An old Chinese proverb states that, “A family in harmony will prosper in everything.” In the 21st century, harmony looks different in every household––especially queer households, which are not always conducive to the harmony of heteronormative family structures. In her essay “With friends like these: The liberalization of queer family policy, ” Angelia Ruth Wilson claims that in non-heterosexual relationships, “Individual choice becomes the indispensable conduit to intimacy: ‘Individual autonomy is about identity and space, but it is also about intimate involvement. Through that you can become free” (58). This statement summarizes Wilson’s claim that queer relationships free families from the heterosexist normativity that typically shapes family dynamics, since queer parents have the freedom to choose how they structure their families and raise their children. This individual choice appears in Shani Mootoo’s Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab when India chooses to let Sydney care for her son, as well as in Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts when Nelson chooses to be the primary caretaker of both Harry’s biological son and her own: both of these choices reject traditional family structures and therefore challenge heteronormativity, but they do so quite differently. An examination of these two texts through the lens of Wilson’s “With friends like these: The liberalization of queer family policy” and Hannah Dyer’s “Queer futurity and childhood innocence: Beyond the injury of development” reveals an inherent dissatisfaction with the heteronormative family structure as well as a desire for its stability: the choices to conceive, birth, and parent a child in the midst of this non-heterosexual tension in these texts expose the different ways these couples successfully and unsuccessfully challenge heteronormative family dynamics.
Although both India in Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab and Nelson in The Argonauts choose to have a biological child, neither do so traditionally or heterosexually: both of these women choose to conceive via sperm donor. In her essay, Wilson says: ‘The result of using either donor insemination or self-insemination has meant almost endless permutations of family and parenting relationships, and structures which are being experimented with by many non-heterosexuals.’ These ‘parents of choice’ have presented society with a ‘perceived threat to the conventional order of things which continues to restrict the possibilities, [and] provide a spur to redefining the necessary practice of parenting (62).This statement suggests that while childbearing is traditionally a heterosexual act, the ability of non-heterosexual couples to conceive their own children challenges heteronormativity at its core: conception. Heterosexual intercourse is typically the beginning of the heteronormative family structure, but non-heterosexual sex and reproduction are separate from one another. In the introduction of Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab, Sydney asks himself, “in those months before he was born, when India would ask after our lovemaking, ‘How did you know to do that?’ Does he need to know that she gripped my shoulders and trembled? Or, should he know? I wonder if he would believe it” (2). Although Wilson argues that non-heterosexual couples are “oversexed” in literature and theory, by including a brief discussion of their sex life prior to becoming parents, Mootoo is confirming Wilson’s idea that “the ‘generic restructuring of intimacy’ has given rise to ‘a situation where a… relation is entered into for its own sake, for what can be derived by each person from a sustained association… which is continued only in so far as it is thought by both parties to deliver enough satisfaction for each individual to stay within it’” (54). Sydney and India’s early relationship emphasizes the importance of choice and pleasure in non-heterosexual relationships, since, as Wilson states, it is the only reason people enter them. While relationships are entered for their own sake, conceiving a child requires a much more conscious effort. When briefly describing the beginning of Sydney and India’s relationship, Jonathan says “sometime after meeting Sid, my mother decided to get herself pregnant through artificial insemination. After she became pregnant, Sid was at her side, and… she was grateful for… the help…” (Mootoo, 203). After the description of their sex life, this scene exemplifies Wilson’s idea that “the decision… to have… fertility treatment for a lesbian… is not a singular choice, or ‘an accident’. As a result, such children of lesbian and gay parents are intrinsically chosen ones” (63). Wilson also mentions that some theorists claim that in addition to being completely separate from sex, reproduction of non-heterosexual people is also completely separate from their relationships, because they can choose to do it without their partner’s consent. While Wilson argues that this certainly cannot be said of all relationships, it is true of India and Sydney: this excerpt about India’s choice to get pregnant clarifies for the reader that it is completely her own (63). In sharing this information, Jonathan specifically says his mother decided to do this herself: the choice was all hers and Sydney was merely present for it.
