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Queering Family TreesRace, Reproductive Justice, and Lesbian Motherhood$

Sandra Patton-Imani

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9781479865567

Published to NYU Press Scholarship Online: January 2021

DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9781479865567.001.0001

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Making Family Legal

Making Family Legal

Border Crossings and Other Perils, 2004–2007

(p.165) 6 Making Family Legal
Queering Family Trees

Sandra Patton-Imani

Sandra Patton-Imani

NYU Press

Abstract and Keywords

I explore family-making in three distinct regions of the country in the early years of the twenty-first century. I use as a lens a series of same-sex marriage performances in 2004 in San Francisco, California; Bernalillo, New Mexico; and Iowa City, Iowa, exploring my interviewees’ differing relationships to these local claims for legal same-sex marriage. I explore the ways lesbian mothers negotitate lack of access to the range of social protections, benefits, and privileges that come with legal marriage at federal, state, and local levels through a reproductive justice lens. This comparative regional emphasis demonstrates stratification between mothers living in different states, with access to different levels of legal protection. At the same time, it also makes evident stratification among mothers of different racial-ethnic identities, tribal identities, and socioeconomic statuses living in the same state that are connected to long histories of settler colonialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy.

Keywords:   Settler colonialism, White supremacy, Patriarchy, Stratified reproduction, California, New Mexico, Iowa, Reproductive justice, Same-sex marriage


  • We’re with the Navajo Nation. They banned gay marriages as soon as Bush kind of banned gay marriages all over. So, the Navajo Nation kind of took that route. Before, it was never banned. So now that it’s banned, it’s kind of hard for us.
  • Ronnie is referring to President George W. Bush’s 2004 push for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in the United States. She cites this unsuccessful federal amendment as influential in the 2005 Diné Marriage Act, which banned recognition of same-sex marriage and adoption in the Navajo Nation. Prior to its passage, cohabitating same-sex couples were recognized as married by the Navajo Nation under tribal common law, the same as heterosexual unmarried couples. Ronnie, Yvonne, and their son Arnold live on the reservation in Tsaile, Arizona. Their sense of belonging there has been challenged as the national same-sex marriage debate has shaped the Navajo Nation’s laws regulating same-sex marriage and adoption. Ronnie concisely details the political process among Diné lawmakers:


  • But as far as Navajo Nation there’s a group called the Navajo Council Nation Delegates. They’re against gay marriages, actually—I guess homosexuality in general. But the president of the Navajo Nation, his personal opinion was that you’re yourself, and who you are is who you are. But then they kind of overridden him and banned gay marriages anyway.
  • The Diné Marriage Act and the Federal Marriage Amendment were part of a series of legal and policy proposals to regulate marriage and family at local, state, federal, and international levels in the early twenty-first century.

    (p.166) Ronnie and Yvonne were making a family in a political moment characterized by stark regulatory differences based on where they live, intersected with gender, sexuality, class, race, and tribal identity. Border crossings, and the perils they engender for vulnerable citizens, are central to this story. The rights and protections available to families headed by gays and lesbians depended most fundamentally, in this era, on geographic location. Yet Ronnie and Yvonne had to navigate more than legal inconsistencies across borders. Even within one location there were multiple, and often conflicting, arenas of jurisdiction. Legal demarcations followed national borders and state lines as well as tribal nation boundaries and county jurisdictions. Socioeconomic limitations continue to deepen stratification of access to legal protections for mothers who are not middle class or wealthy. Like all of the mothers we interviewed, Ronnie and Yvonne’s available options for protecting their family relationships in the early years of the twenty-first century were limited. In this chapter I deepen and extend my analysis of stratified reproduction among queer mothers through an exploration of family-making in three different US regions.

    In the first few months of 2004 same-sex marriage events in five cities—three of which were among my research sites—garnered significant media attention: San Francisco, California; Sandoval County, New Mexico; New Paltz, New York; Iowa City, Iowa; and Multnomah County, Oregon. It was an exciting moment of possibility for LGBTQ couples and families. Melanie and I, like queer couples all over the United States, watched news coverage of weddings on the steps of San Francisco City Hall with rapt attention. I use these events as lenses through which to explore inequalities between families living in different states, under varying social, economic, and political circumstances, in this historical moment. For mothers residing in different states, there were clear differences in the lived experience of citizenship, but there were also significant differences between mothers of different racial-ethnic identities and socioeconomic circumstances within each state.

    Exploring microlevel politics through the stories of mothers in different locations demonstrates three particular points. The first point is that marriage is just one part of the story, and, as I have argued, must be considered in relation to other laws shaping the lived experience of family. Second-parent adoption, health insurance, domestic partner benefits, wills, and powers of attorney are the more practical concerns of the parents (p.167) we interviewed. Each state regulates access to each of these family protections differently. The second point is that these legal discrepancies reveal the ways these laws deepen inequality. This stratification of access to reproductive and family supports is rooted in historical inequities that have privileged white families while disadvantaging families of color in the name of strengthening the future of the nation. Living at the intersections of multiple jurisdictions both amplifies oppression and makes border crossings dangerous.

    My third point is that these mothers’ narratives challenge standard constructions of assimilation and resistance and therefore reshape the contours of the public debate in the early years of the twenty-first century. This snapshot moment of family politics was largely narrated through tensions between conservatives and liberals in the ways I have discussed in previous chapters: as diagnoses of the state of the nation as either progressing or declining. Yet the public debate became more complex at the turn of the century. Leftist and queer critiques of same-sex marriage as an assimilationist project increased as more opportunities for legalizing same-sex unions became available. Sociologists Mary Bernstein and Mary C. Burke make clear that queer leftist critiques of marriage in the media increased in frequency and gained a new level of credibility following the Vermont Supreme Court decision that led to the creation of civil unions in 2000.1 Liberals discussed same-sex marriage as the path to equality; conservatives saw it as deviance; leftist queers called it assimilation. The lived experience of negotiating power inequalities is more complex than how these issues are represented in public discussion.

    San Francisco, California: “You Have to Be Able to Adopt”

    On February 12, 2004, the City of San Francisco, under the direction of mayor Gavin Newsom, began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Newsom justified his actions on the basis of equal protection under the California State Constitution, arguing that the denial of marriage to gay men and lesbians “is wrong and inconsistent with the values this country holds dear.”2 While Newsom was instrumental in this brief legalization of same-sex marriage in San Francisco, a history of activism shaped the performances as well. As sociologists Verta Taylor, Katrina Kimport, Nella Van Dyke, and Ellen Ann Anderson explain:

    (p.168) In San Francisco, the tactic of same-sex couples showing up at City Hall to demand marriage licenses originated on February 12, 1998, when the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national organization of the lesbian and gay rights movement, sponsored “Freedom to Marry Day.” Gay rights groups held small actions in more than forty cities that year. In San Francisco, Molly McKay and her partner Davina Kotulski went to the marriage counter at City Hall to request a marriage license. When they were denied, they decided to make it an annual protest. (2013, 239)

    Between 1998 and 2003 activists showed up at San Francisco City Hall every year on February 12 requesting marriage licenses. In 2004 Newsom’s actions changed the outcome of this tradition. Over three thousand same-sex couples were issued marriage licenses by San Francisco in the first week they became available, including a number of high-profile celebrities who flew in for weddings and photo opportunities on the steps of city hall. The city resorted to making appointments for same-sex couples seeking marriage licenses in order to accommodate the steady demand. Indeed, giddy people from all over the country flooded San Francisco City Hall seeking state sanction of their unions.

