Part I: The History of Queerness, Childhood, and Family
Angel White (any/all)
TW: Discussions of ageism, child abuse, classism, homophobia, misogyny, racism, transphobia, reclaimed use of f-slur
Growing Up Queer
Growing up as a queer child, I had a bad relationship with my parents. While they outwardly preached respect for all people (including queer people), this never seemed to apply to their own household. It scared me from coming out for a long time and, when I finally did, it didn’t go well. I didn’t get support from my family, and it still isn’t a subject that my family is willing to discuss. But now I’m an “adult” and am in college. I have more free time, a (somewhat) queer-friendly environment, and live far away from my parents. This new freedom and acceptance has been necessary for me to, well, be me. And while I’m thankful for it now, I find it very troubling that I only gained this by achieving an arbitrary age and education requirement. Why wasn’t I able to achieve this freedom before? It wasn’t like it would have mattered less in high school, or before that, or that I was somehow less deserving of being treated like a person. Clearly, something has gone horribly wrong here.
I should also note that I am, overall, lucky by the standards of queer people. Queer childhood and abuse go hand-in-hand in our society. It is extremely common to find queer people estranged from their families, or at a minimum having a rough relationship with them. And while it took me a long time to get away from my queerphobic family, I was able to move far away for college due to my privileged economic background. This is something which disadvantaged queer youth often cannot do. Also, while my family hasn’t exactly treated me kindly, I’ve never gotten the worst experiences queer youth can face. I was never physically or sexually abused, something which is disproportionally common for queer children, nor was I made homeless, another major challenge facing queer people, especially queer youth.
All of this shows that queer children are uniquely oppressed. Much of this oppression has to do with queer people’s situation as children. As a child, you are at the mercy of your parents. You can’t live anywhere else without the permission of the state, so running away isn’t an option, at least not a viable one. While I think we can all condemn this, it seems we often miss the problem here. Why do parents have so much arbitrary power over their children? Why can’t children have a voice in society, decide where they live, or make their own decisions? To answer these questions, I want us to realize that the abuse done by parents, the acceptance they don’t give, the ways in which they hurt us, are really just the tip of the iceberg in a larger problem: that being, the oppression and dehumanization of youths.
My reflections about queer childhood aren’t novel. Youth Liberation of Ann Arbor, an organization that fought against the oppression of youths in the 1970s, released a pamphlet in 1976 called “Growing Up Gay.” It contains a number of essays written by queer children on a variety of topics, but (unsurprisingly) mostly focusing on their experiences as children and as queer people. For example, an essay called “I Was a Teenage Lesbian” talks about running away from home, the difficulties of finding jobs as a child, and the ageist expectations of the women’s liberation movement. Another essay, called “The Bottom Rung,” talks about the intersections of ageism and sexism, noting that both play into “marriage, the nuclear family, and domestic slavery of women.” These essays also focus on how these dynamics play out in more familiar settings. One article, called “I Came Out in Class!,” is about just that, and speaks to the positives and negatives of coming out at school, as well as strategies for being out at school, while being closeted to your parents.
I focus on this collection of writings for two reasons. First, it reminds us how the experiences and struggles of queer youth have changed over time. Second, the focus on ageism and its intersectionality with queerness seems missing from modern accounts of queer childhood. This is not to say queer people don’t mention it - we constantly discuss the power parents have over children - but I don’t think we outwardly condemn it, at least not enough. Nor am I claiming that these accounts of queer childhood are somehow more important, just that they provide a different focus which I think is often missing today. Overall, these accounts, like my personal story, reveal a common issue for queer youth: the power of adults over children.
To combat this adult supremacy, we need a liberatory perspective. Generally, this perspective has been called Youth Liberation. Through Youth Liberation, I think we learn more about the nature of the oppression of youth and how ageism affects children. By doing so, we will hopefully demystify the ideology of adult supremacy from reality. And we can find solutions to these problems and look toward a more free and fair world. Also, we can look at the intersections of the oppression of youth with other oppressions. While the intersections of childhood and other identities can be investigated, I wish to focus specifically on the intersection of queerphobia and ageism. But, it is important to note this isn’t the full discussion and similar explorations into race, disability, nationality, etc. should be done. With that being said, I hope that through this article, you can learn more about the nature of childhood, the nuclear family, queer politics, and what we can do about all these issues.
