Interview with Joshua Gamson, author of Modern Families

Why did you choose to write a book that focuses on the personal narratives of unconventional family making?

I started writing the book because I really wanted to get our stories down on paper for the kids I know and love. I kept going because of other people’s curiosity. In the early months of our first daughter’s life strangers routinely asked questions like, “Where did you get her?” and “How long have you had her?” At first I thought they were just being rude, but then I began to realize that people were asking to know the stories of how families like ours came to be. People had a sense that family structures were changing a lot, but they didn’t know how actual people went about making their actual families. So I decided to tell them, and to tell them as personally, honestly, and intimately as I could. Personal narratives are also a terrific vantage point from which to view the larger social structures and changes shaping family formation.

You describe two common ways of approaching these new ways of making family. Where does your book fit within them?

There are basically two genres in this territory. One, which the writer Anne Glusker called Repro Lit, tells the heroic stories of individuals who had to overcome great obstacles to become parents; the other, which I dub Repro Crit, critically assesses the institutions and industries of family formation, pointing to the exploitation, inequities, and commercialization involved. Modern Families tries to bring these two genres together. I think of it as the love child of Repro Lit and Repro Crit.

How has the historical myth of the nuclear family affected what constitutes is considered a “real” family, and how has it rendered other kinship models deviant and pathological?

The idea that a real family consists of a married heterosexual man and woman and their biological offspring is a relatively new one, and never historically accurate, as the historian Stephanie Coontz has shown. Still, this idea—in the book I call it the One True Family ideology—has been extremely powerful as a norm. Departures from it, whether they are single parents, adoptive families, blended families, same-sex parents, kinship networks that extend beyond a couple and beyond biology, have been made invisible, pushed into secrecy, or stigmatized. That’s clearly rapidly changing, which is part of what I’m documenting through the stories in this book.

How has the LGBT movement reimagined the model of kinship in a way that expands the legal and socially sanctioned versions of the traditional family? 

One of the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people has been to assert a model of kinship that is not reliant on biological or genetic ties—in part out of necessity, since many were dumped by their biological families and then developed family with people they chose as kin. This isn’t a new thing—many African American working-class communities have long operated with broad networks that mix biological and social kin—but LGBT people added their own version to the mix. Then there is the simple fact that many LGBT people raise children, either those from an earlier heterosexual relationship or those they’ve conceived or adopted. This, along with the shockingly successful effort to equalize marriage rights, has undercut the assumption that an acceptable, legally recognized family requires a heterosexual man and woman. Increasingly, too, we are seeing “queer” versions of family that are even more expansive departures—in which, for example, a family involves more than two parents from the outset, or in which kinship ties are built and maintained between foster and adoptive families and families of origin.

Yet some gay couples use assisted reproduction technologies and sperm banks, bypassing social conventions of the heterosexual family but not the idea that “blood” ties are more authentic than “families we choose.” Is the assumption that a genetic relationship to a child is what makes you his or her real parent still unassailable?

Not exactly. The idea that biology determines kinship does still dominate, and informs the family-making decisions of some gay people, for sure—and I see no reason gay people should be restricted to non-biological reproduction. Yet even those of us who have gone that route (and I am among them) routinely encounter people who want to know who the “real” father or “real” mother is, or the assertion that our kids are not “real” siblings. We throw a wrench in things when we reject the terms of such questions and assertions, when we respond that we are real parents and real siblings regardless of whose got what genetic ties. It also seems that when people know our story, it opens up the conversation because we embody some mix of biological and social that doesn’t fit with their ideas of what constitutes real kin.

What do you think about the commercialization of family formation? Does building a family through commercial exchanges—paying egg donors or gestational surrogates, paying adoption agencies and lawyers—represent the encroachment of a market mentality into aspects of intimate life that had previously been insulated from commercial forces?

Short answer: Yes. The profit motive, the exchange of money, what the sociologist Arlie Hochschild has called the “outsourcing of intimacy,” the sense that pretty much everything can be bought and sold, are now part of family formation in ways that they weren’t before, just as they are part of dating, health care, marrying, childrearing, and death. That can be troubling and sometimes creepy. In many places, in fact, commercial surrogacy is banned outright as “baby selling,” but it’s pretty rare to find people treating family formation like a trip to the supermarket. As the stories in Modern Families attest, commercialization can also be the means of access to family-making for people that would otherwise be excluded, to make the process more legible to all its participants, and to facilitate new sorts of kinship relationships. The bigger problem, I think, is that market-based family formation is under-regulated, leaving too much room for abuse and exploitation, and that access is still restricted to the few who can afford it.