    I draw here on the voices of mothers we interviewed in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2005. All of these families were middle-class parents of toddlers. I draw on the family-making stories of Angela and Michelle, an interracial (Chicana and white) couple who lived in the East Bay. The other mothers we interviewed at this time in the Bay Area were members of an internet listserv in San Jose called Lavender Moms. All of the parents from this group that agreed to be interviewed are white, middle-class parents of toddlers that lived in Silicon Valley. Each of these families had the economic and cultural resources to undergo fertility treatments and to secure legal recognition of their family relationships through adoption.

    We interviewed Vickie and Pam—white, upper-middle-class lesbian parents of toddler twins—at their home in San Jose, California. We sat in their backyard, enjoying the sunny day, as our toddler twins ran around with theirs. They did not participate in the San Francisco weddings, primarily because they heard that these marriages would interfere with their legal status as domestic partners under the 2003 California Domestic Partnership Rights and Responsibilities Act. This was a crucial consideration, as the family’s medical coverage (for Pam and their (p.169) children) was secured through Vickie’s employer on the basis of this law, and their daughter has health issues and disabilities that require ongoing medical care. This was not a risk they felt they could take for what might turn out to be a purely symbolic act, if the marriages were not recognized by the State of California.

    Vickie had undergone in vitro fertility treatments and had several ova harvested and implanted in Pam. While Vickie is the genetic mother of their twins, because Pam gave birth to them, Vickie was required to adopt her own children to become their legal parent. Had she not done this she would have been considered an “egg donor” with no legal recognition of her relationship with her children.


  • Obviously, we’d like to see some laws enacted so that she didn’t have to adopt her own children and we could both be on the birth certificate. I mean, in reality we are both their moms. She is genetically their mom, and I was their birth mother. So, yeah, I would like to see some legislation take place to help families out in that way, obviously.

  • That’s pretty much it. I think it would just be easier all around if they would just accept gay marriage, and then they wouldn’t have to worry about the fact that—whose kids they were. They were born within the marriage, so guess what? They are both of ours.
  • The connection between marriage and the presumption of parentage encapsulates the logic undergirding the argument that same-sex marriage is the key to equality. If legal marriage were available to all couples, regardless of gender or sexuality, second-parent adoption would be unnecessary (at least when children are born after the couple is married).

    Jamie and Lorie viewed adoption as a burdensome requirement necessary to protect their entire family:


  • That’s why I said you have to be able to adopt. It’s like you have no power if you can’t. You’re totally helpless. You can’t do anything with your children if you can’t adopt.
  • When we interviewed them at their home in San Jose in 2005, their oldest child was five years old and their twins were a year and a half. The interview was punctuated by requests for snacks, outbursts of crying, (p.170) and the blur of motion caused by a five-year-old trying to corral two sets of toddler twins. The four moms in the room eagerly talked about family-making and took turns dispensing snacks and managing crises. Jamie and Lorie had completed second-parent adoptions for all three of their children, in order to ensure that Jamie was a legal decision-maker in contexts like public schools and doctor’s offices. Despite this legal protection, they encountered problems. They shared a story about when their oldest child was a toddler and had to be rushed to the emergency room for a serious head injury:


  • So they ran a CAT scan on him. We were there a good couple of hours. So the doctor comes in and he goes, “Well, who’s the parent?”
  • LORIE:

  • “Who’s the mother?’
  • JAMIE:

  • “Who’s the mother?” I said, “We are.” And he goes, “No, who’s the real mother?” And I said. “We are.” He said, “Who gave birth to him?” Oh, that ticked me off. I was set off in a big-time way. I said, “Does it make any difference? We’re both legally his guardians.” You know. So he goes, “Who’s the birth mother?” And Lorie goes, “I am.” And he says, “Will you come with me?” And he takes her down the hall to look at the CAT scan, you know. So she went to go look at it and came back and he goes, “Now you can come look at it if you want.” You know? I was—ooooh. If it hadn’t have been the situation it was in I’d a-been all over that.
  • LORIE:

  • Usually that’s when it happens, too. It’s hardly ever happened, but it generally happens when you’re really powerless because you want your child to be like safe and cared for and taken care of. And that’s when it’s pulled. Normally, you would not stand for it, [but] you allow it a little more. Because I’ll be like, “Babe, let’s just, let’s just let them say whatever so we can find out what’s going on with our kids.” You know, we’re a little bit more willing to not make a big fuss out of it.
  • As Lorie said, interrogations about your legitimacy as a mother are “the last thing you want when your kid is sick.” Melanie shared with them a story about a narrow-minded nurse’s response to our family when our children were in the neonatal intensive care unit after they were born nine weeks prematurely. We talked about the difficulties of navigating power inequalities when your children are vulnerable, and about how (p.171) resistance to oppression has to be finessed strategically. Lorie and Jamie emphasized the need to choose their battles carefully.

    For Lorie and Jamie, and families like theirs that had already completed or were in the process of completing second-or stepparent adoptions, the possibility of getting married in San Francisco—about an hour’s drive from San Jose—was exciting, but ultimately would have been more symbolic than practical. When the City of San Francisco began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex parties, each of the couples we interviewed considered the prospect, yet none of them actually did it. They all wanted familial rights, but none of them were confident that the San Francisco weddings would achieve that. Many of them feared that these licenses would not be legally recognized or might even be annulled (which, in fact, they eventually were). The other primary consideration was the worry that a San Francisco marriage would nullify their domestic partner status under the Domestic Partnership Rights and Responsibilities Act (2003). Not only was health insurance at stake; the new law provided that couples that had been registered as domestic partners for one year were eligible for stepparent adoption, a legal process much less expensive and invasive than second-parent adoption.

    Sam and Kelly were in the final stages of Sam’s stepparent adoption of their son Jackson when we interviewed them in their home in San Jose in 2005. As we watched our toddlers play together, they explained to us that after they had been registered with the State of California as domestic partners for one year they became eligible for a stepparent adoption as opposed to a second-parent adoption. Stepparent adoption has historically been used by heterosexual married couples to legalize the relationship between a child and a stepparent that has assumed a primary parental role. In the past this was only possible when the birth parent of the same gender relinquished parental rights; the US adoption system has historically been regulated through gender, meaning that a child may only legally have one mother and one father. Second-parent adoption reaches beyond this gender polarity in allowing children to have two mothers or two fathers. The most significant difference from second-parent adoption is that no home study is required. All the women we interviewed described the home study as highly intrusive. At the time of this interview in 2005, stepparent adoption for gay and lesbian parents was still extremely rare.

