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Families We Keep

As recent events have made clear, LGBTQ+ adults in the United States still face significant barriers to full social acceptance. Research shows that this exclusion persists not only in the domain of national politics but also within intimate family relationships. For many LGBTQ+ people, parents can be—and often are—sources of strain, rejection, fear, and trauma.

Considering this reality, when we began to study LGBTQ+ adults’ relationships with their parents, we expected that many would be estranged from their families of origin. But we found just the opposite in our sample—most intergenerational ties were intact, albeit complicated. Why?

Our new book Families We Keep: LGBTQ People and Their Enduring Bonds with Parents, answers this question, drawing on the voices of 76 LGBTQ adults and 44 of their parents. In it, we tell the story of what keeps these ties together as both generations age. Overall, we found that the relational “glue” holding these families together is what we call compulsory kinship. Compulsory kinship is an assortment of norms and expectations based on the principle that family-of-origin relationships—especially with parents—are central, natural, and inevitable. And it led many of the adult children in our study to maintain ties with their parents even when experiencing ongoing parental rejection due to their LGBTQ identity.

The families in our study described three main reasons for keeping these ties despite challenges. First, LGBTQ adults (and their parents) drew on the idea that family is a source of unconditional love and closeness—even when they had experienced unloving or distant behavior. Second, LGBTQ people drew on notions of growth—of “it’s getting better”—to justify continued investment, even if the state of the relationship was still poor. Lastly, LGBTQ adults drew on the idea that parents are unique (i.e., “you only get one mom”), to rationalize maintaining the tie—even when it hurt to do so.

How, practically speaking, did the young adults go about this? In the second part of the book we discuss the “conflict work” required to keep these relationships intact. For LGBTQ adults, this work revolved around managing, minimizing, or coping with parental homophobia or transphobia, including avoiding discussion of their LGBTQ identity or educating their parents about their LGBTQ identity, to name just a few strategies. The work to keep these bonds close, or at least existent, fell heavily on the shoulders of the LGBTQ adults, creating even more stress in already strained family circumstances.

The stories of the LGBTQ adults in our study give fresh insight into the promises and pitfalls of all parent-adult child ties. Overall, Families We Keep is a book about how compulsory kinship reinforces normative assumptions about the permanence of “family” by regulating and structuring choices regarding who we should maintain family ties with.

Toward the end of the book, we consider the broader implications of compulsory kinship in a world where many are exposed to harmful relationships with family members. The implications for such hurtful ties are particularly concerning in the US, which has a weaker governmental safety net, making individuals materially reliant on families.

We also draw on feminist, queer, and Black, Latinx, and Indigenous scholars to consider alternative ways of approaching care and relationships. First, how could society be restructured to make adult children less reliant on the “luck” of the quality of parent-child ties? This would require an ethic of caring for others regardless of familial bonds, emphasizing broader communities and structural supports to at least minimize the “compulsory” component of kinship. Second, we consider how parent-child ties (particularly in adulthood) could become less hierarchical and thus give more room for people to sustain and renegotiate their relationships. Through telling the stories of our interviewees, we hope Families We Keep fosters conversations around treating adult children and their parents as independent and equal adults. We imagine new possibilities for kinship ties in service of making families better for everyone.

Rin Reczek is in the Department of Sociology at Ohio State, and Emma Bosley-Smith is in the Department of Sociology at Alma College. Together, they are the coauthors of Families We Keep: LGBTQ People and Their Enduring Bonds with Parents and other relevant articles published in Journal of Marriage and Family and Social Problems.

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September 28, 2023

That is Great

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