Meanwhile, in The Argonauts, Nelson and Dodge challenge heteronormative conception by making choosing to stabilize their family with marriage before having children. While the conception narrative that Jonathan shares is brief and apathetic, Nelson’s discussion of her experience with artificial insemination. She introduces the conception narrative by saying, “Insemination after insemination, wanting our baby to be…. You holding my hand month after month, in devotion, in perseverance. They’re probably shooting egg whites, I said, tears sprouting. Shhh, you whispered” (77). She goes on to describe the different processes and procedures and the ultimate decision she makes to ask a friend for sperm instead of receiving anonymous donations. However, most prominent is Harry’s involvement in Nelson’s choice to conceive a child: prior to this point, Nelson mentions several times their discussion of having a child, and although Harry is not physically involved, his emotional support is clear. This disproves Wilson’s suggestion that the reproduction of non-heterosexual people is also completely separate from their relationships, but confirms that it is completely separate from sex between those two people. Although this may seem to challenge heteronormativity less than India’s independent decision to get pregnant, Nelson is challenging traditional family structures by rejecting familial biological constraints. Wilson makes a point to say that “The emphasis on the biological perpetuates a heterosexist assumption of the nuclear family rather than acknowledging the ‘social’ parental role of the biological and nonbiological mothers and fathers” (68-69). Since the child that Nelson conceives will have been fathered by a stranger or friend, and he will not be biologically related to his father or his half brother. Like conception, there is an assumed heteronormativity with birth; however, the birth narratives in Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab and The Argonauts challenge this heteronormativity. A key difference between these two texts is the fact that the former is narrated by the child born, while the latter is narrated by the mother who gave birth, which contributes to the fact that Jonathan’s narrative is extremely undetailed in comparison to Nelson’s narrative.
Still, both of these texts reveal different ways the heteronormative birth narrative can be challenged. Jonathan says that, “When I was born, the attending nurse wrapped a towel around me and handed me to Sid. Sid brought me to my mother, who said she would wait to hold me until I had been cleaned up. I know this because India told me” (Mootoo, 204). India’s instant disinterest in her son is shocking to the reader, but is also a clear rejection of heteronormative family roles. At this point in the novel, India establishes herself as the distant mother despite the fact that she has just given birth to him. As with the conception narrative, the discussion of Jonathan’s birth is brief and to-the-point, and it deeply contrasts Nelson’s lengthy birth report. Nelson describes her birth experience for several pages, focussing so much and herself and the baby that at times it seems that no one else is present (and sometimes, no one else is present). However, concludes with a warm observation that “When his first son was born, Harry cried. Now he holds Iggy close, laughing sweetly into his little face” (133). Her narrative emphasizes togetherness between she and Iggy, but this switch in focus towards her husband and son perfectly contrasts Johnathan’s. Despite the fact that she has a clear interest in being a maternal figure, Nelson allows her partner to hold the child immediately postpartum. Although Sydney did not fall into a stereotypical parenting role for Jonathan, both he and Harry are challenging heteronormativity by noting on their children immediately after they are born.
Although pregnancy and birth narratives do convey some ways in which non-heterosexual couples challenge heteronormativity, it is ultimately their roles as parents that confirm their success or lack thereof as a non-heterosexual family. When considering Mootoo’s Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab, it is important to consider the role of the workforce in the character’s lives: both India and Sydney work unconventional jobs as writers and artists, they still have careers when Jonathan is born and when he is growing up. Because India is Jonathan’s biological mother, a heteronormative family structure would require her to be the most active parent in her son’s life. However, as a queer parent, India chooses her own family structure and rejects traditional motherhood to remain an active writer and lets Sydney take the wheel on raising her son. However, Jonathan claims that “Sydney had been like a father to [him] from the day [he] was born,” but by heteronormative standards, this statement contradicts other anecdotes (Mootoo, 116). When Jonathan says: Sid’s willingness to take care of me allowed India to immediately throw herself back into her writing. When her book was published three years later, it was a finalist for three major prizes. She became busy with one event after another, with interviews, with touring the width of the country, and with travel abroad, and Sid and I became a team (Mootoo, 204)Sydney was both butch and female-identifying when Jonathan was growing up: although she is not Jonathan’s biological mother, she had a more stereotypical maternal position and therefore did not fit the heteronormative role of mother or father. Hannah Dyer who uses the term queer to both “(a) classify sexuality and (b) reference deviance from cultural norms,” would say that Jonathan’s unique and somewhat traumatic upbringing “queered” him, and he carries that queerness into adulthood (4). This has a strong impact on his relationship with Sydney and India, who are also a queer individual. Dyer says:Adults, for example, sometimes find it difficult to bare the child’s aggression and negative emotional responses because these reactions are often in excess of narratives of childhood innocence. The homosexual adult, then, must return to childhood and rework his or her memory of childhood to clarify the appearance of inversion. In this schematic, what is at stake is the adult’s remembering of childhood, not the child’s present (5).These relationships challenge heteronormativity because all of the parties involved have been queered, albeit differently. Because Jonathan is narrating the story as an adult, he can reveal himself how the end of India and Sydney’s relationship impacted him, and his anger towards both of them can be explained by their queerness. As the product of artificial insemination and a lesbian, Jonathan’s chances at having a heteronormative father were slim. However, being abandoned by his queer father-figure to be raised by his queer mother is what ultimately makes him a queer individual: his “reactions…in excess of narratives of childhood innocence” are to the difficulty of being part of a family that challenges heteronormativity by rejecting anything close to a traditional family dynamic.
