The politics of assimilation: are we really ‘family too’?

The politics of assimilation: are we really ‘family too’?

by Bronwyn Winter

First printed in Word is Out 5, December 2002:12-18


The history of lesbian and gay movements (as indeed, of any movement of resistance to a dominant class) has been in great part the history of moves (…struggles…) to find a place somewhere along the axis that has co-optation/assimilation at one end and the celebration of extreme marginality at the other.

On one level, it has been a history of the fight for the right simply to be, without either invisibilisation (a term I borrow from French) or persecution. On another level, it has been a history of challenges to ‘normal’, of attempts to reveal the construction of ‘normal’ as its own aberration. It has thus been a history of iconoclasm, of smashing walls, breaking the chains of constraint and questioning boundaries. More recently, in western countries at least, it has become a history of the fight to become fully ‘citizens’ in the sense of equal access to the rights and privileges enjoyed by heterosexual citizens. From challenging ‘normal’, the movement’s focus has shifted increasingly to ‘becoming normal’.

Across these (somewhat schematically summarised) phases in our history – if we can properly speak of chronological phases – our history has also been that of the development of a social and cultural identity, or perhaps more accurately, identities, that at once demarcate and celebrate. In recent times in the western world (during a period that roughly corresponds with the ‘rights’/assimilation push), that countercultural identity has become largely mainstreamed (or mardi-gras-ed as one might say in Sydney), even as it remains a sometimes aloof, sometimes provocative ‘setting apart’ from or even at times still a challenge to that mainstream. So that even our ‘marginality’ can become ‘normalised’, through a shift in perceptions or through a curious sort of exoticisation. It is, in fact, not dissimilar to other forms of exoticisation such as orientalism, whereby ‘drag’, ‘high camp’, ‘lesbian chic’ and so on become fashionable curiosities, where the monstrous becomes seductive, becomes the acceptably codified performance of the ‘wild side’ where one escapes the everyday. Or in other words, our ‘counterculture’ has become in many respects as much a ‘show for the straights’ as was, for example the drag nightclub Les Girls in Sydney’s Kings Cross several decades ago.

It is not, however, specifically on this peculiarity exoticising normalisation (even sanitisation) of marginality that my focus lies in this article. It lies, rather, on the process of normalisation itself, through claims to ‘rights’, ‘inclusion’ and so on. I will explore the implications of that process through looking two concepts – that of ‘family’ and that of ‘human rights’ – that are central to lesbian and gay campaigns for same-sex couple/family rights. I will start by looking at where these concepts come from and how they function within ‘mainstream’ society/ dominant classes/ culture. (N.B. I use the word ‘dominant culture’ here in a particular sense, as in: masculinist/ heterosexist culture). I then want to look at whether, and how, ‘we’ – lesbians and gay men – slot into those concepts and/or transform or subvert them.

This article is not about providing ‘prescriptions’ about what we should do or even about providing answers to resolve the contradictions it points to. It simply wishes to point to them, for my concern at this point in our history is that so much energy has been put by the movement into ‘becoming normal’ that ‘normal’ no longer appears as an aberrant concept in itself. Or in other words, my concern is that, in the fight for increased ‘inclusion’, we no longer see what – and whom – it is that we are excluding.

The right to be family

The critique I wish to make here of ‘rights’ is not some sort of postmodern ‘anti-rights’ stance. I am not, after all, overly in favour of disposing of babies along with their bathwater. Given the trouble one has to go to in order to produce the babies in the first place, it seems somewhat of a reprehensibly wasteful exercise just to chuck them out on a whim. If the concept of rights and aspects of its operation are useful – as indeed they have been and continue to be – then by all means let us hang on to them for dear life. We have too few political and strategic resources at our disposal as it is. That said, in order to avoid some nasty pitfalls, we need to understand the political assumptions that lay behind the idea of ‘rights’ from the outset, and continue to inform it.

The idea of ‘human rights’, as it is currently understood, was elaborated as a political basis for nation-building – and ‘citizen-building’ – in the eighteenth century in both what was to become the USA and, particularly, in France. While it would be repetitive to go over here in detail what should be commonly known and what in any case can be gleaned from any decent textbook of western history, it is nonetheless important to reiterate that ‘rights’, as elaborated at the time, were the province of white bourgeois heterosexual men who constituted what was then the mercantilist (future capitalist) class. There was, in France in the years leading up to and following the revolution, a movement both of strong feminists and of peasant, non-landowning classes, that both gave much force to the revolution but were almost immediately forgotten by it. There was also an anti-slavery movement which included prominent feminists such as Olympe de Gouges. Gouges, who is most well-known for her 1791 Declaration of the Rights of Woman, was also a prolific playwright, and wrote a number of anti-slavery plays.

