive onslaughts,
attempt to alleviate anxiety and a pseudo solution to the aggressive and libidinal

Again, the point I want to underscore is that shifting gender and sexual
patterns within the heterosexual family were integrally connected with the
social construction of gay men and lesbians as family outlaws. That sexual
excess occupied center stage in constructions of gay men’s and lesbians’ nature
makes sense given the cultural context in which theorizing occurred. For a
variety of reasons, including the rise of Freudianism, the dangers of sexuality
for family life and for children became culturally prominent. Attributing a
distinctly pathological, child-endangering, and relationship-destroying sexuality
to gay men and lesbians was central to constructing lesbians and gays as
different in a way that makes a difference. Even if heterosexual families risked
disruption by the potentially excessive or violent sexuality of its own
members, the dangers of heterosexuality still fell well short of those posed by
homosexuality and lesbianism. In addition, locating the sexual danger to children
outside the family in ‘sex perverts’ allayed anxiety that the family risked
disruption from within.

In short, from the 1930s through the 1960s, gay men’s and lesbians’ nature
was constructed as one that made them fundamentally unfit for family life.
Constitutionally prone to uncontrolled and insatiable sexuality, gay men and
lesbians could not be trusted to respect prohibitions on adult-child sexual
interactions.46 Nor, given the compulsive quality of their sexual desire, could
gay men or lesbians be expected to maintain stable relationships with each
other. Thus, even the sympathetic author of a 1951 text arguing for decriminalization
of homosexuality, nevertheless found extension of marriage rights
unnecessary. For, as he observed of male and female homosexual couples who
live together as though married, ‘[t]he quality of emotional instability
encountered in homosexuals, both male and female, makes them continually
dissatisfied with their lot’ and hence these relationships rarely last.47

The 1980s to 1990s
This more recent period posed a different challenge to the family.
Technological, social, and economic factors combined to produce an explosion
of new family and household forms that undermine the nuclear, biologybased
family’s claim to be the natural, normative social unit.

Increasingly, sophisticated birth control methods and technologically
assisted reproduction using in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination,
surrogate motherhood, fertility therapies, and the like undermine cultural
understandings of the marital couple as a naturally reproductive unit, introduce
nonrelated others into the reproductive process, and make it possible
for women (and men) to have children without a heterosexual partner. The
institutionalization of child care, as mothers work to support families,
involves nonfamily members in the familial task of raising children. Soaring
divorce rates have made single-parent households a common family
pattern—so common that Father’s Day cards now include ones addressed to
mothers, and others announcing their recipient is ‘like a dad’. The high incidence
of divorce has also meant an increase in families constituted through
remarriage that combine children from previous marriages. Divorce also
offers the opportunity for creating divorce-extended families, incorporating
grandparents and other kin from former marriages as well as former spouses
who may retain shared custody or visitation rights.48 As a result of remarriage,
semen donation, and surrogacy, the rule of one-mother, one-father per child
(both of whom are expected to be biological parents) that has dominated legal
reasoning about custody and visitation rights has ceased to be adequate to the
reality of many families. Multiple women and/or multiple men become
involved in children’s lives through their biological, gestation, or parenting
contributions.49 The extended kinship networks, including ‘fictive kin’, of the
black, urban poor, that enable extensive pooling of resources have become
increasingly common in the working class, as the shift from goods to service
production and the decline of industrial and unionized occupations has made
working class persons’ economic position increasingly fragile.50 And the
impoverishment of single-parent households has increasingly involved
welfare agencies in family survival. In short, as Judith Stacey observes:

No longer is there a single culturally dominant family pattern to which the majority
of Americans conform and most of the rest aspire. Instead, Americans today have
crafted a multiplicity of family and household arrangements that we inhabit uneasily
and reconstitute frequently in response to changing personal and occupational

