Destroying the Nuclear Family

I walked down to the end of Christopher Street Pier on Monday afternoon. It’s not really Christopher Street Pier, of course, not as it used to be; it’s a gentrified park with a neat little rectangle of grass, which in this strange pandemic summer has been marked out in circles of paint spaced six feet apart. Yet each circle, near about, was occupied by a man or a small group of men, sunbathing in underwear or a very small bathing suit, social distancing but on display. “Nature is healing,” I texted a friend, in reference to the meme that has been deployed since March to reference everything from wild animals roaming city streets during the lockdown to flour and toilet paper returning to supermarket shelves.

The last day I went to work in person, I distributed my dissertation to my committee. The day after that, I started listening to Maurice—a book I reread about once a year—on audiobook on the daily walks in the local park that I used to get out my nervous energy during those days in March. Since then I have revisited all of the collected works of Hollinghurst, Sedgwick too; caught up on Andrea Long Chu and Daniel Lavery; watched every gay TV show available on a streaming service; watched documentaries about Keith Haring and Roy Cohn and dozens of videos by Nelson Sullivan. Before it got too hot, I walked every day in the park, sometimes with a friend and sometimes on my own. Amidst the small family groups we saw in March and April and May, we always noticed the gay couples, more than we thought we would see in our part of upper Manhattan. And then there were my friend and I, not a family unit, but thrown together by the pandemic. For weeks we kept each other sane: talked about what we had done that day, what we would do tomorrow, and about gay literature. One day in April or May we walked over a long bridge suspended high over the Hudson. We counted the tugboats and kayakers. We walked to Yonkers to buy my friend a bike, and then we biked all the way from the Bronx down to lower Manhattan on an errand. On the way downtown I said to my friend, “My goal for this summer is to destroy the nuclear family.”

I think many of us had the experience at the start of the pandemic of feeling suddenly extremely connected—if anything, perhaps too connected. I have split my life between two countries and know a lot of people. There were Zoom reunions in abundance, emails from people I hadn’t heard from in years, a group text of college friends that sprung into solicitous action when one of our number came down with COVID. Not all of these communiqués lasted, but one re-establishment of connection, with a dear friend in another country with whom I had been keeping in touch less regularly, solidified into a weekly Skype call that I cherish. In the spring and early summer, my friend and I talked about how this time was clarifying for us. Alone in one-bedroom apartments, both long-term single women, we talked about how we couldn’t imagine sharing our hard-won and cherished space with another person in lockdown. Yet at the same time, we talked about the kinds of intimacy we wanted for our futures, the values we shared, the people we loved. Both of us had quickly decided we weren’t really going to spend lockdown on our own. Before public health experts made talk of the coronavirus “bubble” commonplace, we came to ask after each other’s bubbles as if they were family.

I have long wanted a chosen family, and my coronavirus bubble of two New York friends is the closest I have ever come to one. I came better out of the pandemic than most: I have kept my employment and my apartment, and have had a lot of help to manage the challenges of an impending international move. But more than that, my life has been richer during the pandemic than it was before, by dint of the addition of the two members of my bubble. I cherished the intimacy of seeing the same people every day, of knowing what they had been doing, of knowing that they knew what I had been doing. I found meaning in being the person who could be called on to help if any help were needed. In March in New York, when there were refrigerated trucks parked outside the hospital near where we live and it seemed as if there was a possibility that any of us could fall very seriously ill, one of my bubble friends and I exchanged emails with our families’ contact information and informal health directives. That moment was scary and serious. I wrote a will that day, and I felt dizzy. But it opened up a new horizon of possibility for me. As someone who will probably never get married, it had not occurred to me that I might not have to die alone. As it happened, bathetically, I haven’t died of COVID yet, but the other day I did trip in the street and sprain my ankle. While I was disoriented in pain, those same two friends bundled me into a taxi and took me to the urgent care clinic. They waited for me, even as I texted them from the exam room to say I would be fine and they should probably go home.

When I was maybe 16 or 17, my cousin Julia came to stay with us in San Diego. (I hope she won’t mind me telling this story, as the only non-anonymous person mentioned here.) We had gone to one of the used bookstores in Hillcrest, and I walked out of the store but she was still taking her time. When she emerged, she bestowed upon me an entire set of the collected works of Armistead Maupin, the chronicler of queer San Francisco who popularized the phrase “logical family.” Julia has since become famous nationwide, adapting her insights from public health research on HIV to the present pandemic. I tell everyone I meet about her essays in the Atlantic; more often than not, they have heard of her already. She has also profoundly informed my own understanding of how my bubble and I, and my wider social circle, manage risk and harm reduction around COVID transmission. When a friend I had had a drink with a few weeks ago texted me to say that they thought they might have come down with COVID symptoms, I thought, what would Julia do? Chosen family can include biological family too.