Those such as Gouges who fought for the rights of women and of slaves situated their struggle within the liberal paradigm of the time. They thus reclaimed the ’emancipation’ of white women and all slaves so that they might have access to the same rights as white landowning men. In other words, they fitted into the frame even as they challenged its boundaries.

In the 20th century, we have ended up with the concept of human rights as enshrined in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which has been informed both by the French so-called Enlightenment tradition and the US conception of ‘freedom’. It is thus unsurprising that ‘rights’ continue to carry the ideology of those whom they were originally designed to serve.

Article 1 of the UN Declaration reads: ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood [sic]’. The Declaration goes on to mention equal recognition before the law, no distinction on the basis of sex, race and so on (but sexuality is excluded), and no abitrary arrest, detention or exile. So far, so good (apart from the term ‘brotherhood’ and the absence of any mention of sexuality).

Article 12 of the Declaration reads: ‘No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his [sic] privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his [sic] honour and reputation’ (my italics). There we have it: privacy, family, home, honour.

It is, however, in Article 16 that the familialist ideology at the core of our liberal societies starts to appear most clearly. ‘(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. ‘(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses’. (I note in passing that the idea of ‘consent’ is problematic in liberal societies, as ‘consent’ within a context of domination is not ‘consent’ as such, but rather ‘yielding’, as Nicole-Claude Mathieu (DATE REFS) has put it.) ‘(3). [This one’s the clincher.] The family is the natural and fundamental unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.’ (my italics)

As we well know, ‘natural’ is an ideological construct designed to serve the dominant classes. Its so-called ‘scientific’ basis was firmly developed in the nineteenth century – during which, in western societies, ‘science’ largely took over from the church the power to define, delimit and prescribe – and has plagued us ever since. The idea of the ‘family’ as ‘natural’ should thus give us pause. ‘Natural’ for whom and, more importantly, in whose interests?

This question becomes doubly important as concerns the family as ‘fundamental unit of society’, when one considers what the term originally meant (and arguably, still largely does, including in the west, culturally if no longer legally). Originally, ‘family’ was a man’s household: his goods and chattels, his wife, concubines, children and servants. The notion of ‘family’ was bound up with the idea of ownership of others and hence with the hierarchical organisation of relationships. This translates in all sorts of common ways from women and children taking the name of husband and father to census forms that deem each household to have a ‘head’ or, more recently, a ‘person 1’ who is constructed as the ‘head’ by another name. However individuals within family units may relate to the family psychologically/emotionally, it remains that, socioculturally and socioeconomically speaking, family is first and foremost about property (and originally codified – and indeed still does codify – the proprietorial rights of men over women and children). I will return to this point presently, in discussing the focus of ‘same-sex couples’ campaigns and legislation.

Feminists have long analysed the family as a site of male power and as the fundamental economic, cultural and social unit within male supremacist society. Simone de Beauvoir (1949) described marriage as a prison in which women were confined (vol 2: 55-56), Kate Millett (1970) named the family as ‘patriarchy’s chief institution’ ([1970]1978: 45). If one is on occasion inclined to believe that ‘the family’ has been radically transformed in the half-century since Beauvoir’s groundbreaking Le Deuxième sexe was published, becoming more ‘egalitarian’ through cultural, social, economic and legislative changes, the most superficial observation of various cultural rituals such as mothers’ day and cultural/economic institutions such as the wedding industry, will provide more than ample proof that no such radical transformation has occurred.

If such woman-unfriendly institutions as ‘family’ and ‘marriage’ are inscribed in human rights instruments as fundamental human rights, ‘entitled to protection by society and the State’, where does this leave the feminist – including lesbian feminist – critiques of the family, and where does it leave the feminist, and subsequently, lesbian and gay, human rights project?

