Houses, Children, Animals and the Planet
Marcin Smietana, June ‘19
In this blog post I look at a few instances in which some uses of the idea of ownership – including my own - have recently struck me in various ways. I engaged with them in my encounters with house sharing, rainbow and other families, eco-villages and animal sanctuaries - and I am living them on a daily basis.
Last week my partner and I were looking for a new housemate (as our previous housemate and friend was moving to another town), and I found myself thinking at some point, ‘I’ve shared flats and houses for 15 years now and I’m a bit tired of it, in the end we’re 40 years old, I work at the university, how long are we still going to have to share houses?’ – as if some default expectation of where one should land as one grows in age, status or anything should be ‘our own place’ just for ourselves - but why?
Of course many can, fortunately, choose to live in configurations they like, and some even like sharing the place they live in with other people – however, many can’t make that choice, in particular in places such as Cambridge where housing prices are designed to be sustainable for double-earner couples with (upper-)middle-class jobs. To which we do not belong, given my husband’s current job as a healthcare assistant in the local hospital, I’d like to proudly say – and even so, our situation is so much more privileged than that of many others.
But this housing design also made me think about broader questions of family and kinship. When I present my work on gay men who pursue surrogacy, I often hear critical questions about why they reproduce the same nuclear family form of two fathers living together with ‘their own’ children – why don’t they foster, why don’t they co-parent with female friends, I hear – well, probably for the same reason that many, if not most of us, at some point aspire to some default ideal of sharing ‘our own place’ with our partners if we have them, plus children if there are any. For the same reason, having housemates might often be perceived as not necessarily an aspirational ideal to work towards beyond a transition period of a younger age. And this may also be why, as adults, we rarely live with our parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings, nephews, nieces and friends in extended family configurations these days. As I look around the social circles that surround me, I can see that many (of us) – if not all! - often live in some kind of ‘our own family’ and ‘our own place’. This has to do with Euro-American meanings of kinship, the continuities and shifts in the understandings and uses of which Sarah Franklin and Susan McKinnon (2001) traced in detail. The central place that the European modernity awarded to the so-called 'nuclear family' has recently been critically re-read by Sarah Franklin (2018) through the feminist focus on (re-)production, as well as by Kim TallBear (2018) in her critique of settler family models as a decolonial indigenous approach.
The planet and animals
At the other end of the spectrum are some extreme versions of ‘our own country’ – one that is not shared with too many outsiders. Some would probably call for it with a worryingly renewed force at the current political moment of Brexit and the ‘hostile environment’ towards all migrants in the UK, the anti-migrant politics of ‘fortress Europe’ and the US-Mexico border.
What about ‘our own planet’ and ‘our own nature’ – where other species exist only for the sake of humanity and in ways that humans – or rather: some humans – want? In this line, the default has long been ‘our own sociology’ that talks about humans and for humans, and about some humans for some humans – where topics such as species may be a nice optional lens, but that’s it. As if humans did not thrive and depend on the subjugation of animals, for instance. The self-defeating anthropocentrism of a lot of human activity has been made particularly explicit through the recent realizations of the climate change and the ongoing massive extinction of animal species, brought to the public attention not only by numerous scientific reports, but also by social movements such as the Extinction Rebellion. Here at Cambridge Sociology, the Green Seminar Series this term has been a stark reminder it is high time to take the focus away from humans only – as well as from certain groups of humans only.
Critiques of this kind have also been voiced by some influential social thinkers and scholars. But perhaps many of us still see them as social critiques only, which are not part of our lives? So when we ask why many gay men want ‘nuclear families,’ we might also ask why so many other people (including some of us?) want ‘nuclear families’. When we critique the housing market, we might ask how we all contribute to it by paying a lot of money for huge spaces unsustainably reserved for such ‘nuclear families’. We could ask – as Sarah Ahmed did in the ‘Promise of Happiness’ (2010) - why a certain idea of happiness is assumed as an end-goal, and why we are almost made to feel unhappy or are perceived as such if we don’t meet that idea of happiness. And we could live a feminist life – as some already do - through applying those questions every day and building critical support communities, even if we are perceived as ‘killjoys’ (Ahmed 2017): those who spoil a socially assumed yet exclusionary idea of joy and happiness.
