Double Taboo

No preface. But it has to be said.

We live in a world where infertility is a taboo. In many cultures that I’ve studied during my years in college, the very idea of being a woman is defined by motherhood (You can find numerous examples of this from the Bible to so-called primitive cultures around the world). In some countries and cultures the concept is taken further than in others.

During my junior year in college I wrote a paper examining certain aspects of a small Senegalese Tribe called the Seereer Siin. In that society becoming a man or becoming a woman are not things that automatically happen at a certain age, but require going through a specific, very physical ritual. After the successful completion of the ritual your status in society and in the community changes. Boyhood is something you literally cut away in the form of hair and girlhood is left in the woods upon going through labor and delivering your baby alone (Kalis 1997).

I have also studied India (though I claim no expertise on the entire continent and its long history and tradition) and the ‘traditional’ role of women as son-bearers and defining women through their marriage and their husbands. Many aspects of organized religion also paint the picture of the demure, silent woman whose will is expressed through her husband and whose womanhood is defined by her functioning reproductive organs… But since I don’t have a pile of essays here to reference and to quote, I’ll leave the search up to you.

Even in our Western society, despite the much more equal status of women where you can theoretically choose building a career instead of raising a family, you don’t HAVE to stay at home looking after 8 small kids, you can wear whatever you want to and even choose what to believe in, there’s still that unspoken question and assumption on everyone’s mind.

It’s sort of an extension of heteronormativity–where the unspoken assumption that everyone abides by traditional gender norms and relationships are always formed between cis-men and cis-women. That having children is automatically a result of a long-term relationship or marriage (and I could go on a long thing here about biological vs. chosen families, but I’m not going to) and if for some reason a couple DOESN’T have kids, it’s assumed it’s only a matter of time. Of course Lucy and Peter are going to give us grandkids! They just haven’t gotten around to it yet!

Just to be clear, there is no Lucy and Peter.

Children (and I’m talking about the concept of children here) are not just the magical and sometimes accidental result of a passionate moment: they represent the future and the continuity of humankind. Lee Edelman has all sorts of things to say about this idea of “reproductive futurism, ” that I won’t get that much, because I was never that adept at psychoanalysis and getting through even a chapter of his book was a challenge! The short point being that a child is always more than just a child. It becomes the Image of the Child that keeps the machine of the governments running… But think of the children!


Photo from here.

I can’t speak for any other experience than my own, but in our little corner of Europe infertility is not something that you talk about. In fact, couples (especially single women!) trying to get pregnant rarely talk about it at all until they are securely 3 months pregnant. Because being infertile is such a taboo! Included in it is of course hidden that no one wants to have anything less than a perfect pregnancy. Miscarriages are also taboo because they break down the idealized picture of the Mother of the idealized couple that is fulfilling that societal expectation. Because perhaps in a way, we (secretly) believe we are not women until we become mothers?

So what do I mean by a double taboo? It comes back to Lee Edelman and also some volatile current topics. What about when you’re gay? The assumption of heteronormativity also assumes the reproduction of straight couples. The whole debate around the issue of gay marriage seems to come back to the idea of gay people having kids (oh, but it’s not natural! But think of our children who will be traumatized and will grow up thinking it’s okay to be gay!). That assumption of reproduction doesn’t generally seem to apply to us…or then again?

When I came out to my mom the first thing she said (in tears) was: “I’ll love you no matter what, but I’m just so sad you won’t ever have kids.” My dad’s response was: “Oh, I don’t care if you’re with guys or girls, as long as I get to be a grandfather someday!”

So maybe our parents just want to be grandparents and want to ensure the continuation of the family line…and of the entirety of humanity! Okay, but seriously, reproduction isn’t what society expects fromus anymore. Suddenly it doesn’t matter how reproductively able we are. (And yet gay people have kids all the time…)

I’ve already established (well, sort of, at least) that in some way motherhood becomes a definition for womanhood. Also, infertility is taboo because of the assumption of heteronormativity and the continuation of the human race .. and that gay people theoretically pose a threat to that continuity. We literally represent No Future.

So what if you’re gay AND infertile. Is there even a place for you in society? That’s the double taboo. I’ve been trying to break the silence by talking a bit about our process, trying little by little to ‘normalize’ it. After all, one thing I’ve discovered in this past year is that, this affects a whole LOT of people.

Apologies too all scholars of Lee Edelman for myover-simplification and non-academic rendering of this great work.