Graphic by Shay Suban
Growing up, I always assumed that someday I would get married and have a family. In fact, when I was little, my friends and I loved to play House, acting like mommies and daddies, pretending we had our own home, children, and – of course – puppies. We imitated ritualized family practices like kissing Daddy goodbye before he left for work, and helping Mommy clean up the house and cook dinner. While I understood the roles of each member in the family, I was never able to connect to these characters in the same way my other friends did. I always felt removed, and preferred to be the child or puppy rather than the father figure.
As a kid, I didn’t think much about why I felt distant from the ritualistic practice of playing House but now that I’m older and have an awareness of my own identity, it makes perfect sense. I identify today as a cisgendered, homosexual man. This specific identity was always absent when my friends and I played House. Why though? Now I understand that my identity was absent because of a social system that informed – and limited – the microcosm created by my friends and I while playing House. That system is heteronormativity. Heteronormativity, as described by Kristen Schilt, is the suite of cultural, legal, and institutional practices that maintain normative assumptions that there are two and only two genders, that gender reflects biological sex, and that only sexual attraction between these “opposite” genders is natural or acceptable. Multiple ethnographic studies suggest that by elementary school, children internalize the normativity of heterosexuality, which explains why our game of House never included two parents of the same gender – a situation which would have offered a representation of my homosexual identity. It is clear to me now that heteronormativity is so pervasive in American culture that conceptualizing anything beyond its framework – like gay parents – was nearly impossible for me as a child. I always felt the pressure to grow up, get married, and have children, but I didn’t know what that would look like for me because I felt uncomfortable with the idea of having a wife.
Later in my life, around the age of twelve or thirteen, I began to experience the pressure of heteronormativity more intensely. Family members would ask me things like, Hey Andrew, got any girlfriends? Which girls in your class do think are the cutest? C’mon, just tell us, which girl is it that you’ve got your eye on? Of course, these questions made me feel uncomfortable, but mostly, they just made me feel… different. This feeling of difference is a result of heteronormativity and proof of its power to oppress those who deviate. Audre Lorde, a feminist academic, argues that “for as long as any difference between [two people] means one must be inferior, then the recognition of any difference must be fraught with guilt,” which is exactly how I felt. I felt guilty for not having a girlfriend, guilty for being unable to answer my family members’ questions when they came up at the dinner table, guilty for not even knowing if I wanted to have children.
When I did come out of the closet around the age of fifteen, the first question that many of my family members and other adults asked me was, Does this mean you don’t want a family? It was as if my gay identity and my ability to have a family were mutually exclusive. The idea that I could be gay, but simultaneously be a parent and have a family was far beyond their imagination – and mine too. How could I possibly know if I wanted a family? I did not have the knowledge I needed. There were no gay parents on TV or in movies when I grew up; gay marriage was not legal, and I had never even met someone who was openly gay until I moved to California when I was thirteen years old. In short, because of heteronormativity, the knowledge I needed in order to conceptualize my identity as a gay man was so incomplete that it compromised my ability to think meaningfully about whether I wanted a family or not.
Coming to my own conclusions about having a family has been very difficult. At times, it is hard to distinguish if I truly desire a family, or if I’m just accepting the pressure of assimilating to heteronormative relationships in order to avoid the uncomfortable question: Does this mean you don’t want a family? It will be a lifelong pursuit for me to extract these distortions from my living while I recognize, reclaim, and define my differences from hetero-culture, all in order to make an independent choice about creating a family.
I’ve only begun to understand what marriage, family, and children mean to me as a gay man. While I continue discovering, I must constantly challenge myself to recognize my privileged ability to consider options like adoption, surrogacy, and sperm implantation. These alternative ways to have children are not available to everyone. Most are drastically expensive, and one could also argue that they are racialized and gendered in many ways. Since I am middle-class, I am privileged to not be barred by the financial burden of alternative parenting. Additionally, because I am white, I know that I will likely have an easier time being approved for something like adoption than a person of color. While I have experienced a variety of disadvantages due to my identity being outside the privilege of heteronormativity, I simultaneously experience the unearned benefits of my whiteness, being born into the middle class, and being a cisgender-man. As a result, while I pursue my own unique understanding of family, I find it my responsibility to be aware of my privilege and to not abuse it, especially because I know what it is like to be marginalized. I will actively and vocally resist things like racism, classism, and sexism because I am interested in equality for all people.
Although I have suffered judgment and confusion because I do not fit into the hegemonic nuclear family, I am grateful that my queer identity has allowed me to construct my personal definition of family. Since it is so common in the queer community to be rejected by blood relatives, I have learned that family goes far beyond the passing of genetics. For me, being queer means that family is a choice. I get to choose the people whom I call my family. Although I’ll never be able to produce a blood-related child with my life-partner, I know that if I decide to have children, they will be just as much mine as children are of any straight couple that produces biological children.