There are further alternatives. In search for them, during two years I spent beyond academia between my PhD and postdoc, my partner and I worked and lived in eco-communities and eco-farms of the Alpujarra Mountains in southern Spain. They were organized on sustainable community models, where many resources were shared, and the priority was not constant growth but rather environmental and social sustainability: growing as much of our food as possible ourselves, not using pesticides, working no more than five hours a day, working together for the community rather than competing individually for the sake of ‘our own families’… There is a vibrant eco-village movement nowadays, which gathers people who imagine a different future, based on the idea that the planet is not only our own – and to the extent that it is partly our own, alongside other species, we are accountable for caring for it. Do check out these and other films and books about the Welsh eco-village Lammas, European quests for ‘A New We’ or American ‘Living Green’.
Some forms of one’s own space or property are not to be dismissed too easily though. As Virginia Woolf made explicit in ‘A Room of One’s Own’ (1929), one’s own space may sometimes be a crucial resource for work, and a space of empowerment and reflection. Within the same space of Cambridge University where Virginia Woolf delivered her lecture almost a century ago, in a recent event on anti-harassment activism Sarah Ahmed reminded about the importance of recurring to feminist and queer spaces and support networks as a space of self-care and care for others. The LGBTQ+@Cam initiative set up by Sarah Franklin and Heather Stallard last year at this university gathers a crowd of queer and other scholars and students also for these reasons. But creating one’s own space when there is no such space in one’s surroundings and in the mainstream environment is different from appropriating a space as one’s own only, always and everywhere.
Could Virginia Woolf’s vindication of ‘A Room of One’s Own’ be compared to gay men’s vindication of ‘a family of their own’, despite such different gender histories in both cases? Perhaps it could, if we remember that in those countries that can boast gay marriage laws today, not so long ago LGBTQ+ people were not allowed to have ‘families of their own,’ they lost custody battles and were marginalized. Laura Briggs (2017) recently documented those histories of marginalization in the US, as has Jeffrey Weeks (2016) in the UK. What is more, reproductive justice looks differently from perspectives such as e.g. my native Poland, where the trope of the ‘threat’ created by LGBTQ+ families is currently used with a renewed insistence in the electoral campaign of the ruling party PiS (‘Law and Justice’). In this context, even a thought about having children or being recognized as a family by gay people may be an act of courage and a struggle for rights. These histories and present of discrimination and exclusion should be remembered in order not to dismiss gay family aspirations too light-heartedly.
However, ‘a room of one’s own’ should not be built at the expense of others, and as queer people – and all people indeed - we must make sure that our family making does not break other families - human or non-human - and does not reproduce inequalities. It is in this spirit that Charis Thompson and I thought of the special issue of Reproductive BioMedicine & Society that we guest edited earlier this year under the title ‘Making Families: Queer Kinship, Transnational Surrogacy and Reproductive Justice’. In our Introduction paper we co-authored with France Winddance Twine, we argued that gay and other parents should have the right to access reproductive services such as surrogacy, yet only as long as this does not reproduce other inequalities; and as long as the voices, rights, autonomy and health of surrogate mothers, egg donors or providers, birth families in adoption and others involved are fully respected. Many papers in this issue showed that this kind of justice is not always the case, unfortunately. For example, Michal Nahman's research in Spain revealed how, under economic pressure, egg donors were disproportionately recruited from migrant communities such as Eastern Europeans. Carolyn Sufrin's work in US jails demonstrated how incarcerated women of colour could serve as 'surrogate mothers' by force for adoptive families (to which also Diana Marre and Laura Briggs drew attention elsewhere in their work on adoption around the globe). Sharmila Rudrappa's research in the Indian state of Karnataka showed how the political management of women's bodies was part of broader politics of land, which made surrogate mothers particularly vulnerable. Zakiya Luna's work on Black users of surrogacy and other ARTs in the US, and Camisha Russell's analysis of intersections between the Black reproductive justice movement and gay surrogacy argued that the class and race privileges held by surrogacy users made their situation very different from the impoverished communities of colour that had first struggled for reproductive justice. Damien Riggs showed how many of the Australian gay men in his research did not really pay enough attention to the voices of women involved in their parenting projects. Jenny Gunnarsson Payne's analyses of Swedish policy questioned whether surrogate mothers' autonomy could really be guaranteed if they, ironically, decided to give up a lot of their autonomy when undertaking surrogacy. Therefore, she argued, more multi-lineal concepts of kinship, open to shared custody and exceeding anyone's claims to the 'ownership' of family and children, could possibly remedy many of the limitations of surrogacy.
