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Feminist Theory

(De)Sexing the family : Theorizing the social science of lesbian families

Kareen Malone and Rose Cleary Feminist Theory 2002 3: 271 DOI: 10.1177/146470002762492006

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(De)Sexing the family


Theorizing the social science of lesbian families

Kareen Malone

Rose Cleary

State University of West Georgia

University of Southern Maine

Feminist Theory Copyright © 2002 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi) vol. 3(3): 271–293.


(200212) 3:3;

271–293; 029160]

Abstract Many legal arguments pertaining to equal rights for gay and lesbian families have relied upon empirical research on the ‘healthy’ childraising environment of these families. While neither disputing recent legal gains nor diminishing their importance, this article looks at some of the conceptual categories that drive this research. The limitations of such research, as salutary as it is, are typically understood in terms of their obvious political context. Such research avoids highlighting any differences between gay/lesbian families and traditional families because an emphasis on such differences feeds cultural stereotypes that are damaging to non-traditional families. This article takes a different tack, looking at how the concepts that frame research are based in binaries and fantasies about families and sex that we argue are too limiting. It assumes that the elision of sexuality within such studies is symptomatic of a broader repression of a variety of meanings of family. In response, the article brings in queer theory and psychoanalysis to broaden our approach to understanding new forms of family and kinship initiated by gay and lesbian families. The article addresses single household lesbian families that are most frequently the object of empirical research.

keywords feminist, gay, Lacanian psychoanalysis, mothering, parenting, queer theory

it is always an imaginary chorus that taunts ‘queer!’ To what extent, then, has the performative ‘queer’ operated alongside, as a deformation of, the ‘I pronounce


.’ of the marriage ceremony? (Butler, 1993: 226)


It is a significant event when matters of academic research make headlines in mainstream US media. One such instance occurred in response to the publication of ‘(How) Does the Sexual Orientation of Parents Matter?’ The intensity of public interest in the article by American sociologists Judith Stacey and Timothy Biblarz demonstrated a key point in their argument. They contend that the consequences of social science research on lesbian

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and gay families ‘are by no means “academic,” but bear on marriage and family policies that encode Western culture’s most profoundly held convic- tions about gender, sexuality and parenthood’ (2001: 160). Stacey and Biblarz caught the attention of researchers by questioning the consistently repeated claim that no significant differences are found when developmental outcome measures of children raised by lesbian/gay parents are compared with those of children raised by heterosexual parents. This claim, they argue, is based upon a ‘highly defensive conceptual framework’ (2001: 159). Scholars are apt to ‘tread gingerly around the terrain of differ- ences’ because a heterosexist ideology continues to dominate the field in the guise of the presumption that heterosexual parenting is the ‘gold standard’ and that any deviation from it marks deficiency (2001: 162). A case in point: in 1996, Judge Kevin Chang of Hawaii’s First Circuit Court ruled that the state had failed to prove its case that ‘the public’s interest in the well-being of children and families, or the optimal develop- ment of children will be adversely affected by same-sex marriage’ (Baehr v. Miike, 1996, cited in Benkov, 1998: 115). He ruled that the denial of marriage licenses to gays and lesbians was discriminatory. Judge Chang was convinced by psychological research that structural variables (the compo- sition of families) were less important than process variables (whether and how children are cared for). The expert witness testified that the import- ance of the process of sensitive caregiving transcended the varied family structures of single parent, two parent, biological, non-biological, gay or lesbian parents (Benkov, 1998: 115; see also Silverstein and Auerbach, 1999). The two most salient aspects of the research were that children of gay and lesbian parents were virtually indistinguishable from children of straight families and that what mattered to the welfare of children tran- scended the particularity of their mothers as lesbian. Yet the outcome of Judge Chang’s decision was not what many had hoped for. It provoked reactionary legislation at the federal level (The Defense of Marriage Act) and a change in the state constitution of Hawaii forbidding same-sex marriage. On the one hand, this case demonstrates that empirical research on lesbian and gay families can successfully dispel homophobic attitudes and eliminate legal obstacles faced by such families. On the other hand, the case and the reactions to it function as a cautionary tale, warning against a naive faith in social change through enlightened rationality. Put differently, the ‘facts’ do not really answer to the values – and, we would suggest, to the fantasies – that lesbian and gay families elicit. Sexuality, gender, mothers and fathers are the topics of this article. In what follows, Judith Butler’s insight about the performative queer – the always haunting, always destabilizing, always repressed ‘other’ of hetero- sexuality – is elaborated in terms of a psychological and social exclusion of queer sexuality at the heart of our cultural imagining of the family. The exclusionary binary of queer and straight that Butler explores is strikingly evident in most empirical research on lesbian families. Sexuality in such families is typically exiled from researchers’ gaze. To some degree, this eradication of sex results from the defensive conceptual framework used to counter homophobia found in the broader culture. But, as we will argue, it

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is more than that. For example, Stacey and Biblarz re-examine empirical research with a greater willingness to recognize ‘tantalizing’ findings of difference in the sexual activity reported by sons and daughters of lesbians. They point to more general questions about the relationship between gender and sexuality but, in the end, they too turn away from sexuality (Stacey and Biblarz, 2001: 178):

Indeed, it is time to recognize that the categories ‘lesbian mother’ and ‘gay father’ are historically transitional and conceptually flawed because they erroneously imply that a parent’s sexual orientation is the decisive characteristic of her or his parenting. On the contrary, we propose that homophobia and discrimination are the chief reasons why parental sexual orientation matters at all. (2001: 177)

We conjecture that an interrogation of sexuality in the family requires more than a look at sexuality as ‘sex acts’ and more than the position that alternative sexualities in families simply model or legitimize those sexual- ities. Rather, one is asked to carefully scrutinize the meanings of families as well as the unconscious and psychological dimensions of the family as a vehicle of intergenerational perpetuation – and at the cusp of the body and the social structure. Biddy Martin calls this cusp ‘the entanglements of organism/psyche/sociality’ (1994: 119). What she calls ‘entanglements’ are certainly germane to all families and to all sexualities. Unfortunately, the social sciences often leave the job of explicating such entanglements unfinished. Once the myth of reproductive biology is disposed of, it is assumed that the question of families and sex is resolved.