We now live, in her view, in the age of the postmodern family. It is an age
where one marriage and its biological relations have ceased to determine
family composition. Choice increasingly appears to be the principle determining
family composition: choice to single parent, choice of fictive kin,
choice to combine nuclear families (in extended kin networks or in remarriage
or in divorce-extended families), choice of semen donors or surrogate
mothers, choice to dissolve marital bonds, choice of who will function as a
parent in children’s lives (despite of the law’s failure to acknowledge the
parental status of many functional parents). That is, what Kath Weston
describes as a distinctively gay and lesbian concept of ‘chosen families’,
contrasted to heterosexuals’ biological families, in fact characterizes the reality
of many heterosexual families who fail in various ways to construct a
nuclear family around a procreative married couple.52

As family forms multiply, the traditional, heterosexual and procreative,
nuclear family delimited by bonds of present marriage and blood relation and
capable of sustaining itself rather than pooling resources across households
has ceased to be the natural family form.53 Not only has the pluralizing of
family forms undermined the credibility of the claim that the traditional
family is the most natural family form, it has also highlighted the failure of the
traditional family to satisfy individual needs better than other personal relationships
or alternative family forms. As Jeffrey Weeks observes,

[t]he existence of a diversity of family and household forms is . . . perhaps the most
challenging issue of all [those presently confronting the family], because it poses in an
acute fashion the question of value: not only the empirically verifiable issue of what is
changing in the family, or families, but the more critical question of what ought to
change, and what are the most appropriate means of satisfying individual and collective

As in previous periods, cultural understandings of what was threatening
the stability of the traditional, nuclear family set the terms for how gay and
lesbian difference would be articulated. In the 1980s and 1990s, references to
lesbian and gay lifestyles that undermine family values gained widespread
circulation. In its more modest formulation, the idea that lesbians and gays
challenge family values has involved portraying lesbian and gay unions and
parenting relationships as ‘pretend’ families. For instance, recall from Chapter
4 that in the late 1980s Britain passed Clause 28 of the Local Government act
that forbade local authorities from promoting ‘the teaching in any maintained
school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’.
55 The pretended nature of gays’ and lesbians’ family relationships has, in
the United States, been repeatedly underscored in court rulings affirming that
marriage requires one man and one woman. The pretend nature of lesbian
motherhood has also been underscored in custody rulings that have assumed
that being parented by a lesbian is not in a child’s best interests—because the
child may be molested, or may fail to be socialized into her or his appropriate
gender or into heterosexuality, or may be harmed by the stigma of having a
lesbian parent.56

One particularly clear example of the attempt to construct lesbian and gay
families as pretend families occurs in the recent work of family law scholar
Lynn Wardle.57 Wardle argues against legalizing same-sex marriage and
argues for a legal presumption against awarding custody, visitation rights, and
adoption to anyone engaged in an ‘ongoing homosexual relationship’ on the
grounds that lesbian and gay families are not in fact functionally equivalent to
heterosexual families. Lesbians and gays, he claims, come to partnerships with
such different expectations that their unions should be regarded as, in fact,
anti-marriage no matter how much lesbians and gays themselves may invoke
the ideals of commitment, fidelity, and love. In words reminiscent of 1960s
psychoanalytic literature,Wardle asserts that ‘sexual fidelity is not an expected
or typical characteristic in same-sex relationships’; those relationships lack a
romantic foundation;58 and they are chronically unstable.59 In his view, samesex
unions are so different from real, heterosexual marriages that ‘legalization
of same-sex marriage entails a radical rejection of marriage by redefinition
and replacement’.60 In his view, same-sex parenting is, similarly, not functionally
equivalent to heterosexual parenting. In particular, it poses potential
dangers to children that heterosexual parenting does not. In his list of possible
worrisome impacts that lesbian and gay parenting might have on children,
Wardle echoes concerns raised in earlier historical periods about lesbian
and gay gender deviance and its effects on children as well as concerns about
the impact of lesbian and gay sexual excess on children. He raises the specter
of boys becoming deficiently masculine, girls cross-dressing and being unable
to relate to men in later life, and both boys and girls being more likely to turn
out gay. He also raises the specter of various sexual dangers—exposing children
to adultery and sexual activity, child molestation, and incest.61

