Rural Queer Scholarship and Activism: The Question of Ethics

In 2010, April DeBoer and Jane Rowse began their fight to become what they called a “complete family.” The two white women became the winning plaintiffs in Michigan’s legal fight for marriage equality, a case that hinged upon the couple’s claim that their adopted children of color with disabilities require two (legal) parents for care. Indeed, central to the case was the couple’s desire to co-adopt their children, whom they had adopted individually due to Michigan’s ban on adoption by LGBTQ couples. (At the time, only LGBTQ individuals were allowed to adopt in the state). It would be quite easy to reflect on the place of whiteness and racialization, middle-class monogamy, and disability in this case. Discourses surrounding the couple certainly re-affirmed a normative family structure, positioned middle-class whites as more capable parents than poor people of color, and located the responsibility for the care of people with disabilities in private individuals.

This paper jumps off from the case of Michigan marriage equality to discuss what LGBTQ life is like for those LGBTQ people in nearby Midwestern states that have not been home to fights for marriage equality and LGBTQ adoption rights. I draw specifically from one of the fifty interviews I conducted with LGBTQ women in rural South Dakota and Minnesota. I consider how it is that LGBTQ couples in South Dakota have been able to adopt children as couples in a state that has not seen the types of fights for LGBTQ legal recognition and related activism that have become increasingly commonplace in recent years. One South Dakota couple I interviewed legally adopted the children bore by their partners. They did this not through a legal battle, but through what one interviewee called “a loophole that people don’t know about” that allows more than one “single” person to adopt a child. Her partner made clear the dangers of making visible this loophole: the more people who might became aware that LGBTQ couples could adopt as couples through this “loophole,” the greater chance the loophole could be closed.

This moment epitomized that which I was seeing across my interviews and, as such, that which became the topic of the book I’m writing: the limits of LGBTQ visibility as a rights-gaining strategy. This moment also raises several important questions about the relationship of scholarship to activism: What are the ethics of addressing this “loophole,” both in terms of activism that might seek to create paths toward legal adoption and also in a conference paper, intellectual space, and academic publication? How might this discussion of people who “take what they can take” wherever they are, as the aforementioned interviewee said, inform visions for future LGBTQ activism? Why do we assume that those places where fights for LGBTQ legal recognition have been most successful are where LGBTQ people can live their best lives?  The paper closes by reflecting on the potential for activist-scholar collaborations for addressing these sorts of questions in ways that speak to the deeply placed nature of LGBTQ lives.