    (p.172) SAM:

  • I found it interesting that Kelly needed to be fingerprinted, in the process. And Kelly has always brought up a good point about some of the things we had to go through to become legal parents of what is by all rights our child. Is you know, she could have gone into a club and had a one-night stand, and it would have been no problem, with, you know, that person’s rights. So you know, it’s funny that—­
  • KELLY:

  • Well, it’s sort of like, I chose Sam just like anybody chooses their partner and that should be good enough. I think that should be good enough because he’s my child. Biologically, he’s my child so it should be good enough that I say she’s the parent I want for my child. I definitely put a lot more thought into it than some people that get pregnant.
  • Choice is the theoretical grounding upon which Kelly constructs her argument for equality under the law. As a California resident legitimized by the Domestic Partnership Registry, she does have the option to designate Sam as Jackson’s second parent; that is in fact, what their stepparent adoption in California has allowed them to do. They downloaded a form from the state’s website, filled it out, got fingerprinted, and sent in the materials with a twenty-five-dollar filing fee. The upcoming court date for finalizing the adoption was circled in red on their refrigerator calendar, alongside family photos and magnetic alphabet letters. We shared with them the costs of second-parent adoptions (which also require home studies conducted by social workers) in Iowa and other states (three to six thousand dollars were the amounts we heard most commonly). They were shocked by this, and grateful for the liberal California laws; they would not have been able to afford a second-parent adoption if that were the cost. Sam is a full-time student and does in-home day care to contribute to the family income. Though Kelly works full-time, they can really only afford to live in their modest San Jose home with help from her parents. These laws are accessible only by those with both the geographical proximity and the financial resources. California was, in these early years of the new millennium, one of the few states in the United States where second-and stepparent adoptions were this available. Yet the laws were confusing, contradictory, and shifting quickly. The second-parent adoptions of the other families we interviewed in the Bay Area all required home studies, lawyers, and large sums of money.

    (p.173) Angela, who is Chicana, and her partner, Michelle, who is white, live in the San Francisco East Bay area. They found the second-parent adoption process for their twins frustrating. It cost them between three and four thousand dollars for a lawyer and for the social worker’s home study. The social worker wanted to charge them double, yet the report was exactly the same, the only difference being the children’s names. They bargained her down a bit, but it was still very expensive.


  • I think from the onset it just felt a little ridiculous that we have to spend all this money and time for something that you know, should just be …

  • Should just be.

  • Yeah, should just be. And of course, now kids born in the state of California you can get ‘em on the birth certificate without this process, but they’re still recommending the process.
  • The Bay Area is a very expensive place to live, and most of the families we talked with struggled financially in their early years of family-making. Some had family members helping them. Others detailed their cost-cutting measures, like buying toys at garage sales and shopping at stores with twin discounts. Some worked multiple jobs. Having children is expensive enough, and even in California the added costs of legally protecting family relationships that are not already recognized by the courts are burdensome. In addition to adoption, families paid lawyers for name changes (so the entire family would have the same last name), preparation of wills, powers of attorney, and guardianship assignations.

    According to a study released by the Williams Institute in 2009, lesbian couples are more likely to be poor than heterosexual couples. The study, which draws on 2000 census data on LGB couples, also demonstrates that children of gays and lesbians are twice as likely to live in poverty as those in families with heterosexual married parents. It states, “The social and policy context of LGB life provides many reasons to think that LGB people are at least as likely—and perhaps more likely—to experience poverty as are heterosexual people: vulnerability to employment discrimination, lack of access to marriage, higher rates of being uninsured, less family support, or family conflict over coming (p.174) out” (Williams Institute 2009). Legal marriage would not resolve these inequalities, yet it remained at the center of political discussions of LGBTQ rights discourse during this era.

    The steps of San Francisco City Hall were a stage to a morality play at every level of discourse. This performance of citizenship garnered attention from protesters as well as marrying couples from across the country. The Washington Post reported:

    About 15 protesters from Christian conservative groups in Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin came to City Hall with placards calling homosexuality a sin and urging gay people to repent. They were confronted by counterprotesters who carried signs such as “straight guys in favor of free choice” and who offered coffee and doughnuts to waiting couples, reporters and police.

    At one point, the anti-gay-marriage protesters blocked the door to the clerk’s office that issues marriage licenses, kneeling down and singing prayers. The protesters were drowned out by waiting couples, who began belting out “The Star-Spangled Banner” as sheriff ’s deputies escorted the protesters from the building.

    (Nieves 2004, AO1)

    This clash of beliefs is deeply enmeshed in neoliberal language of American democracy and freedom. Indeed, even the “straight guys” in support of same-sex marriage celebrate and defend it in the language of neoliberal choice. These protests were formalized in a series of lawsuits, rulings, and appeals. The legal volleys ended in August 2004 when the California Supreme Court voided all same-sex marriages performed in San Francisco. The symbolic significance of these marriages indeed ended up being greater than their legal value.

    Conservatives were joined in their opposition to same-sex marriage by some unexpected allies. From the other end of the political spectrum emerged a fierce critique of same-sex marriage as a strategy for achieving equality for gays and lesbians. Academics, feminists, queers, and leftists have been critical of efforts to legalize same-sex marriage because it reinforces inequality for low-income people, has historically functioned as a regulatory gatekeeper of citizenship against people of color, and fosters assimilation to a white, heteronormative, middle-class family ideal.3 In 2004 blogger Matilda (Matt) Bernstein Sycamore wrote:

    (p.175) The violence of assimilation lies in the ways the borders are policed. For decades, there has been a tension within queer politics and cultures, between assimilationists and liberationists, conservatives and radicals. Never before, however, has the assimilationist/conservative side held such a stranglehold over popular representations of what it means to be queer. Gay marriage proponents are anxious to discard generations of queer efforts to create new ways of loving, lusting for, and caring for one another, in favor of a 1950s model of white-picket-fence, “we’re-just-like-you” normalcy.

    Sycamore argues supporters of same-sex marriage have been co-opted by conservative definitions of traditional family—a narrative that became more prevalent in the early 2000s.

    While marriage was front and center in news and social media, the stories of the mothers we interviewed undermine the notion that their desire for marriage is simply a performance of normative family. Indeed, their perspectives on same-sex marriage were more complex than what is generally represented in news coverage and policy debates. Underlying this discourse is a more intricate discussion of adoption as a strategy for legalizing family relationships.

    New Mexico and the Navajo Nation: “This Act Is against Tradition”

    Meanwhile, in Bernalillo, N.M., a rural town just north of Albuquerque, dozens of gay couples flocked to the Sandoval County Clerk’s office after the clerk announced she would grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Clerk Victoria Dunlap, a Republican, said she decided to grant the licenses after the county attorney determined that New Mexico law is unclear on the issue. County Attorney David Mathews said state law defines marriage as a contract between parties but does not mention gender.

