Excepting the Anti-Family Jesus
BY KELLY JEAN COGSWELL | Despite our victories — probably because of them — Pride seems more and more like a kind of queer Thanksgiving, with too much talk about family as we celebrate new gains protecting lesbian and gay ones via marriage, immigration equality, and adoption. While I’m glad for the legal progress, it’s worth saying that this kind of family is not the one so many of us tried to reclaim when the movement was more about liberation than equality and we danced on sweaty dance floors to the sounds of Sister Sledge, grateful to have found a community, even a fractured one.
No, Family 2013 is the thing I fled when I came to New York — the sanctimonious and claustrophobic unit whose purpose is not to draw together, but to set apart and privilege the small circle over the greater, the well-being of the few over the community. Even when queers are involved, family seems just a tiny extension of the first person, the jealous and avaricious “I” that slips a noose around your neck as soon as you’re born. Which is why even though I’ll probably benefit from some of these homofamily gains, I rarely use the word to talk about my relationship — it just seems so inadequate and debased.
What are families for, anyway? To consolidate wealth and power? Offer support? Reproduce? If not your genetics, ideology? We don’t need big ones anymore for family farms or businesses. Ideally, the small unit of family could teach kids to cooperate with other individuals before shoving them out into the larger world, but the modern family seems more likely to teach conformity and competition. It’s where gender roles are first enforced. Where we’re taught to hate our neighbors. Keep up with the Joneses if we can’t out-do them. Usually at the expense of that woman lying in the sidewalk. Not my problem. Family first.
There’s nothing magic in families, though the fewer utilitarian reasons they have to exist, the more we spread greeting card myths like: They’re the people that have to love you, no matter what. And, families always have your back, just because.
We ignore just how bad this latest incarnation of family is for kids, who are lowest in the pecking order, in some ways less valuable than when they were at least weeding corn or working in sweatshops.
In every extended family, there’s the troubled mother who is allowed to torture her children in silence because it’s too much effort to get involved. Or maybe it’s the uncle who goes off in corners with little girls or little boys while the others turn a blind eye to avoid the scandal and damage to the sacred family name. Queer kids are bullied by their own parents and siblings, isolated with no recourse.
And yet, even we queers still adore The Family. Long for one. Sometimes spend years in therapy to recast the narrative, instead of shrugging and abandoning it entirely and aiming for something more radical than the pathetic Focus on the Family. I’ve never understood why Christian fundamentalists are so obsessed with preserving this particular institution when Jesus was one of the biggest anti-family figures in history.
I was reminded of this by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who’s been up to no good lately, reading the Bible and posting New Testament passages in his Atlantic magazine blog:
“For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me…”
My favorite, though, would be the passage when a recruiting Jesus told one guy to skip his father’s funeral and follow him: “Let the dead bury the dead.” I remember as a kid being shocked and excited when I read that text. How it gave permission to crawl out of the trap and walk away. No backward glances.
It saved me even when I gave up the idea of leaving my family behind to become a missionary, and instead hopped on the Greyhound with the idea I could embrace the larger world, be a poet. Later, it allowed me to become a dyke activist. For me, now, these passages are still a radical call to community and citizenship, demanding we open our eyes to the world beyond the one we were first born into or even chose.
To redeem that word, family, we have to do more than add the words gay or lesbian, but knock down walls to expand it, until it includes us all.
Follow Kelly Cogswell on Twitter @kellyatlarge.