Reimagining the lesbian family: psychoanalysis and queer theory

There are two to eight million gay and lesbian parents in the USA (Bohan, 1996). When approaching phenomena as enormous and culturally complex as same-sex parenting, one must be particularly adroit at determining the cultural and psychological stakes. With both pressing legal questions (custody, marriage laws, discrimination laws) and concrete lives (insur- ance, child care, birth certificates, relatives) to consider, it is tempting to leave aside tiresome theoretical concerns about the nature of families, gender and sexualities. But there is much work that needs to be done to keep up with these evolving social arrangements, as forms of desire previ- ously relegated to the ‘outside’ move ‘inside’.

The problem, of course, with the inside/outside rhetoric, if it remains undecon- structed, is that such polemics disguise the fact that most of us are both inside

What we need is a theory of sexual border that

will help us come to terms with, and to organize around, the new cultural and sexual arrangements occasioned by the movements and transmutations of

pleasure in the social field. (Fuss, 1991: 5)

and outside at the same

Fuss’s vision is not likely to be realized unless we are able to reflect upon the unexamined binary assumptions that frame the current research litera- ture on lesbian parents and even queer theory itself. If we are, as Dean (2000) suggests, a little bit queer in our unconscious, then of course we are all a little straight. Isn’t queering really the moment when a norm is not

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exactly repudiated, but rather subverted – if not ironically (as in Butler), then through being realized slightly askew? If so, this would mean that we take up gender and sexualities within lesbian families differently. While limiting our critical review of the empirical literature to lesbian nuclear families, we consider questions of how to conceptualize lesbians’ desire for children and for a nuclear family configuration that resembles traditional forms of family life. Obviously, the similarity to heterosexual forms could tempt researchers to odious comparisons. Most avoid this heterosexist bias and are careful not to portray lesbian families as deficient straight ones, but as families who display their own unique strengths. Nonetheless, when one carefully examines this more upbeat view of lesbian families, a subtext of heterosexism emerges. The attributes of harmony, adjustment and equality that pepper reflections on the lesbian family are modern heirs to a number of fantasies of ‘being one’. The fantasy of ‘one’ marks traditional heterosexual images of love and family. The ideal of equality masks issues of power and difference and seems to participate in dispossessing lesbians of any taint of untoward sexuality (any pleasure and danger that might invade the happy home). Lesbians, it appears to us, are put into conceptual categories that leave them degendered and without desire – desexed in both senses. For example, although it is not difficult to research why lesbians decide to have children (one need only ask), the query is seldom posed even to those families who have children within a strictly gay/lesbian context. One result of desexing is that the place of fantasies of reproduction as they inter- sect the raising of children is not explored. More broadly, this means that dimensions of family life that refer to the dependencies, fantasies and passions that bind families are not researched. What we are calling desexing dissipates the entire question of the particularity of mothering and its complement, fathering, as issues of inter- generational relations and images. We can explore these issues in relation- ship to sex and gender without resorting to rigid roles and positions. It is treacherous indeed to look at this borderline between traditional kinship forms and new forms, but the erasure of this interface is just as suspicious, for certainly there is an abundance of other traditional binaries that organize current research, certainly as traditional as mom and pop. This article ‘interprets’ the literal lack of attention to sexuality in lesbian families as a symptom (in Margorie Garber’s sense of the word), as the repression of context by positing a reality founded in fact. Facts, as Garber wisely notes, are only the beginning (Garber, 2000). To move beyond the facts, we evoke queer theory as a resource to expand how we might under- stand sexuality even in marginalized contexts such as the family. We could think of the metaphor of drag in queer theory and of more traditionally configured lesbian families as families in drag. The point is not a parody of gender or family, but rather how queers reinhabit a territory, take up its subjective stakes through the body and desire, and reconfigure those stakes. It is relevant to drag and to families. Thus, we want to urge queering to extend itself beyond the ‘sexy streets’ to the home and hearth. By revisiting the libidinal and fantastic ties within the family, we locate

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a place for queer theorizing of the family (and, certainly, there are a number

of queer thinkers who conceive love in psychoanalytic terms that are derived from family). In this effort to open a place for queering as a theory to inform research on the family, we bring in some ideas from Lacanian psychoanalysis. This introduction of psychoanalysis is not normative. By contrast, we note that most research lines up a position (say mother) with

a body (a female) and a whole set of ideas are condensed into the category

of mother. Thus, the mother becomes a singular identity or entity. This identitarian view is a misconception of the psychic processes that define various moments of mothering in families. Mothering and fathering are made up of collages of images, signifiers, moments, fantasies; they are not embodied in particular identities. Thus, for both psychoanalytic and queer reasons, we want to see more partial and less totalized views of families. This would allow us to cross the traditional/queer divide in a much more interesting way. If this risk of crossing seems unwarranted, we would like to recall those sex radicals who helped start the ‘sex wars’. S/M dykes from Samois (a lesbian feminist S/M organization) are hardly the sort of folks (at first glance, anyway) that would appeal to the rhetoric of the Human Rights Campaign about insurance for their lesbian families. In their overtly radical intent, they are not like the lesbian families and research data explored in this article. In another way, these early sex radicals can say something to researchers studying lesbian families. The sex wars were iconic in admon- ishing feminist and gay/lesbian movements not to draw the lines, of what is inside and what is outside the subversive and traditional, too quickly when it comes to desire. The sex wars asked us to consider fantasy and desire in all of their problematic glory. Such a move is called for again. As we envision the queer in the traditions of family and put the sex back in lesbian families, we are not trying to establish any theoretical hegemony with respect to psychoanalysis and queer theory. What we aim for is some interesting collaborations between researchers in the social sciences and those in psychoanalysis, queer and cultural studies that will result in helping these families articulate their place in what is as yet an unarticu- lated terrain.

Normalizing lesbian families: anomalies, contradictions and costs

Heterosexual fantasies of oneness: new versions

Most data on the functioning of lesbian-headed families clearly suggest that such families produce gender-syntonic and well-adjusted children (see, for

example, Flaks et al., 1995; Harris and Turner, 1985). Some research indi- cates that these children possess attributes that may have superior adaptive or social value (Bohan, 1996). Clear and interesting differences are noted between heterosexual and lesbian families in childrearing practices, with

a lower level of ‘daily care’ provided by fathers for their offspring compared

to that of lesbian ‘other mothers’. Within such differences, one sees the usual patterns of child adjustment and the usual correlation between a

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child’s adjustment and the level of relationship satisfaction of the parents (Chan et al., 1998). Lesbian families are most egalitarian in family ‘duties’ and in the endorsement or expectation of an egalitarian division of labor in childraising.