    (Nieves 2004, AO1)

    Sixty-four same-sex couples were married on February 20, 2004 before the New Mexico State Attorney General stopped the granting of marriage licenses. The marriage event was initiated by a request by a same-sex couple for a marriage license earlier that week to the Sandoval County Clerk’s office. Upon analysis of the New Mexico marriage statute the county clerk and county attorney determined that, in fact, the only place the gender of prospective spouses was specified was on the (p.176) marriage license application form. The county clerk proceeded to grant marriage licenses for several hours before the attorney general required them to cease.

    In the summer of 2007 we interviewed twenty-six lesbian mothers living in Albuquerque, Taos, Santa Fe, and Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Tsaile, Arizona.4 Ten of the mothers were white, eight were Latina, four were African American, and four were Indigenous. These families had vastly different experiences of family-making that are linked to long histories of oppression against families of color in the Southwest.

    Sonia and Renee, a white, middle-class couple with two kids who live in Sandoval County, were among the same-sex couples that raced to the courthouse during the brief window the day the weddings took place.


  • I woke up one morning and they said, “News flash! There’s a place in New Mexico where gays and lesbians can get legally married.” I heard it from the bathroom—we have a TV in the bedroom. I’m like, “Turn that up!” It was right in Sandoval County at our courthouse in our county in Bernalillo, New Mexico.
  • Sonia is an educator and administrator at a prominent private day school for grades six through twelve in Albuquerque (approximately a thirty-minute drive south of Bernalillo), where she has a number of lesbian coworkers.


  • My friend Janet, who’s the scheduler—she’s a couple offices down from me over there—said, “I think we better hustle. There’s a rumor going around that the state attorney general is gonna shut this down as soon as possible.”
  • Several of them left that day to get married.


  • And so I left work and met Renee at the courthouse, and we did the application. And there was a minister down there from umm, I can’t remember—one of the gay churches in town, I think it was the Metropolitan Community Church. And we went downstairs and our friends Janet and Dawn were our witnesses. And we got legally married. We got all our paperwork filed in time, and about twenty minutes after (p.177) our paperwork had been filed the attorney general’s letter came to the courthouse saying that she was shutting down all the ceremonies, that it violated New Mexico law, in her legal opinion. So, then they quit doing it.
  • The legal status of these marriages, like those performed in San Francisco, was uncertain. Yet Sonia and Renee were more concerned with getting married as an act of civil disobedience than with the rights they might acquire or with the social approval or inclusion that might accompany legal marriage. They had never had a commitment ceremony, “because it felt false to us”:


  • You know, we considered ourselves married in the sense of we have a home together that we own jointly. We have children together that share our names. We’re a family, and it didn’t matter what people thought, so. But [big smile] we did run and get the marriage license.
  • Her comments articulate the ambivalence many of the mothers we interviewed felt about getting married. Legal marriage simultaneously did not matter and was profoundly significant. A traditional marriage ceremony was not important to Sonia and Renee, nor were they confident that their marriage would actually provide any family protections. Yet the opportunity to participate in a political performance of marriage that might contribute to larger legal changes was appealing.

    While queer critics of same-sex marriage viewed this rush to the altar as assimilation to a heteronormative family model, Sonia and Renee viewed their nuptials as resistance to discriminatory laws. Their sense that the media coverage they received might contribute to a larger movement for social change was shared by many of the mothers we interviewed. This is consistent with research conducted with same-sex couples following their marriages in San Francisco. According to one study, “For most participants, the weddings were not meant to embrace the institution of marriage as traditionally defined”; rather, weddings were public performances designed to “gain visibility for their relationships, stake a claim to civil rights, contest discriminatory marriage laws, and challenge the institutionalization of heterosexuality” (Taylor, Kimport, Van Dyke, and Anderson 2013, 239). Feminist scholar Shannon Weber argues that the activism of the marriage equality groups in California with whom she conducted (p.178) research “revise queer theoretical arguments about marriage equality activism as by definition assimilationist, homonormative, and single-issue” (2015, 1147). Her research found a heterogeneous, coalition-based network of organizations focused on social justice that engaged in creative modes of political protest. Discrete categorizations of assimilation versus resistance in political commentary do not adequately account for the multiple political strategies employed by individuals or organizations working for social justice for queer folks. Taylor and Bernstein are clear that “the current debate among LGBT activists over whether marriage is assimilationist or transformative is far too simplistic” (2013, 3).

    At the time of our interview in 2007, Sonia and Renee were still unsure about the legality of their marriage or whether they had actually gained any rights through it. The federal government’s denial of recognition, however, was unequivocal, and the gap in protection made the inequity starkly clear. Sonia and Renee participated in this performance of marriage because they could; geographically, they were in the right place at the right time. Sonia has a law degree and works as an administrator in a private school, so taking time off from her job to get married on the spur of the moment was not an issue, as it likely was for many working-class people. Renee was able to meet her there that day because she works on their ranch and determines her own working hours. Sonia describes Renee as a “ranch woman” that “has really taken to the New Mexico lifestyle.” Their participation spoke to their social location: they are by no means wealthy, yet their race and middle-class privilege clearly facilitated their access to legal marriage at that time. It is important to remember that these privileges have been secured and maintained for Anglo ranchers through the history of settler colonialism that made these lands available to whites by violently removing Indigenous peoples from their homelands. Whether white folks are aware of it or not, these histories shape contemporary power relations in complex ways that obscure attention to systemic inequality.5

    The Perils of Border Crossings

    The legal discrepancies and contradictions within New Mexico, between New Mexico and other states, and between state and federal governments fomented a lively set of issues, which played out differently in (p.179) varying social locations. The Washington Post reported that “the same-sex couples married last week in Sandoval County, N.M., cannot cross into any bordering state and be recognized as wed” (Von Drehle 2004, A08). Lack of recognition across state lines was a fundamental issue for same-sex parents in this political moment; many mothers worried about travel. As Jamie and Lorie’s story in the last section reminds us, it is typically in moments of vulnerability that parental legitimacy is questioned. Caution is advised in unfamiliar territory.

    Border crossings have particular salience for Yvonne and Ronnie. Navajo Nation lands cross the corners of three states: New Mexico, Arizona, and a small area of Utah. Even if Ronnie and Yvonne had decided to travel the almost four-hour drive from the reservation in Tsaile, Arizona, to the courthouse in Bernalillo, New Mexico, the marriage would not have been recognized by Arizona state law. Contradictorily, in 2004 the Navajo Nation recognized cohabitating couples—whether heterosexual or same-sex—as married. It was the passage of the Diné Marriage Act in 2005, less than a year after the Bernalillo weddings, that denied tribal recognition of same-sex marriages, whether common-law or legal in another state.

    These lands are divided by colonial histories etched into the demarcations of states, territories, and nations. The Diné Marriage Act is consistent with the federal Defense of Marriage Act and the ban on same-sex marriage passed in Arizona in 1996. Utah, which includes a tiny portion of Navajo lands, banned same-sex marriage through a series of laws passed in 1977, 1996, and 2004. In contrast, New Mexico, the third state the Navajo Nation overlaps, has never legally restricted marriage to heterosexual couples. Borders overlap with histories of belonging and dispossession, layered by contradictory jurisdictions and boundaries of citizenship.

