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Event Review: Queer Conceptions – Families in the 21st Century

24 May 2021
Appeared in BioNews 1096

What makes a family? What was once probably a simple question to answer can now be complicated (or 'queered'). There are now various models of family to consider, which departs from the 'traditional' ideal  of a married, cisgender man and woman with biogenetic children.

Indeed, this was precisely the starting point for the event 'Queer Conceptions: Families in the 21st Century': how has the understanding of 'family' become more diverse when we consider, for example, same-sex procreation (broadly conceived – pun intended) and trans pregnancy?

The speakers themselves were involved with the topic of 'queer conceptions' in a variety of ways, from being pregnant themselves to researching the myriad ways of queer conceptions, which added a welcoming and personal (virtual) atmosphere. The event was chaired by Dr Katherine Dow; and Dr Francesca Gaccioli and Dr Geoffrey Maguire are the 'Queer Conception' project leads.

Freddy McConnell was the first speaker of the night. Freddy is a trans man who is currently taking legal action which, if successful, would enable him to be registered as his child's father (or parent) on the birth certificate after giving birth (see BioNews 1045). He has also featured in the documentary 'Seahorse' which looked at Freddy's pregnancy journey (see BioNews 1016). Much of Freddy's talk revolved around Seahorse and his current legal action, the latter of which highlights the cis-heteronormative underpinnings of the birth registration system and trans people's attempts to be adequately recognised by said system (see BioNews 1018).

What was surprising to hear, however, is that trans people are sometimes given (potentially) false medical advice – such as trans men being told that, if they are on testosterone, they are unlikely to be able to conceive. Likewise, Freddy spoke of having to 'play the game' when talking to various medical professionals in his attempt to become pregnant. Such discourse highlights the fact that trans people's legitimate expressions of themselves are not currently accepted in society (and law): they must fit into the hegemonic narratives of what a 'real' trans person is to be perceived as 'legitimate' and deemed able to begin a family. These are just some of the barriers, of course, that we must deconstruct to truly realise a queer reproductive future.

Dr Zoë Stewart, an academic clinical lecturer in obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Leicester, then explored the different routes to parenthood available to queer people. Importantly, she highlighted at the outset that the reproductive process is likely to be different for queer people. It is inherently less private as queer people are unlikely to be able to procreate without third party involvement, and queer reproduction necessitates more deliberate decision-making as a result (which can be both a blessing and a hindrance). After talking us through these different routes to parenthood – which ranged from adoption and surrogacy, to intrauterine insemination (IUI) and IVF, to home insemination and co/poly-parenting – Dr Stewart ended with the sad reality that the journey to parenthood for queer people can be difficult. The existence of (institutional) queerphobia means queer people have various barriers placed in their route to parenthood, such as the virtual non-existence of fertility funding for same-sex couples, alongside general assumptions made about queer people being 'unfit' to parent.

The final two speakers were Dr Marcin Smietana and Susie Bower-Brown, both researchers at the University of Cambridge. Dr Smietana discussed research he has conducted involving gay men forming families through adoption and surrogacy (in the UK, USA and Spain), and Bower-Brown spoke about her research into the experiences of trans and non-binary parents in parenting spaces.

Most interesting to me from Dr Smietana's research was the role assimilation and the desire to be perceived as 'natural' seemed to play in these men's constructions of their family. Dr Smietana highlighted a theme of 'thinkability', by which he meant how these gay men thought about what kind of family is 'thinkable', which subsequently morphed into what would seem more 'natural'/less questionable. While this theme is relevant for all queer families, Dr Smietana's research suggests these concerns may be mediated in unique ways among gay dads.

Similarly, Bower-Brown's research identified two types of parents: a 'pragmatic' parent and a 'pioneering' parent. While every parent used diverse strategies to navigate exclusionary parenting spaces, the intersectional element of Bower-Brown's research highlighted that some were in a better position to be either pragmatic or pioneering than others. Ultimately,  Bower-Brown's research demonstrates the need for explicitly inclusive queer-friendly parenting spaces and for better education within fertility clinics, the NHS, and so forth, on the experiences of queer parents (trans and non-binary parents in particular).

If I had to make one (potential) 'criticism' of the event, it is the fact that all speakers implicitly defined 'family' as necessarily including children. It would have been nice to hear a perspective that sought to remove procreation as the focal point of family life as this can be interpreted as a very heteronormative thing to do. One version of a 'queer utopia' is certainly one in which a family is not defined by cis-heterosexual ('natural') procreation and the presence of children; or, conversely, where anyone's child is everyone's child (such that defining family by reference to children and biogenetics almost becomes redundant – a core tenant to family abolition theory, as recently highlighted by Dr Sophie Lewis). This 'criticism', understandably, may not fit within the overall 'Queer Conceptions' research themes (and as such is a redundant 'criticism'), but it is an important point to highlight nonetheless. It takes a village, after all.

That being said, this event was truly noteworthy in its ability to get the audience to think critically about families and the spaces in which queer parents locate themselves. While the 'traditional' family is still by far the most prevalent in society, it is long overdue to begin appreciating diverse families for what they are in their own right; not by reference to how far they can be assimilated into the societal and legal 'ideal'.

Queer Conceptions: Families in the 21st Century
Cambridge Festival |  30 March 2021
7 October 2019 - by Liam Davis 
The High Court decided that a trans man could not be named as a 'father' on his child's birth certificate because he gave birth. Instead, he had to be named as the 'mother'...
26 September 2019 - by Jen Willows 
A trans man who became pregnant and gave birth has lost his legal challenge not to be named as the mother on his child's birth certificate...
23 September 2019 - by Dr Marieke Bigg 
In a world where our sex tells us nothing about our gender - where we can be anyone and be in relationships with anyone – how do we make sense of ourselves?
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