Are we really family?

2012-09-08 10:29

"We are family / I’ve got all my sisters with me." The words of a disco-tune-turned-gay anthem, sprung to mind as I began wading through government’s recently released 73-page doctrine on families titled Green Paper on the Family.

“Family” in the popular song is used to self-define the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community that spans the globe. In this family of choice, the term “sister” isn’t the exclusive preserve of “family members” with female bodies.

Reclaiming the notion of “family” to indicate inclusion is to defy the constraints that dominant family forms place on the gender and sexual choices of boys, girls, men and women.

Such family forms have been sites of discrimination, exclusion and violence against many who don’t conform.

But the green paper isn’t as generous as our anthem. Rather, it’s an elaborate attempt to rehabilitate early 20th-century European discourse that entrenches, rather than transforms, patriarchal power inequalities. It wants to “preserve the family” because it is “under threat”.

While the green paper acknowledges the ever-changing form of families, and trots out the requisite list of diverse family constellations in South Africa, it fails to promote this plurality in any meaningful way.

Instead, it consistently asserts the primacy of one family form – the heterosexual, married couple with biological children.

Families more difficult to neatly classify are listed as “other”, such as the “extended family”. Then there are “same-sex families” which are, apparently, “emerging” (from where is unclear). Families of choice, not based on blood or legal relationships, but on self-identification, aren’t mentioned.

Under the veneer of talk about inclusivity, the paper lays out the prescription for the socially desirable family life: “Marriages are essential for the stability of families and ultimately society’s wellbeing,” and “family stability hinges on parenting”.

Released to “contextualise” President Jacob Zuma’s reduction of women to wifely motherhood, the paper effectively reinforces this.

It aims to promote and strengthen marriage, defined as exclusively heterosexual, despite the fact that same-sex couples now have rights to marry.

Discourse of “strengthening the family”, as currently wielded in the US by religious reactionaries, have long been mobilised to undermine reproductive choice, sexual diversity, non-monogamous relationships, families of choice and single parents; and the paper makes no attempt to distance itself from these historical associations.

The paper’s skewed premise is that “the family” is imbued with qualities that make it inherently “nurturing and supportive”.

In reality, many families “nurture” unequal social relations between men and women, rich and poor, black and white, queer and straight. More specifically, the nuclear family, as the building block of both colonialism and apartheid, has maintained a gender order in service of racial capitalism and the hetero-orthodoxy that undergirds it.

Dominant family forms are regulatory institutions that normalise certain social behaviours and positions, stigmatise others and perpetuate social exclusions. It is often through violence and punishment that gender hierarchies within families are legitimised.

Women’s subordination is reproduced in families where boys are raised to assume masculine dominance and girls are told (most recently by the president) that marriage and child rearing is their primary social role.

According to the Medical Research Council, intimate-partner violence is now the leading cause of women’s deaths, with a woman being murdered by her husband or boyfriend every eight hours.

The green paper’s hallowed “family” is often a pretty unsafe place.

The paper fails to engage with the historical role of patriarchal families in producing sexism, homophobia and other prejudices. It avoids the uncomfortable question: how do we transform those families that continue to preserve race and gender-based privileges and, in so doing, limit family members’ constitutional rights and freedoms?

Democracy has brought advancements in equality for women, LGBTI individuals and black people. Many women resist the idea that motherhood and marriage should be the defining features of their lives.

A growing number of men want to change how male power is exercised. Dominant family models are challenged as varied forms of communality stake social and political claims.

Perhaps it is precisely this rise in less governable genders and family arrangements that is the undeclared target.

The paper criticises existing state interventions that target specific individuals, such as women, and that don’t focus on the family.

Rather, it asserts the “family perspective” should inform policymaking, signalling a move against laws that provide particular protection for marginalised groups.

In the case of domestic violence, for example, what might consideration of the “family perspective” mean for the rights of a woman who seeks a restraining order against her abusive husband?

How might a “family perspective” be applied when a lesbian child is evicted from the home because her parents claim her sexuality doesn’t accord with “family morals”?

And who gets to speak for “the family” when it is tied to social and economic power dynamics, such as that men are most frequently assumed to be the “head” of the house?

At a time when political elites are jockeying for ascendancy in the run-up to the ANC’s national conference in Mangaung, the timing of the green paper’s release is telling.

It is a transparent attempt to resuscitate a regressive family paradigm that will provide a convenient rallying point for bigotry.

» Judge is a feminist and a family member

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