Thicker than blood: Queer kinship and choosing your own families

What is it that makes me queer, I often wonder. Is it how I live gender, and how I live in my body? What matters to me? What makes my world queer?
Thicker than blood: Queer kinship and choosing your own families
Thicker than blood: Queer kinship and choosing your own families
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September 7 and the day after were filled with congratulatory messages from various people I've known. I felt happy that the Supreme Court had done a good thing by decriminalising Section 377, but not elated. I rehearsed the day before I entered it. I had cracked glib jokes to close friends to proclaim the humorous distance I could maintain. I was contrarian. I was biting. I considered from a distance what I wanted to do with myself. But I went to bed slightly confused.

And on the morning after the judgement, I woke up emotional. I asked myself, that in addition to the law, which doesn't matter to me very much except as a symbol (in this case), what is it that has always made me hold on to the word 'queer'? I could pretend to be at an academic distance from over-the-top selfies and other social media self-declared joy, and I certainly didn't need to drape myself in rainbow colours, but I was flickering with several feelings. What is it that makes me queer, I often wonder: I'm not 'with' anybody. One and many tiny, broken pieces of relationships have meant I haven't known romantic love too closely, though I still hope I may once really understand it. Is it how I live gender, and how I live in my body? What matters to me? What makes my world queer? I thought back.

At the college where I studied sociology, kinship was the first of many courses we studied. I remember sitting disconsolately in the classroom when we discussed questions of whether kinship was universal, detailed ethnographies of marriage alliance in different sub-groups and sub-castes and sub-tribes all over India and the African continent. I had no patience for words like 'affinal' and 'consanguineal' when 'mode of production' and 'commodity fetishism' came up in the next class. I would behave with the insolence of a gum-chewing teenager in the classroom to express my indifference, and was more than once asked to leave the room.

Earlier this year, I spoke with somebody about how some sociologist thought kinship was an increasingly irrelevant subject in the contemporary moment. This was ten years after boredom in the classroom, and in the interim, I had to support my mother – who suffered from a mental illness – on top of some years of domestic violence and abuse. The years before that moment in the classroom and this conversation were marked by a deep sense of bitterness for the worst of what family could do. And, I remember contradicting the statement, of course kinship matters!

I had never thought I would say it – but what had I learnt in those ten years? Many difficult, contradictory things. I learnt that a family could break a woman apart. Watching systematic violence, I really learnt the meaning of the Patriarchy in practice, acquiring my feminism with bitter tears. I learnt that if I didn’t do anything about my mother, nobody would. She was only mine, and it was my business to see her through this. On many nights when she drifted into other worlds I hated everything – I hated that I was obliged, even if I didn’t do this only from obligation. I hated that nobody felt the need to protect me from this, and only I had to build my safety net. I created a strong layer that still holds me at a distance from the world: f*** you.

But on days when I didn't hate and my other self prevailed, I also learnt another thing. If my mother was only my business, there were many people who would make it their business to help me. There were friends, friends' parents, flatmates, colleagues and half a dozen other categories that kinship hadn't told me were important, who would show up to be there with me. In ten years, I built a small world of care – if nobody but me looked after my mother, many would help me as I looked after her. People gave me their time and labour of love. They gave me free beers and free furniture, their homes for me to rest in, their time for me to work through questions about my life. What I lost, I gained in equal measure – and the word 'friend' began to be a misnomer because behind it, people were my sisters, my mothers, my fathers, my family.

I had forgotten one thing that at the end of the course on kinship, there was a hopeful text for my survival in the classroom, called ‘Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship’. At the time, I didn't know which part of the title appealed to me – but as I ask myself today after the judgement — what matters to me most is each word in the title, and especially the way they are stitched together.

After years, I had families. I have families. More than one, all but one chosen, and the one I was given, remade. We decide the details of these families, it isn't verified anywhere, and the only proof of it is lived. My family not too far from where I live has fed, watered, welcomed and survived me with open doors, and given me the families they came with to go. The babies of these queer relatives write me postcards, read me stories, and take me on adventures. I have people who have laboured to help me through depression. I have people who dance with me every week. I share the deeper desires and hopes of everyday life and grow together with people far away and close. I have family for different parts of myself – the nervous, the overconfident, the blithe, the glib, the caustic, the mournful, the happy, the professional, the idiotic. In all the years of broken despair about the family as an institution, I ended up choosing people who fit my own definition of what care and love should mean, and what family is, and who taught me that back.

It is the idea of choosing a family that remains most exciting to me today as a queer person. It was this idea of queer kinship, which doesn't need marriage or the law and has little do with the singular idea of romance that we see everywhere, that has helped me and nurtured me, all through my adult life. The idea that we can love people for who they are even if they aren't tied to us by birth – that is what I hold dear.

Views expressed are the author's own.

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