At a theoretical/rhetorical level, research repeatedly emphasizes how much the lesbian family is similar to or better than the heterosexual family in parenting, social support and in its individual members’ psychological adjustment. One can understand the purpose of such emphases; current social attitudes and legal obstacles would suggest that the assimilation aim is the most gay affirmative (Clarke, 2000a). But this assimilative impulse is not only a political expediency. It may also suggest that, for both researcher and researched, there is an internalization and re-idealization of traditional notions of family. There is both anecdotal and empirical evidence indicat- ing that a lesbian’s desire to create a family derives in part from her connec- tions with and desire for traditional family configurations (see Hare, 1994).

It is with the following quotation, admittedly extreme in its formulation of

the family ideal, that we begin to re-examine some of the stakes that are involved in these fantasies of adaptation and assimilation that surround lesbian families. This is a lesbian mother’s description of her family:

Our family is complete, perfect, and quite loving. Although not traditional, we are certainly solid, nurturing, and supportive of one another. We are the portrait of the ‘perfect’ family of our generation. We are two middle-class, working parents, two beautiful children, two cars, a new home, and more credit cards than we need. Our family fits together so simply, so perfectly, so naturally. (Drucker, 1998: 46–7)

Note in this Norma Rockwell-like picture that the family is understood as

a self-contained economic unit (it is complete), as non-threatening (the list

of social accoutrements clearly identifies its conformity) and is character- ized as natural and fitting. People seldom attribute such harmony to hetero- sexual families anymore. What is particularly striking about the above quotation is how everything ‘fits’. We suggest that this ‘fitting together’ represents a symptomatic emerg- ence of an erotic fantasy of family life. Many have suggested that lesbian families disrupt the binary of sex even if it is simply a matter of more egali- tarian housework and childrearing arrangements (no small change for women’s lives). Muriel Dimen (1999) goes further by seeing same-sex couples as disrupting a certain formation and fantasy of heterosexual couples. She remarks that lesbian desire disputes the usual configuration of identity and desire whereby to be one sex means to desire the other sex. In so doing, it challenges the binary of sexual difference that reinforces a compulsory heterosexuality (otherwise how could being queer threaten gender identity as well?). Many echo Dimen’s ideas, but there is another unmentioned component to heterosexism not based in gendered difference, binaries and complementarity. It revolves around the fantasy of being one (see Copjec, 1994; Hart, 2001). The polarities active versus passive, male versus female, harmoniously fit together in the end, giving the ideal of love as a matter of joining into a unity. We see this same ideal expressed here, albeit as a more submerged fantasy. The twos in the lovely lesbian family

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become one, maybe not the married one, but a unit of harmony and symmetry with only one excess – the credit cards. 1 This issue of becoming one, of the family as a harmonious whole, emerges within the discourses of some who would see the lesbian family as an icon of a social revolution in families. Seeing gender as primarily a

function of the division of labor (Harding, 1986), lesbians are harbingers of

a new regime in the family where equality of partners is linked to the

gendered similarity of the parents. Drawing on feminism, some suggest that the lesbian family challenges traditional gender arrangements and offers a post-patriarchal vision of what families can be about. The key word becomes equality and this equality is implicitly aligned with sameness (Chan et al., 1998; Oerton, 1998; Reilly and Lynch, 1990). Lesbian parents are much more likely to share parenting equally and this is considered more appropriate for contemporary American families. Complementing Pepper Schwartz’s (1994) notion of ‘peer marriage’, gleaned from the study of lesbian and gay couples, some argue that, if families were to follow an egalitarian model, men would be more involved with parenting and women less oppressed by familial obligations. Valory Mitchell summarizes her comparative research on this issue by noting of

lesbian families: ‘[I]t is clear from the pattern of these data that, whether in reality or in the ideal, the distribution of work, influence, and time was never more than one quarter of a point from exact equality’ (1996: 350). In

a more chilling read, Mitchell metaphorically chains her notion of equality

in the family to the ideal of an ‘efficiently functioning family unit’. To sell queers as more efficient is an odd recollection of (re)productive norms for the heterosexual family. It is admittedly a different norm, but it serves the same function of establishing a set of meanings that connect a cultural ideal with a family ideal. It is a political question in both cases. We are wary of lesbian families’ alignment with a rationalistic, production-oriented characterization of their potential contribution to families of the future. This casts the lesbian family as the latest adaptation of the two becoming ‘one’, fulfilling this fantasized ideal by its efficiency as a functioning family unit. Obviously, these discourses of optimal development and family func- tioning entail a reference to scientific ideals derived from sociology and psychology. It might be fruitful if the place of science in legitimating such families was given a bit more critical scrutiny (Clarke, 2000b). Scientific findings from biology and psychology subtend a number of aspects of lesbian parenting. Alternative insemination and other reproductive tech- nologies that are gladly embraced by heterosexual culture are also import- ant resources for lesbian couples (with issues of differential access being another set of questions). Lesbians also turn to science to gain the most minimal parenting rights regarding adoption, custody and other forms of legal recognition. It is with this second scientific alliance that we are concerned. 2 While patriarchal power and authority have been denounced as oppres- sive and failing to answer contemporary configurations of the family, many have been less cautious when evoking the authority of science. Science

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seems to function in much the same way as paternal law did in the past, giving its blessings to healthy families and proclaiming their legitimacy. Reproductive technologies, at the same time, produce new families through

direct action on the body. We have an interesting conjunction here between

a function (the paternal) that is not biological (i.e. legitimization) and a function that short circuits the symbolic by direct action that can be purchased. In this process, fathering by men becomes a biological act, a

question of DNA rather than a symbolic designation. Thus, as Foucault saw,

a biopolitic of the deployment of sexuality is being superimposed on

systems of authority and kinship. Lesbians may need to turn a more wary eye to the solicitations of medicine and the social sciences. Jacques Donzelot records this 19th- century progressive fantasy of family life that has been brought out of the oppressive systems of kinship into the clear light of Enlightenment science:

The discourse

by the economic necessities of the social order, the community must replace the father in order to ensure the survival of the mother and the children. The mother will thus take the father’s place as the head of the family since she is its fixed center. The children will be under her guidance, a tutelage that will be central-

went something like this: Since the family is being destroyed

ized by public authority. They will all bear their mother’s name, so that children


man’s influence over the woman will depend on the love and esteem he inspires

in her

from patriarchal tutelage and break up the interplay of alliances and filiations on behalf of greater public control over reproduction and a pre-eminence of the mother. (Donzelot, 1979: 180–1)

born of the same mother and of different fathers will have the same

[a] medical administration of sexuality would free women and children

While Janis Bohan’s (1996) text on psychology and sexual orientation clearly sees how heterosexist assumptions have guided research on lesbian families, she is less perspicacious in detailing how science produces a discourse that erases the ‘other’ (queer, feminine or otherwise). This over- sight stands in contrast to her earlier excellent collection that looks quite unflinchingly at science as ideology (Bohan, 1992). Bohan notes that egali- tarian forms of same-sex families provide insights into ‘optimal family functioning’ for everyone. She does not comment on the Enlightenment fantasies and/or how that fantasy might stand in for earlier heterosexist fantasies about the complementarity of the sexes. How, we want to ask, except in the fantasies of science or heterosexist myths of unity, do we ever optimally function with desire? There is yet another way that the social science categories that define the lesbian experience return us to ideals of unity and fit. The ideal of a fitting unity is reinstated in repeated characterizations of lesbian families as harmoniously functioning units. The valence of this ideal reappears in the countervailing conceptual weight carried by homophobia: it is as if lesbian- headed families really would live in perfect harmony were it not for the discordant effects of homophobia. The repeated evocation of homophobia fails to fully explicate the meanings of the anxieties or instabilities that implicitly reside in the stresses of lesbian and gay families. It presumes that, if this specific prejudice ends, everything will be natural and fitting,

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just like the family that was described by the ‘two car, two beautiful children’ lesbians with the credit cards. This approach reduces the preju- dices that a lesbian family faces to a failure of adjustment in others rather than thinking through sexuality itself as a place of conflict and non-ration- ality.

Mixing sex and gender

In theorizing what transpires with the symptomatic elision of sexuality in lesbian families, we want take an initial glance at how sexuality and repro- duction are linked. More specifically, we want to think about what gets ousted when research looks at ‘non-reproductive’ families in a way that presumes issues of reproductive sexuality are irrelevant to them. This move entails considering the possibility that the psychic meaning of reproduc- tion could go beyond any literal biological function or attempt at a social replication. As fantasy, we argue, reproduction may actually play into the bonding and generative desire of the lesbian family. But let us begin with sex. In the effort to defend lesbians against charges of being ‘unfit mothers’, empirical research shows how lesbians fit the normative and ideologically overdetermined category ‘mother’ (Sullivan, 1996). In Lesbian Mothers, Ellen Lewin (1993) speaks for many researchers in the social sciences when she recalls that she began her study with a belief that the basis upon which custody cases were argued (i.e. the mother’s sexuality) should be chal- lenged. Her work redirects focus to the ways lesbian families, like other families, meet the needs of their children. She writes: ‘I felt my responsi- bility would be to demonstrate that lesbians were at least ordinary mothers, and therefore likely to be “as good as” heterosexual mothers in comparable social and economic circumstances’ (1993: 4; emphasis added). Of course, this strategy avoids what is disruptive to the dominant ideology of mother- hood (sexuality). Lewin’s defensive approach has been repeated in many other studies focusing on the processes and quality of parental care. Another way that lesbian sexuality is booted out of the family began in feminist legal reform with a focus on the ‘optimal development of children’ which dispensed with the category ‘mother’ (or father) entirely (Robson, 1995). ‘The institution of “Mother” has been transformed [in law], collapsed and merged with “Father” in the generic concept of “Parent”.’ In this process, any distinctive or unique aspects of mothering are erased and the symbolically significant rhetoric is that of ‘gender neutrality’ (Fineman, 1995: 67). To speak of ‘shared parenting’ ostensibly unbinds men and women from bearing the burden of gender-based expectations regarding mothering and fathering. It adopts a liberal vision of each ‘parent’ as an individual with individual relationships with their children and not as the embodiment of gender-based parental roles (Rothman, 1989: 260). The legal category becomes parent (one sees here already the presaging of process variables). The move to a gender neutral discourse dovetails with obser- vations and idealizations of lesbian families as more egalitarian. However, the elision of sexuality is not just the absence of questioning about mothers’ particularity of mothering or their sexuality. Because sex is

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tied to the family through reproduction, lesbian sexuality in families is at least triply obscured. In Families We Choose (1991: 125), Kath Weston argues that lesbian and gay families disrupt the ‘exclusively reproductive interpretations of the family’ (lesbian families do not reproduce themselves as social structures – the children raised in lesbian families are not expected to go on to become lesbian or to form lesbian families of their own). Furthermore, lesbian and gay families uproot the grounding of family in the biological essentialism that secures the hegemony of the traditional heterosexual family. This, as Weston’s argument makes clear, is one of the most far-reaching implications of the lesbian-headed family and it impli- cates both sides of kinship (blood/biology and social structure). But, before we throw out the reproductive fantasy with the reproductive bloodline, it behooves us to ask what is at stake in such fantasies and how alternatives to the heteronormative storyline of reproduction are formu- lated. We find that even new forms of kinship draw on longstanding categories and oppositions. For example, some argue that seeing families as a matter of choice may bring us to the threshold of a ‘postmodern’ kinship structure (Allen, 1997; Goss, 1997), this appearing to be sufficient nomenclature to sink the ship of earlier kinship structures (Sullivan, 1996). What worries us here is that this version of postmodernism simply repli- cates America’s obsession with individual voluntarism. April Martin’s classic guide to lesbian and gay parenting (1993) suggests this sort of approach: ‘Different families tend to use the terms [for mother and father] in different ways with a variety of results’ (1993: 199). Nancy Chodorow’s (1994) work on masculinity and femininity makes the same appeal to indi- viduality to get out of the gender binary. But we cannot fully account for the cultural impact of homosexual families through individuality alone, nor can that conception fully address the range of issues, feelings and anxieties that accompany such hotly contested cultural changes. 3 As well, individuality forecloses the ways in which families are intergenerational. Children carry the marks of their parents’ families of origin. Kinship establishes a particularity and intro- duces a kind of debt that constitutes a relationship to one’s ancestors. The intergenerational dimension does not preclude the possibility that a given family may not want to replicate earlier familial experiences. However, the obsession with individualism attempts to erase that accounting. Thus, before we forego these traditional social and biological expla- nations for kinship and sexuality within the (lesbian non-reproductive) family, we ought to investigate the cultural fantasies they articulate. Such an investigation would allow us to sketch out how kinship might be lived in terms of the idealizations, prohibitions and affections that precondition how we become desiring sexual beings. For example, a sexless mother is a particular cultural icon that filters a childs feelings of desire towards the objects that represent the maternal register. The sexless mother, as symbol- ically supported by culture, is a fantasy that hides a corporeal subtext of kinship arrangements (i.e. who you desire and who you can’t). These entail how you are brought up in relationships of dependency and physicality and one’s place in relationship to intergenerational perpetuation. The

