“When ‘family’ is unshackled from ‘nature’ and ‘biology’, and hitched instead to ‘choice’ or ‘artifice’ or even just to ‘love’, then the possibilities are endless.” Naomi Stead considers what is radical, what is family and questions how the limited stock of conventional family housing can serve, and impact, the potentially limitless arrangements of radical families.

Radical Families

‘Radical’ is a relative term. One person’s wildly avant-garde is another person’s solidly conventional. And in my observation, the more you venture into radical territory, or surround yourself with radical folk, the more you realise your own squareness, your own commitment to orthodoxies. What used to seem progressive becomes commonplace, what was daring becomes tame, what was queer becomes ordinary. Such are the processes of normalisation, and such processes calcify in architectural form.

So, what then is a radical family, and where does it live? Some would say a queer family is radical, but what’s a queer family these days? If you abandon norms, or actively reject them, then the shackles are off, and radical families can range from post-punk socialist collectives, to fluid polyamorous entanglements, to joyful gaggles of Chosen Family, and so on it goes. When ‘family’ is unshackled from ‘nature’ and ‘biology’, and hitched instead to ‘choice’ or ‘artifice’ or even just to ‘love’, then the possibilities are endless. To my eye, the real limitation comes from the conventionalism of the stock of available dwellings, more than it does from the myriad of possible social arrangements.

The general rule, in modern Australia, is that only one family will occupy a given dwelling, and this immediate, biological, heterosexual, nuclear family unit will live in isolation from their friends and extended families and – more importantly – from the families that they might choose. There is a certain obligatory normality built in; I am obliged to conform to my house. This is partly a function of administrative oversight: the landlord obliges the tenant to be normal, as does the plumber, the electricity provider, the insurance company, the bank, the local government rubbish-collection regime. But the dwelling itself also has a normalising effect: the rooms, their size and number and partitioning, their arrangement and furnishing and appointment.

But then again, what about families like mine? What if it’s simply two adults and their child, living alone together, in an ordinary house, with ordinary rooms and an ordinary garden and an ordinary landlord and ordinary contents insurance, and trouble with the downstairs outside light, and magnets on the fridge, and tiny sharp bits of Lego on the floor, waiting to be stepped on barefoot?

So far, so heteronormative, I hear you say. It’s just the same old nuclear family, reproducing the same old patterns, it just happens that the parents are both women; it’s a regular family which just happens to be coloured rainbow. Move on, nothing radical to be seen here, you say. And that is true! Except when it’s not.

Because for some people in the world, a rainbow family is very much not normal, and very much not desirable. And when you’re part of such a queer grouping, you never know when that person might show up at your door: the person for whom you represent an actual existential threat to the sanctity of family, the moral and physical safety of children, and hence the very foundations of society. And then there they are: come to fix the dishwasher, and ask what your husband does, whereupon you are obliged to come out (unless you don’t, having weighed the situation in a second, and decided to lie).

One ‘comes out’ as a queer family, in different ways and for different reasons and after having come out as an individual. In fact, the coming-out process becomes more pronounced and more pointed – people who thought they were safe to assume you were straight because of the presence of the child are wrong-footed and mortified, people who simply can’t imagine how it would be physically possible are dumbfounded. Coming out is, in any case, a lifelong endeavour. It doesn’t happen once and grandly and then not again: it happens every day, and with a banal, endless repetition that becomes very decidedly ordinary.

It might start with parents, sisters, brothers, stepsisters, aunts and uncles and grandparents, but over time it continues – and by necessity, not exhibitionism. At various times it becomes administratively unavoidable to come out to the woman at the bank, to teachers, to plumbers, to colleagues, to real estate agents, to landlords, to builders, to tradies, to locksmiths, to doctors, to nurses, to midwives, to HR staff, to administrators, to staff in the electricity-provider call centre, to internet network installers, to census collectors, charity organisations, to people in the playground, to teachers, to schoolmates, to lecturers, to colleagues, to bosses. To strangers. And to whomever reads articles like this one. For myself, the only person I’ve never had to come out to is my son – since he knew from the beginning.

Does the coming-out process get easier? Yes it does. Does it get boring and tiresome? Sure as hell. Is there ever a time when it’s completely easy, when there is no worry at all, not even a twinge of wariness about how this information will be received and  how the other person will react to this particular member of this not-particularly radical family? No, that time has never come – or not yet, or not yet for me.

So: the entanglements of a dwelling, or its location within a larger regulatory and financial and administrative and governmental system, obliges queer families to come out. But more than this, such a dwelling nudges its occupants towards normality – to fit within norms. The question becomes, then, what happens when our radical family types, our queer domestic arrangements, are not accommodated by the spaces we find ourselves living (disorientedly) within? What happens to domestic space when some of us set out to queer the family further, to invent unique kinship groups with whom we choose to live in varying degrees of intimacy and proximity?

The dwellings of such radical families might both express and envelop queer affiliation, in all its kaleidoscopic forms, its dimensions and nuances of attachment, its very queerness in the sense of its strangeness, its one-off, unique, tailored specificity to a group of people and the intentional family they have formed. I’d like to see that.

Illustration by Megan Rennie

Thank you, Naomi, for your provocations on what is radical, and what is family. This article will also appear in Assemble Papers Issue #9, ‘Radical Family’ – join us for the issue launch on 18 March! Details here.

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