His aim is not only to foreground the nonequivalence between heterosexual
and nonheterosexual families. It is also to motivate heterosexual compliance
with traditional family norms. Wardle offers fairly explicit
stigma-threatening comparisons between misbehaving members of heterosexual
families and lesbian and gay families; and he does so for the purpose of
rallying increased heterosexual commitment to the ideal of long-term,
monogamous marriage. Divorce, domestic violence, child bearing out of
wedlock, and other dysfunctions in the heterosexual family may have, in his
view, many of the same effects on children that lesbian and gay parenting
does. In response to childhood traumas within these defective heterosexual
families, including over-controlling mothers and weak fathers, children may
turn out gay who would otherwise be heterosexual.62 They may also come to
share what he takes to be a distinctively lesbian and gay view of marriage,
namely, a rejection of the naturalness of traditional marriage and family in
favor of ‘radical and dangerous substitutes’.63 The explicit message is that
misbehaving heterosexuals are responsible for cultivating a social climate that
contributes to producing a new generation of lesbian and gay children, to
undermining family values, and to fueling lesbian and gay claims to same-sex
marriage. To avoid being like lesbian and gay pretend families, heterosexuals
need to increase their compliance with traditional marital norms.

In its more extreme form, the idea that lesbians and gay men challenge
family values has involved portraying gay men and lesbians not only as beings
whose marriages and families fail to be the genuine article, but as beings who,
simply by being publicly visible or mentionable, assault family values. As a
result, anti-discrimination measures are equated with hostility to the family,
even though ending workplace discrimination or punishing hate crimes
would appear to have little to do with advocating one family form rather than
another. This view has been defended with particular vigor by the leading
natural law legal theorist, John Finnis.64 Finnis argues that even though gay
men and lesbians might imitate the sexually faithful, lifelong, monogamous
marriages of heterosexuals, these relationships differ in kind from heterosexual
marriages. That difference enables him to read same-sex marriages as in
fact hostile to real marriage. Same-sex partners, he argues, are incapable of
engaging in acts of ‘the reproductive kind’ which biologically unite two people
in one flesh and are oriented toward reproduction. But it is a marriage’s orientation
toward producing and rearing children that ultimately provides the
rationale for lifelong, monogamous, sexually faithful commitment. Thus, in
his view, there is no good reason for same-sex couples to strive for this ideal.
‘For them, the permanent, exclusive commitment of marriage . . . is [ration-
ally] inexplicable.’65 Group marital and parenting arrangements would make
as much sense for gays and lesbians as long-term monogamous ones. Because
same-sex sexuality is not intrinsically connected to long-term, sexually faithful,
monogamous marriage in the way that heterosexual sexuality is, Finnis
concludes that gay sexuality is ‘deeply hostile to the self-understanding of
those members of the community who are willing to commit themselves to
real marriage’.66 He makes it clear that any policy protecting a ‘gay lifestyle’
threatens the stability of the family, and for that reason should be rejected:

A political community which judges that the stability and protective and educative
generosity of family life is of fundamental importance to that community’s present
and future can rightly judge that it has a compelling interest in denying that homosexual
conduct—a ‘gay lifestyle’—is a valid, humanly acceptable choice and form of
life, and in doing whatever it properly can, as a community with uniquely wide but still
subsidiary functions, to discourage such conduct.67

One of the main strategies that the community can validly use, in his view, is
to refuse to protect gay men and lesbians against discriminatory treatment.
So threatening to the family are gay men and lesbians sometimes taken to
be that even protecting them against hate crimes may be interpreted as
dangerously close to attacking the family. Thus, the Hate Crimes Act passed by
Congress in 1990 (which covers sexual orientation) includes the affirmation
that ‘federal policy should encourage the well-being, financial security, and
health of the American family’, and that ‘[n]othing in this Act shall be
construed, nor shall any funds appropriated to carry out the purpose of the
Act be used, to promote or encourage homosexuality’68

That being anti-family should now occupy center stage in constructions of
gay men’s and lesbians’ nature makes sense given the cultural context in which
these constructions are being developed. The gay liberation movement, begun
in the 1970s, brought with it a rise in lesbian custody suits and in litigation
contesting the denial of marriage licenses to same-sex couples.69 At the same
time that gay men and lesbians were publicly claiming to have genuine
marriages and families of their own, it was becoming increasingly clear that
heterosexuals were deviating in multiple ways from the conventional model of
the two-parent, nuclear family. As in previous periods, constructing lesbians
and gay men as dangerous outlaws to the family served to externalize the
threat to the heterosexual, procreative, nuclear family, diverting attention
from heterosexuals’ own choices to create multiple, new family arrangements
that undermine the hegemony of the traditional family. In addition, the equation
of heterosexuality with family values and homosexuality and lesbianism
with hostility to the family serves to motivate loyalty to a traditional conception
of the family. It also renders suspect some of the alternative family
arrangements that heterosexuals might be inclined to choose, such as
supportive, family-like relationships between women involved in singleparenting.