    A week or so after the weddings, the Farmington Daily Times published a letter to the editor declaring a moral war over same-sex marriage. Farmington, New Mexico, is approximately a two-and-a-half-hour drive west of Bernalillo, just outside the borders of the Navajo Nation. In her letter, Cecelia Tsosie writes: “Marriage is more sacred than those trees, those mountains, those animals, those ceremonies in the churches and outside the churches, and those religious things. God’s word is sacred ground; we are ignoring his word and his warnings about homosexuality” (2004, 4A). This narrative is familiar, but Tsosie’s Navajo identity puts this tale (p.180) celebrating (heterosexual) marriage as sacred into a particular context. Tsosie continues: “Homosexual marriages are running rampant across America. Very soon San Juan County and the Navajo Nation will be issuing licenses. In time homosexuality will reveal those who practice it in secret. Homosexuality is a gender confusion. Confusion does not come from God, but from Satan himself.” Tsotsie’s worries about the legalization of same-sex marriage align explicitly with mainstream Christian views of deviance from traditional gender identities as a danger to family and nation. This perspective on homosexuality embraces Christian colonial patriarchal definitions of family, gender, and sexuality over Diné cosmology. As feminist Navajo scholar Jennifer Denetdale argues, “Tradition becomes a tool that Navajo men and women use to legitimate claims about appropriate gender roles” (2006, 17).

    The Diné Marriage Act proposal was introduced in January 2005. Ryan Hall of the Farmington Daily Times reported: “The purpose of the act, according to the legislation, was to promote strong families and to preserve and strengthen family values” (Hall 2005, A1). The Navajo Times reported on the introduction of the legislation and community response to it: “Orlanda Smith-Hodge (Cornfields/Greasewood Springs/Klagetoh/Wide Ruins) also spoke in support of the legislation. ‘Many tell us our teachings come from our home,’ she said. ‘Our elders have taught us much and unfortunately it appears that we are leaving our traditional values. Mr. Anderson is moving in the spirit of preserving cultural teachings. We must create policy so that when we are challenged, we can have a policy to stand by. Many of our children are not learning our ways. We should teach from this legislation’” (2005, 3A). On both sides of the political debate the focus was on preserving Diné traditions. What constituted “tradition,” however, was the subject of dispute. Supporters of the Diné Marriage Act defined it through Christian patriarchal meaning systems grounded in settler colonialism. Those against the legislation emphasized a precolonial definition that embraced ancient matrilineal kinship organization, women as leaders in the tribe, fluid understandings of gender and sexuality as articulated through the embrace of Nadleehi tribal members, and a disregard for legal marriage.

    Queer Diné activist Sherrick Roanhorse argued that “this act is against tradition, our own culture and our way of life” (Hall 2004, 1A). As Ryan Hall reported in the Farmington Daily Times, “Roanhorse also said to set (p.181) guidelines for marriage is to define a tradition that is not Navajo in origin, thereby taking another step towards assimilation by white society, as opposed to the sovereignty the Navajo Council is supposed to represent” (2004, 1A). Assimilation and resistance are woven through this discourse in what might seem like opposing ways. From the perspective of the law’s supporters, homosexuality is assimilation to white ways and a betrayal of Diné tradition; those against the law define the emphasis on Christian patriarchal marriage as the larger assimilationist project affecting Native traditions. The article continues: “‘(The act) is taking away from the whole concept of self determination. It is saying we will embrace the western concept of marriage,’ Roanhorse said. He noted that marriage did not even exist in Navajo culture until it was introduced by the Anglo Christians” (2004, 1A). This articulation of Navajo tradition and culture clashes with the version of history Ms. Tsosie and other supporters of the act engage. The Christianized, family-values side ultimately held sway.

    The passage of the Diné Marriage Act on April 22, 2005, articulated and enacted a regulatory system for family legitimacy that obscured attention to power inequality through the assertion of celebrations of traditional family and culture. Denetdale explains: “While the law claims to draw upon tradition, it actually serves to affirm Western gender ideals and American values as normative for Navajos. The conflation of Navajo traditional values with mainstream American values gives credence to the multicultural narrative that America has created about itself and renders invisible the links between the past and the present, wherein Native people still live with the consequences of dispossession and disenfranchisement” (2008, 289). “Tradition” is a contested category in this social narrative about “American values,” and this version of it renders Indigenous histories invisible. This very old story speaks to a history of material and cultural domination that has characterized white settler colonialism. Much of that regulatory practice has focused on reproduction and family.6

    This law is not just symbolic for Ronnie, Yvonne, and their son. Family legitimacy is regulated through this law that bans same-sex marriage and adoption. Yvonne works at Diné College, the Navajo two-year college in Tsaile, Arizona. She would be eligible to live in traditional “Hogan-style” campus housing with her family if she were legally married. The Diné Marriage Act prohibits them from marrying each other, so their family is not allowed in campus housing. The law also limits the (p.182) right to adopt children to husbands and wives, unmarried and divorced persons at least twenty-one years old, and “in the case of a child whose parents are not married, the child’s unmarried father” (Title 9 Navajo Nation Code, Domestic Relations).

    This law would not necessarily ban queers from adopting as single people. The law’s implementation would likely be dependent—as many family law decisions are—on the beliefs and practices of the social workers and judges involved. The delineation of eligibility for adoption under the Diné Marriage Act does, however, preclude same-sex partners from legally adopting the biological or adopted children of their partners. This intersection of laws prohibiting same-sex marriage and adoption leaves Yvonne, Ronnie, and their son legally vulnerable.

    Borders are not just lines on a map or signs we pass while speeding along the interstate. Geographic demarcations mark deep and complex histories of dispossession and oppression, just as laws act as boundaries of community and national belonging. The Diné Marriage Act tells a story about what kinds of families belong in the Navajo Nation and defends who gets included through its definition of “traditional.” The DMA enacts a colonial definition of traditional marriage and family through Christianity, heterosexuality, and marriage, effectively erasing the history of Navajo matrilineal kinship, Nadleehi tribal members, and Diné pre-Christian cosmology.

    The reclaiming of Nadleehi history is important to Ronnie and Yvonne, and to other queer Indigenous people, because it locates them in a gender-queer, matrilineal, extended-family tradition in Navajo history. This history challenges contemporary conservative views of the patriarchal, nuclear, heterosexual family as natural, traditional, and unchanging over time. It is an origin narrative that includes them in their own community, culture, and history. Denetdale explains: “Contemporary gay and lesbian Navajos regard the creation stories as proof that Navajos recognized more than two genders and that third, and possibly fourth, genders were accepted and celebrated. They have embraced the nadleehi as evidence of acceptance in Navajo society and as a model for their own lives” (2008, 294). This political debate about same-sex marriage within the Navajo Nation articulates ongoing debates over meanings of family, tradition, colonial power, assimilation, and resistance. Ronnie and Yvonne’s embrace of Nadleehi and matrilineal history resists assimilationist projects focused (p.183) on family and the transmission of cultural identity. Their resistance aligns with leftist critiques of same-sex marriage as assimilation, but their particular social and geographic location problematizes simple polarities. While they are resistant in claiming the legitimacy of Nadleehi history over the colonial version of a patriarchal, Christianized family narrative, at the same time they say life has been more difficult for them since the passage of the Diné Marriage Act. They wish they could be legally married, and that Ronnie could be the legal parent of their son. They do not like feeling like outsiders in their own tribe. Their desire for social and legal recognition of their family, and their anger over the lack of it, is both resistant and assimilative, emphasizing the inadequacy of the false dichotomy for understanding the lived experience of family-making and belonging.

