Privilege & Power: sifting through Born of Man and Could it be Magic? to better understand the networked hierarchies of gender, economic status, and race as they pertain to surrogacy and queer family making,

Image sourced from the Center for Genetics & Society

Despite my critique of the antisocial turn, I do find it to be a useful means of deconstructing the networks of privilege and power at work in surrogacy pregnancies. Here, the antisocial turn can be brought to bear on Born of Man and Could it be Magic? in order to highlight the ways in which sexuality and increased opportunities for family-making impact other marginalized groups, specifically looking to economic status, gender and race. This impact, in turn, is what is ultimately read back into the politics of these queer modes of production, determining (for the theorists who analyze these relationships) whether they “count” as queer or are merely assimilationist. While employing antisocial theory as a critique of these power structures, however, I ultimately break away from this binaristic view of (potentially) queer family-making.

Before leaping into this critique, I’d like to further extend the concept of homonormativity discussed in the last post. Jasbir Puar reworks Duggan’s phrase in conceptualizing homonationalism. For Puar, this refers to the nation-state’s active use of homonormativity as a form of control1, or—as Liz Montegary phrases it—using LGBT lives as a kind of alibi; “the nation-state can then hold itself up as an exceptionally tolerant and sexually progressive democracy while still engaging in the violent work of sexual subjugation and imperial domination at home and abroad” (10).2 In terms of “imperial domination at home,” this becomes visible as certain demographics of gay men (white and affluent—or what Kay Siebler refers to as “The Great White Queer”) can be seen in privileged positions over other marginalized groups.3

Identifying the history in which gay men were considered a biological defect throughout most of the 20th century (a history that Montegary traces out in her work) illustrates how and why gay men might jump at these opportunities as they were later extended to them. The family has “historically functioned as a tool for policing, containing, and controlling ways of life deemed unnatural or abnormal” (10). And it has been a remarkably short time since this framing (which is still largely prevalent) to the contemporary moment in which “white middle-class manifestations of homosexuality” have been allowed into “the familial and national fold” (19). Framed another way, the new opportunities for family making might be regarded in terms of what Montegary calls the politics of respectability. It might be erroneous to think of certain populations being offered a place in the familial fold when, in fact, this group had to fight for it. Efforts by Anita Byant and “Save Our Children” (launched in 1977), for example, opposed queer families. The result was that it also helped to shape their opposition: “[T]hese antigay efforts galvanized the growing professional class of gay fathers who believed that an increase in their visibility as aspirationally white middle-class family men would provide the best rebuttal to the claim that homosexuals endangered the well-being of children” (41). This goes to show that the politics that were “respected” were, as mentioned above, white, affluent, and male. Accordingly, these modifiers have essentially functioned as a means of positioning one traditionally marginalized groups against those that are still widely excluded and/or controlled by familial and national institutions. The “imaginary border from pleasure-seeking perverts to sanitized sexless guardians” that Juana María Rodríguez identifies remains  nearly impossible to cross.”4 And as Gena Corea writes, “Where power differences do prevail, coercion (subtle or otherwise) is also apt to prevail” (3).

Economic Hierarchies: In terms of economic disparities, both of the novels we’ve discussed point to this issue. In Could it be Magic?, Andy frets about money and worries about how he’ll support his newborn, ultimately humbling himself and seeking out assistance from family. His narrative reflects one that is common to single mothers, and his struggle to provide for his child is part of the conflict that drives the latter half of the novel. In Born of Man, on the other hand, Kev finds himself in the lap of luxury. In the midst of sensational journalistic reporting and an Apartheid-torn South Africa (to be revisited in breaking down the racial hierarchies of his pregnancy), Kev is buoyed by the security of his friends’ monetary provisions, which, the narrator points out, add up to a “vast expense” (143). Privilege is represented as a two-way street, however, with Kev benefiting from his friends’ economic status and his friends benefiting from the status that having a child can bring.

The politics of respectability are perhaps most evident here in the realm of material and economic privilege. At the most basic level, these new forms of making a family for gay men who desire a biological connection to their children costs a great deal. According to the Council for Responsible Genetics, in vitro fertilization and surrogacy run between $40,000 and $120,000 per birth. The obvious result of these costs is seen in reproductive stratification, with reproductive technology services only being available to relatively well-off people (23).