Equally, back in early June or so, not long after Larry Kramer had died—the one celebrity death in these months (and not even of COVID) that really shook me—a columnist in the New Statesman opined that people wouldn’t forget the coronavirus pandemic in the way that they had easily forgotten AIDS. I raged and raged on that day’s walk to the park. I have thought about AIDS every day since March. I can’t stop thinking about AIDS. I think about AIDS every time I put on a mask, every time I hear another friend has fallen ill, every time I read a statistic about the worse health outcomes of low-income people and people of color. I think about AIDS every time I wonder what will happen if I get COVID. I think about AIDS every time I wonder whether the risk of COVID means that it is worth leaving my house, or taking the subway, or moving to England. I thought about AIDS when we walked through the streets of lower Manhattan on the last Sunday in June, those streets for the first time in decades filled with angry chanted slogans, not corporate floats. I have thought about AIDS all this long hot summer, my first and probably my last full summer in New York, devouring every scrap of gay literature and film and television I can lay my hands on.

It seems important to emphasize that destroying the nuclear family does not imply any rejection of my parents and my sister, who remain some of the most important people in my life. It means, rather, to say that I love my parents and my sister out of free will, not out of obligation. I should like to think that my love for them is better for knowing that it does not stem from social convention or mere filial piety. Moreover, I have known ever since I was old enough to know such things that I would never have children and very likely would never marry. When you destroy the nuclear family, you have the opportunity to start anew, to imagine other possibilities. The last time I wrote substantively on this blog, last summer, I suggested that the dominance of the “born this way” narrative in framing claims for LGBTQ civil rights in twenty-first-century America may have led us to overrate the potential for choice in queer identities and communities. What is queer community if not a radical openness to loving as we are called to love, to loving out of freedom and not out of obligation? What is it if it is not alternative kinship structures, staying friends with our exes, caring for the young people in our lives regardless of whether they are our own children, the potential to love the one-night stand you never see again as much as you do the partner with whom you spend decades of your life? Of course, twenty-first-century queer people invented none of these things. But a respect for queer heritage can remind us that they are available to us.

The day that I walked down to the end of Christopher Street Pier, I saw another friend, for the first time since the pandemic, as well as the first time since I’d defended my dissertation and gotten a job. “What have you been thinking about?” he asked me, as we did a loop of his block downtown on the hottest day of this long hot New York summer. “I’ve been thinking about destroying the nuclear family,” I found myself saying again. I meant it as a glib and witty remark—I have known this friend since I was nigh on a child, and I had long aspired to make remarks as glib and witty as his could sometimes be—but at the same time I really meant it. From the days in the beginning of April when the three of us in my bubble glanced furtively around to see if anyone was going to shame us for interacting with people who were not our spouses or children, when it sometimes seemed as if we were the only people in our peer group who had not moved back in with their parents, I’ve been thinking about how little it takes, really, to live a life that is quietly disruptive. And I have been thinking about how much of how the pandemic response has been organized, in various countries, has been designed to privilege the nuclear family and to subjugate other forms of affective relations. All this talk about “households,” about “staying home.” All this shaming of low-risk behaviors like meeting your friends in the park or at the beach. All this assumption that one parent or caregiver can be available to homeschool children. The isolation of the most elderly and vulnerable in nursing homes, the lack of social safety nets to support those whose multigenerational families live in overcrowded conditions. The rules in the Schengen area that you can cross national borders to visit your romantic partner, but not your dear friend. Surely we have the capacity, at the very least, to imagine a public health regime that seems less explicitly designed to punish difference. And surely, if we are—whether we like it or not, whether we have a choice or not—living our lives, as ordinary as they may otherwise be, outside of normative kinship structures, we have a duty to be brave and bold, cherish every moment we have on this earth, love one another, and convince by our presence.

Wikipedia, hilariously, informs me that St. Christopher is the patron saint of bachelors. He is also, more famously, the patron saint of travelers. When I came back from the pier on Monday afternoon, I walked the entire length of Christopher Street back to Greenwich Ave: ritualistically, committing it to memory out of a sense that I might never be back there again. I wanted to make sure that ages and ages hence I remembered that I was here, this summer, the summer of the pandemic, and that in this summer I had lived my life in the best way that I knew how.

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