    Contradictory laws and tribal conflict over definitions of tradition put Ronnie and Yvonne in an insider-outsider position as citizens and family; they are not fully at home anywhere. Ronnie is neither Yvonne’s legal spouse, nor her son’s legal parent. In the event of a medical emergency for either of them, Ronnie would face the possibility of being kept out of the hospital room, refused health information by the doctor, and denied the ability to make medical decisions for her family. If Yvonne were for any reason unable to care for their son, the likelihood is high that he would be removed from Ronnie by child welfare authorities. There is a long history of children being removed from lesbian mothers, whether by child welfare or through custody battles with fathers. There is also a disturbing history of children being removed from Native mothers.7 These laws function as borders of family, tradition, and belonging, and as barriers to inclusion, rights, and resources.

    Inconsistent marriage and adoption laws characterize this historical moment, but Ronnie and Yvonne’s family-making takes place in a social location in which contradictory laws are not necessarily new. Inadequate and uneven legislation regulating families across racial-ethnic identities and geographic locations are not unique to queerness, but, in fact, characteristic of US legal jurisdiction. The rule of law applies to various populations in different places in remarkably inconsistent ways. Indigenous studies scholar Alyosha Goldstein makes clear: “The United States encompasses a historically variable and uneven constellation of state and local governments, indigenous nations, unincorporated territories, free associated commonwealths, protectorates, federally administered public (p.184) lands, military bases, export processing zones, colonias, and anomalies such as the District of Columbia that do not comprehensively delineate an inside and outside of the nation-state” (2014, 1). Laws and policies regulating family relationships have always varied by region. Focusing here on society’s most vulnerable families provides a view of history and society that reveals how consistently inequality is obscured. Oppression has always been here for some groups.

    In the United States, family and marriage law have historically functioned as a means of regulating access to the full range of citizenship rights. As sociologist Bonnie Thornton Dill’s work demonstrates, race and ethnicity have been central factors shaping the legal recognition of families and the social resources accorded them. Well before intersectionality became a popular framework for feminists, Dill’s historical research on African American, Chinese American, Mexican American, and white families insisted on the importance of exploring the ways that structural issues of race and economy intersect with gender to reproduce inequality. In her groundbreaking work “Our Mothers’ Grief: Racial-Ethnic Women and the Maintenance of Family,” Dill explains: “From the founding of the United States, and throughout its history, race has been a fundamental criterion determining the kind of work people do, the wages they receive, and the kind of legal, economic, political, and social support provided for their families. Women of color have faced limited economic resources, inferior living conditions, alien cultures and languages, and overt hostility in their struggle to create a ‘place’ for families of color in the United States” (1988, 166). Dill’s comparative historical analysis highlights how white patriarchal nuclear-family ideology was used as a measuring stick against which all families were judged, while only white middle-class and wealthy women were provided access to the cultural and economic resources necessary to embody constructions of ideal mothers devoted to raising the next generation of United States citizens.

    Stratified Reproduction and the Child Welfare System

    The mothers we talked with in the Southwest navigated family-making in a landscape of legal, cultural, and representational stratification grounded in histories of racial-ethnic conflict and colonization. The cultural regulation of boundaries and borders of national identity have (p.185) historically involved assimilation projects targeting family and reproduction; mothers of color in the United States have had a particularly brutal relationship with the child welfare system. As historians David Wallace Adams and Crista Deluzio describe: “For Mexicans, as well as Indians, the promise of genuine citizenship was anchored to their acceptance of their colonizers’ prevailing gender, racial, and moral codes, including dominant modes of family life. If the institution of the family was an essential source of moral character, the child’s first window on home life and social living as well as the wellspring of identity, then surely, it was reasoned, society was justified in efforts to improve the Mexican family’s suitability in the American fold” (2012, 6). The reproductive capacity of women of color has been consistently narrated as the root of social problems and targeted for regulation. Historian Meg Devlin O’Sullivan explains that for Native American women resistance and activism took the form of fighting to keep and raise their children:

    The legacies of settler colonialism—including the boarding school system, coerced sterilizations, and child removals—rendered the right to bear and raise children as not a limiting framework but a desired expression of personal autonomy and tribal sovereignty. Thus, within larger more familiar portrayals, there existed a very different struggle for rights and justice particularly around mothering. For many indigenous women, political action regarding children was not about campaigns for subsidized day cares or cultural arguments about gender, work, and parenting. Child welfare was a literal fight to keep Native children in their homes and in their nations. (2016, 20)

    The history of Indigenous women under settler colonialism in North America is a history of fighting for the right to mother and raise children in which the child welfare system has figured prominently. Latinas, too, have been targeted by social welfare practices and laws aimed at policing rigid definitions of legitimate mothering.8

    Family has always been a site of political contention, and this plays out in the narratives of the mothers we interviewed. I turn now to the family-making stories of Betty and Edna, a working-class Hispanic couple living in Albuquerque, New Mexico.9 At the time of our interview in 2007, their daughter was grown and out of the house, and their son Andrew was a young teenager.

    (p.186) Their family origin story is punctuated by interactions with the child welfare system, lawyers, and the capitalist marketplace. They became parents when Betty’s niece asked her to adopt the baby she was about to give birth to.


  • My niece was pregnant with her first, and she was gonna you know, give me the baby. And then she met this guy and then they changed their minds. And then she became pregnant again, and asked me if I wanted to adopt the baby. Um, and I told her no because, I said, “You’re not gonna break my heart again.” And so she decided that no, that she just did not want—her and the guy had already broken up—and she just did not want this baby, you know. And I told her, “No, I don’t want it.” [Big smile] And that was my Jamie.
  • EDNA:

  • You got that wrong. She’s my Jamie. [Both laugh]
  • Betty and Edna were interested in adopting this child, but wary of their niece’s reckless behavior. They began exploring options. The first lawyer they consulted, whom they were told was an expert in adoptions in Albuquerque, would have charged them five thousand dollars. This was unaffordable on their salaries as a truck driver and janitor. They eventually found a lawyer willing to complete the adoption at a cost they could afford. They went through the home-study process, signed the papers, and paid the fees. Betty became their daughter Jamie’s sole legal parent.

    Several years after their daughter was born, Betty and Edna received a phone call informing them that Betty’s niece had given birth again.


  • So we went down to the hospital to see him, and it was too late. He had already been placed in a foster home. So it just happened that—we started talking to everyone, you know, and trying to you know, to find where he was and all. When we—when finally they let us see him he was already almost two and a half months old, by the time we got to see him.
  • They had been on vacation when the baby was born, and by the time they arrived at the hospital he had already been removed from his birth mother and placed in foster care. (p.187)

    Making Family LegalBorder Crossings and Other Perils, 2004–2007

    Figure 6.1. Edna and Betty, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

    Photo credit: Melanie Patton-Imani.


