Two men and a woman at table, attended
by a servant girl. Funeral stele c. 2100 BC.
homophobes always claim, “homosexuality undermines the family.”
But nothing is harder on the family than heterosexuality, at least
as it is engaged within the tiny parameters of the single family
dwelling. Driven by the legal fiction of paternity, or the
requirements of capitalism for free wage labour, modern life tends
to separate heterosexual couples and their offspring from large
communities and extended families. The post-war dream of suburban
living takes people even farther from friends and kin. Inside the
house in the suburbs, central heating, convenience food, and
gender-marked spaces further separate men, women and children from
each other. Older patterns of communal living disappear.[i]
phrase “nuclear family” comes into the language in 1947, two
years after the first nuclear bombs were detonated. The metaphor
describes the situation pretty well: families structured like atoms,
discrete entities, with a father and mother at the nucleus, and
children who revolve around them. Add to this the fact that science
and society have managed to split the atomic nucleus, creating a
violent explosion from the chain reaction, fission leading to
further fission. Inside this unstable and dangerous construct, who
would not be lonely, angry and afraid?
escape this fate. We are the women who can say to their mothers,
with Audre Lorde:
But I have peeled
away your anger
down to the core
and look mother
a dark temple
where your true spirit rises
and tough as
are the men who, as in Ranier Maria Rilke’s poem, stand up during
supper and walk outdoors, while “another man, who remains inside/
his own house,/ dies there, inside the dishes and the glasses. . .
In each gay and lesbian person there is a true spirit that cannot
shine in the dead forms and obligatory gestures of nuclear family
life. We peel away the anger, down to the core of love. It gives us
a different chance at living.
Door, detail, from Modakele, Ife, Africa
queer means we do not let mother and father alone create us. We are
nurtured by the world, taught to live by one another. As children we
look outside the family for mentors and teachers who can show us
other ways of living. Our kinship is not just with the family tree
of heterosexual pairings, even including the odd spinster aunt and
bachelor uncle whose branch is truncated. Our ancestors include real
madrone, oak –
and flowers: pansy, narcissus, hyacinth. We claim kinship with
salmon swimming upstream, transgendered grizzly bears that copulate
and give birth through their penises, homosexual male black swans
and their beloved offspring, lesbian spinner dolphins who fuck each
other while they swim.[iv]
We have an affinity with other societies, where nuclear families are
unknown. In the words of archetypal psychologist James Hillman,
“ancestors are not bound to human bodies and certainly not
confined to human souls.”[v]
Grizzly Bears sometimes bond with each other and raise their young
together as a single family unit. The two mothers become inseparable
companions for a year, traveling and feeding together as they share
the parenting of their cubs. Young male black bears sometimes mount
their siblings, male and female. Intersexual or hermaphrodite Black
and Grizzly Bears occur in some populations. These individuals are
genetically female and have female internal reproductive organs,
combined in various degrees with male external genitalia.[vi]
thy father and thy mother.” Hillman points out that “the Fifth
Commandment, along with the ones preceding it, aims to eliminate all
traces of pagan polytheism. . . .” For polytheism a larger view of
ancestry, and our kinship with all life, is an informing vision.
Queer harkens back to the idolatry of the old nature religions.
outside the nuclear family to find our origins, we are freed of what
Hillman calls the “parental fallacy.” Mothers and fathers are
not the primary instruments of our fate. We can attend to the
social, environmental, and economic forces that shape us. We can
leave behind infantile deprivations, without harboring the
resentments that seem to stunt so many lives. Sometimes, we can even
embrace people in our family of origin. It seems easier to forgive
them for not being the abstract fantasy family we might have dreamed
of, when we are not trying to reproduce the thing ourselves.
are family,” as the song goes. In queer community, we have what
the homophobes promoting “family values” yearn for. While they
look to constitute family by enforcing gender inequalities,
promoting guilt, and compelling dependencies, the children pay. In
Canada and the United States, more children and adolescents die from
suicide than from cancer, AIDS, birth defects, influenza, heart
disease and pneumonia combined.[vii]
Modeling alternate forms of love and belonging, advocating for the
rights of children, and creating alternate spaces of support for
escapees from the nuclear family blast, we do
undermine the family.
D’Emilio writes, “building an ‘affectional community’ . . .
. we may prefigure the shape of personal relationships in a society
grounded in equality and justice rather than exploitation and
oppression, a society where autonomy and security do not preclude
each other, but
For the sake of young people trapped in hopeless isolation and
abject dependency, the end of the nuclear family cannot come soon
Alexander Wilson, 1991, points this out.
Audre Lorde, 1978 (82).
Bly, trans., 1981.
See Bruce Bagemihl, 1999, for these and many other examples of
animal homosexuality, intersexuality, transgender and
James Hillman, 1996 (85-90).
Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, New
York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999
Statistics from U.S. quoted by James Hillman. Statistics Canada,
“Mortality: Summary List of Causes,” 1997, calculated for
ages 10 to 19, based on tables p. (10-13).
John D’Emilio, in Abelove et. al., 1993, (475).