Finally, constructing gay men and lesbians as anti-family works to
preserve heterosexuals’ social standing. No matter how much heterosexual
families may deviate from the traditional ideal, they nevertheless qualify as
nonpretend families, formed by people who are capable of genuine commitment
to family life.

V. The Right to define what Counts as a Family
I have argued for the existence of a historical pattern in which anxiety about
the stability of the family goes hand-in-hand with the ideological depiction of
gay men and lesbians as unfit for marriage, parenting, and family. The
construction of lesbians and gay men as natural outlaws to the family and the
masking of heterosexuals’ own family-disrupting behavior results in the reservation
of the private sphere for heterosexuals only.70

It is because being an outlaw to the family has been so central to the social
construction of lesbianism and homosexuality, that I think the family belongs
at the center of lesbian and gay politics. Because being denied access to a legitimate
and protected private sphere has been and continues to be central to
lesbian and gay oppression, the most important scale on which to measure
lesbian and gay political strategies is one that assesses their power (or impotence)
to resist conceding the private sphere to heterosexuals only. On such a
scale, the push for marriage rights, parental rights, and recognition as legitimate
families measures up. Indeed, on the historical backdrop of the various
images of family outlaws—the mannish lesbian, the homosexual child molester,
and their pretended family relationships—putting same-sex marriage,
lesbian motherhood, and the formation of lesbian and gay families off or at
the margins of a lesbian and gay political agenda looks suspiciously like a
concession to the view of lesbians and gay men as family outlaws.

All this is not to say that there is no merit in lesbian feminists’ concern that
normalizing lesbian motherhood will reinforce the equation of ‘woman’ with
‘mother’. Overcoming the idea that lesbian motherhood is a contradiction in
terms may very well result in lesbians’ being expected to fulfill the maternal
imperative just as heterosexual women are. But this is just to say that lesbian
and gay subordination is structurally different from gender oppression. Thus,
strategies designed to resist lesbian subordination (such as pushing for the
legal right to co-adopt) are not guaranteed to counter gender oppression
(which might better be achieved by resisting motherhood altogether). In gaining
access to a legitimate and protected private sphere of mothering, marriage,
and family, lesbians will need to take care that it does not prove to be as
constraining as the private sphere has been for heterosexual women.

Nor have I meant to claim that there is no merit in both lesbian feminists’
and queer theorists’ concern that normalizing same-sex marriage will reinforce
the distinction between good, assimilationist gays and bad gay and
heterosexual others whose relationships violate familial norms (the permanently
single, the polygamous, the sexually nonmonogamous, the member of a
commune, etc.). Overcoming the idea that lesbian and gay marriages are
merely pretended family relationships may very well result in married lesbians
and gays being looked upon more favorably than those who remain outside
accepted familial forms. But this is just to say that countering lesbians’ and
gays’ family outlaw status is not the same thing as struggling to have a broad
array of social relationships recognized as (equally) valuable ones.