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classical Oedipal paradigm is often how this subtext is parsed, but other sexual configurations may reveal other structurations. Such questions are not being explored because sexuality and reproduc- tion are treated from the start as discrete categories within lesbian families. In one sense, sexuality for everyone is non-reproductive and thus puta- tively irrelevant to family structure in all cases (Merck, 1993). In lesbian or gay families, the separation is more obvious. But does not this separation beg some essential questions? Existing conceptions do not examine the possibility that fantasies of reproduction may re-enter the dynamics of sex even if they are separated literally from a biological reproductive function. In other words, reproduction could function as a fantasy in any given couple, straight or queer. Simply saying that sex is non-reproductive does not fully interrogate how sexuality traverses child development and sustains a couple’s desire to stay with one another in order to raise a family. To further demonstrate how sex and reproduction are severed, one can turn again to April Martin’s (1993) text on lesbian and gay parenting. In the text, family origin stories (birth myths) are given a normalizing patina (see, for example, 1993: 184), despite a diversity of forms. Martin tells her readership to ‘impart information’ about the child’s birth ‘in a relaxed tone’, to talk about its details casually to indicate ‘it was a normal and healthy way to come into being’. She distinguishes between sexuality and repro- duction by referring sex to masturbation (children masturbate and adults masturbate each other while reproduction is biological). Her position, which is decidedly more complex than presented here, seems to assume that once we separate reproduction from sexuality we have severed the psychic connection between the two. She implies that sexuality is moti- vated through longings and framed by structures that can be captured not in relationship to the ‘other’ but through masturbation (other metaphors could be penetration, surrender, and so on). A further irony can be noted when ‘the sin that dare not speak its name’ remains silent even in a study conducted by Valory Mitchell (1998) on how lesbian mothers talk with their children about sex. Mitchell reports that the lesbians in her study shared a concern with demystifying sexual anatomy and that they typically told age-appropriate versions of the egg and sperm story of one’s origins: ‘[Lesbians] share with many parents (regardless of sexual orientation) the values of honesty, knowledge, choice, privacy, pleasure, responsibility, sacredness, personal integrity, and interpersonal respect’ (1998: 407). Mitchell, however, wisely notes:

It may be true, though rarely noticed by members of dominant groups, that the sex education of all parents involve them [sic] ‘coming out’ to their children about their own sexual orientation. This is because, initially, children do not ask about ‘sex’ or ‘reproduction,’ they ask about themselves – how they came into being, how they came to be in the families they are in. (1998: 407)

Mitchell hits the target. Myths of the origin of one’s birth and of desire itself are coded through our various tales of reproduction. Reproduction and kinship also serve to answer the child’s call to understand its relation- ship to a broader social meaning. Reproduction is not like an assembly line

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– a replication of the selfsame family – but marks the interstice between

the body and its inchoate passions in relationship to others, the desire of the ‘other’ and the social world. There may be structural/psychic reasons as to why straight families (amid sexual abuse, love and passion) insist on the familial sanitation provided by biological accounts of reproduction that privilege the ‘other’ of science and naturalism. Biological narratives, true and effective as they are, provide a way of conceiving of one’s origins in relation to parental desire. It would be interesting to look at how lesbian mothers respond to this conundrum, and Mitchell’s work suggests that they must. Do they have predictable stories that gauge and organize their love for each other and desire for their child? Seeing heterosexual families as simply a normative instantiation and then theoretically choosing between aping that norm and transgressing it are not sufficient to answer the queries we pose. This leaves one with the issue of what to do with the reproductive myth and its usual sexual polarities – mother and father, man and woman. One obvious backdrop to social science research on lesbian families is the cultural concern over the absence of men and over paternity and fathering. If lesbians do worry about a male role model – and empirical research indi- cates that they do (Rohrbaugh, 1992; Victor and Fish, 1995) – what are they worrying about? The transitions and anxieties introduced by the absence of men are often labeled an effect of homophobia or lingering patriarchal allegiances. Given some concepts, we might suggest that lesbians desire the presence of a sort of biological being (Gartrell et al., 1996; Hare, 1994); given others, we might assume that they are indicating the need for a requisite amount of paternal indifference and/or patriarchy. Judith Butler has in- geniously argued that understanding fathers as structurally necessary evokes a heteronormative version of kinship secured by presuming that the parental couple functions as a precondition for founding culture (Butler,


However, neither studies of ‘fatherless families’ nor research specifically focused on lesbian-headed households go very far in exploring the question of the paternal (see Golombok et al., 1997; Silverstein and Auerbach, 1999). They may ask about male role models or reduce fathering to parenting, calling the latter a ‘process variable’ while referring to fathering as struc- tural (Tasker and Golombok, 1998). The reference to structure is not conceived in formal or positional terms, but rather simply as a literal man

– a man/father (cf. de Kanter, 1993 4 ). Conversely, within the ‘parenting process’ paradigm, the issue of the paternal as a position or person disap- pears. In either case, there is very little questioning of mothering and fathering as they are lived through generations and identifi- cations that might structure lesbian families. Despite the modesty of its presence in the research, the question of differ- ence between lesbian parents is quite germane to their families and it pops up the minute the couple tries to figure out what each parent should be called. What do we call the two parents? How do the lesbian parents deter- mine the other parent’s name? Or do they go with two moms? The debates about who gets called what refer to issues about the position of the child

