Kin in the GameSocial Change Can’t Just Be For “Families”

Smiling woman reaches through a fence to touch a child's face

Members of a family reunite through the border wall between Mexico and United States, during the ‘Keep our dream alive’ event, in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico, on December 10, 2017 (Herika Martinez/AFP/Getty Images)

Abby Minor is Bitch Media’s 2018 Writing Fellow in Sexual Politics

This summer, when the news was filled with stories about would-be immigrants at the Mexico-U.S. border, coverage was overwhelmingly focused on the experiences of parents and children—that is, on the experiences of families. And even though it’s true, as Stephanie Leutert, Director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, has reported, that families “make up an increasingly high proportion of the migrants who reach the U.S. border,” it’s also true that many other kinds of people make that fearsome, often deadly journey. Leutert’s report describes women fleeing from domestic violence, unaccompanied children, and LGBTQ Central Americans escaping death threats.

Some people travel with friends, with lovers, with strangers met along the way, or alone. But journalists, aid organizations, and politicians rarely ask us to sympathize with people not categorized as “families”—and that makes me wonder why we’re so much more prepared to care for families than for anyone else. Several years ago, I saw a beautiful poster commemorating Eric Garner, the Black man who was suffocated and killed by a New York City police officer in 2014. Below Garner’s name and the dates of his birth and death, the poster showed him holding an infant. “He had a family,” it read, “six children, three grandchildren.” While the poster was clearly made with great love, I wondered why it didn’t say, “He was a horticulturist” or “He was a neighborhood peacemaker,” both of which were also true.

Clearly “family” is a powerful form of cultural capital, a magic word that opens doors, legitimizes beliefs, and rearranges debates. When conservatives make calls to action in the name of children and families—claiming, for example, that Islam is a threat to our children, or that homosexuality harms families—it often comes across as insincere, a cover for various hatreds and fears. And yet liberals, Leftists, and Democrats often use similar rhetoric. We may condemn the right’s phobias, but we don’t pause to consider why those phobias are always disguised as family-protection orders—and why our own movements, for everything from racial to environmental justice, are, too. Had Garner not been a parent or a grandparent, what would we have said about him? What else could we have said to emphasize that he was kind, that he was worthy, that he was entitled to his life—that he was human?

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Our focus on the family (coincidentally, the name of one of the most powerful conservative Christian organizations in the world) grows out of the right-wing “family values” campaign that took shape in the early 1990s when then-Vice President Dan Quayle coined the phrase in response to the changes wrought by social and civil-rights movements of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. Quayle never meant for “family values” to include immigrants, people of color, single parents, or queer folks; and in many ways the left’s emphasis on families has been a strategic move to gain both human rights and political footing for vulnerable populations.

We talk about keeping families together rather than protecting people from state violence; we talk more openly about LGBTQ families and marriage than about stigma, difference, and discrimination. We scramble to get everyone counted as families so that they can count. That scramble is nowhere more apparent than in electoral political speech. Bernie Sanders “has fought tirelessly for working families” and Elizabeth Warren “has made her life’s work the fight for middle-class families,” according to their respective campaigns. The Democratic candidates I voted for in today’s midterm election describe themselves as “surrounded by family and tradition,” “a…family man,” and committed to “hardworking families,” and their websites feature photos of the candidates smiling with their spouses and children.

I know some of these folks; I love them, and I love their families. But the ubiquity of such photos and rhetoric suggest something troubling: not only that it’s nice to be in a family, but that only families are nice.

It may be true that the left has been successful in gaining rights for marginalized people via the rhetoric of family, and even in redefining what a family is. To more and more people, a family can be not only “traditional,” but also queer, or chosen. Yet more than 20 years after Quayle, the families who still count most are more or less the people he had in mind. We are about to experience the largest generational wealth transfer in U.S. history as Boomers pass on assets to their Millennial children, and it is the middle-class family, as an economic and legal unit, that will be the conduit for this continuation of the status quo.

If families—however they’re defined—remain closed economic, social, and cultural units, can they really be a source of justice? And if we mean to include everyone when we talk about families, why bother with such an inaccurate word?

“Because a healthy society recognizes the need to moderate hubris,” notes the solitary queer writer Fenton Johnson, “it takes care to protect and listen to its outsiders, who function as a combination of court jesters and advanced scouts […] for the culture as a whole.” At this time of year, when media and pop culture are flooded with images of healthy, comfortable families gathered around laden tables, I want to think about who our outsiders are. They are single people and monks; they are adults without children and children without adults; they’re friends and lovers, queers and widows, activists and homeless people, caravans and tribes.

“Family” is a powerful form of cultural capital, a magic word that opens doors, legitimizes beliefs, and rearranges debates.

They deserve justice movements that listen to and protect them on their own terms, without cleaning them up and bringing them into the dining room and calling them “families.” I’m not suggesting that we should have a homogeneity of intimacies, but I do want to challenge the ways we use our intimate relationships—particularly those to partners, parents, and children—as cultural capital. Our intimacies should prepare us to act, love, and be in public, not function as a card we play or a shield we use to protect ourselves from the complexities and risks of political life.

I used the word “caravan” above in part to highlight how responses to the Central American “migrant caravan” that’s been the subject of Donald Trump’s midterm fear-mongering differ sharply from last summer’s reactions to “immigrant families.” While Democrats decried family separations and Republicans offered vague platitudes about the importance of protecting immigrant families, there’s no such unity when it comes to the migrant caravan. The rhetorical difference between the two phrases is striking: “Immigrant families” is a safe way of describing lives whose truths cannot, in the end, be safely reconciled with the status quo. But a “migrant caravan,” the image of which Trump has used to reinvigorate his supporters’ xenophobia, is a precarious comet bespeaking revolution.

It’s worth noting that the word “family” comes from the Latin word for servant, famulus; implicit in its definition is the notion of a head and his subordinates. On the other hand, the word “caravan” comes from the Old Persian root kāra-, for “army” or “the people,” describing a company of travelers on a journey through hostile regions. If we who work for justice are to truly reckon with the traumas and oppressions that interweave our lives, we may have to step out from the household and into the company of travelers