I really enjoyed this article published in Bekhsoos, a Queer Arab magazine... although it's a few days too late, I thought I'd re-post it on my blog. These two lines spoke to me in particular:
"No matter where we decide to live, we will be compromising one part of [our] identity in an effort to strengthen another. What this all comes down to, for me, is the importance of building community wherever we end up."
Here's the article and here's the original source:
Although I demonstrated at the Israeli embassy in New York in July 2006 and obsessively sought out Lebanese falafel while living abroad in Dakar, my tangential connections to Lebanon would probably never have culminated in a trip here if I hadn’t fallen in love with my partner. As an Arab-American woman, the Middle East has been an important place for her to periodically visit as she explores the Lebanese and Palestinian parts of her identity both personally and in the context of America’s current political climate. Suzy’s work and activism center on the places where her Arab and American identities intersect, focusing on trying to educate Americans about the Middle East and to change our government’s involvement in the region. As we imagine a future together, I thought it was important for me to come to Beirut in an effort to understand more about this part of her life and this part of the world. An additional motivation is our desire to have children — which Suzy has been talking about since our first month of dating. (Talk about pressure!) Although I refused to discuss it for the first year of our relationship, knowing that this was always in the back of her mind started me thinking about where, how, and why I wanted to have children. Since arriving in Beirut, I’ve been eager to talk babies with the queer women I met here, knowing that this country and the queer community within it will be an important one to my future family.
Being a lesbian mom — starting with figuring out how to have a child — is not easy anywhere. In Lebanon, the difficulties are closely related to those associated with single motherhood. Lebanese citizenship is only transferred through one’s father, so if an unmarried woman has a child, this child has no legal status in Lebanon. On top of this, female-headed families have to deal with the often severe social stigma attached to having a child out of wedlock. One woman I spoke to told me that it would be impossible for her to have a child independently because she doesn’t have the support of her family and wouldn’t be able to both work and care for the child on her own. I heard of another woman whose partner married a gay man and had a child with him which they then all raised together. While I was encouraged to hear that some women are finding ways to have children despite these challenges, the price for this family was that they all had to remain closeted in their dealings with the outside world.
Wondering if adoption was a more socially-sanctioned alternative for “single” women, I discovered that adoption is controlled by religious institutions. Because Islam largely forbids adoption, instead directing that children in need of care be sponsored or fostered by another family, the institution of adoption — in the sense that the biological parents’ rights to the child are severed and replaced with the adoptive parents’ rights — is only available through Christian churches, most of which have religious requirements (that the adoptive parents be of the same sect as the baby’s birth family), age requirements (that the adoptive parents are over the age of 40 or 45), marriage requirements (with the exception of the Catholic sects), and sometimes a requirement that the adopting couple provide proof of their infertility. Even if a prospective queer adoptive mother met most of these requirements, she would obviously have to hide her sexual orientation (and the existence of her partner, if she was coupled), raising questions about how to explain the circumstances of adoption to the child later in life. In our discussions about adoption, Suzy and I briefly talked about the possibility of adopting a child from a Lebanese orphanage, but chucked the idea when we realized how much subterfuge would be necessary.
In my search for information about adoption in Lebanon, I came across a blog written by Daniel Drennan, who was adopted from Lebanon as a baby and grew up in the U.S., returning to Beirut as an adult. Drennan believes that adoption creates more problems than it solves, writing, “Adoption is based on the leveraging of inequality by a dominant class in order to procure children for those who have none from those who ideally would keep their children except for circumstances that are a direct result of this class difference to begin with.” In reading his and other blogs by anti-adoption activists, I realized that the conditions which force women to give up their babies for adoption are the same ones that currently make it almost impossible for single or queer women in Lebanon to adopt or have babies of their own. Stigma against unwed mothers, the resulting loss of family support, the financial difficulties of supporting a family without a male wage-earner, and poverty keep the control of babies in male hands and male-headed households.
Drennan also critiques adoption for creating serious problems of identity and depression in children who are removed from their birth families and, in the case of international adoption, entirely from their home countries and cultures. Islam’s teachings about fostering children rather than adopting them makes a lot of sense in this context. Drennan writes, “Since moving back to Lebanon three years ago, I have realized that the Qur’anic invocation concerning adoption has everything to do with children maintaining their lineage, their name, and their place in the community. Most remarkable then is the fact that these very concepts — of lineage, name, appearance, and original community — are the issues that most plague adult adoptees.”
In the U.S., there is a movement for “open adoption” that stems from concerns about these identity issues as well as the class dynamics of adoption. In open adoptions, the birth and adoptive families agree to have on-going contact and honestly explain to the child the circumstances of her adoption. The frequency and nature of this contact is mutually agreed upon, ranging from exchanging letters once a year to a visit or two a week. Rather than taking the child from her birth family and treating her like a blank slate, without her own history or identity independent from the adoptive family, this approach allows both families to contribute to raising the child, and permits the child to figure out who he is and how he relates to both families as he grows up. Open adoption is also a reminder to the adoptive family of the inequalities that led to the child being placed for adoption in the first place–and motivates continued activism towards a world where adoption isn’t necessary because all babies are wanted and able to be raised by their families of origin.
As a lesbian, my instinct to dismiss biological imperatives is strong. After all, the queer idea of family is that love isn’t based on biology — if we don’t pick the person we fall in love with based on our ability to reproduce with them, why do we need to be genetically related to our children? Our chosen families so often care for us better than our flesh-and-blood families. All the same, if I or my partner were to get pregnant we would want the baby’s father to participate in our family’s life. As a woman raised in a heteronormative family, knowing without question the people I come from, I don’t think I can make the choice for my child not to have access to this information. Obviously there are many children who don’t feel that they need to know their fathers–just as many adult adoptees don’t have the need to find their birth families — but it’s impossible to know what my child will feel, so I want to leave this option available to her. It’s possible to recognize the importance of knowing the people you are biologically connected to without believing that it’s all-important. By raising a baby in a queer family and queer community, I’m already demonstrating that biology isn’t everything.
All of this is well and good hypothetically, but the reality is that homophobia often forces us to have children in less than these ideal circumstances. There are so many challenges to having a child that having open and personal relationships with everyone connected to that child can be nearly impossible. Most of the women I’ve spoken to in Beirut said that if they wanted to have children they would have to live abroad, in a country where queer and female-headed families receive greater recognition and protection. What are the implications of this choice in terms of sacrificing other parts of one’s identity? One of my and my partner’s top priorities is to raise our children in a place where they will have a strong connection to their cultural and racial identities. If my partner or I decided to give birth, we would choose an Arab or Arab-American man as the sperm donor, and we would want to bring our children to Lebanon and Palestine to learn about these parts of their history and community —perhaps live in Beirut for a year or two. However, I worry about needing to keep the family closeted here and sending our children the message that there is something shameful about us. I know that, growing up in the racist U.S., they will not be able to avoid negative messaging about Arabs and the Arab world. No matter where we decide to live, we will be compromising one part of their identity in an effort to strengthen another.
What this all comes down to, for me, is the importance of building community wherever we end up. Homophobia isolates many of us from the support of our families; those of us lucky enough to have their support are often forced to move away for school or jobs. Because of this rejection and isolation, the communities we create become all-important. Meem is a wonderful example of a community that allows women to make connections with one another, share life stories, and develop an integrated analysis of the ways neo-colonialism, patriarchy, and capitalism undermine women’s and gay rights–and inspire us to fight for a world where we can all build the strong queer families we dream of.