Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?
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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 13.1 (2002) 14-44



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Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?

Judith Butler


The topic of gay marriage is not the same as that of gay kinship, but it seems that the two become confounded in U.S. popular opinion when we hear not only that marriage is and ought to remain a heterosexual institution and bond, but also that kinship does not work, or does not qualify as kinship, unless it assumes a recognizable family form. There are several ways to link these views, but one way is to claim that sexuality needs to be organized in the service of reproductive relations and that marriage, which gives the legal status to the family form or, rather, is conceived as that which should secure the institution through conferring that legal status, should remain the fulcrum that keeps these institutions leveraging one another.

The challenges to this link are, of course, legion, and they take various forms domestically and internationally. On the one hand, there are various sociological ways of showing that in the U.S., a number of kin-ship relations exist and persist that do not conform to the nuclear family model and that draw on biological and nonbiological relations, exceeding the reach of current juridical conceptions, functioning according to nonformalizable rules. If we understand kinship as a set of practices that [End Page 14] institutes relationships of various kinds which negotiate the reproduction of life and the demands of death, then kinship practices will be those that emerge to address fundamental forms of human dependency, which may include birth, child-rearing, relations of emotional dependency and support, generational ties, illness, dying, and death (to name a few). Kin-ship is neither a fully autonomous sphere, proclaimed to be distinct from community and friendship—or the regulations of the state—through some definitional fiat, nor is it "over" or "dead" just because, as David Schneider has consequentially argued, it has lost the capacity to be formalized and tracked in the conventional ways that ethnologists in the past have attempted to do. 1

In recent sociology, conceptions of kinship have become disjoined from the marriage assumption, so that, for example, Carol Stack's now classic study of urban African-American kinship, All Our Kin, shows how kinship functions well through a network of women, some related through biological ties, and some not. The enduring effect of the history of slavery on African-American kinship relations has become the focus of new studies by Nathaniel Mackey and Fred Moten showing how the dispos-session of kin relations by slavery offers a continuing legacy of "wounded kinship" within African-American life. If, as Saidiya Hartman maintains, "slavery is the ghost in the machine of kinship," 2 it is because African-American kinship has been at once the site of intense state surveillance and pathologization, which leads to the double bind of being subject to normalizing pressures within the context of a continuing social and political delegitimation. As a result, it is not possible to separate questions of kinship from property relations (and conceiving persons as property) and from the fictions of "bloodline," as well as the national and racial interests by which these lines are sustained.

Kath Weston has supplied ethnographic descriptions of lesbian and gay nonmarital kinship relations that emerge outside of heterosexually based family ties and that only partially approximate the family form in some instances. And most recently, anthropologist Cai Hua has offered a dramatic refutation of the Lévi-Straussian view of kinship as the negotiation of a patrilineal line through marriage ties in his recent study of the Na of China, in which neither husbands nor fathers figure prominently in determinations of kinship. 3

Marriage has also recently been separated from questions of kinship to the extent that gay marriage legislative proposals often exclude rights to adoption or reproductive technologies as one of the assumed [End Page 15] entitlements of marriage. These have not only taken place in Germany and France most recently, but in the U.S., successful "gay marriage...


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