On Being an Aunt

I spent a couple of days last week hanging out in a hospital room and watching the dreck that passes for children's programming — like that Disney movie “Mars Needs Moms.” It's pretty much naked propaganda for the Mom, Dad, kid nuclear family.

This is the plot in a nutshell. The Martians come to Earth and snatch likely maternal candidates and fatally extract their efficiency and discipline, which is then implanted in a Nannybot who is solely responsible for rearing the tiny aliens. No hugs. No love. Just orders.

One boy whose mom is grabbed stows away on the space ship and tries to save her before she's irreparably harmed. He stumbles onto a small resistance movement that literally uncovers pre-historic paintings of a mommy, daddy and baby Martian on a canyon wall. After a series of mildly suspenseful hijinks and lessons in love, the evil nanny-type Supervisor is overthrown, along with the commie-style, mass child-raising system. The original “natural” order is restored with the nuclear family — and men — back at the top.

I would have heaved, but it wouldn't have been sanitary.

No spoof of 1950s values, this horrifying thing just appeared in 2011 and is still getting played over and over (and over) on a children's network. After watching it, I just sat there and seethed, even more uncomfortable than I already was. There's nothing like illness and the medical establishment to force you back into that whole heterosexual cesspool, where your identity is entirely determined by who had heterosex with whom, and when.

Walk in the door of this particular children's hospital and immediately there are signs saying only parents and grandparents can stay overnight, though it wasn't too hard to get one of the wristbands that designated me as an additional guardian that meant I could stay, too. To the staff, my credentials were embodied in that word “aunt,” which was only true in the strictest definition of the word. Because when the nurses and doctors asked me about the kid — was something normal for him or not? — I didn't really know. I only saw him once shortly after birth, then again as a young teen. Then there he was in the hospital bed recovering from brain surgery at 16.

It would have been more accurate to characterize me as an acquaintance with shared DNA and shared stories from the pre-history of his mom's childhood that would have discouraged even Disney's Martians from trying to resurrect the Mom, Dad, baby scenario.

I don't understand what the big deal is about “families.” I fled mine as soon as I could and have only seen a few examples since that contradicted my experience. Though it seems like I turned up at the hospital as a result of family feeling, you should know I've done as much and more for friends. It's a question of ethics, not genetics. If you see need, you should try to meet it if you can. But doing so is almost impossible if you stick to the nuclear family model, which has Dad holding Mom holding the baby. While tripods are one of the most stable shapes around, they only work if all three legs are of equal length and strength. Otherwise, you get the usual disasters of gravity.

Still, forming tripods, no matter how dysfunctional, seems to be a common goal for most Americans, even queers. Long before the marriage equality train left the station, we were pairing off and acquiring kids. We turned our backs on any communal values that redefined family as anybody who had your back, maybe because it was increasingly passé to agitate and make loud rude noises in the street, even for the sake of social change.

Or maybe we never were a community and the whole thing is a myth except for one Sunday in June. A lot of people participated in the huge historic marches in DC and elsewhere, but weren't we still just a small percentage of the supposed community? And how many of us just re-conquered the couch after we got back home? These stories we tell ourselves about Stonewall and queer family values, are they even true?

We're Americans, too, after all. We're part of a society that's incredibly fractured, partly because of our insistence on the family value tripod, partly because we still pretend to believe in that bootstrap model of success. We're on our own and like it that way, at least until a hurricane or tornado hits. We don't interfere. Except when we do.

Queers are also as divided by difference as society at large. We let ourselves be separated by race, by misogyny, and by questions of gender, a category where we seem to have less and less room for ambiguity. Getting hitched could make these things worse. Marriage, from what I've seen of the hetero brand, separates as much as unites, hides chasms with cake.