Youth Liberation and Childhood
In this section, I want to discuss a central question to this issue: what is childhood? Generally, we seem to have a very simple view of this; it is the experience one has when they are a child. We may argue over when one goes from being a child to an adult, but it is seen as a very strict distinction. For example, the age of majority varies between 15 and 21 depending on the laws of different countries, but every country has one. Further, we see a natural relation between children and parents where the parents, with some restrictions, have powers over their children. All of this leads to the major conclusion that childhood is a natural reality of the world. But is this an accurate assessment? I don’t believe so, and instead argue that childhood is a social construct.
To show that childhood is a social construct, we need to look at the diversity of adult-child relations across non-Western societies. The Igbo in Nigeria, for instance, believe that children at age of three should more or less be left to themselves. Another example is the Semai in Malaysia, who deny they teach their children any specific life skills because they view such teaching as coercive and harmful to the children. Other examples, such as some Kurdish pastoralists and native Tongans, give specific, unique jobs to children so they can learn through doing these unique tasks. Other societies also have different expectations for the abilities of children at different ages. The Matsigenka tribe in Peru is an example, as many of their children learn to use knives and machetes by age three, something which children in the West are considered incapable of.
Not only are non-Western societies a helpful example of the diversity of conceptions of childhood, but the history of childhood in Europe shows a similar diversity. The development of childhood in Europe is well described in this 2017 article from Anthos, a student-run journal at Portland State, which notes that the idea of children as a separate class from adults was not common in Europe until the end of the 16th century. Before this, children dressed like adults, joined in adult activities and work, and began adult work by the age of four or five. Even when the notion of children was created, our modern idea of a moral obligation for parents to teach their children wasn’t common until institutional and cultural changes took place like the creation of age-based schools and the birth of the nuclear family. Overall, childhood and the child’s role in society is an ever-changing concept in European history which only became its modern variation very recently.
Due to this variety in conceptions of childhood throughout different societies and throughout time, it should be clear that the view of childhood as natural is lackluster. Instead, we should view childhood as a social construct. Before moving, I should clarify something about this claim. Just because childhood is a social construct doesn’t mean that there aren’t any biologically driven changes that affect us as we age and “grow up.” Instead, this is to say the line between what is considered childhood and adulthood isn’t natural, but a social construct. This is an important distinction, as while people change as they age (which, to note, isn’t something that magically stops when you become an adult), there isn’t some line we can draw between child and adult which won’t be arbitrary. As we will see, this line between child and adult is problematic and used to justify many oppressive behaviors.
In addition, this distinction between children and adults is used for the purpose of taking away the agency of children. In her paper “The Liberation of Young People,” Amy Glaser notes that children are generally stereotyped as unaware, incompetent, and in need of protection. When children are studied, it is (unsurprisingly) adults who do all the collection and (again, unsurprisingly) they often conclude that these children are inferior to them. Glaser also notes that such exclusion of children exists in the legal system as, for example, foster children lack many basic rights like right to legal representation, right to speak in their own cases, or a right to contact family members. Children also lack much in the way of a right to privacy and are allowed to be punished in ways that adults are not. Outside of the legal system, children are generally forced to follow their parents’ schedules, such as family meals being planned around the schedules of parents, even when it is detrimental to the child. Parents often show embarrassing photos or videos of their children with no regards to how this could negatively impact their child’s self-esteem or confidence. Such humiliation would be considered socially unacceptable if adults were the victims.
This list of ways in which children’s needs aren’t taken into account could probably go on much longer. The point is that children are routinely ignored and thought of only insofar as they benefit the adults around them. We justify this abuse by claiming some natural divide which exists between youth and adults. Such claims aren’t new and one may notice that they are similar to claims made about other oppressed groups. When we take away this claim to naturalness, it becomes clear something has gone horribly wrong with the way in which children are treated. Youth Liberation, therefore, will be our framework to understand how we can construct a world which opposes such oppression. It will require us to investigate the ways in which institutions have been based on adult supremacist views and how they can be changed to oppose them as well as other oppressive worldviews.