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in relation to the parental desires and the social order. We must ask by what rationale and in relation to what ‘other’ are given nominations chosen? In some less formal interviews, both authors found that a complex process governed the choice of parental names. And even in the equality model, there is an ‘other’. After all, equality is before the law. If we theorize difference in lesbian families without relegating it to sexed polarities, if we countenance the conjunction of queer and traditional family configurations – while not ignoring those families who bear no relation to the nuclear model – a whole new set of theoretically inflected research ques- tions could emerge. An interesting point where theory might push the envelope of research on lesbian families is the odd finding that lesbians want a male role model and seem more sensitive to this issue than ‘single’ heterosexual mothers (Golombok et al., 1983; Victor and Fish, 1995). Still, when asked what they want from a male, attributes are listed that are gender neutral rather than masculine (Gartrell et al., 1996). This is just the sort of contradiction that deserves further exploration. Another anomalous finding pertinent to the equality paradigm emerges in some preliminary work by Tasker and Golombok (1998), which suggests that the greater daily child care involvement of ‘other’ mothers is not matched by a greater perceived close- ness in the quality of child–parent interactions (closeness is more comparable to fathers). Finally, contrary to the pervasive egalitarian model of lesbian families, lesbian couples do report power differentials in relation- ship to sexuality and they report some apparent miscommunication about the nature of their sexual relationship (Hare, 1994). Such sexual impasses and power differentials may be dealt with, under a heterosexual rubric, as a matter of sexual difference. Of course, it would be ridiculous to assert that ‘sexual difference’ or otherness functions in the same way for straight and queer families. But let us recall the controversies about drag. Is not drag a way to ‘work’ norms that entails an exploration of desire? Why aren’t we willing to let lesbians into this ambiguous terrain between queer and traditional? It is true that lesbian family research aims towards assimilation but, as we have suggested, it does so in a manner that promotes an erasure of the internal difference within the family and by neutering the parents. The question we want to trouble is this: does all this rhetoric of adjust- ment, neutrality, individuality, all of this fitting together that culminates with an idea of a unified ‘one’ rather than difference, get us what we want? We turn to queer theory and psychoanalysis because both try to see how sexuality must be conceived in its disruptive effects; both see these effects as a counter to social discourses and identities that depend on a centered subject, a subject whose desires fit neatly into a greater social whole.

Queering the lesbian family

As we indicated in the introductory section of this article, there is much that can be added theoretically to the current frame of empirical research on lesbian families. In the following, we develop, albeit in a most prelimi- nary way, what queer theory and psychoanalysis might add to how research

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on lesbian families is conceptualized. At first, these might seem odd resources upon which to draw. Psychoanalysis has been criticized as possessing a strong normative component; one cannot deny the charge. At the same time, psychoanalysis tries to break down bodily desire into partial drives as a subversion of both biological aims and of social ideals (it is, thus, a theory of conflict within a subject that is divided). And psycho- analysis certainly can be seen as privileging the non-rational dimensions of sexuality, even within the family. On the other hand, queer theory hardly aligns itself with the private and assimilative matters of familial organization (Berlant, 2001; Berlant and Warner, 1995, 1998). We turn to queer theory for this: sexuality is under- stood more in terms of desire than identity. Heir to feminist sex radicals,

queer theory wants to keep what is radical or interesting about sex and queer sex theoretically alive. 5 It should, for this reason, be distinguished from those modes of characterizing lesbians that shy away from a specific- ally sexual definition (see Rubin, 1994). Further, we would assume that queer theory would allow one to think through the research on families in less identitarian ways. This would suggest that a queered look at lesbian families would not see parenting through the usual categories of mother- ing/fathering or the identities of the parents, but through questions of desire. Following desire can lead to uncomfortable places. We have tried to highlight how thinking of lesbian families in terms of self-transparent identities forecloses a number of queries into what a father or mother is at

a psychic level. Put differently, the positivism of much of the research

precludes a theory of the ‘family in drag’ as anything but an imitation. Because researchers do not want to posit a deficit model – lesbians as merely lacking as traditional families – they seek to veer away from what

they see as traditional categories (which then nonetheless return in other fantasies). As a result of their identitarian bias, researchers have not looked at issues in terms of the formation of desire or sexuality. This keeps the family, the mother, and lesbians in a conceptual straitjacket. Social science research casts lesbian families as modeling a unity and harmony that belies lesbian desire. Aren’t less continuous and unity- seeking forms of love and passion also indigenous to all families? We would think so. Thus, for example, the relative instability of lesbian couples in their first 10 years of relationship as opposed to heterosexual and gay male couples always surprises those unfamiliar with the data (see Bohan, 1996). Michael Warner, a leading spokesperson for queer theory, is iconically quoted as calling queerness ‘resistance to the regimes of the normal’ (cited

in Thomas, 1997). For some within this camp, homosexuality is understood

as the western icon of the anormativity of human sexuality per se (Dollimore, 1991). By contrast, heterosexuality is both the precarious provocation and denial of the internal and inherent perversity of all human desire. Emergent from Freud, the powerful primitive and inexplicable qualities of human desire – those that Freud dubbed infantile – both organize and disorganize our bodies and our relationships to others. Being straight would be a sort of management strategy wherein some hetero- sexuals contain certain threats inherent within sexuality. One could read a

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number of Butler’s arguments about performative gender, haunted by melancholic loss, in these terms. Although queer theory is often explicitly silent on the issue of the family, one can see, from the Freudian influence (for example, in such theorists as Bersani, de Lauretis, Dollimore and, ambivalently, Butler and Grosz), that even the queer family could hardly be conceived as a sanctuary from the vicissitudes of bodies and their desires. Rather, desire, passion and their inexplicable impossibilities and limits are family specialities. Can a group that serves as the cultural icon of the excess of desire reconfigure the iconic place where both this excess and its prohibition are in part generated? If queering is anti-normative in matters of desire, that would suggest that it asks us to revisit the interstices between bodies and the social structures that mark them. The family seems to be such a site. Perhaps, queer theory’s fam-a-phobia is misplaced. Queers and families need not keep their distance, even when the family is traditionally configured. In his introduction to Fear of a Queer Planet (1993), Warner associates the normal with modern forms of the state wherein human subjectivity is reformed in terms of specific forms of social discourse: ‘The social realm, in short, is a cultural form, interwoven with the political form of the administrative state and with normalizing methodologies of modern social knowledge’ (Warner, 1993: xxvii). To queer, therefore, is to resist this normalization. Here, despite Warner’s distaste for psychoanalytic ‘structures of subjectivity’, one can perhaps offer a less politically inflected interpretation of the meaning of queering. Posed against the modern state, queering would amount to a reclamation of the possibility of subjectivity outside of an unreflective assumption of social ideals. This subjectivity would be recalcitrant to those social discourses that implic- itly transform it into an object that is engineered by socially supported scientific methodologies. We are not returning to a facile postmodernism of individualism. (Voluntarism is so clearly tied to [easily regulated] pleasure that one can hardly found a counter-hegemonic position upon it.) The following is a similarly formulated conceptualization of the meaning of queering:

