Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Queer Families

I was raised by a [mostly] nice group of people who instilled the idea in me that family is really important. I still believe this, although my definition of family has changed somewhat. While I'm lucky to have a birth family I love,* I also have a family I chose for myself, and they chose me.

Last night two members of my queer family came with me to get a tattoo. That's it, in the picture! I already had the star - the words are new. It was a group endeavor. That quote - "Your silence will not protect you" - is by Audre Lorde, one of my favorite writers of all time. It reminds me to be brave, and not hide who I am, ever, for anyone. Her silences have not protected her, and mine will not protect me.

I am deeply honored to have Nic Bravo do the lettering for the tattoo. She's changed my life and I can't imagine having anyone else's handwriting on my arm for the rest of my life. Amanda, my best friend, came with us. Together, we placed the letters on my arm and rearranged it a half-dozen times until it looked exactly right. The tattoo artist said he's never seen a tattoo be a group project like that, but I couldn't have done it any other way. It was this little vignette of what queer family is about for me: support, expression, creativity, love, endurance.

Amanda and Nic are two really important members of my queer family, but there are lots of you - if I love you and you're reading this, you're part of it, even if you're straight. Kyrie is a member of my queer family. I am so lucky to have all of you. I've been thinking about this a lot lately, especially since going to the Chicago History Museum's queer history exhibit. It was amazing, y'all. So many queer people were represented, and they even examined heteronormativity and capitalism. The part that really got me, though, was a 25 minute movie about 12 queer families in Chicago. One was about a man who started a drag ballroom in Chicago for kids. This was how he was defining his family. I'm getting emotional just thinking about it now.

Leslie Feinberg, the author of Stone Butch Blues, wrote a blog post about this recently. I want you to go read the whole thing. Please go read it. It's too brilliant, and I don't know how much longer we'll have new writing from hir to read. The time might have already passed. Anyway, Feinberg has disowned hir family, for very good reasons, and desires no further contact with them. That must be challenging, but because ze's a brilliant person and writer, ze writes about the importance of chosen family really beautifully.

For instance, it is very difficult to give legal power to one's chosen family:
My estranged biological relatives know very little about the decades of my adult life. They are strangers, by my choice, because of their history of bigotry and abusive behaviors toward me.

Yet the capitalist state often cedes legal power to blood relatives by default. So, I’ve had to struggle to assert legal independence from the white, patriarchal, heterosexually-modeled nuclear family into which I was born.

For four decades I have been forced to create and revise sets of legal forms for every state in the U.S. in which I’ve lived or sought medical care. These foundational documents state in clear language that I have been legally autonomous from my birth family since I reached the age of legal consent.

My documents state that Irving David Feinberg, Betty Vance Hyde, and Catherine Ryan Hyde have no legal rights in my life.

My legal papers also spell out clearly who does have the right to speak for me if I am unable to speak for myself.

Minnie Bruce Pratt has been my family, legally and in life, since 1992. As lovers, we have shared a home, life and struggle—in sickness and in health. We are domestic partners. We are civil union’d. Yet the state and federal government discriminate against our same-sex economic family unit by denying more than a thousand of the benefits that recognition of same-sex rights as a civil “marriage” certificate would provide.

Because I am female, and in a same-sex relationship, I have to live and travel with legal documents that expressly state who is, and who is not, my family.

Even chosen family members who travel with their legal documents intact can find themselves barred from visiting their loved one in an emergency room, while vindictive relatives who are virtual strangers can proceed to the bedside to make life-and-death decisions.I carry a hospital visitation authorization, the new Medical Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (MOLST), my domestic partnership and civil union papers, advanced directives, living will and last will & testament. In addition, I carry a copy of caregivers’ rights, and requests for secular-based care.

I have to legally state in paperwork that Minnie Bruce Pratt is my health care proxy, together with my attorney—who has taught issues of law and transgender. They have my powers of attorney. Based on legal documents that I’ve worked hard to prepare, my chosen family would speak for me if I were unable to advocate for myself.

Minnie Bruce and I both have to carry each other’s documents at all times, as well.

Catherine Ryan Hyde is attempting to undermine all my painstaking documentation of chosen family relationships, by claiming blood ties give her intimate knowledge of my life and identity, and the right to re-write them.
There are other aspects of Feinberg's post here that I really want to talk about, in terms of voice and representation and authority, but those are topics for another day. For now, though, in the spirit of the holiday season that's fast arriving, I just want to thank all of my beloveds. I couldn't do anything without you, and this tattoo that some of you helped me get will remind me that you're the people I'm being brave for. Some of us have birth families who support us to varying degrees and some of us don't, but I'm so glad we're here for each other.

* We all have struggles with our people, right? What I mean is, we're working on stuff, which I think is an endless project under just about any circumstances. I consider myself fortunate.

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