Anthology celebrates queer families

Post image for Anthology celebrates queer families

May 2, 2014

A Family By Any Other Name

Edited by Bruce Gillespie

Touchwood Editions

229 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by Julian Gunn

A Family By Any Other Name, editor Bruce Gillespie’s latest anthology, invites its authors and readers to consider what queer families might look like now. The anthology is, above all, a snapshot of a fascinating moment in queer history – which is to say, just plain history – the incredible transformation of the position of people who identify as queer and our relationships within Canada and the United States.

Shall we refresh our memories? It has been only nine years since the legalization of same-sex marriage in Canada (July 20th, if you want to throw a party). It’s eleven years since Ontario and British Columbia were the first and second provinces to recognize it (June 10th and July 8th, respectively. There’s nothing wrong with having several parties. Or one very long one.) There are still many American states where gay marriage is not legal.

Yet things have changed very quickly. Young people who identify as queer who were children when the laws changed are old enough now to be married themselves, and to have the same expectations as their straight peers about what marriage, fidelity, and family look like. And this is, on the whole, a wonderful thing. I think I’d have to be crazy not to be glad that a generation of people like me won’t be persecuted, isolated, and barred from the public recognition of their relationships.

You should know: this is a good book. The average quality of the essays here is remarkably high. I like to think people who identify as queer take it extra seriously when we set out to tell our stories, but it must also be true that Gillespie is a fine editor who knows how to inspire his contributors. A Family By Any Other Name has a lineage of its own. Gillespie has produced a whole series of anthologies examining the idea of family from all sorts of angles. Full disclosure: I am in one of them. It’s Nobody’s Father: Life Without Kids (2008), co-edited by Lynne Van Luven. A Family By Any Other Name is a substantial addition to the series. It may even be Gillespie’s best.

And yet.

There are some great essays here. Victoria writer Arlene Paré contributes a meditation on the long gestation of her novel and the remaking of her family at the same time, “To Carry My Family in My Imperfect Head.” The well-known trans* author and educator S. Bear Bergman provides an exuberant account of his sprawling chosen family, “Hiddur Mitzvah.” Dale Lee Kwong’s “Created by Choice” describes the merging and multiplication of family through adoption, cultural community, faith, and profound friendship. In “What She Taught Me,” Ellen Russell describes her current partnership as a “blended family” because both partners are widowed: not children but the beloved dead are brought together in this new relationship. I cannot think of a simpler and more profound description of the infinite extension of the bonds of love.

There is also an uncanny similarity among many of these narratives; a similarity that I don’t think would have been present before 2003. Almost all of these stories are primarily about being part of a couple. This couple is usually legally married, and often raising children. If they’re polyamorous, or have unusual rules or configurations in their households, this isn’t usually part of the essay’s focus. A playful exception is “I, Didi,” which describes Dorianne Emmerton’s decision to partner, but not co-parent or cohabitate, with her beloved. Another is Bergman’s essay, describing the shabbos dinners he and his partner host. These dinners are the foundation of an expansive family built on all imaginable configurations of love and commitment: “now we have this kid of our own, a kid whose family tree is practically bent double with relatives of assorted kinds—blood, marriage, wine and glitter.”

Each of the writers in By Any Other Name is funny and thoughtful about  his/her/their own particular struggles, some of which are more likely to be found in queer relationships – the struggle to conceive a child, or the awkward act of donating sperm. It’s just that most of these essays tend to assume the two-person partnership as the family unit. If they extend the discussion further, it’s often to the parents of the spouses. And the chosen family, the queer network of friends and frenemies and supporters and allies? It’s here, but it’s in the background. Several writers make appreciative reference to those communities, but in the end they focus on their spouses and children.

I don’t want any of that delicious talk of spouses and children to stop, but I do want us to remember to spend some time talking about building and celebrating that other love. I think it’s still here, for these writers and for me – it’s just that it was never that easy to describe. We never really had the right language, and now marriage has overshadowed our other loves, at least for the time being. I would have liked, for example, to have seen stories here about the extended communities that came together to face the HIV/AIDS epidemic just a generation ago.

So: the world has changed – right now, in these places, queer lives are better. Being better, they are more ordinary. This is a victory. And yet. I want us to give honour and attention to those who still can’t, or who once couldn’t, or who just won’t, enter into conventional structures of love and connection. I want us to do more than remember. I want us to bring those crazy ideas into the culture at large. I don’t just want queer relationships to be changed by marriage. I want us to change what marriage means. And everything else, too, while we’re at it. As my mom would say: the whole fam damily.

Julian Gunn is a Victoria essayist and poet.  

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: