#AsianChildhoods: 1.2 Queer Theory and the Transracial Adoptive Family

Yes, they did want to help a child. Yes, they did want to give a child a home. Yes, they wanted to give a child the opportunity to grow in Christian faith.

They endured the home study: God had not seen fit to give them their own child, but if they could prove to the social worker from Moorhead that they were good enough, earned enough, were Christian enough—then they might get a baby another way. –Jane Jeong Trenka, the language of blood (2003)

In the entry for “Queer” in the Encyclopedia of Diversity and Social Justice, “queering” is defined as “an academic kind of activism,” occurring “when scholars ‘read’ texts queerly or interpret an artifact through a queer theoretical lens, thus changing how others understand the world” (812).  Drawing on this definition as well as Kathryn Bond-Stockton’s queer child theory and Hannah Dyer’s (2020) exploration of childhood through the lens of the “queer contours of childhood…those that exceed the confines of normalcy and resist normative assessments of emotional and social growth” (6), queering transracial adoption means speaking to it as a a way to “challenge and subvert dominant, heteronormative discourses” (Barnett and Johnson 2015, 810).  

Several scholars have been instrumental in using queer theory to push at the boundaries of existing childhood and adoption studies. Their scholarship will be used here as a step toward developing and understanding queer theory’s application to transracial adoption. Kimberly D. McKee’s (2019) use of queer theory in adoption studies is particularly compelling. Invoking queer language such as “to pass as real,” (72), McKee reflects an adoptee’s desire to integrate into mainstream society without being questioned about their avowed identity. However, the family’s visually non-matching children “still marks the family as abnormal because Korean adoptees visibly disrupt notions of families as always genetically related” (65). Grace Newton notes: “The language around self-realization and ownership of identity for adoptees and LGBT folks is very similar” (2020). Dyer (2020), herself a queer parent, uses queer theory “as an organizing construct that helps to theorize anxieties about the future of gender, race, and sexuality” (5). Dyer cleverly ties theory to her son’s experience, who “will experience a queer childhood because it digresses from what is typically described as normative domestic origins” (27). And finally, queer theorist Kathryn Bond-Stockton (2009) uses queer theory to explore all of those aspects of childhood that are “deemed strange and unruly” (5).

What can be more “strange and unruly” than transracial adoption? The heteronormative, same-race family structure still persists as “normal” and aspirational for most of American society. Transracial adoption, then, becomes “queer” since it openly challenges the belief in family resemblance as indicators of relationality. Additionally, the financial stability required to adopt children (and the cost disparities between White and non-White adoptable children) reveal the queer affective logics required to motivate one to purchase the opportunity to parent Bond-Stockton’s (2009) “priced and priceless child” (34). Not just any child, but a child already marginalized–or queered, as Bond-Stockton (2009) says–by color (55). In this sense, how does transracial adoption queer, twice, transracially adopted children and their multiple families? These children, despite their integration into and proximity to Whiteness via adoption, still remain strange and unruly and queer, as their supposed “rescue” marks them as priced objects produced by adult desire (Dyer 2020, 124).

After all, we still “think of kin as those biologically related to us. But throughout most of human history, kinship was something you could create” (Brooks 2020). “In questioning who we consider to be family and how we make family,” childhood studies professor, Lauren Silver (2020), writes, “we can problematize the normative constraints so many different families encounter” (220). And yet, the attempt to normalize adoption contradicts itself as non-normative when adoption agency websites, such as Holt International’s, declare a “95% family satisfaction rating” as a success marker: How is a child’s body being used to create measurable satisfaction ratings for a family? Does this fall in line with “normal” expectations of family success? What effect do ratings have on the child’s identity?

Notably, Silver (2020) defines the “nonnormative or queer family” as ones that are single parent-headed, impoverished, and those created by adoption, among others (219). Lucy Curzon (2018), self-described lesbian and adoptive parent, writes of using critical adoption studies to “strategize a visual politics of queer kinship. How do queer families look?” (36). Like Silver, Curzon provides a possible answer: “Alternatives to the bionormative gaze…provide an opportunity to make visible the fact that these same concepts of family are, in reality, constructions” (36-37). Although both authors identify as gay, this identity and the queerness of the family structures they define cuts across gender and sexuality. Transracial adoption, then, becomes more appropriately defined “as an ‘as if’ family formation, in which relations between parents and children mimic biological ties, but the nuclear family that adoption mimics is itself an imaginary ideal, as is the individual whose identity would be wholly accounted for by biogenetic origins” (Homans 2018, 3). The queer theoretical framework helps destabilize non-normative kinship formations, including transracial adoption. Once family is queered, the transracially adopted child’s body becomes an object not with its own identity, but one that is “shaped by work” and takes on the “shape of the work” it is intended to perform (Ahmed 2006, 44, emphasis my own in both quotes).

While all the resources on this section’s reading list are generative for discussions about queer theory, family structure, and transracially adopted children, most are not written from a childhood or adoption studies perspective. Exceptions include Bond-Stockton, Dyer and Silver’s work, who focus on childhood. Many of the resources are not written by adoptees, either. In a syllabus seeking to strengthen and showcase adoptee-created work, this may be perceived as a weakness. It may even seem hypocritical. It is these hypocrisies, though, that speak to a larger need for more work on this subject by childhood and adoption studies scholars. This “lack” of work should not be taken to mean that either field, particularly that of childhood studies, is uninterested. On the contrary, critical adoption studies scholarship is growing and as its acceptance as a legitimate field of academic inquiry spreads, syllabi such as this one can serve as catalysts for its entry into childhood studies (and other) curriculums.

Despite questions of authorship and proximity to children and adoption, these works have in common an overall desire to push against what American society largely considers “normal,” and each work offers interesting ways of seeing the seen, yet unseen, transracially adopted child. Although some works are quite dense (Ahmed and Bond-Stockton, for instance) for readers outside of academia’s theoretical confines, students in the course will be guided through more challenging readings. One should also not overlook the publication dates of many of this section’s work. All of them are published within the past two decades, indicating that this topic and its burgeoning applications, intersections, and challenges are generating significant academic interest that will hopefully spill into public discourse.

Finally, queer theory, when applied to childhood and critical adoption studies, reinforces the idea that there is no “normal” family. Students will examine how “the family” constructs or constrains identities for adopted Asian children, while comparing their experiences as “adopted” with the experience of being “Asian.” This course section prepares students to situate the Asian child’s body as a queer object whose identity simultaneously exists and does not exist. These bodies, queered by existing outside of a norm, unwittingly sacrifice their own identity formations if they challenge or question their role in creating a non-normative family unit. This section’s readings trouble, in some way, the tensions between American family, the legitimacy of kinship, and how children’s bodies are used as completionist objects for achieving adult dreams of American belonging.

Reading List

Ahmed, Sara. “Chapter 1: Orientations Toward Objects.” In Queer Phenomenology, 25-63. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.

Barnett, Joshua Trey and Corey W. Johnson. “Queer.” In Encyclopedia of Diversity and Social Justice, edited by Sherwood Thompson, 809-813. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.

Bond-Stockton, Kathryn. “Introduction: Growing Sideways, Or Why Children Appear to Get Queerer in the Twentieth Century.” In The Queer Child, Or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century, 1-57. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.

Brian, Kristi. Reframing Transracial Adoption: Adopted Koreans, White Parents, and the Politics of Kinship. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012. (Chapters TBD)

Dyer, Hannah. “Introduction: Childhood’s Queer Intimacies and Affective Intensities.” In The Queer Aesthetics of Childhood: Asymmetries of Innocence and the Cultural Politics of Child Development, 1-33. Camden: Rutgers University Press, 2020.

Homans, Margaret. “Introduction.” Adoption & Culture 6 (2018): 1-4.

McKee, Kimberly D. “Chapter 3: The (Re)production of Family.” In Disrupting Kinship: Transnational Politics of Korean Adoption in the United States, 61-76. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2019.

Myers, Kit. “Marking the Turn and New Stakes in (Critical) Adoption Studies.” Adoption & Culture 6 (2018): 17-20.

Newton, Grace. “LGBT Folks and Adoptees: Building Coalition Across Community.” https://redthreadbroken.wordpress.com/2020/05/19/lgbt-folks-and-adoptees-building-coalition-across-community/.

Patton-Imani, Sandra. “Introduction.” In Queering Family Trees: Race, Reproductive Justice, and Lesbian Motherhood, 1-21. New York: New York University Press, 2020.

Phelan, Peggy. “Letter to the Special Issue Editor.” Adoption & Culture 6 (2018): 5-9.

Silver, L.J. (2020). “Queering Reproductive Justice: Memories, Mistakes, and Motivations to Transform Kinship.” Feminist Anthropology, 1: 217-230.

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