If surrogate pregnancies are framed in economic terms, it naturally follows that the child is viewed in terms of consumer product. In Gamson’s narrative, he speaks of other methods of family-making, like adoption, as being too “unpredictable,” finding surrogacy a less risky enterprise (20). What he means by this might be illuminated by examining the rhetoric of the “risks” that still exist in surrogacy. A keen example of the “baby-as-commodity” are identified by Corea in the Striver Mallahoff case (1983), which concerned a couple who refused to accept their surrogate’s chid after the “surrogate mother delivered a defective product—a baby with a small head” (219). The child was ultimately given up for adoption, but the point that we might take away from this case, the one which Gamson seems to gesture towards, is that if a planned surrogacy can lead to viewing an infant as a “defective product,” what other implications are there in viewing surrogacy as a commercial industry? (219).5 Corea poses a similar question: “When babies are turned into consumer products, who oversees quality control?” (93). Framed this way, Corea points not only to the economic discourse that impacts our view of surrogacy and who it’s for, but also gestures to the ways in which these “products” ultimately reflect ulterior motivations on behalf of the parents-to-be: “the desire to nurture a child for its own sake is not [many couples’] prime motivation. They want only a child that meets certain specifications.” The “transactional” elements are highlighted here in that the production of a child is not merely an exchange between surrogates and parents; it holds capitol in society writ large. Gamson acknowledges this as well; in reflecting on his own choices, he states, “Status elevation and the blanket of normalcy weren’t the main conscious motivations for marrying and having a kid, but they were hard to disentangle from the more selfless motivation of steadfast love. Entering the institutions of marriage and family was for me a healing victory, yet I could not help but notice that it was also a victory for those institutions and their enforcement of normalcy” (27).

Yet, in the midst of this “healing victory,” Gamson also identifies a level of discomfort in this line of thinking, shifting between humor and concern as he sifts through the “catalog-shopping and rent-a-womb aspects” he encounters at a surrogacy clinic and the transactional nature he discovers there. Reflecting on the process, he writes, “If we did want to make a family through biological procreation, we’d just have to enter the fertility marketplace. We’d have to treat a baby at least something like a commodity. We’d have to outsource to others the parts of the process we weren’t equipped to provide, and probably pay for them” (24). For Gamson, it appears that the transactional nature and the terms it calls for (marketplace, commodity, outsourcing) are a necessary evil in the quest to create a family.

Gamson further addresses his awareness and concerns surrounding his class, wealth and status (and the privileges they offer) in his account of his second experience using a surrogate mother. In a chapter titled “My New Kentucky Baby,” he recounts the wide gap between the agency-hired Kentucky surrogate of his child and his own economic standing. Again, the sense that Gamson sees this disparity as a necessary evil surfaces as he writes, “We had managed to produce the exact arrangement from which I had sought to dissociate myself –a ‘doctoral donor,’ a working-class gestational surrogate with a high school education, and a for-profit surrogacy agency—but somehow it was more complicated on the inside than it had looked from the outside” (152).

There are ways in which these economic inequalities are offset. A long history of formalized lesbian mother groups—stretching back to the 1970s—have led to “a critique of the state’s use of the family as a regulatory relational norm for distinguishing between populations deserving of support and those deemed a threat to child welfare and national propensity” (Montegary 39). And more recently, the internet’s offerings of “Go Fund Me” pages have helped to benefit LGBT individuals who can’t afford surrogacy. But even these affordances are unavailable to many, and the chances that a willing donor outside your own economic strata will stumble across your website are unpredictable.

But this is only one strand of the hierarchies at play in surrogacy pregnancies and the gay men who opt for them. Gender and racial hierarchies will further be explored in the following post.

  1. Jasbir Puar. Terrorist assemblages. Duke University Press, 2007
  2. Liz Montegary. Familiar Perversions: The Racial, Sexual, and Economic Politics of LGBT Families. Rutgers University Press, 2018, p. 10.
  3. In Learning Queer Identity in the Digital Age (2016), Kay Siebler writes that “The Great White Queer—whether masculine or feminine—embodies affluence and ‘whiteness,’ teaching young gay men that being gay means assimilation through consumption” (98).
  4. Juana María Rodríguez. Queer Gestures, and Other Latina Longings. NYU Press, 2014, p. 53.
  5. My point in identifying these networks of hierarchy is not to diminish the biases that gay men have (and still do) face. Even the case study mentioned here, taken from Corea’s discussion on the legal concerns around surrogacy, points to the ways in which gay men have—even recently—come up against opposition. Published in the mid-1980s, in the midst of the so-called Gayby Boom, Corea notes that medical doctors at this time were generally steering clear of the issues caused by gay men who wanted to use a surrogate mother for their children, based off of ethical grounds (217).