However, all this does not mean that gay men should not make families, or that they should not make them through surrogacy. Queer scholars Judith Stacey, Laura Mamo and Josh Gamson contributed their commentaries on how gay people's reproductive rights could be negotiated on a par with the rights of surrogates, egg donors, and other 'reproductive assisters,' to use the term offered by Ingvill Stuvoy in her critical literature review. Many of the papers in this issue pointed to the importance of relationships between intended parents and 'reproductive assisters' as a way of queering reproductive injustice. It is to be seen how such relationships may also remedy the exclusion of gay surrogacy families from the privileges of belonging to the nation, discussed by Jerome Courduries in the case of France; or the exclusion of many communities of gay men from the privileged world of surrogacy in the US, discussed by Heather Jacobson.
I will conclude with the personal example with which I started this reflection – and which by no means I claim to be authoritative: this is how in my daily life I have been living all those ideas of ownership. As for a place of our own, in the coming months my partner and I are going to share the house we are currently renting with a new housemate – for economics, curiosity and ethics – whilst we are lucky to be able to make sure that each one of us has ‘a room of our own’. Regarding the ownership of the planet – or rather the lack thereof - during the summer holiday we are privileged to have, we are going to spend some time in a mountain eco-village. From its inhabitants we would like to learn more about social and environmental sustainability, which we want to implement more strongly in our lives. On the matter of ‘our own family,’ I deeply admire those gay and other people who make families through having children – as much as it doesn’t seem to be our call for now. Besides, we don’t have the money or citizenship to pursue surrogacy or adoption, nor the work stability to commit ourselves to a place where we could co-parent with friends. At least for now, we do have our parents, relatives, mentors, colleagues, friends – and, importantly, …plush animals that can speak if they are too overwhelmed by all those serious things and they just want to go to for a walk in a forest!
But our dream is an animal sanctuary where we could provide shelter to animals rescued from slaughterhouses and other human traps. I have been discovering this dream regularly on my weekend visits to the Brook Farm Animal Sanctuary in Northamptonshire, which I call ‘the real utopia sanctuary’. There I made friends with a pig, whom friendly humans named Violet. I discovered how Violet liked being stroked and how playful she was. I also discovered she had serious problems with her legs, because humans had bred her species disabled on purpose: Violet had been bred to grow too fat for her legs to carry her. Fortunately, the sanctuary founder Clive taught us how to help Violet walk and do exercise.
We would never say that Violet was ‘our own,’ or that she even could be someone’s property – even though in this social and legal system, holding her legal ‘ownership’ helped the sanctuary to actually save her.
Similarly, ownership can be used and mobilised for a variety of reasons – so when we use ownership, let’s have a think about why we’re actually doing it, what it means - and if things, animals or people are ever our own.
Thanks to our housemate Angelica Di Gregorio for conversations about house sharing, eco-communities and ownership that inspired this blog post - and as always to my partner Alessandro Biagini.