Real Talk with Dr. Carrington: Part Deux

August 7, 2013 in inQueery


In the first half of Dr. Carrington’s interview, we discussed gay marriage, the movement for social justice, and the results of his research on queer familial structures. In the second half of the interview we’ll be tackling the subjects of his book No Place Like Home , Carrington’s view on the marriage movement as it relates to social justice, and what family means to him personally.

JJ: Now in operating in a just society would obviously have to be one that would incorporate a lot of individual rights. Do you feel like we’ve been moving farther away from that? And if so, what has overshadowed or stalled it?

Carrington: Well I think the marriage movement has drawn us away from that broader vision. Now some people would argue that we’ve been moving rightward since the 80’s, and that the gay and lesbian liberation movements in the 1970’s definitely had this sense about them; that there was a broader critique that they undermined. I was thinking recently about this whole debate about the grand marshal for the gay pride parade [and Manning, and the whole debate there]. I was thinking about the history of this question, the relationship between the LBGT community and the military structure, and the division within the community around Manning being acknowledged as a grand marshal in the aftermath of that. Well that debate reminds me of the 1970’s where “why in the world would you think marriage and military service are the way to liberation?” And a just society involves critique of both of those.

JJ: It’s been about ten years since you wrote your book. You had a lot of opinions and viewpoints about where we should be going from there. Now do you still hold those opinions? Has anything changed for you.

Carrington: I am respectful of all of the energy that the same-sex activists put into the work. I get it, in a sense it’s sort of a generational dynamic at work. And I’m respectful of all of that. And I think if you sit down and talk to a lot of them…and you think through these questions with them. And as they age and they start to think “oh yeah, you know what, a lot of the people who are most important to me in my life, they are single, you’re right. Hmm. How are we going to make sure they have a place to live as they age? How are we going to make sure they have access to healthcare?” And they start thinking through those questions. Then they start thinking “well maybe marriage…that wasn’t the whole point of all of this, right?” I respect their activism and how hard they’ve been willing to work. I’m not cool with the way that they want to just sweep under the rug some of the inequalities. There’s a new book out…It’s called The Nuptial Deal, and in it, she sort of maps out how same-sex marriage activists are willing to cut these deals around social justice campaigns. They’re willing to make fairly conservative arguments that they would never accept otherwise because they want a piece of this nuptial phenomenon. They’re willing to go along with some of these forms of inequality. So she maps out some of those in that book. It’s quite insightful I think.

JJ: Now, going along with those selective kind of behaviors and attitudes, you describe the hosting of a party among more affluent community members as an act that someone does to maintain their social standing and increase their networking potential. Do you still think this rings true?

Carrington: Yeah, it still operates in the same way. I look at how local political candidates and politicos earn money in San Francisco in private home fundraising gigs that they’re all a part of raising that money, and it’s about the upper middle class, and the wealthy, really raining cash on them to make that happen. And those house parties, they still are the central dynamic around how that fundraising dynamic works. So yeah, it still has a lot of those dynamics at work. You rarely see them in a four room flat where there are five or six drag queens living in SoMa. That’s not where they go to raise their money. Even though that’s where most LBGT people in the city of San Francisco live. That’s how we live. But the wealthy, those private residents are still crucial to the creation of social inequalities, in a sense. Or at least have access to social power or political power.

JJ: So one of the things that I found fascinating in reading your book was that you used family as a verb instead of a noun, and that was a running theme in your book. Can you describe what that expression means for you personally?

Carrington: Well it means that the creating of family is work. It’s about engaging in a whole range of disciplined activities, from routinely taking the compost bin out, to remembering people’s birthdays and planning a celebration for them, to envisioning the right gift for them, to thinking about a meal plan, thinking about “how should we think about what elementary school our little one should be in?”. All of those things are activities. It involves mental labor, emotional labor, and physical labor to make that happen. And when you do them, and when you engage in them, you are creating family. Thanksgiving dinner is the result of all of these forms of labor, right? You’re bringing together, you’re crafting and creating this event. People will say “Oh man, what a great happy family we have”. Well, that was a result of all of these efforts. So for me, it’s all of those efforts that I think are about family. And I think that society, more broadly, is moving in this direction. You can see it in court decisions. The California Supreme Court now has recognized that there’s something such as the social parent. And we see it in custody cases among unmarried couples where an adult will establish a relationship with a kid that’s not their biological offspring. But boy, they’ll be the ones at the baseball games, do the homework with them, and make sure that they get their lunch packed every day. The court has finally realized that “yeah, this is parenting. And that is the grounds upon which visitation rights and other kinds of parental rights should be based, and it’s in the best interest of the children to do this.” So in a sense, that kind of court decision is moving us in the direction of thinking that “okay, family is something that you do.”