It is when these ‘oppositional’ human rights projects start to take shape that the contradictory tensions within human rights instruments begin to appear obvious. Already, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights outlaws sex discrimination at the same time as it enshrines and protects what feminists have collectively and vociferously claimed are among of the chief instruments of that domination: marriage and the family. Once we start looking at women’s rights documents, these tensions are exacerbated. Signatories to the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) undertake to ‘take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices which constitute discrimination against women (Article 2[f]), and to ‘take all appropriate measures and to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women’ (Article 5[a]). If women are discriminated against within marriage and the family, and if these institutions can be seen as ‘customary and practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority’ of women and ‘stereotyped roles’ for women, then CEDAW necessarily contradicts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Both treaties are ostensibly binding on their signatories (although no country fully observes any of them and the UN, as an organisation constituted by sovereign States, has little to no power to override the national sovereignty of non-compliant States). So which one takes precedence?

We run into similar dilemmas when we look at the rights of the child. The Preamble to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) reiterates the sentiments expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in stating that the States parties to the Convention are ‘convinced that the family, as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members and particularly children, should be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibilities within the community’ (my italics). At the same time, it contains clauses placing responsibility on States to protect children from violence (physical, psychological, sexual) within the family (Article 9[1]) and from prostitution (Article 34). Given that the overwhelming majority of acts of violence inflicted on children in general and girls in particular is within the family, and that the majority of children are sold into prostitution by family members or by adults with whom they have a family-like relationship, it is difficult to see how the Convention can insist on protection of the family as the ‘natural’ environment for optimum nurturing of children.

So, what of lesbian and gay marriages and families? Do lesbian and gay politics (which may or may not be informed by feminist politics – frequently they are not) contain sufficient transformative and subversive force to revolutionise the idea of the family? When we fight for legal, cultural and social recognition as family, are we referring to some thus-revolutionised idea? When we combat discriminations against same-sex couples, to which discriminations are we referring? For what ‘rights’ are we campaigning?

Legal recognition of same-sex relationships: a case of ‘get your laws onto my body’?

In 1997, the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) put out a paper titled ‘Human rights for Australia’s gays and lesbians’, in which it stated, under the subheading ‘Recognition of same sex relationships’, that: The failure to afford the recognition to same sex relationships not only denies same sex partners the opportunity to make a public commitment to each other but also denies a range of entitlements otherwise available to partners in genuine relationships. If the law is to afford freedom of expression and identity in private life, individuals who wish to have their relationships recognised should be entitled to obtain that recognition without discrimination. The rights of individuals to their own identity and to their private life inherently involve an obligation to ensure that individuals are not discriminated against on the basis of these private matters. This is a curious paragraph. It seems to be implying that ‘freedom of expression and identity in private life’ is only possible if a certain mode of organisation of private life is publicly affirmed and legally protected. The final sentence sets out the obligation to ensure there is no discrimination against individuals on the basis of their private choices, but these choices are only recognised as worthy of public validation and protection if they take the form of couple. Other choices in one’s private life do not appear to be in need of the same recognition.

So one thing we are talking about is public affirmation of a certain mode of ‘doing relationships’ in private life. A desire, in short, for assimilation, for the normalcy and access to full citizenship status (culturally speaking) that goes with marriage and exchanges of rings. A desire to become part of that ‘natural [sic] and fundamental unit of society’. A desire to say ‘we are family too’. There is a big fat wedding cake out there and we want our part of it. The question remains, however: why? Social validation? By whom and what for? Weren’t we always the ones to challenge the heterosexist norms, telling the straights to keep their laws off our bodies, just as feminists have told men for many decades? Why then are we inviting that same arm of the law to reach into our houses, our bedrooms, place its official fingerprints on us and give us its blessing? Why are we so anxious all of a sudden to fit into patterns of heterosexual normalcy?

An answer lies, in fact, within HREOC’s rhetoric on recognition. As the HREOC document states, hand in hand with claims to this sociocultural validation go claims to ‘a range of entitlements otherwise available to partners’, practically all of which are financial. In fact, it can be argued that fiscal and financial arrangements – along with proprietorial rights over children (I will return to this point) – are not only at the core of campaigns for, and legislation on, recognition of same-sex couples, but are their very raison d’être. Inheritance, superannuation, taxation, child custody: these are what inform the push for same-sex recognition. A large chunk of the much-touted Pacte Civil de Solidarité (PaCS) law in France, for example, focuses on taxation and inheritance rights, while in Australia, there has been central focus at both federal and state level on superannuation entitlements for same-sex partners.