Queerness and the Nuclear Family
Boston Gay Men’s Liberation was one of the many Gay Liberation Front organizations which were started after Stonewall to be a more radical alternative to the moderate gay organizations that dominated queer politics in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1972, they presented their 10-Point Demands to the Democratic Convention. While there are many interesting demands here, what matters for our discussion of youth liberation is their sixth demand, which reads, “Rearing children should be the common responsibility of the whole community. Any legal rights parents have over ‘their’ children should be dissolved and each child should be free to choose its own destiny. Free twenty-four hour child care centers should be established where faggots and lesbians can share the responsibility of child rearing.”
This demand, to say the least, is a very radical youth liberation position. Specifically, Boston Gay Men’s Liberation is asking for the end of the nuclear family: no more individualized raising of children and legal powers of “parents over ‘their’ children.” And they claim we should replace it with making raising children “the common responsibility of the whole community.” Even more than that, they are asking for “child care centers” run by queer people, an interesting way to both make children a more communal responsibility and have queer people be involved in that communal responsibility. Before moving on, we should note that Boston Gay Men’s Liberation is an organization run by adult men. Why are they so interested in the topic of youth liberation? I think this leaves us with a few questions which I hope to answer throughout this chapter. What is the nuclear family, why should it be abolished, and what do queer adults have to do with it?
The nuclear family is the family structure that contains two parents and one or more children. In the modern West, this has been structured as a male breadwinner and a female homemaker. This specific structure originally rose to prominence in the 1920s, and hit its height in 1950s America, being a major force in the world since. Specifically, this surge in the 1950s was greatly pushed by the American government as it wanted women to leave the workplace after the end of World War II. This was done to curb the rise of women in the workplace and prevent a decreasing marriage rate. It should be noted that while this specific family structure has been promoted as “traditional,” it is anything but. Differing styles of family dynamics have existed throughout history as well as different ways of dividing labor among family members. Another important thing to keep in mind is that for most of human history, nuclear family units were not isolated as is somewhat common in modern society. While parent-child relations are not new, the restriction of households to only these relations and not extended family or community members is very novel, at least in its widespread application. All of this is to say that while the nuclear family is a wide term, its most prominent example, and by extension what its most prominent defenders tend to care about, is a 20th century Western notion of family.
The issues with this family system are well described in the 1983 essay “Childhood and the Psychological Dimension of Revolution” by Ashanti Alston. Alston starts his discussion by noting that parents stand as the first authority figures we interact with. From these interactions, children are taught to “Respect and Obey your Parents! Do as we Say. We know how to Raise you." This is justified because it is “necessary if you were going to Fit In and Make It in this society.” While parents do this because they wish to protect their children, it unfortunately leads to the opposite result. This authority forced on children leads to them growing up to become people with an “inability… in general to govern their own lives without an authoritarian figure hovering over them; it shows in their apathy, hopelessness and feelings of insignificance.”
To accomplish this, the family, as an institution, becomes the basis for authoritarian power in our society. Or, as Alston puts it, “After the coup d'etat of the Family Institution over the natural freedom and aliveness of the child, that child is trained into an adulthood in which it will continue to repress freedom (its full human developmental capacities) and continue the whole process anew in its offspring.” Given this, we can see what the nuclear family is: an institution which represses people’s instincts to live freely and not only leads them to serve authority, but also becomes the means by which our society renews its authority over the next generation. Knowing this, it should be no surprise the American government took such an active role in the promotion of the nuclear family. Without the “Family Institution” in its current form and the authoritarian nature of American society, the increasing intrusion of the government and capitalism into our lives would likely be much harder to sustain.
This type of authoritarian control also matters in maintaining prejudice and institutional inequality. This is because, Alston explains, another objective of the family institution “is to ‘civilize’ the child and keep everyone bind to the traps of tradition and belief. But what it amounts to is a vast suppression of the force or fire of life within the child or population in general.” This suppression denies us the ability to live “freely in a rich and joyous life ... OR in a life of Revolution dreaming, creating, destroying, healing, contesting, renewing.” Alston’s description of the nuclear family tells us about how it destroys our freedom, our creativity, our identity, and replaces it with ones that society approves of.
