Benign Sexual Variation: Intimacies, Family, and Queering Sexual Citizenship

Gayle Rubin’s (1984) concept of benign sexual variation continues to act as a guiding light in queer social movements and struggles for policy change vis-à-vis sexuality. The dissolution of sexual hierarchies becomes particularly meaningful in the wake of the passage of same-sex marriage in the United States in the summer of 2015. While the policy grants increased citizenship rights for same-sex couples who marry, it simultaneously reinforces a sexual status-quo which continues to represent a singular relationship form through which one can access the material benefits bundled with marriage (Warner 1999). What is contained within Rubin’s concept of benign sexual variation? How might policy goals shift and reformulate if we maintain a commitment to benign sexual variation, and how might a variety of relationship forms be reconceptualized so that a multiplicity of intimacies are recognized by the state and larger community, and how might this reconceptualization require a queering of sexual citizenship rather than a broadening of its parameters (Bell 1995; Bell and Binnie 2000)? Questions include: How does the passage of same-sex marriage narrow recognized relationship formation options? How does same-sex marriage reinforce the assumption of friendship and romantic relationships as separate spheres of life? How are other forms of intimate connection further marginalized (Duggan 2012)? In what ways does the concept of citizenship need to be reconceptualized so a variety of intimacies can be included rather than solely a “straight” (hetero- and homonormative) status quo?

Though not confined specifically to family formation, this paper asks broad theoretical questions about how intimacies are regulated by the state, grounded in the story of a self-defined family in Hartford, CT, popularly known as the “Scarborough 11”—a group of adults who are challenging Hartford’s definition of “family” as they are being faced with eviction by the city from their communal home due to forming an unconventional (and unrecognized) family unit. The passage of same-sex marriage does not address the complex hurdles this family is facing when struggling for recognition and the ability to exist as a family, and in some cases, it could be argued that same-sex marriage “closed the book” on the struggle for a variety of other non-normative intimacies to engage in meaningful (and funded!) social movements fighting for the recognition of a variety of intimacies that can and do form contemporary families. The struggle of the Scarborough 11 represents the larger struggle for self-determination of a variety of intimacies that people of all different sexual orientations (or, in some cases, regardless of sexual orientation, as it were) may face. What might a struggle for the actual dissolution of sexual hierarchies look like and mean vis-à-vis intimacies? Does the passage of same-sex marriage open doors or shut the book for the continued struggle for recognition of queer and other non-normative intimate relationship formations outside of, or in addition to, dyadic, permanent, conjugal relationships?


Part of panel Reimagining Queer Collectivities and Kinship Outside Marriage
October 2, 2016, 09:00–10:45