  • Well, at the very beginning I talked to the welfare worker and I told them that I wanted to know where he was at. And they told me he was at a foster home. And I said, “Well, I want him.” And they kept arguing with me that he was in a foster home. And I says “Now I know damn well if I go to a judge, the judge is going to give him to family before he gives him to foster care.” And so I fought with them for two months, and then finally …
  • This struggle suggests, at the very least, reluctance on the part of the social worker to place this infant with Betty. It is impossible to untangle race, class, gender, and sexuality as forces shaping this interaction, but it is likely that some combination of these factors shaped the social worker’s reluctance to even let them see the infant. He had been placed with a two-parent heterosexual white middle-class married couple. Betty and Edna have no way of knowing whether or not the foster parents hoped to adopt him or not. This is certainly a possible reason the social worker was resistant to Betty’s petitions for custody.

    Her adoptions of both children were processed through the child welfare system as single-mother adoptions. Though Jamie and Andrew have only one legal mother, there are three mothers in this family story. Jamie and Andrew do not have a relationship with their birth mother, though (p.188) they have met her at a few family functions. She is their biological mother whose parental rights have been severed—once through relinquishment, and once through removal by the child welfare system at birth. Betty is both their legal and relational mother. Edna is not recognized as a mother by the state, yet she clearly has a deeply loving relationship with her two children. She has participated in their care and financial support all of their lives. She was omitted from the family in the adoption home-studies and represented as an “auntie” in the schools their children attended.

    This is, in part, a story of regulatory relationships between state definitions of “fit” parenthood and these three mothers, codified by money, class, and patriarchy. Both financial and legal constrictions kept Edna from being able to legalize her connection to their children. Second-parent adoption was not explicitly prohibited in New Mexico in the 1980s; however, access to it was largely dependent on judicial discretion, and it was not a common practice. The most significant barrier for Betty and Edna was financial. These economic issues were shared by many of the families we interviewed.

    Questions of assimilation, belonging, and normative family structures wind their way through all of these discussions. Betty locates herself not only through geography, but through race and connection to her family tree. Boundaries are enforced within families as well as among them.


  • I’m a native New Mexican. I was born and raised here in Albuquerque. I’m what in New Mexico they call a “coyote,” which is a half-breed. I’m half Spanish, half white. But I lean more to the Hispanic because they’re the ones that have always loved me whole-heartedly, you know, no questions asked. You know, I am [pause] from my mother [with emphasis]. The Okie side of my family, they didn’t want to have anything to do with us because we were half-breeds and we were Catholic, at the time.
  • These stories reflect layers of history and power. As she says, “I am [pause] from my mother,” Betty actively embraces her mother’s “Spanish” family tree, as the “Okie” (white) branch rejected her on racial, ethnic, and religious grounds. However, her embrace of her mother’s language is not free from traces of colonial power. Betty, like many New Mexico residents, regularly uses “Spanish” as the term to describe people whose (p.189) family histories are grounded in Mexico; language supersedes geographic boundaries. Colonization effectively wrote this narrative of kinship rejecting “half-breeds” to enforce boundaries of nation and citizenship.

    Betty and Edna became mothers through familial caretaking that was legally codified through Betty’s single-parent adoption. Their experiences are vastly different from those of Ronnie and Yvonne, or of Sonia and Renee. Betty and Edna had the same second-parent adoption laws available to them as Sonia and Renee, but were not able to afford second-parent adoptions. Ronnie and Yvonne, living on the reservation, did not have the option of legalizing Ronnie’s relationship with their son. These differences are rooted in long histories of stratification between white middle-class mothers, Indigenous mothers, and mothers of Mexican origin in the Southwest. These historical tensions and inequalities focusing on family are reproduced in the different family-making experiences among white, Latina, and Indigenous lesbians.

    Iowa City, Iowa: “There’s a Thousand and One Benefits”

    Kimberly and Mischa were married in Toronto, Canada, but at the time of our interview in 2007 their marriage was not legally recognized by the state of Iowa or by the US government. For them and many others, family protection was not acquired through marriage. They did their best to legitimize their relationships through adoption and other legal means, but these strategies fell far short of what they considered adequate protection. Mischa and Kimberly adopted their youngest child, Jonas, from Haiti in 2004 (prior to the adoption scandals that emerged after the 2010 earthquake), but because of laws against same-sex couples adopting together, he had to be adopted by Kimberly as a single mother. At the time of this interview they had not yet been able to afford a second-parent adoption, so Mischa has no legal relationship with Jonas. She also has no legal relationship with Sophie and Theo, the two children Kimberly legally adopted with her first partner, because in the state of Iowa children cannot legally have more than two parents.10 In spite of this, it is through Mischa’s employer, Linn County, that Sophie and her siblings receive health insurance. Mischa explains the contradiction in county and federal tax law: “The county recognizes our domestic partnership, but I have to pay taxes on all that medical because they are not—they are not—acknowledged as family (p.190) members, really. They are just—the city acknowledged them, acknowledges my domestic partner and her children, essentially. But I have to pay tax on all that medical and other families don’t.” At that time, the benefits Mischa received for her family at the county level were taxed as income at the federal level, unlike that of straight couples. Mischa explains, “I travel a lot for work and I worry about if anything ever happens to me.” Queer parents are cautioned by legal experts, LGBTQ organizations, and other queer parents that they should carry all their legal documents—adoption decrees, guardianship papers, marriage licenses, civil union documentation, domestic partner registrations, power-of-attorney papers, and even wills—with them when they cross state lines. That certain citizens must carry identification papers to travel safely within their own country signifies their lack of full citizenship rights.

    The couples we spoke with, in Iowa and across the country, that wanted to get married to demonstrate their commitment to family and friends or to have a religious ceremony commemorating their relationships, had already done that. Some had nonlegal commitment ceremonies; others, like Mischa and Kimberly, were legally married in other states or countries, without legal recognition in their home state or nation. Their ceremonies were symbolically important for their sense of social recognition, but many of them also articulated the importance of recognition by the state in which they live:


  • We have friends that have gone to Canada. We have friends that have gone to Massachusetts. And they ask us what—We actually went on vacation to Massachusetts last June, and people were like, “Oh, are you gonna get married?” And we were like, “Nope. We’re gonna wait ’til it’s legal right where we live.” If we move to Massachusetts then we’ll get married, obviously, but ’til Iowa has it we’re not gonna bother doing it. Because we’ve heard it’s hard to get recognized even if your state does it. So we’ll just bide our time.
  • Susan and Dana, a white lesbian couple with two children, had a nonreligious commitment ceremony several years prior to our interview and were registered as domestic partners in Johnson County, Iowa. We interviewed them in their home in Iowa City in March 2007, two years prior to legalization of same-sex marriage in Iowa.

