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Research in kinship has supported the overall improvement in ethnographic techniques since the time when anthropologists first started collecting their own data through first-hand observation. According to the Oxford dictionary, kinship is one of the main organizing principles in most societies. It allows people entrance into respective families, and these relationships aid in the structure of social life. However, the study of kinship is now seen as outdated; a change to classic ideas is the recognition of how much pain and inequality plays a role in kinship and family. Recent surfacing of gay, lesbian, and racial issues within kinship have challenged previously held notions and brought kinship back to the forefront of anthropology as the idea of family is redefined.
For the better part of a century, kinship dominated the field of anthropology. Kinship theory is the basis through which ‘primitive’ societies maintained order. Through kinship ties people created relations of social solidarity and used these relations as a crucial organizing factor for society. Early anthropologists described kinship as something “primitive” societies used in place of government. The principal problems that engaged anthropologists were investigating the meaningful relations born from kinship, and the improvements in descriptive concepts closely connected with it. At this point in time, kinship was being investigated as an aspect of humanity that invaded all aspects of social and cultural life.
Subsequently, anthropologists started to investigate whether or not kinship was actually important. Many argued that it was no longer relevant; they had established the cultural recognition of kinship over the biological basis and decided that kinship was no longer a determining force in understanding all societies. Anthropological attention began to shift more toward issues of economics and other concerns. It was not until recently that kinship has once again come to the forefront of anthropology as new forms of the idea challenge the traditional definition of family.
At the simplest level, homosexuality is not very different from heterosexuality as far as kinship and family are concerned. Gay and lesbian couples are formed by people in love. They may want children or they may not, and now there are ways for that to happen – by adoption or artificial insemination- falsifying the claim that homosexuality is inherently sterile. All of the above demonstrates that lesbians and gay men are not anti-family. A strikingly obvious factor in gay and lesbian access to parenthood and its implications for the idea of kinship is biology; beliefs pertaining to the biological aspects of the bond of filiation are of the highest importance. The rhetoric of resemblance is at the forefront of these situations: physical and psychological resemblance as well as biological connection support one another. This follows a pattern that strengthens the belief in parenthood’s biogenetic basis. Birth is not only a biological event but also a social one in that it creates relationships. Because of reproductive technologies, the biological and social bases of kinship have become blurred. Reproductive technologies challenge previously held cultural constructions of kinship and introduce new kinds of social relations.
Access to gay and lesbian parenting in the United States, as studied by Ellen Lewin (1985), demonstrates the commonality of references to biology and resemblance in establishing a family. This explains why American gays and lesbians prefer surrogacy, particularly since the public adoption system makes it extremely difficult- and expensive- to become eligible for a child. In a social context characterized by the “commercialization of reproduction”, with some gay couples spending up to $100,000 per pregnancy, becoming parents is, for many homosexuals, a way of no longer being gay. In other words, of leaving behind a “gay world” that is seen as less than ideal, thus ensuring greater familial and social integration into heteronormativity.
However, it can sometimes be difficult for gay men and lesbians to integrate into heteronormative society- especially if they have biological children of their own. In the court case Nadler v. Superior Court (1967), Ellen Nadler tried to appeal the decision of the court to award custody of her children to her ex-husband purely based on the fact that she was a lesbian. The judge in the initial custody hearing believed she was unfit to parent because of her homosexuality, and needed no further evidence to remove her from her children’s lives. Her defense in the appeal was that homosexuality did not make her unfit; she had the same amount of financial stability as her ex-husband and was of good standing in her community. Unfortunately, though the court agreed that homosexuality did not make her an unfit parent, they also ruled that her ex-husband was “more fit” because he was in a heterosexual relationship. This case is meant to highlight the social identity of heterosexuals as morally superior to gays and lesbians in the matters of family. This poses an interesting question: To what extent does heteronormativity and biology still affect kinship? Though this case is historical, the issues involved are still crucial to understanding inequality in the field of kinship.
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