If queer represents more than merely a broader, hipper term for gayness and more than a new form of avant-guardism, then queer theory’s principal challenge must be to confront the consequences of defining oneself and one’s politics against norms as such. The implications of such a stance are radical indeed, particularly in a society whose ideology of individualism guarantees maximum liberty to pursue one’s own version of happiness – on condition that he or she conform. (Dean, 2000: 226)

Thus, the question becomes how we should understand the parameters of alternate resistant subjectivities. It is all too easy to see the family as a repli- cation of the norms perpetrated by the regnant social discourses and to see the implantation of desire as directly linked to broader structures of power with ulterior investments (see Scott, 1996). Kinship becomes patriarchy writ small and the family becomes a vehicle for social ideals. Thus, what is radical is located in alternative sites of pleasure (see Davidson, 2001;

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Foucault, 2001). This binary short-changes the family as a site of desire and how we understand what is resistant and what is not. Taking a psychoanalytic slant on this point, we could say that family is a

locus where social ideals are mismatched with wayward pleasures. An eman- cipatory psychoanalysis doesn’t chart you on the developmental ladder of maturity – like a pediatrician – but attempts to afford a different possibility in any individual’s relations to her repetitions and pleasures. Its evocation of family as clinical strategy is intended to focus an encounter between fantasy, loss and one’s own conflicted relationship to social ideals. This implies that the family is also a place where social ideals misfire. Thus, whether or not the family incarnates emergent and non-traditional formations of kinship is not the only issue. The family, as such, serves as a ballast against, as well as

a soldier for, modernist regimes (especially those that would erase particu-

larity under very humane sounding ideals of psychological functioning). To

see the family in this way owes something to psychoanalysis, but this is also

a reconception of the family, a queering of it. Theoretically this queered

family would exist at the edges of the ‘psychiatric family’ that ensures mental/social hygiene. What is particular to the ways that queered families inhabit the borderlines of normativity? If we ask this question (and it is a partly psychoanalytic one), we can reframe those assimilative impulses and lesbian narratives to ask what is it that we/they want to ‘hold on to’ in creating traditional families. Such longings are not necessarily related solely to normative acceptance, but to one’s place as a desiring being. Maybe lesbian families’ desire for legal status and their middle-class aspirations are just cries for legitimization and political power as a socially recognized family, but there may be more at stake here. The familialism of lesbians may be related to traditions of sexuality, bodies and their acculturation. Lesbians may queer those traditions. We don’t know because we won’t ask. Thus, an initial step in queer theory and in empirical work on queer families would be to understand how families, sexualities and subjectivities are interrelated. We can be emboldened to ask what queers bring to the issues of love, desire and authority that intersect the family (i.e. how the family generates a human subject as well as producing a social ideal). 6

Once we move on to the misfires and desires of the family, we can ask new questions (at least new to queer families) about how they fantasize the creation of their families, whether in continuity or counter to earlier gener- ations. Lacanian psychoanalysis presumes that we are born of parental desire and that parents, no matter their sex or number, must answer the question of the child’s origins. The child’s perennial interest in causality, the constant questioning of why this or that, bespeaks the question of her own being as a contingent and excessive effect: what did you have me for? Children of lesbians are no different in this regard (Mitchell, 1998). Myth and ritual, lineage and familial position, provide a salve for such human conundrums, the Oedipal myth not being altogether different than others, perhaps. But whether it is myth or some other surmise, one’s inception is still a question of parental desire (marks of the ‘other’s imposition, its call) which defines a bodily response that cannot be symbolized, the cusp between the organism and the socially inscribed body. What we are proposing as a domain of

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research echoes a similar call by Biddy Martin who sees gender through the perspective of our emergence as embodied subjects:

In addition to focusing on parodic destabilizations of gender norms, which we

credit with having fundamentally undone or re-worked interiority, we might also

on exposing it as an

effect, an imposition, a stylization, even an expression of more fundamental processes or dynamics. I do not mean to suggest that we would ever gain access to what I am calling more fundamental processes or dynamics without picking through gendered forms. I do mean to suggest that gendered expressions are often secondary to convergences of organism, psyche, and social realities. (Martin, 1994: 119; emphasis added)

Desire and fantasy circulate in every family, whether lesbian or hetero- sexual. They circulate through the sexual relationship and interlock the parent–child relationship. Both sex and parenting are implicated in desire and fantasy because both incarnate an encounter between the body and the ‘other’ of culture and of another whom one addresses intimately. In this mismatch of love and socialization, one inevitably encounters a tension between the one of an identity that is buttressed by social ideals and an alterity, marked by love, that resists its absorption into identity. We who are queer know this alterity well. In this context, alterity means what is other and unknown that sparks the child’s fantasies of what the parent wants from her or him. Put differently, the process of making a family is structured by the ‘other’ of culture (symbols/conventions) and the ‘other’ as that which cannot be assim-

ilated – parental fantasies and desires as they are interpreted by the child. Both ‘others’ make the common commerce of sexuality for heterosexuals and homosexuals alike. Trying to tame this alterity in our lives, we project it onto marginalized groups and/or incorporate a more palatable ‘other’ through models that we call love or sexual union between men and women. It is obvious that our relation to the ‘other’ is social. But it is not a one- step social act. The various layers (steps) of the family and the various levels (steps) where the ‘other’ is inscribed entail structures that implicate mothering and fathering at least in the past (even of most lesbian parents). They implicate structures that psychically register sexual difference (not as a perceptual difference, but as a formation in relation to desire, fantasy and the ‘other’). Myths of reproduction organize the meaning of this encounter, how one is originated. But reproduction is not solely about replicating mirror image social entities, but about the generation of subjectivities. Reproduction occurs at a porous boundary between body and discourse where the many social ideals of parents and of biology are diverted by the impasses, fantasies and desires that such discourses are meant to contain.