It may, however, still seem to many that advocating lesbian and gay families
is a dangerously conservative strategy. In countering the subordinating
effects of lesbians’ and gays’ family outlaw status, would it not be better to
demote the cultural importance assigned to family life rather than bid for
lesbian and gay access to the very institution that has systematically been
invoked against gays and lesbians? Why think that lesbian and gay interests
would be better served through incorporation into the traditional family
rather than through repudiating the family? Two related assumptions underpin
these challenges to centering the family in lesbian and gay politics. Both
merit scrutiny. They are, first, that bidding for access to the family means
bidding for access to the traditional family; and second, that lesbian and gay
intimate relations are so essentially different from heterosexual families that
bidding for access to the family would not secure for lesbians and gays what
they most need, namely, socio-legal recognition of their unique private

The idea that bidding for access to the family necessarily means bidding for
access to the traditional family is not a supportable assumption. As has often
been observed, the ‘traditional’ nuclear, self-sufficient family composed of two
parents and their biological children, is a historically specific, ideological
construct. It characterizes neither dominant cultural conceptions of the family
at all historical moments, nor actual families during historical periods where
the ideal image of the nuclear family has in fact reigned. As I have argued,
heterosexual families have failed to conform to the family composition norms
defining the traditional family. In addition, heterosexuals have persistently
violated the gender and sexual norms that have, at various historical moments,
been taken to be definitive of conventional families. This has not prevented
heterosexuals from claiming that, their deviancy notwithstanding, they still
have real marriages and real families, and are themselves naturally suited for
marriage and parenting. On the contrary, because heterosexuals are assumed
to be naturally fit for family life, they have had cultural authority to contest
dominant familial norms that were not serving their interests. Heterosexual
women, for example, have had cultural authority as heterosexuals (if not as
women) to object to the equation of family with hierarchical gender roles for
husbands and wives. Thus, it is important not to exaggerate the level of
conformity involved in having familial status.

Moreover, to think that pressing for marriage rights and socio-legal recognition
of lesbian and gay families means advocating an Ozzie and Harriette
ideal for lesbians and gay men is to misunderstand, in a fundamental way,
what having familial status means. To have familial status is not to have
applied to oneself one highly conventional family form.Having familial status
means having the privilege that heterosexuals alone have heretofore had,
namely the privilege of claiming that despite their multiple deviations from
norms governing the family, their families are nevertheless real ones and they
are themselves naturally suited for marriage, family, and parenting however
these may be defined and redefined. It also means having the cultural authority
to challenge existing familial norms, to redefine what constitutes a family,
and to demand that the preferred definition of the family be reflected in
cultural and legal practices. Centered within a liberatory lesbian and gay politics,
the bid for access to the family is the bid for the right to exercise definitional
authority with respect to the family.

Even in this highly modified form, it may still seem that the family ought
not to be at the center of lesbian and gay politics. Lesbian and gay ‘families’, it
might be objected, differ so radically from any existing version of heterosexual
families that it would be strategically better to advocate demoting the
cultural status of the family rather than trying to force same-sex relationships
into any model of family life, even a highly revised one. In her investigation of
competing discourses on and ideological representations of the family, for
example, Kath Weston oppositionally positions reproductive, biological kinbased,
heterosexual families against lesbian and gay families composed of
chosen, adult, supportive relationships among individuals who are neither
married nor in the business of procreating:

The very notion of gay families asserts that people who claim nonprocreative sexual
identities and pursue nonprocreative relationships can lay claim to family ties of their
own without necessary recourse to marriage, child bearing, or child rearing.71
On this view, lesbian and gay families lack the procreative and biological boundaries
of heterosexual families. Kin are chosen, not biologically determined.

Given the different principles—biology versus choice—underlying heterosexual
versus lesbian and gay families, it might seem strategically wiser not even to
describe lesbian and gay relationships as families at all. The political problem
for lesbians and gay men is precisely, one might think, that the ‘natural’,
biologically based family has been granted socio-legal priority over the plurality
of alternative, chosen, intimate associations that individuals might prefer
to enter into.

Though forceful, this objection to centering the family in lesbian and gay
politics depends on overdrawing the contrast between heterosexual families
on the one hand, and lesbian and gay intimate associations on the other. First,
it is important to keep in mind that, in opposing the biological, reproductive
family to ‘families we choose’, Weston claimed to be articulating competing
discourses or ideological representations of the family. The contrast between
biological and chosen families that she develops is a contrast between different
ways of talking about the family, not necessarily differences in the real
composition of families or differences in the actual organizing principle of

Even if, ideologically, the traditional family gets depicted as a procreative,
biologically linked unit, in practice that family is partially governed, and
increasingly so, by the principle of choice. As we saw earlier, heterosexual
families incorporate chosen, nonbiologically related individuals into their
kinship structure in a variety of ways. The most obvious example is marriage.
Marriage is the choice of kinship, including in-law kinship and (in the case of
remarriage) step-kinship, with a set of persons who are not biologically one’s
kin. Adoption as well as procreation via semen or egg donation are also
choices to make nonbiologically related children kin. In foster parenting, individuals
choose temporary kinship to nonbiologically related children.