You write that your baby, like every other baby, “was a creature of a particular political moment.” What do you mean?

What I mean is that although making a family feels to many people like a private activity that is outside of power relations, it never is. For instance, women’s decisions about reproduction—whether, how, when to have a child—are shaped by their access to contraception, abortion, health care, and so on, all of which are themselves shaped by gender and race politics and by government actions. Access to assisted reproduction technologies is, at this point, restricted mainly to the economically privileged, and surrogacy is subject to a patchwork of contradictory laws. International adoption is structured by global economic inequalities, and intra- and inter-country politics, and domestic adoption by social class inequaly and family policy. Anti-gay prejudices, bias against single people, and racism continue to inform both government and private agency policies. These are the unavoidable—though changeable—political structures in which we all make family.

Has the success of the marriage equality movement, described at times as obtaining straight privilege for gays rather than challenging power and heteronormalcy, created a distinction between the family-making of “respectable gays” and the “shameful ones” who have no desire to procreate or create family?

The idea that people who choose to get married, make a family, or both—gay or straight—are somehow more deserving than those who don’t needs to be addressed head-on and resisted. We need a more expansive understanding of kinship, more expansive kinship structures, and more reproductive freedom, not just new versions of old hierarchies.

Institutional structures and legal reality dictates that a child can have no more than two legal parents. Do you think society and the law will start recognizing multiparent families?

Actually, I think society already recognizes some multiparent families without really calling them that: families in which parents have divorced and recoupled, so that the kids wind up with three or four parents raising them. The question is whether people can let go of the idea that a family can have more than two parents by design and from the get-go. If more people build multiparent families, the idea that a child can have no more than two legal parents may shift, unevenly, as more legal challenges emerge and as the law catches up to social reality. In fact, a couple of years ago, California passed a law that family courts can (but are not required to) recognize more than two legal parents of a child if they think it will protect the child from detriment. That’s a big, if cautious, change in the law. I’m not a great prognosticator, but I think it will be a long time before legal recognition of multiparent families really takes hold, partly because it calls up the specter of polygamy, around which the prohibition still seems to be very strong.

Social class stratification casts a dark shadow on the process of who is an egg donor (young and educated) versus who is the gestational carrier (often poorer and less educated), and on who can access assisted reproduction technologies. How can we ensure that this new form of family making does not take advantage of financially disadvantaged women and serve only economically privileged people?

In the bigger picture the obvious answer is that we have to push for policies that redress the gaping economic inequalities here, and that protect and build the safety net for economically vulnerable people—so that a choice to be a surrogate, though it can involve payment, is a real choice rather than one that one coerced by financial circumstance. In the narrower realm of family and reproductive policy, and in the shorter term, I think we need greater regulation of assisted reproduction markets—the sociologist France Winddance Twine advocates for a transnational regulatory agency. To equalize access to assisted reproduction technologies, we need government policies that subsidize costs of those technologies for people who cannot afford them.

Many states and countries give priority to married, heterosexual couples during the process of adoption. Yet there are many women who wish to be single mothers and gay singles and gay couples that wish to adopt. Your book includes the moving story of a woman who had to hide the fact that she was in a lesbian relationship to adopt her child internationally. What reasoning leads to this discriminatory practice and how can we enact change?

Besides some degree of good, old-fashioned anti-gay and anti-woman animus, I think the reasoning behind this kind of discrimination is the belief that the best situation for a child is to be raised by a man and a woman in a stable, intact household. So women pursuing parenthood solo (and men, too, though there are fewer of those) and same-sex couples face the same stigma: they aren’t making the kind of family other people think kids ought to have. Adoption policies and agency practices, everyday disapproval, and sometimes also the decisions of birth mothers, reflect this belief. It feels to many people like common sense, but it turns out that the research on children of single parents and same-sex parents refutes it. So part of the regulation of international and domestic adoption ought to be rooting out such discrimination. If people are genuinely concerned about the fate of children their energy should go towards policies that support rather than stigmatize parents—such as affordable childcare, minimum wage increase, paid family leave, and the like. The biggest danger to kids is poverty, often coupled with racial discrimination, not single or gay parents.

Joshua Gamson is Professor of Sociology at the University of San Francisco. He is the author of Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship (NYU Press, 2015).