Family by Choice

The art of conscious connections

In addition to Javed and Neeraj, we have other friends whom we have chosen, and who have chosen us, as family. My children have close and loving relationships with aunts, uncles, and cousins: near and far, inherited and chosen, biological and otherwise.

Of course, heterosexuals choose relatives, too. A married person's closest relative is his or her spouse, a chosen relative. The wedding day is when all the relationships change. An uncle's girlfriend turns into an aunt; a boyfriend's parents are suddenly in-laws. And a couple is now each other's next of kin.

It is much the same with gay people, although there may be no event to give a date to the transformation. Marriage is a social construct as well as a legal and religious one, and same-sex couples form marriages, too. We voluntarily assume the same responsibilities toward each other that straight married couples do. For some gay couples, the religious or ceremonial element is important, and many do, in fact, choose to have weddings. Whether or not we choose to commemorate the marriage with a ceremony marking its commencement or anniversary, the marriage relationship exists.

What is missing is the legal recognition for our relationships, and the rights that flow with that recognition. Although Stacy and I have been married for over twenty years and have three children together, we cannot file a joint income-tax return or be considered each other's next-of-kin by many hospitals and other institutions. Our children do not have both parents' names on their birth certificates. We have to have a complex set of documents to grant each other some of the basic rights that heterosexual spouses get automatically when they marry.

The ongoing national debate over same-sex marriage is, in fact, a debate over whether our perfectly valid and strong marriages will be recognized by legal institutions. I have come to believe that this is an important distinction. As my thinking on the topic has evolved, I have started to take care to speak of "when our marriages are recognized in the law" rather than "when we acquire the right to marry."

I have also changed the way I describe and name members of our extended family. It has become important to me to use the language of marriage. When I told my colleagues that we were spending a vacation visiting my mother-in-law in Oregon, I was telling them more than where I would be. I was saying that Vi is my relative, not just Stacy's, and that my marriage is one of kinship as well as love and companionship. When my brother's wife introduces us to their neighbors, saying, "This is my sister-in-law, Dale, and my other sister-in-law, Stacy," she is making the same point.

Our extended family has all kinds of people in it: those related through blood, through marriage, through kinship grown of friendship. It's a rich and varied family life, and one from which we all derive sustenance. Still, there are some issues I have not quite resolved.

I don't know how to talk about the missing relatives, for example. Naming the chosen relatives is empowering and celebratory. It adds to the family. When I speak to my children of my parents, I'm talking instead about a subtraction.

One way I deal with this is by never referring to my father and mother as my children's grandparents. How can they be grandparents to children they choose not to meet, children of a daughter they disowned two decades ago? I'm more comfortable saying only that they are my parents. The alternative, saying that they are grandparents who don't want to know their grandchildren, seems just too awful.

Still, I worry that by speaking in this way I am perhaps denying my children part of their heritage and history, even if it is an unpleasant part. Similarly, I don't know how to refer to those of my siblings and extended family who have gone along with my parents in their ostracism of me and my family. Can I name as "uncle" someone entirely hostile to my children, children who know the most loving of uncles? One solution would be just not to talk about my family of origin, but I don't want to deny my kids knowledge of my own childhood and history. Many of my childhood memories are wonderful, and my history belongs to my children as well as to me. So, although I don't dwell on the estrangement, I do tell stories from my childhood. I speak plainly about the lack of contact, referring to these absent relatives as mine rather than my kids'. I'm not entirely comfortable with that solution, but I think it's preferable to the alternatives.

Another troublesome area for me is the idea of permanence in chosen family. If our friends become family, what if they stop being our friends? My experience, and I think it is not atypical, is that many friendships wax and wane. I have close friends who have been my friends pretty much all my adult life, but there are others who were a major part of my life for a few years.

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