JJ: Pertaining to that as well, you speak of gender identities being threatened by the acquisition of lack thereof of domesticity in gay couples, such as when Rich says that “Bill’s real love is his work as an artist” when referring to Bill’s duties around the workplace. In your view, what should a gay or straight couple do in acknowledging the invisible work that their partners do?

Carrington: Well I do think that it’s very important that the invisible forms of labor in households get recognition. It’s one thing that in my own relationships in households in which I’ve lived, we’ve always established this practice of constantly acknowledging the various contributions that people make. So if somebody cooks a meal, of course they get acknowledgment for that. My partner is particularly good about saying “Thank you to Andy for going shopping for this, and thank you to Dan for doing the BBQ-ing”. There’s this sense of “let’s acknowledge all the forms of labor.” Because sometimes, meal production is a great example of this, the chef will receive all the accolades. The discussion about who cleans up, who shopped, who made sure of the provisions, who envisioned the event; all of that labor gets concealed. I think it’s important that all of those forms of labor get acknowledged, get recognized by the people who are participating in the events. They come to appreciate it and say “Wow, you’re right”. And I do think people, as they age, and the relationships that make it long-term, I think do become much more sensitive to this.

JJ: And those things have been romanticized to a certain extent, and that’s why they’ve largely remained invisible. Do you have any notions of why they ended up being that way?

Carrington: Well there’s a long history of the romanticization of the domesticity of family life that we really can trace back to the 19th century. Especially in the late 19th century, and the impacts of industrialization, and the efforts to keep bourgeois women, and Anglo-Saxon women in the private household and out of the public sphere. Much of that was creating the romanticized notion of the home. The home is where the hearth is. Much of it is the product of the 19th century.There’s something about the commercialization of domesticity for some people. It feels as if it’s commercialized, then it doesn’t feel like you’re genuinely giving it. If you’re paying me a wage to clean the toilet, then you must not really love me. There’s that kind of phenomenon at work as well.

JJ: And one of the more dramatic stories, one that was pretty heartbreaking to read was Henry’s story. He was involved with his partner for fourteen years, and when his relationship dissolved, he ended up walking away with nothing.

Carrington: Not an uncommon story, really.

JJ: Do you think he was wrong in feeling as though he wasn’t entitled to anything? And what advice do you give to couples who may see themselves in somewhat similar positions?

Carrington: I do think there’s been some shifting around this, because the broader society has, especially as women have moved into the paid labor force in such a strong way in the 20th century…more people will fight for “what I’ve contributed” as a relationship ends. The downside of that is that, and what people often don’t recognize about this, is that most relationships will end in debt, not in the accumulation of wealth. And I think, again, this points to that broader set of stratification issues. What’s happening with working class service folks in their lives? So if you end with debt, then in a sense, all of those forms of labor that you’ve done really are just devalued, and you’re shit out of luck. So, again, you can’t sort of divorce that from these broader dynamics of “who has these resources in society?”

JJ: You personally speak of growing up in a very ‘different childhood’ where you had to take on a lot of the domestic duties of the house to provide for the family. Did this help you conceptualize ideas about invisible forms of work?

Carrington: Yes! I think for sure it does. You still see this, especially people who grow up in family systems where that stay-at-home who get to be in their early 20’s, and they have no idea how to do the laundry. They don’t really know…I mean I can go through long lists of things that I’ve seen happen around this, and in a sense, that can be really hard in same-sex couples because if you haven’t really thought through all of that, and some pattern emerges that you haven’t really reflected on…

JJ: That you take for granted…

Carrington: That you take for granted, there’s going to be a lot of conflict about that, and I see it often. Especially my younger gay male and lesbian friends, particularly gay men have a really hard time getting into relationships in part because there’s not really been any thinking about all of this. So they try to set up a household together, then there’s conflict, then resentment about “nobody’s doing the dishes.”

JJ: Some more planning would….

Carrington: And more reflection on it before it explodes in your face, and everything collapses.

JJ: So did the couples that you interviewed in your book know what you were going to write about them before the publication was released? What was their
typical reaction when you pointed out these forms of work that went unrecognized?

