Tuesday, December 11, 2007


For me, one of the things that defines family is comfort. Certainly love is a part of the definition of family, but, for me, comfort is more foundational. Comfort comes from spending time with people over extended periods. Not necessarily large amounts of time, but repeated, focused amounts of time over a number of years. From comfort comes caring and compassion and the ability to freely express oneself without pretense. It is then that the ties that I call familial begin to emerge.

My wife has a sister who is now seventeen. For the past handful of years, we’ve spent a week with her at spring break and we regularly talk on the phone and on IM. After our years together, I consider her my sister, not just my wife’s sister.

This past year, in anticipation of her visit, I told people that my sister would be here. For those that asked, I gave them the more detailed explanation of her being my wife’s half-sister (they share only a father), but for most people, just the statement, my sister is coming, was enough. Besides, they could see the joy in my eyes as I anticipated her visit.

When they met her, however, it was clear that something was different. This sister, you see, is of African-American heritage. I don’t think much of it, but I’m aware that people look at us oddly for a moment when I introduce her as my sister.

When people had that reaction, I didn’t much care. I gave them a little bit of time to assimilate the information and unless they asked, I didn’t offer much more. Sisterhood seems like it should stand without explanation.

Nowadays, I think we’re far too invested in families looking alike. It may have been significant in the past when people moved less, had more children, and marriages lasted longer. Today, however, most people I know have family cobbled together not entirely by biology.

Half-sisters, step-siblings, in-laws, and out-laws all characterize modern families. Combine those relations with increasing adoptions across races, cultures, and nationalities and throw in more interracial relationships and interracial families through a variety of means, and suddenly how we look does not determine if we are a family.

In my envisioned future, family isn’t about who looks like whom, but rather where is your comfort. Still, I’m not the norm. I cannot tell you how many times I hear or read about women who want a child who looks like them or their partners. I’ve heard lesbians looking for sperm from a man who shares physical characteristics with the woman who is to carry the child or the woman who is to be the “non-bio” parent. Sometimes the degree of focus on physical and genetic characteristics seems to me to eclipse the nature of our humanity. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent on reproductive medicine to produce children who share physical characteristics with parents. Is how our children look worth all of that money?

I think it’s time to discard all of these associations of physical appearance with familial relationships. It’s as dated as Wally and the Beaver. Continuing to believe that shared physical attributes mark family is like continuing to believe that Rock Hudson was off screen the heterosexual lothario that he was on.

One of my sisters doesn’t look like me. I love her no less, and I’m waiting for the day when I introduce her in public – to cashiers or friends or casually on the street – and no one raises an eyebrow. There is no pregnant pause because everyone realizes that family is not defined by biology or genes, but by the strength of our affection for, our commitment to and our comfort with one another.

Julie R. Enszer is a writer and poet who lives in University Park, MD. You can read more of her work at www.JulieREnszer.com.

This is column #17 dated December 11, 2007 in the series, CIVILesbianIZATION.