    (p.191) SUSAN:

  • I think we are just gonna to have to take care of things through lawyers. I mean, you have to get all those documents and make sure you have them when you travel.
  • Susan has been active in political organizing in Iowa City, so she extended her activism to include marriage equality. Dana explains why legal marriage matters practically for their family:


  • I would like for it to be legal. I mean I understand not everybody wants to have like a church wedding. But to have a union of some sort recognized by the state, by the country, would be nice. As well as all the legal benefits that go along with it, you know, power of attorney, just being a given that I am her spouse and that if something happens I could make decisions at a hospital. Um, there’s however many—[she looks at Susan]
  • SUSAN:

  • There’s a thousand and one benefits at the federal level. It’s the general accounting office, the GAO, counted them up, and that is how many benefits you just get the minute you are married as a couple at the federal level.
  • Susan explains that she learned about the rights, privileges, and benefits of citizenship that are regulated through federal marriage law through her involvement in the 2004 attempt by “thirty or forty” lesbian and gay couples in Iowa City to obtain marriage licenses (prior to marriage legalization in 2009). They were at a baby shower talking about same-sex marriage:


  • New Paltz was doing it, San Francisco was doing it. And I was just like, why doesn’t Johnson—why don’t we just do it here? I thought we had to go to city hall. Why don’t we go to city hall?!
  • Susan’s idea sparked excitement, and her friend Janel organized the event for the next week. They spread the word for LGBTQ couples to request marriage licenses at the county recorder’s office.


  • We were shooting for five couples, you know tops, and it ended up being you know, thirty or forty.
  • (p.192) Kim Painter, the Johnson County recorder, was an out lesbian herself, and she made no secret of her support for same-sex marriage. As each same-sex couple requested a license, she dutifully read the text of the law restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples: “Due to the Iowa code of the state of Iowa, marriage is only allowed between a man and a woman, and I am not allowed to issue you a license” (Witosky and Hansen 2015, 57). No one was married that day. The cover of the Iowa City Press Citizen on February 28, 2004, featured the faces of Dawn and Jen BarbouRoske, a white lesbian couple, who later became plaintiffs in Varnum v. Brien, the lawsuit that legalized same-sex marriage in Iowa.

    The rest of 2004 would see more ups and downs in state and federal legislation, including the passage of bans on same-sex marriage in thirteen more states, the failure of the Federal Marriage Amendment, and the refusal of the US Supreme Court to hear arguments challenging the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts.


    While marriage was front and center in public discourse, the stories of the mothers we interviewed challenge the standard arguments about same-sex couples’ desire for marriage, framed variously as the key to full equality for gays and lesbians, the work of the devil and the end of civilization, and as assimilation to heterosexual “normalcy” contributing to the demise of queer culture. None of these perspectives adequately represents the family-making stories of the mothers we spoke with. Yet each of these views has profoundly shaped their family lives.

    Political scientist Paisley Currah suggests that queer academic critiques of homonormativity reify the power of the state through an overemphasis on “activities regulated by the federal government (commerce, war, immigration, national security, etc.) and national discourses of American identity (marriage and family)” (2012, 5). Currah’s argument suggests that even those to the left of these partisan lines have placed too much emphasis on a macroview of law and politics: “Fetishizing a generalized idea of the state—the conceptual state—obscures what is actually happening in the local, micro, particular sites where public authority is being exercised” (2012, 6). Clearly “the state” is not one thing; fighting it would be easier if (p.193) that were so. Its tendrils are far-reaching, and mothers in different social and geographic locations negotiate the law in many different ways.

    These family-making stories deepen and advance my analysis of stratified reproduction based on intersections of geography, race, ethnicity, tribal status, socioeconomics, gender, and sexuality. Differences in laws in California, New Mexico, and Iowa clearly demonstrate the ways that geography fundamentally shaped access to family rights and protections in the early years of the twenty-first century. These contrasts are not difficult to see, although stratification among mothers of different racial-ethnic identities and socioeconomic status is often more difficult to identify. Deep racial and colonial histories in the Southwest, in particular, fundamentally shape access to social resources and family protections. While the mothering practices of white women have been celebrated as foundational to the nation, the family-making practices of women of color have been under constant regulation, as is evident in the family-making narratives of Indigenous, Latina, and white queer mothers I interviewed. This critical intersectional analysis demonstrates the importance of exploring the multiple axes of power shaping the lives of individual women and their families. At the same time, it makes evident the relationships between inequality and privilege, between queer mothers of different racial-ethnic groups and economic circumstances, that are deeply rooted in settler colonialism, patriarchy, and capitalism. All of these families were shaped by the fact that they were headed by two women, but how that queer gendered identity is experienced differs across geographic, racial-ethnic, and economic borders.

    In the next chapter I consider the 2008 presidential election outcome as an allegory about the politics of family. I focus in particular on the politics surrounding the passage of Proposition 8, a ballot measure in California that declared same-sex marriage unlawful, nullifying the California Supreme Court ruling, just six months earlier, that ruled same-sex marriage legal.

    (p.194) Same-Sex Marriage, California, 2004–2010

    February 2004

    City of San Francisco begins marrying same-sex couples

    March 2004

    California Supreme Court orders halt to San Francisco same-sex weddings

    August 2004

    California Supreme Court voids same-sex marriages

    March 2005

    Judge rules California same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional

    September 2005

    California legislature first in the United States to approve same-sex marriage legalization

    August 2005

    California Supreme Court establishes coparenting rights for same-sex couples

    September 2005

    California legislature first in United States to approve same-sex marriage legalization

    September 2005

    California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoes bill to legalize same-sex marriage

    May 2008

    California Supreme Court overturns ban on same-sex marriage

    November 2008

    California voters approve a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage

    August 2010

    US District Judge rules California Proposition 8 unconstitutional

    Adapted from https://gaymarriage.procon.org


    (1) Bernstein and Burke’s analysis of news coverage of various responses to same-sex marriage in Vermont found that the Vermont Supreme Court decision in Baker v. State of Vermont (2000) was a turning point in news coverage of a “queer” perspective on same-sex marriage. “Once it became clear from the decision that the Court had charged the legislature with creating a remedy that would give same-sex couples the rights and benefits of marriage and that this charge included the possibility of enacting alternatives to marriage such as a comprehensive domestic partnership scheme, speakers in the BFP began to engage with queer arguments. Thus it was the Baker v. State decision that helped give queer arguments credibility and therefore standing in a way that they had not been able to garner prior to the decision” (2013, 329).

    (4) We located mothers to interview through word of mouth, approaching people at Pride, and through participant observation at the Albuquerque Metropolitan Community Church. We carried our camera at Albuquerque Pride and conducted short interviews with people. We then set up times to meet at people’s homes for in-depth interviews.

    (6) See Gurr 2011.

    (9) “Hispanic” is the term they use to describe themselves.

    (10) Until very recently, it was not possible for a child in the United States to have more than two parents legally recognized. In 2013 California passed a law allowing the recognition of three parents. Courts have legalized third-parent adoptions on a case-by-case basis in Alaska, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Washington (Lovett 2012).