Even legislation that is ostensbily not about financial or fiscal matters, such as Australia’s Interdependency legislation governing immigration rights for same-sex partners, is closely tied up with material questions about finances and cohabitation. Thus, to demonstrate that one is in a ‘bona fide’ relationship for the purposes of immigration, one has to have property (owned or rented) in common (the more bills/rent receipts/mortgage documents/bank accounts/shares in common, the better), wills in which one member of the couple leaves the bulk of her or his worldly goods to the other, and so on. Demonstrating one’s ‘genuineness’ in a relationship is very much a question of Show Me the Money.

Certainly, in a capitalist society, which shows singular contempt for its elderly if they are not judges, politicians or founders of multinational dynasties, and which has a rather ambiguous attitude (to put it euphemistically) concerning the social duty of care to children, the matter of financial entitlements is not a trivial one. Recognition of individuals’ financial contribution to a couple’s organisation of its affairs can be, at a terre-à-terre level, very much a bread-and-butter affair for the individual in question or for children with whom that individual has some parenting connection. Over and above this, however, emotional and financial investments are inextricably entangled in our world, so that ‘restitution’ or ‘compensation’ for emotional damage is often expressed through dollars and cents (or bricks and mortar). Indeed – the particular situation of immigration aside – it is arguable that financial matters only really become an issue at precisely the time of separation, through breakdown in the relationship or through death; that is, when the ‘couple’ in fact ceases to exist and individuals assert their ‘rights’ as individuals once more. The claim for full legal recognition of ‘same-sex couples’ can thus be seen as a claim to the same fiscal and financial protection for individuals within same-sex couples as for individuals within heterosexual couples. (Or, in some cases, the same financial disadvantage: increasing legal and financial formalisation of same-sex couple relationships is disadvantageous to the unemployed. An unemployed person who is considered single is not ‘means-tested’ against members of the same household. An unemployed person who is legally recognised as married or defacto loses that right to an independent individual income that is not means-tested against that of another person.)

Where, however, does this leave individuals who wish to assert their rights as individuals without reference to a couple? What happens with their taxation/superannuation and so on?

When we fight for the rights of individuals within couples, far from doing away with exclusions, we are in fact fighting to extend to lesbians and gay men a system of castes and privileges, inclusions and exclusions that already exists in the straight world. If one is in a couple/ a family, one has a social existence. If one is not, then one doesn’t. In fact, without the public recognition of our ‘private life’, we are very often deemed not to have one. Which of course is one reason behind the campaign to gain such public recognition for same-sex couples. But where does that leave the uncoupled?

Surely a more socially just campaign, in financial terms, would be a campaign for the right of all to have a decent income throughout our lives, and especially in our old age. It would be a campaign for the protection of children and promotion of their welfare, no matter what household they live in. It would be a campaign for the rights of all to affective and cultural networks, however they may wish to define these. It would be a campaign for the right to love, to experience joy, to grieve: recognised, among other things, through legislation and industrial instruments regulating carers’ leave, bereavement leave and so on, that is ‘inclusive’ beyond the mindset of partnerdom. It would be a campaign for the rights of the individual to be safe, well and have access to the means to live a life free from want – whatever that individual’s sex, sexuality, age or ‘family’ status may be.

The problem with ‘equal rights’

Of course, while awaiting the sort of revolution I envisage above, one has to live in the real world. And the real world is overwhelmingly organised in terms of coupledom and family – so that even attempts to move away from dominant notions of family involve embracing the term, even if we give it a modified definition (for example, the move towards broader definitions of ‘family’ in Enterprise Agreements). As suggested above, the material considerations involved with the organisation of society into ‘families’ are not trivial ones – and are all the more important because they often codify psychological and emotional ties.

Nor can the problems inherent in the way we relate to children be immediately shot away by the arrows of my desire for a more just society where all individuals, adults and children, have access to safety, material comfort and so on. Our society is arranged so that children are attached to adults deemed to be parents through biological and/or legal ties. These parents have at once an ‘ownership’ entitlement over children (which is protected by international human rights instruments) and a responsibility for their welfare (the latter also being protected by international human rights instruments). The non-biological parents in lesbian and gay couples who choose to live with children are more vulnerable than members of straight couples to those ownership rights being taken away and to non-recognition of the fact that they have assumed responsibility for the welfare of the children, especially at the time of dissolution of the couple through death or separation. We need to grapple with these issues, and not walk away from them – all the more so because even where there is legislation regulating lesbian and gay couple and even parenting rights, this legislation often sets up differential rights for lesbians and gays as opposed to straights. Thus the French PaCS law does not allow pacsés to adopt children or to have children through IVF programs.