Additional nonrelated kin can be brought in as godparents and honorary
‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’.Weston herself mentions that there are racial and cultural
differences in the extent to which families include fictive kin.

Traditional families also employ the principle of choice to terminate or
deny kinship status. Divorce is the most obvious example. But kin can also be
disinherited, disowned, and barred from family events, as is too often the
consequence of coming out to families. Families can also refuse to acknowledge
marriages, denying in-law kinship—again, a common experience of gay
men and lesbians whose families do not acknowledge their partners and partners’
families as kin.

In addition to using the principle of choice to determine who is or is not
kin, traditional families make choices about the role and status of kin. Aunts,
sisters, and grandparents may be assigned primary or partial parenting
responsibilities.And distinctions can be drawn between close and distant relatives
on subjective grounds without regard to biological closeness.

Finally, the increasing acceptability of single-parent families, including
never married parents, as well as the acceptability of media presentations of
alternative families represents less a ‘queering’ of the traditional family than a
natural extension of the principle of choice already in operation.

The point here is that the family as conventionally understood permits
kinship to be determined by choice as well as biology. Indeed, Kath Weston
observes that gay and lesbian discourse about chosen family was in large
measure derived from the behavior of heterosexual families who clearly made
choice rather than biology the basic determinant of kinship when they threatened
to expel gay and lesbian members.

On the other side of the fence, even if gay men and lesbians differ from
heterosexuals in choosing to incorporate more fictive kin and in assigning
them primary family status, gay and lesbian families continue to employ
procreative and biological conceptions of the family. Even when exiled from
biological families, gay men and lesbians often continue thinking of biological
family as kin.When not exiled from biological families, the kinship status
of biological relatives goes unquestioned. Gay men and lesbians also continue
to operate on the conventional assumption that they will be kin to their
(heterosexual) children’s children. Furthermore, even if lesbians and gay men
do not feel subject to the procreative imperative, two-thirds of Weston’s interviewees
wanted children; some already had children from previous heterosexual
marriages; and the much publicized lesbian baby boom was in part made
possible by gay men who contributed semen and sometimes chose to coparent
as well. This is all to say that procreation, parenting, and biologically
determined kinship all play a role in gay and lesbian conceptions of family.

It would seem, then, that both straight families and gay and lesbian families
employ both the principle of choice and procreatively secured biological
ties to determine kinship. Differences between the two sorts of families arise
because they use the two principles to do different things. For example,
straight families use the principle of choice to expel gay men and lesbians,
while gay men and lesbians may use the principle of biological relatedness to
challenge their expulsion. Straight families typically use biological parentage
to assign parenting roles, while gay and lesbian families make greater use of
the principle of choice to assign parenting roles.

If both sorts of families are using both principles, then proclaiming an
essential difference between heterosexual families and gay and lesbian intimate
associations seems misguided. The central political problem is not that the
conventional understanding of family excludes the principle of choice, but
that lesbians and gay men are denied social and legal entitlement to use either
kinship principle. Social and legal arrangements are built on the assumption
that kinship, however determined, is for heterosexuals only.

That gay men and lesbians are not entitled to use the principle of choice is
patently obvious in the denial of marriage and joint adoption rights, in
straight families’ refusal to acknowledge partners, and in the discriminatory
policies of adoption, foster care, and alternative insemination agencies. That
gay men and lesbians cannot get the kinship of friends or alternative coparenting
arrangements recognized is simply an extension of the general
prohibition against gays and lesbians choosing their kin no matter how
conventional and assimilationist those choices may be.

That gay men and lesbians are not entitled to use the principle of biological
relatedness is obvious in child custody decisions where heterosexual
orientation may count for more than biological closeness. It is also evident in
straight families’ refusal to accept biology as grounds for claiming kinship
with gay men and lesbians.