So, in this sense, parenting is a sort of queering of the body

just in case

you missed it when you were a child. Queer theory is a theory that possesses a particular insight into the asym- metrical and disorganizing effects that reside within sexuality; otherwise, how would sexuality be anything revolutionary? In ‘Is the Rectum a Grave?’, Leo Bersani (1989) argues that there is an ontological obscenity to sexuality, referring to our erotic ties with our initial ‘others’ as imbued with power. Further, sexuality, with queers as its representative, entails an

work on diminishing our sense of gender’s grasp on us

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imaginary level threat to the unity of the heterosexual ego, making it all the more clear that the fantasies that suture the sexual relationship are dissolv- able and contingent. Heterosexual fantasies of activity/passivity, genitality, naturalism, complementarity, posit a unity, an identity and a oneness that suture polysemous and unanchored desire. So, there is this ‘oneness’ (the heterosexual couple, the identity of gender, and so on) that is subverted by desire and otherness. Like sexuality itself, the relationship of the one (of identity) to the ‘other’ is asymmetrical and unmatched. This understand- ing of the one and the ‘other’ is not the binary of gender or the binary of the heterosexual/homosexual. Too often, these binaries or their dismissal have constricted our thought about sex, gender and the family. Rather, this understanding of the one and the ‘other’ might be best conceptualized not as a mutually exclusive binary but as an impossibility, like the relationship between the human and the divine. 7 This impossibility may also be lived in sexuality and in the fantasies that inhabit the loves of parents and children. If the demystification of the heterosexual regime reveals more than a phenomenology of disparate pleasures, it should entertain this question of the one and the ‘other’ and not reduce this difference to a binary of hetero- sexism. For, without the ‘other’ (held by gender, for example, and by ques- tions of the family and reproduction), queering risks producing a series of ones (who are masturbating). When queer theory and feminism deconstructed sex, they moved it out from under an imaginary/symbolic reading that tied sex to gender. Sex became understood as sites of pleasure, much more perverse than can be outlined in the profile of an identity. In a resonant move, gender was no longer seen as an entity, but became an enactment or a negotiated social form or a series of signifiers (Domenici and Lesser, 1995; West and Zimmer- man, 1998). But, as pleasure or as products of discourse, both gender and sexuality have become irrelevant to the family as an autonomous domain of effects. In research on lesbian families, the emphasis on parenting, process variables and egalitarian non-gendered positions (that may perform gender or act out roles) disguises the positing of two ones that undergird these ideas and eclipse the position of any ‘other’ – an odd move for both women and queers. Surely all families must countenance this task of inducing desire in the most obvious of ways. Parents must touch and speak to the child. In families, one always rides the cusp of what is felt and what is said, what is said and what is heard, leading to significant patches of what cannot be said or organized into those narratives we trot out about our families. But does this process, from organism to desire, implicate adult sexuality and desire? Psychoanalysis would suggest that it does, giving an irreducible dimension to the family. If desires are intermingled, if the ‘other’ partially founds our own adult sexuality (through its signifiers and unspoken desires), then we cannot partition off sexuality from the family even if bringing sex into the family makes us culturally and (sub)culturally uncom- fortable. The healthy hearth – now defined by scientifically blessed parent- ing norms and quite distinct from the sexy streets – sets up a dialectic of

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mother qua neutered parent and all the others who do it in the streets. Surely this is a formulation as patriarchal as it is Oedipal.



Here we might bring up a concern shared by Fineman (1995) and Robson (1995) about the neutered parent: the parent is treated as if she were a free agent in the marketplace, her excess is having spending money or not.


This article is not interested in the conservative hysteria that equates lesbianism with the increasing power and hegemony of reproductive technologies as an usurpation of heterosexuality, the latter as the only proper genealogy of the subject. We are merely noting that science functions as a symbolic ‘other’, just as a father was supposed to in western

patriarchal families. The issue in both cases is the constraint upon desire in order to respond to the desire of this symbolic ‘other’ called science. For

look at the relationship of kinship to science from a perspective that is more political and sympathetic to psychoanalysis, see Butler (2002).




is clear that Martin is constrained by writing a popular book and that the

book does indirectly address questions of intergenerational difficulties in family formation. But the form of the text and the prevailing discourses upon which it draws need further scrutiny. In other contexts, Martin’s ideas may be much more nuanced (see Martin, 1995).


De Kanter’s discussion about fathering and mothering as positions refers to her daughter: ‘She situates herself and her parents in the heterosexual language of nuclear family relationships because signs referring to positions in lesbians families are lacking. She tries to find solutions in language to differentiate positions’ (de Kanter, 1993: 27).


Queer theory also looks at a variety of parameters that intersect with sexuality, showing the relationship between heteronormativity and other divisions such as race and class. This aspect is not the focus of this article.


Noting the selective process for eggs and sperm in fantasies of cloning, Paola Mieli remarks that ‘[t]he possibilities opened up in this area by new [reproductive] technologies clearly demonstrate how, when it comes to reproduction, human beings measure themselves against a certain ideal. Freud remarked that love for one’s children is a form of secondary narcissism’ (Mieli, 1999: 174), meaning, of course, that the production of perfect children is gratifying to parents as well as in keeping with normative injunctions.


This is not to say that there are not any aspects of heterosexuality that are not framed in binary terms: most ideology of sexual difference is framed as such, and such framing serves the self-interest of powerful men. Rather, the above merely asserts that it is questionable the degree to which the psychological is reducible to this ideological use.


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and the Sperm Banks: How


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Columbia University Press.

Kareen Malone is Professor of Psychology at the State University of West Georgia where she is also on the Women’s Studies faculty. She is co-editor of The Subject of Lacan: A Lacanian Reader for Psychologists (SUNY, 2000) and After Lacan: Clinical Practice and the Subject of the Unconscious (SUNY, 2002). She is Associate Editor of Theory and Psychology. Currently on a BOR development grant, she teaches at Georgia Institute of Technology in the

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Malone and Cleary: (De)Sexing the family


Department of Literature, Communication and Culture while doing research within the program of cognitive science. She is a member of Après Coup and an associate member of the École freudienne du Québec.

Address: Department of Psychology, State University of West Georgia, Carrollton, GA 30118, USA. Email:

Rose Cleary is an Associate Professor in the Social and Behavioral Sciences Program of Lewiston-Auburn College, University of Southern Maine. Her research interests include articulating feminist and psychoanalytic critique of attachment theory, reading Freud as literature and forging convergences in practice and theory between psychology and the humanities.

Address: Social and Behavioral Sciences Program, Lewiston-Auburn College, University of Southern Maine, 51 Westminster Street, Lewiston, ME 04240, USA. Email:

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