So, now that we understand the problems of the nuclear family and its horrifying consequences, we can now turn to the question of why queer liberation organizations were specifically interested in youth liberation. To do this, we will start with historical context, which is provided by Michael Bronski’s article “When Gays Wanted to Liberate Children.” Starting in the 1960s, the Children’s Liberation Movement, the beginning of modern Youth Liberation work, began to gain mainstream attention. From there, in the late 1960s and 1970s, radical feminists started to merge ideas from the Children’s Liberation Movement with their own. These radical feminists would go on to influence the Gay Liberation movement, and brought ideas of youth liberation to the forefront of queer politics.
Youth Liberation was specifically important to Gay Liberationists because of how important childhood is to queer people. Queer children have always been a battleground, as shown by the recent wave of attacks on trans youth. This is because queerphobic people understand that cutting off queer children from support is the most effective way to keep queer people hidden. Further, by denying authentic queer childhoods, bigots can reinforce the idea that adults are “choosing” to be queer. To argue against this, the Gay Liberationists argued for the ability of children to be recognized as sexual beings and the ability for children to understand themselves (both claims which have bases in feminist thinking). Along with this, queer people in the 1970s also started to develop ideas of how to create alternative family systems. Queer people would help raise queer children and build chosen (and generally large, non-isolated) families. At the forefront of this work was STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), a trans organization founded by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. STAR was formed to combat queer youth homelessness, especially trans youth who were kicked out of their homes, and provided housing to a wide range of people, mostly queer youth and sex workers. This work by STAR greatly contributed to the development methods of creating new, queer ways of living.
Another reason for this change was the rise in youth participation in Gay Liberation organizations compared to previous queer organizations. Before Stonewall, most queer organizations, which were mainly homophile groups, restricted membership to those over 21. Gay Liberation organizations, on the other hand, were more open to youth participation. Beyond this, the rise of organizations like STAR and Gay Youth, both of which had many youth organizers and activists, meant that queer youth had a greater voice in the movement. It is important to note, though, that is an oversimplification; many Gay Youth organizers, for example, were in Gay Youth because they felt that their demands as youth were being ignored in other gay liberation organizations. Allowing youth to participate didn’t always lead to these organizations actually taking their demands seriously. But still, it was a major change from previous organizations and helped younger, more youth-led organizations find footing and a place to bring their demands to queer adults.
But if these demands were so common among queer organizations back then and are so important to queer rights, why don’t modern queer organizations focus on youth liberation? To answer this question we need to look to the rise of conservatism in the late 1970s and 1980s. In 1977, Anita Bryant, a famous singer at the time, launched her “Save the Children” campaign, which was meant to overturn a non-discrimination law in Miami, Florida. Bryant specifically argued that queer people were a threat to children, who they would “recruit” into being queer. Bryant not only overturned the non-discrimination law, but set the standard for arguments made by other anti-queer activists, most notably those from organizations like Focus on the Family and the Moral Majority. These new bigots no longer denied the existence of queer youth, but claimed that queer youth were the result of corruption from queer adults. This led to a chilling effect on queer groups wanting to engage with queer youth or be connected to children in any way. By the time interest in queer youth re-emerged in the 1990s, the landscape of queer activism had changed dramatically. Gay marriage, queer adoption, and coming out became central themes through which queer people’s relation to children was focused on. Changing society through ideas like Youth Liberation was no longer the goal of queer movements, and they were replaced by trying to find ways for queer people to navigate and be accepted by our society.
In conclusion, this article has explored the problem of parents having power over their children. This exploration has examined the nature of childhood and family and has considered the intersectionality of queerness and childhood. This is connected historically to the queer politics of the 1970s and its demands of youth liberation. This relationship would eventually prove disastrous for youth liberation as it slowly lost its place in mainstream discussion as the gay liberation movement it was attached to receded due to conservative pressures. When queer politics re-emerged in the 1990s, it saw many successes, but did so at the cost of abandoning principles like youth liberation. Going forward, I want to explore the ways in which abandoning such radical principles has limited the effect of modern queer activism and look into ways in which queer organizers can re-embrace the radical demands of the past.
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