These observations suggest that unless heterosexuals’ exclusive right of
access to the family (however family membership and structure is determined)
is directly confronted, the primary beneficiaries of demoting the cultural
status of the family are unlikely to be lesbians and gay men.

Finally, emphasizing an essential difference between heterosexual families
and gay and lesbian intimate associations concedes too much to the ideology
of gays and lesbians as family outlaws, unfit for genuine marriage and dangerous
to children. Describing families that depart substantially from traditional
family forms as distinctively gay also conceals the queerness of many heterosexual
families. I have tried to show that, historically, gay men and lesbians
have become family outlaws not because their relationships and families were
distinctively queer, but because heterosexuals’ relationships and families
queered the gender, sexual, and family composition norms. The depiction of
gays and lesbians as deviant with respect to family norms was a product of
anxiety about that deviancy within heterosexual families. Thus, claiming that
gay and lesbian families are (or should be) distinctively queer and distinctively
deviant helps conceal the deviancy in heterosexual families, and thereby helps
to sustain the illusion that heterosexuals are specially entitled to access to a
protected private sphere.

Throughout this book I have argued that lesbian and gay oppression is not a
mere byproduct of sexism; nor is it structurally similar to racial oppression
and gender oppression. Instead, lesbian and gay oppression is a separate and
distinctive axis of oppression. Getting clear about the nature of lesbian and
gay subordination enables us to answer more accurately the question: Which
liberties do lesbians and gays really need most in order to be fully equal citizens?

I have argued that lesbian and gay oppression is above all distinguished by
the phenomenon of displacement from civil society. Specifically, lesbians and
gay men are displaced from the public sphere, from the private sphere, and
from our social future. Given his, three liberties are particularly crucial:
(1) the liberty to represent one’s identity publicly
(2) the liberty to have a protected private sphere, and
(3) the liberty to equal opportunity to influence future generations.

In Chapter 4, I argued that the practice of penalizing openly lesbian and gay
people forces lesbians and gays to adopt pseudonymous heterosexual identities
if they want full access to the public sphere. In effect, the only individuals who
are permitted to speak and act in the public sphere are heterosexuals—both
real and pseudonymous. If gay men and lesbians are to become fully equal
citizens, one of the liberties we need most is the right to be publicly lesbian and

In this and the previous chapter, I have argued that if gay men and lesbians
are to become fully equal citizens, their private lives must be equally protected.
Our culture connects full citizenship with being married and having a family.
We assume that the family is a bedrock on which social and political life is
then built and that citizens thus support civil life by getting married and
having families. When lesbians and gays are contructed as outlaws to the
family and are told that they cannot marry, they are being told that they are
not capable of doing the work of citizens. Thus, lesbians and gays will not be
fully equal until the law recognizes same-sex marriages and equally protects
lesbian and gay family life.

In Chapters 4 and 6, I argued that an important aspect of the construction
of lesbians and gays as outlaws to the family is the idea that lesbians and gay
men are bad for children. They are incapable of socializing children into
proper gender roles and a heterosexual orientation; they cannot be trusted not
to molest or seduce the young; and they cannot offer children more than a
pretended family relationship. Laws and policies built on these ideologies
reduce gays’ and lesbians’ contact with children. In essence, such laws and
policies hand over to heterosexuals exclusive entitlement to determine the
character of future generations. This seriously undermines lesbian and gay
equality. Being able to help shape our social future is, like being able to speak
one’s mind or having the opportunity to improve oneself, a basic interest that
people have. Lesbians and gays will not be fully equal citizens until they have
the equal liberty to influence who our future citizens will be.

In sum, these three liberties—the liberty to represent one’s identity
publicly, to marry and have a family, and to equally influence future generations—
constitute the center of lesbian and gay politics. They are not the liberties
that feminists have thought it most important for women to have. But, as
I argued in Chapters 1, 2 and 3, it is important not to assume that feminist
politics and lesbian politics are identical. Whether lesbians can occupy the
center of feminist theorizing depends on whether feminism can find a space
for the lesbian not-woman who shares with gay men the experience of a
distinctive form of oppression.


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