Once again, however, I am not convinced that fighting for ‘equal rights’ in the area of childbearing and childrearing is the answer. I am particularly uncomfortable with campaigns for lesbians to have access to IVF as a human rights issue. Feminists such as Renate Klein (1984, 1989) have consistently, and for a long time, pointed out the ethical concerns and physical risks to women in using reproductive technologies. Is the ‘right’ to have children at any cost (and the cost to women, both financially and in terms of their health, is often high) one that we really want to fight for? Whatever happened to the lesbian-feminist critiques of motherhood and the nuclear family?

Such campaigns for ‘equality’ with the world of heterosexuality remind me somewhat of the supposedly ‘feminist’ campaign to have women fight in the front lines of the army (prohibiting them from doing so being one of two Australian reservations to CEDAW). Feminists have been vocal and active in the campaign for peace, all over the world: Greenham Common, Pine Gap, Women in Black. How, then, is it ‘feminist’ to want to move women into the front lines of the army, just because men are there and ‘we want whatever they’ve got’? Should we not rather be moving the men out of the front lines and, as I have argued elsewhere, be doing away with the army altogether? (Winter, 2002: 206-207)

Certainly, we live in the world and not elsewhere and need to do so as safely and happily as we can. We need to be able to choose coupledom without fear of future financial hardship, or painful separations between children and significant adults, if that is what some of us want. But it is not what all of us want. And even for those of us who do, we are not making those choices within a neutral context where a range of real possibilities is open to us. We are perhaps making those choices in part because we do not, in fact, have a great deal of choice. We often make puns about not being able to ‘think straight’, but in fact, it seems to me that we are thinking straighter and straighter. As our challenges to the Straight Mind(set) (to adapt Monique Wittig’s famous title) shift – or are shifted – from the margins towards the centre, that mindset seems sometimes to be getting harder, not easier, to break. For, rather than breaking down the dominant ideology, we (some of us certainly more than others) are starting to gain a vested interest in perpetuating it.

If ‘rights’ is to be a truly useful concept for us, then we need to start redefining its parameters, rather than simply ‘adding on’ gayandlesbian to what rights (privileges) already exist for heterosexuals, constructed as couple/family (and as pointed out above, those rights were designed to benefit heterosexual men). If we content ourselves with such add-ons, such extensions to The House of Straight, we will continue to live within a structure within which some of us may be comfortable for a time, but ultimately, many or even most of us will not. Because The House of Straight was not built by us, nor was it built for us. We need to design other structures, build other possibilities – and find other tools but the master’s ones (to paraphrase Audré Lorde) with which to do so.


Arditti, Rita, Renate Klein and Shelley Minden (1984). Test-tube women : what future for motherhood? London and Boston: Pandora Press.

Beauvoir, Simone de (1949) Le deuxieme sexe. Paris: Gallimard. Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (1997)

‘Human rights for Australia’s gays and lesbians’. Commonwealth of Australia. Klein, Renate (ed) (1989)

Infertility : women speak out about their experiences of reproductive medicine. London: Pandora. Lorde, Audre, ([1981]1983)

‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’. In Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (eds) This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Colour. New York: Kitchen Table Women of Colour Press: 98-101.

Millett, Kate ([1970]1978) Sexual Politics. New York: Ballantine Books.

United Nations (1995) The United Nations and Human Rights 1945-1995. New York: UN Dept of Public Information.(1996) The United Nations and the Advancement of Women 1945-1996, pp. 244-250. New York: UN Dept of Public Information.

Winter, Bronwyn (2002). ‘Pauline and Other Perils: Women in Australian Right-Wing Politics’. New York: Routledge, 197-210.

Wittig, Monique (1992). The straight mind and other essays. Boston: Beacon Press.

1 Comment
    Posted at 11:33h, 17 February

    I appreciated the clarity with this presentation. A valuable article for personal thinking, group discussion and exploring future ways forward for us.