Carrington: Well you know I didn’t really…my methodology wasn’t about pointing it out. I really just went in and observed all of it. And then in the aftermath as I began to analyze all of the data, then I began to see “Wow, look at all of these patterns”. Yeah people did read afterwards, and they said “oh my god, I feel awful” and they had all of these feelings of guilt and all of the rest of that, it’s like “get over it!” You live in a society that may not be totally reflective of all of the patterns, but in a certain way your choices are constrained. You don’t always have a complete set of choices around all of these dynamics. And people felt different kinds of embarrassment. Some of them class based, some of them around gender dynamics, you name it. They need to not be so hard of themselves, but becoming more aware will allow them to have happier relationships. I didn’t go in with the idea of exposing all of the inequalities that are operating here. I was interested in what really works.

JJ: I would think it would have been a shock to some of them.

Carrington: Yeah! Well, fair enough.

JJ: As an openly gay professor here at San Francisco State, do you feel as though there are any unique challenges presented to you that are not presented to your peers that are heterosexual.

Carrington: San Francisco State is a great place to be an openly LBGT faculty member. It’s quite astonishing in a way, and when I hear stories of my peers in a lot of other places, I realize just how lucky we are. But there are unique challenges, the dynamics of stigma and all of that operate in more informal ways. There are still some forms of institutional inequality. For instance my heterosexual colleagues who are in relationships can purchase long-term catastrophic healthcare plans that those of us who are LBGT cannot. Most of this is because of federal law, but it’s a fact, and it means that my heterosexual peers, their relationships are being subsidized, still. Even in a fairly egalitarian context. Now of course, my view would be “why doesn’t everyone have access to long-term catastrophic healthcare, and what if they need long-term extended nursing care? Why isn’t society thinking about those questions? But the fact is is that it’s not available to everyone because the federal law doesn’t allow that. It is still a slightly unique set of circumstances.

JJ: So some of the challenges lie within the law, not so much the workplace and the environment.

Carrington: That’s right. And some workplaces really try to work hard to compensate for those inequalities, and others are not so sensitive to that. So yeah.

JJ: So you have a new project that you’re currently working on. Can you tell us a little about what that entails?

Carrington: I’ve recently started a new project on LBGT holidays, and holiday celebrations. There’s a very famous sociologist, Etzioni, that has a new book out We Are What We Celebrate. And it’s sort of a sociology of holidays, and in some ways this works grows out of my work in No Place Like Home, but I’ve always been intrigued by how LBGT people relate to celebrating, organizing, and thinking through holidays. Not just the ones that are associated with the traditional religious calendars: Passover, Easter, Christmas, those – but also gay pride; which for our community is a holiday.And it’s very important to how we create and make meaning out of our lives. And so I’m just in the formulative stages of thinking about this and thinking about “how do we go about creating these events, relating to them?” For instance, I started this project with a literature review. So I did a Google scholar search and I used two terms just to start thinking about it. I used two terms. Holiday and Bisexual. And I looked at the top 100 articles that showed up in Google scholar, and I went through and categorized them thematically. What are the topic areas, what is the focus that you would think would appear in the academic literature as these two concepts are brought together? It’s not the majority, but it’s the plurality theme. Do you have any idea what you think it might be?

JJ: I’m thinking that it might be pride, or things related to that.

Carrington: No. You bring those two terms together, and suicide is the major focus – which is fascinating because we all know that a lot of people take their lives around these holiday events. Depression obviously increases. It’s an interesting topic area in that I’m sure it’s going to be dealing both with the costs that are extracted for sexual minorities and the contexts of these broader holidays. But also, I’m interested in “What are the strategies for resistance?” How do sexual minorities invest in and strategize, and think through holidays in ways that make it work for them that create counter-force in society? So I’m working with some traditional sociological and social psychological literature that deal with all those kinds of questions. I’m just getting started, but I’ve always had a great interest in the history of holidays, and particularly you think about how people often conceive of family life in and around holiday events from birthdays to celebrations to gifts to you name it. So I’m kind of interested in the interplay of family literature, holidays, holidays as cultural phenomenon, but then how do sexual minorities and different kinds of sexual minorities fit into those holidays. So if you do that search for gay men, what you’ll discover in that top 100 articles: Tourism is the leading theme around holiday.

JJ: Tourism?

Carrington: Tourism. So that’s a very surface look at this phenomenon, but it is clearly is telling you a lot of what the relationship of sexual minorities are to these events. So that’s my next big project. I’m just getting started on it.

JJ: It sounds really interesting and quite frankly I’m looking forward to that.

Carrington:: Well I’ll have a book coming out about that. We’ll see. That’s the plan!

At this point we would like to thank Dr. Carrington for taking the time to answer our questions, and wish him well in his future endeavors. If you would like to purchase a copy of Dr. Carrington’s book No Place Like Home, you may find it here (Amazon Link).