Review of Queering Family Trees: Race, Reproductive Justice, and Lesbian Motherhood By Sandra Patton‐Imani, New York: NYU Press, 2020. pp. 336.

Reviewed Book

Queering Family Trees: Race, Reproductive Justice, and Lesbian Motherhood By Sandra Patton‐Imani, New York: NYU Press, 2020. pp. 336.

A cartoon of a woman holding hands with another woman holding a baby.
Cover of Queering Family Trees (2020)

Chloe Dunston

Ohio State University

In Queering Family Trees: Race, Reproductive Justice, and Lesbian Motherhood, Sandra Patton-Imani troubles the normative family tree. More than a metaphor or genealogical tool, she argues, the family tree tells a story about who should count as family. A lesbian mother herself, whose interracial family is often illegible and vulnerable, Patton-Imani highlights our continued commitment to this story and others, pointing in particular to their dominance in political, social, and organizational arenas. She narrates stories through the nuanced experiences of lesbian mothers of different racial, socioeconomic, and geographical backgrounds, attending to the immensely complicated relationship between Black civil rights, (transnational and transracial) adoption, welfare, and marriage equality. Scholars and students across many fields will welcome Patton-Imani’s rigorous transdisciplinary theoretical engagement; her thorough explanations, compelling narratives, and impactful takeaways will also captivate organizational leaders, practitioners, and a general audience.

Queering Family Trees opens with an account of the Patton-Imani family’s revoked YMCA membership. Despite her and her now-wife’s civil union and their standing family membership, they were not a real family per the organization’s values: a fitting invocation. As she outlines in chapter 1, lesbian mothers everywhere navigate similar barriers to belonging. In some spaces, like church, this lacking belonging is felt more than explicitly labeled; still, in others, belonging can be legally restricted to normative families. Thus, over concerns of love and commitment, lesbian mothers expressed—with measured ambivalence—wanting access to marriage for their families’ recognition and protection. The standing alternative routes, such as second-parent adoption, are inaccessible and even unreliable in an uneven sociolegal landscape. This and the foundational tying of marriage to the full rights of citizenship are the opening problematic of the book.

Allegory, the central analytical engine of the book, is developed in chapter 2 as Patton-Imani takes to task the naturalization of heterosexual biological ties, the legitimization of children and families via parental marriage, and the exclusion or collapsing of other (especially more than two) parental and nonbiological familial ties. She shows, for example, how husbands are labeled “real” fathers when their wives conceive with a sperm donor; adopted children receive new birth certificates listing their adoptive parents as their “real” parents; and nonbiological and nonadoptive lesbian mothers are not present and made unreal. Across queer and heterosexual contexts, exclusions and occlusions are made. Why? Allegory, Patton-Imani shows, allows us to ask what logics lie beneath—to see what stories are being told and to what end, to find metastories in micronarratives, to question moral implications. The family tree narrates as normal nuclear, dual-headed, heterosexual, biological, and implicitly White family forms.

Related concepts of heritability, likeness, nature, and nurture loom large in stories of adoption and assisted fertility. In chapter 3, Patton-Imani reads narratives of family formation to demonstrate how reproduction is stratified, such as via the market logics inherent in medically assisted reproduction and adoption, as well the extent to which “nontraditional” family forms pose a challenge to the normative family, albethey legally unrecognized. Beyond the logistics and access issues of fertility and adoption, this chapter explores which stories operate in medical and medically adjacent spaces around family and children. As such, it is perhaps the most readily useful chapter for medical anthropologists. Narratives explore simultaneous excitement and distaste with the donor selection process; eugenicist logic engaged to produce smart, healthy, or “as-if” children; and what Patton-Imani calls DIY insemination for added control, intimacy, and cost feasibility. She also discusses the adoption market’s sensitivity to White demand and mothers’ tactics to pass as single women. Central stories define suitable parents as well as erase those parents deemed unfit.

Patton-Imani looks across time, space, and identity intersections in the five remaining substantive chapters (4−8), which cover 1990−2000, 2000−2003, 2004−2007, 2008, and 2009, respectively. Central topics include the conflation of family and nation; the use of children in political discourse; the privatization of child and family care; homonormativity; the vulnerability of boundary-crossing as queer families; and the role of socialization in power and resistance. Race and family scholars will appreciate Patton-Imani’s excellent historical reading of the politicization of Black family, marriage, and fertility; the role of the state in facilitating transnational and transracial adoption via conflict, economic insecurity, and displacement; and the connection between adoption and race relations, including color-blind logic and white martyrdom. Political and communication scholars will appreciate her outlining of debates over meaning, in particular, the delineation of central shared logics and rhetoric that have been used in contradictory manners across time.

While these time-oriented chapters attend beautifully to experiential nuance and trace crucial historical developments, I found some portions repetitive and wonder whether each period is distinct enough to warrant dedicated and rather lengthy chapters. It seems that some time periods could have been combined without sacrificing analytical quality, and a more robust analysis of events between 2010 and 2020 would have been fruitful in this space. Alternatively, more space might have been dedicated to developing formal policy recommendations. In the closing chapter, Patton-Imani hesitates to share such recommendations, citing a lack of space and the intense complexity of the issues raised. She does, however, make an impassioned call to allegorical reading and (queer) coalition as a necessary yet insufficient component of change. Ringing with years of queer and of color feminist wisdom, she urges readers to learn the language of many stories so that they may recognize and band with comrades who might otherwise be perceived as enemies.

A primary strength of this book is Patton-Imani’s refusal to simplify the experiences and viewpoints of her participants and the political landscape. Analytically, she insists on representing the realistic ambivalence and heterogeneity of lesbian mothers’ many perspectives on marriage and family, such as enthusiasm for the symbolism of marriage equality and simultaneous critique of marriage as an institution. She also resists labeling same-sex marriage and evolving family policy as either wholly good or bad, depicting instead the unevenness and surprising counterproductivity of what some might more simplistically label legal and social victories. Rather, she holds a complexity in her understanding of systems of power that is firmly rooted in critical, feminist, queer, and antiracist perspectives, which seek to unsettle the taken-for-granted and root power in the ideological and even affective. Patton-Imani welcomes readers similarly rooted in these projects to dig deeper and provides unfamiliar readers with an exemplary foray into this way of thinking as well as the particular subjects of family, race, citizenship, and marriage. Thinking in this way is central for students of the social sciences and the general public as it illuminates how power operates across contexts and levels of society even when well hidden, fostering enhanced analyses of power, informed civic engagement, and broad radical potential. A wide range of organizations that desire inclusive and equitable policies and practices may also find the application of allegory useful in correcting course.

Queering Family Trees is a firmly transdisciplinary and radical text that deserves to be taken seriously by many. Patton-Imani shakes the family tree to reveal previously hidden branches, to make room for new ones, and to connect root systems beyond one trunk. In doing so, she reminds readers to continuously shake the trees of experience to reveal the ideological roots that lie beneath: to consider the picture created by the leaves, the soil in which they grow, and the hands that tend them.