Speaking to my sibling on the phone, she tells me that she is afraid for our lives.
“It’s just...you’re are so public with your thoughts of resistance, this country, and our administration--sis, it all feels so dangerous.” For one moment, she indulges in a fantasy: “Wouldn’t you consider toning down for just a little while…?” She knows that this will upset me, the youngest child. She knows that I do not want to live in a world where my safety and health are valued above all else, but she is also terrified that we immigrants, documented or not, are being rounded up.
I temper a quick flare of anger to ask instead: “And, what about you, sis? Who will fight for you when it’s you they come to grab? Who will fight alongside you, when it’s your babies they mean to put in a cage?”
We observe a small silence that comes from thousands of hours we’ve dedicated to learning how to be people who fight for one another’s survival. She understands my protest without further explanation. We are learning to love each other, the family we were born into, and the world all at once. We are trying to expand what it means to be family. We are rethinking the structures of our human constellations so that we might be better equipped to resist the current onslaught on our lives, in America.
As the United States finds itself embroiled in scandal after scandal that seems to target the very essence of our family structures, we are learning that this target is not a coincidence.
Our immigration system commits unthinkable atrocities against families, parents, children—and this is no coincidence. Our education system fails to educate an entire generation of young people, and this is no coincidence. Our cities wreak havoc on our homes, poison our bodies, and this. is. no. coincidence. The failure to imagine, build, and practice human relationships outside of state-sanctioned family models leaves all of us vulnerable to the tyranny of the State, especially when in moments like these, under governments like our current administration, it becomes necessary for us to resist.
For queer people, and all of us at the mercy of relentless state-sanctioned violence, we live in constant fear that we are without value and thus easily extinguishable. We worry that if we agitate or resist, we’ll be under threat of having our limited constellations of human relationships wiped-out. Who are we alone? Without wives, husbands, children—who are we outside of our parents? Who will claim our bodies when we are harmed and killed? Who will claim our hearts when all of our people have been detained, imprisoned, disappeared, sickened, exterminated? Who are we when we are migrants in our homes; when we no longer have homes?
The heteronormative skeleton of the traditional family, or rather “the state-sanctioned family” is small by design. It begins with two people willing (or coerced) to marry into (or mimic) a romantic partnership, to form the basis of a unit. Once established, this pair functions like a small nation-state. They become governing officers for all ensuing life events, especially the advent of children. Romantic pairings operate in tandem with and mirror the private halls of our governments, nation-states, and empires.
In other words, a family unit is a place where we learn and practice what it means to be human. So, when we find that our art, expressions, or physical bodies wish to deviate from the early family scripts, the State (through the family unit) uses tools of oppressions such racism, sexism, ableism, classism, homophobia, and trans-misogyny to threaten our bodies and spirit back into compliance. These tools of oppression wield power over our existence with an iron fist full of human kryptonite: isolation.
Isolation as a weapon is a continuous threat; one that develops slowly and insidiously in a group of people.
First, the State dictates the structure of the ideal family. It disburses or withholds seals of legitimacy as it wishes to satisfy varying capitalist whims. This is how we come to fear the sanctions of our family units in the same way we fear the looming punishments of the State--the threat of isolation! It is the reason why we learn to obey (and fear) our heads of households, in the same ways we do our Heads of States. When the State is at war with your body, it isolates you, enslaves you, starves you until you go extinct.
For many of us, our family units of origin are the original battlefield in the war to exterminate queerness from our bodies. Parents of queer and gender non-conforming youth are willing to render their children shelterless and unprotected while school systems and supreme courts legislate over the rights of those same young people to exist in public restroom, or at all. Our family unit of origin are often the first sites of profound violence. It is the first place we try on the habits of power as given to us. If within our human development we chafe inside of our specific familial roles, we experience threats of isolation and extinction. We learn that without our units, we have no value. And, this is how it comes to be that queer, disabled, immigrant, racialized, unemployed, and incarcerated bodies, are so easily thrusted outside of the marketplace of love and care.
It’s time we admit that our current family units and support frameworks are dangerous no matter what position of power one occupies within them.
The State structure is a gridded constellation. And though each unit-sized plotted point is a fractal representation of the entire structure, the State alone rules supreme. This is grouping of people ensures that any resistance to the State is slow to build. And, where resistance does take root, it’s all too easy to extinguish a few plotted points.
Above my writing desk, I have placed a photo of my late mother. In it, she is young and wears a navy blue dress that is polka dotted with an asymmetric collar. She wears it with a single strand of faux pearls. The dress is her design, perfectly tailored to her body. In this photograph, she has not yet left Haiti. She holds a shy smile as she poses with her degree. On the opposite wall, there’s another photo where she is older and much more tired. She wears a gorgeous white beaded jacket, also her design. In this photo, her smile is large; she wears rouge on her cheeks. She is at a wedding in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There is over a decade between the two photographs. Over a decade within which time she immigrated to the US, undocumented. Over a decade in which she left my siblings and I, in search of our livelihoods.
I think a lot about that decade. I think a lot about the space between undocumented and documented. I imagine the homes she toiled in, the actual and proverbial floors she scrubbed. Above all, I consider the broad networks of people who took care of her while she wandered, homesick, on this American soil. I am grateful for the people who held her spirit when she despaired, those who taught her the language of American money all the while committing themselves never to let her starve. I am thankful for immigrants everywhere who welcome new migrants into the fold.
We owe it to ourselves and to each other to create new models of "family," to seek out new constellations of people we fight for that are neither related to us genetically, nor promised to us romantically.
In our current political climate, we cannot afford to exist in silos, into units of plotted points where our screams go to die. If we mean to resist the growing threats to our lives, now more than ever, we owe each other meaningful commitment. We owe each other the blueprint to our survival.
Chrissy M. Etienne is a healer and writer who is deeply in love with New York City. When they’re not writing, they can be found cooking their grandmother’s recipes, creating new moon rituals, and life coaching others through difficult decisions.