reproduction and parenting: what’s ‘queer’ gotta do with it?
A version of this was originally written for Black Feminists in 2014.
A few years ago, I attended Fringes-Margins-Borders, a showcase of ‘six compelling autobiographical works that examine lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender contemporary life in California.’ It was a mix of modern dance and jazz pieces, spoken word and hip hop, monologues, etc. – the usual fare at a performance art show. One piece in particular, though, really caught my attention – Scott Turner Schofield’s ‘Becoming a Man in 127 EASY Steps.’
Scott’s act entailed a series of narratives that engaged his multiple identity markers (and, most specifically, his FTM identity). During one, he describes a particular moment from when he worked as a babysitter. This particular family knew of Scott’s trans identity, as did their son. One evening, when Scott was babysitting the son and his friend, the son announces, ‘Scott used to be a girl, but now he’s a boy!’ Feeling a bit on the spot, Scott is left to explain the complexities of sex, gender, and sexuality to a pair of four-year olds. As might be expected, some of the exchanges were pretty hilarious, others quite poignant.
This piece resonated deeply with my own thoughts on what it might mean to raise children from a socially conscious perspective, and also the serious limitations of language in attempting to do so.
It is becoming increasingly clear to me that there is no form of reproduction safe from ethical problems (blame the obsessive research on reproduction demanded by my research… but more on that later). Even so, ‘having kids’ is a possibility I often consider. By ‘having kids’ what I really mean is raising them. Some time ago, I realized the subversive possibilities of just hanging around with kids – of nudging their socialization in one direction rather than others with a mere few words – to create the possibility for them to be little-big ethical warriors; to be little-big decolonial, queer resisters.
Of course, with every attempt to describe my ideas, I am confronted by the impossibility of articulating them ‘otherwise’. In every effort to think ‘otherwise,’ I am compelled to recognize the ‘normative’ when approaching the (possibly) ‘non-normative’. Indeed, no matter what I may find possible to say, there is always some problematic inherent in it. But that is the disciplinary power of language in general... to arrest thought, speech and action that attempts to be ‘otherwise.’ And yet, we must persevere.
And then, there is the choice, and process, of reproduction itself that, especially for a ‘straight’ ‘woman’ like me, entails participation in, contribution to, the heteronormative ideal. Indeed, my choice to ‘have kids’ – whether biologically, technoscientifically, or socio-relationally (as in through adoption or fostering) facilitated – cannot escape reaffirming the role of heterosexuality, and heterosexual sex (real or simulated), in the propagation of what I envision as my social ideal. As Sara Ahmed writes in The Cultural Politics of Emotion: 'The object of love is an ‘offspring’ of the fantasy of the national subject at stake in the ego ideal, confirming the role of heterosexuality in the reproduction of the national ideal [or here, an ethico-political ideal].' Yet, subversion’s all I’ve got.
It has sometimes been pointed out to me that my ideas of child-raising are not merely absurd, but verge on the sadistic. Kids can be cruel, it is argued. Why, then, would I deliberately want to raise mine as anything other than ‘normal’ to be ragged on by others? In fact, why would I force my ideals onto my kids and open them up to getting hurt? Arguments such as these are frustratingly simplistic. The social, we know, is constantly being produced; and if change is to be enacted, alternative subjectivities must be facilitated. Raising kids as such entails a deep undoing.
In Empire of Love, Elizabeth Povinelli asks, how do we raise kids who are capable of surviving ‘in the context of liberal corrosions?’ Referring to aboriginal communities in Australia she notes: ‘subjects who can live in and experiment with environments of numbing harm must be made, and grown out of the very environments that are poisoning them. The women and men I know constantly reflect on just this face, how to provide their children with the self-discipline necessary to survive the “hard facts” of poverty in the context of what they call “hard Aboriginal law.”’ This logic is applicable to the micro- and macro-aggressions that constitute our daily existence. There is no protecting kids from pain, ugliness, disappointment, struggle. The only possibility is to raise them with the tools they'll need to confront, overcome, subvert, transform the pains of existence; to grasp the myriad moments of crisis, and to deploy them as moments of their own personal revolutions. This at least I can imagine within the limits of language available to me...
As Sara Ahmed writes in her elaborations on love and politics:
We must love the visions we have, if there is any point to having them. We must be invested in them, whilst open to ways in which they fail to be translated into objects that can
secure our ground in the world. We need to be invested in the images of a different kind
of world and act upon those investments in how we love our loves, and we live our lives, at the
same time as we give ourselves up and over to the possibility that we might get it wrong, or
that the world that we are in might change its shape.
And so, I shall continue to love my vision of raising kids... until I’ve come to have had it wrong. And then, I shall re-imagine it all again. But for now, for all that I have already attempted to describe, I dream too of raising kids who don't fear hurt or pain; who are strong enough to be haunted, and smart enough to face their own demons. Who know that love, in its myriad moments and forms, is a privilege and who are not afraid of take up its immense responsibility.