In her essay, Wilson emphasizes the fact that many issues are not addressed in feminist theory, claiming that “Giddens (a queer theorist) fails to consider the impact of institutionalized heterosexism/homophobia and the fluidity of gender, and sexual, identity.” (61). Institutionalized heterosexism and homophobia and the fluidity of gender and sexual identity are all present in The Argonauts. One scene that presents institutionalized heterosexism is when Nelson describes their experience at the restaurant where the waiter refers to the four of them as “ladies” even though Harry and his son identify as male. Harry says to his son that they are not all ladies, but does not explain further: he just says that girls are very cool. Nelson identifies as his stepmother, but her memoir clarifies that it is she who raised him––consequently, while Harry may say that no, they are not ladies, it falls on Nelson to at some point explain to Harry’s son that they have been the victims of heterosexism: the waiter is clearly discriminating against Nelson’s family because Harry is a trans individual. Although Nelson has the choice to reject heteronormative family structures as a queer woman, she chooses a to redefine the maternal role instead. As first a stepmother and then a mother, she is aware not only of the heterosexism she experiences outside of the home, but also the way that heterosexism impacts her choice and ability to be a parent. Wilson says that “The centrality given to biological parenting necessarily imposes heterosexist limitations on choices about parenting by prioritizing the ‘natural’ caring role of the birth mother” (69). The beginning of Nelson’s memoir introduces the issue of biology that is also prominent in Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab: Harry’s son, whose identity is kept a secret, has another parent deeply discontent with Nelson’s involvement in his life. At the time when Harry’s mother is first diagnosed with breast cancer, Nelson notes that “[Harry’s] son’s custody remained unsettled, and the specter of a homophobic or transphobic judge deciding his fate, our family’s fate, turned our days a tornado green” (30). As with Jonathan, this child is being queered by his relationship to his parents and stepparents, which “[deviates] from cultural norms (Dyer, 4). Harry’s son is perhaps too young for the full impact of this queerness to be visible, but by queering him, Nelson and Harry (and perhaps Harry’s ex) are challenging heteronormativity. Queer children, by either of Dyer’s definitions, challenge the traditional family dynamic that relies so heavily on heterosexuality and biological relations. Wilson claims notes the passivity involved in creating family structures after conception and birth, saying “it is less important whether we are in a family than whether we do family-type things . . . families are constructed through their enactment. We live family rather than dwell within it” (59). Although neither Sydney and India nor Nelson and Harry explicitly discuss how they would construct their families in the text, Nelson and Harry challenge heteronormativity by making numerous efforts to have a family including getting married, raising Harry’s stepson, and getting pregnant with and having Iggy, and ultimately queering their children in doing so. Meanwhile, India challenges heteronormativity by rejecting all remotely heteronormative family structures, including a masculine spouse, but she too queers her child in the process. While Nelson and Harry redefine family structures, India rejects entirely by becoming a distant single mother, which proves that there are multiple ways to challenge the heteronormativity of family structures.
Ultimately, the non-heterosexuality helps to disintegrate heterosexism at its roots, and over time, this will hopefully help to denormalize heteronormative family structures. However, while these theories help reveal the different ways non-heterosexual couples can challenge heteronormative family structures, they both fail to address sexism beyond queerness. It is possible that the reason India is reluctant to challenge heteronormativity by redefining family structures is because they are simply not favorable towards women. Likewise, these theories fail to address the struggles and sacrifices women such as Nelson might face in choosing to engage in any type of family dynamic, even if it has been redefined by her and her partner. As Nelson quotes, “The freedom to be happy restricts human freedom if you are not free to be not happy,” and heterosexual and non-heterosexual couples alike are unique in what makes them happy and what makes them miserable: the centrality of choice in relationships is a key ingredient in the establishment of one’s lifestyle, and only then can they be happy (17).
Dyer, Hannah. “Queer futurity and childhood innocence: Beyond the injury of development.” Global Studies of Childhood. London: SAGE Publications, 2016. Web.Nelson, Maggie. The Argonauts. London: Melville House UK, 2016. Print. Mootoo, Shani. Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab. Toronto: Akashic Books, 2004. Kindle Edition. Wilson, Angelia Ruth. “With friends like these: The liberalization of queer family policy.” Critical Policy, Vol. 27. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. 50-76. Web.