Book review: Feeling Family by Yv E. Nay

In times of neoliberal precarity, should we be fighting for marriage equality or the end of the nuclear family?

Sophie Silverstein
30 August 2019, 8.12am
Image: Lisa H, CC by 2.0

Yv E. Nay captures the potential and pitfalls of the contemporary marriage equality and rainbow family movement in Switzerland. Feeling Family makes a compelling case for rethinking the boundaries between economy and society in a description of how emotions and economics interact in shaping the desires and goals of the movement as they respond to the current moment of neoliberal precarity.

Switzerland’s attitude towards the rights of its Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Queer (LGBTQ) citizens makes it appear slightly out of step with the legal developments in some of its surrounding countries. This is particularly true when looking at the state of legal recognition of non-heterosexual partnerships and families with children, frequently referred to as ‘rainbow families’. Registered partnership was made legal for same-sex couples in 2007 and remains the only legally recognized form of non-heterosexual relationships.

Starting a family with children outside the confines of heterosexual marriage is even further restricted. Only as recently as 2018 have same-sex couples been granted legal access to stepchild adoption, where a new partner can adopt their partner’s existing child. Access to assistive reproductive technologies or surrogacy remains heavily restricted, often while the same methods are partially available for heterosexual couples through fertility treatment.

Yv E. Nay’s book Feeling Family – Affective Paradoxes of the Normalization of ‘Rainbow Families’ outlines how it is impossible to think about the progress and the setbacks of the Swiss rainbow family movement without considering how families and caring relationships are shaped by both their social and economic conditions. Simultaneously, larger structures like the state and the economy cannot function without seemingly private institutions such as the family following suit with their needs. This insight invites a closer look at the relationship between kinship and neoliberal precarity. Nay provides a compelling analysis of this relationship, reconstructed with the help of legal texts, campaign material of the Swiss Umbrella Organization for Rainbow Families, and interviews with activists, partners, and parents advocating for and living in rainbow families across Switzerland.

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In a context where much, but certainly not all, writing on the impacts of neoliberalism on personal lives is grounded in an English or American context, Nay’s focus on Switzerland provides a refreshing and much-needed new take on the issue that re-centers European specificities. In this context, it is worth mentioning that the book has only been published in German, so that this review should also be read as a recommendation for its translation to make it accessible to a wider audience.

While the book explores more than just the connection between rainbow family activism and neoliberalism, this is a core theme of the book and other topics are thoroughly grounded in an analysis of current neoliberal precarity. In light of this, Nay empathetically acknowledges that you 'can’t not want' the legal rights and recognition that come with fitting into supposedly legitimate structures of family, such as the long-term monogamous and heterosexual household. This is because the family is entrenched in society as a uniquely safe location that offers respite from much of the precarity that abounds around it.

For example, marriage becomes desirable because it bestows on those who enter into it unique ease to jointly regulate inheritance, collectively deal with debt and bankruptcy, manage joint property, share social insurance, allocate alimony payments, and have a partner’s widowed status recognized after the death of a spouse. While the last three of these rights are accessible to an altered degree for registered partnerships, the very fact that marriage automatically includes most of these alleviating measures makes it a highly desirable institution to enter into. This privileging of marriage is so pernicious because it makes the lives of some people easier in an almost invisible way. In fact, the privileges it holds go mostly unremarked on by those who are able to access them and are exposed by the experiences of those without access.

Nay continues to highlight how it is the very exclusion of specific people and lifestyles that allows the two-person household to become not just culturally but also legally and economically privileged. In other words, at the very expense of others who cannot fit into its confines, the nuclear family first presents itself as and then becomes an island of safety amid the precarity that surrounds it.

At the same time, however, Nay demonstrates how this desire to make it safely ashore that characterizes much mainstream LGBTQ activism around relationships and the family, only further excludes others. If previously excluded groups, such as same-sex partners with adopted children, are included into what counts as family and are provided with the same legal recognition, this only strengthens the family’s hold on structuring people’s lives from taxation to health care or housing access.

Not only the people choosing how to live their life respond to neoliberal precarity by doubling down on the status quo of currently dominant family forms. Governments and businesses are tempted to adapt as well. Rather than being an expression of their political goodwill, it is in their direct interest to welcome the previously shunned rainbow families into the fold. After all, expanding the suburban, middle-class family to encompass lesbian, gay, or bisexual parents and their children, is necessary for their own ability to secure continued access to labor in an increasingly heterogenous labor force or secure the purchasing power that accompanies middle-class consumption.

This process, which Nay describes as 'neoliberal market logic' filters back into people’s individual choices. Not only is the increased focus on the family, in Nay’s analysis, a way in which individuals, governments, and businesses attempt to rebuild an economic and cultural stability that is being undermined by neoliberalism, but its very way of thinking that privileges profit over people seeps into the seemingly personal life choices that go into building families.

A key way in which this becomes apparent is when LGBTQ partners who wish to start a family, either through marrying or having children, resort to a privatized notion of care and individual responsibility to circumvent the legal conditions that restrict their options in Switzerland. When Switzerland restricts access to marriage or forbids assistive reproductive technologies to anyone who is not in a heterosexual coupled relationship, what it does in reality is restrict access to these services for anyone without the financial and cultural capital to circumvent Switzerland’s national borders to attain what they want.

While the state takes a step back, an individualized notion of personal responsibility takes over. LGBTQ individuals hoping to form a family can therefore still do so, as long as they personally have the capital at their disposal to overcome this political vacuum by purchasing access to a recognized family form in an act of private consumption. As one of Nay’s interviewed couples report, they were able to travel outside Switzerland to have their partnership legally recognized before this was legal, a social and geographical mobility that is only available to individuals with the right personal finances and immigration status. Such a privatization of responsibility is a key way in which neoliberal regulations of the family cement social inequalities that are heavily embedded in economic and racialized hierarchies.

Nay’s book sketches a careful and empathetic portrait of what happens when neoliberal precarity produces individual and large-scale insecurity that drives renewed commitment to restrictive notions of family and care. Seen this way, fitting into acceptable forms of what counts as family can have significant consequences for survival. At the same time, however, this is a short-sighted goal because it only exacerbates the deep trenches that the socially acceptable family has built around it by hoarding economic and cultural privileges. As a solution, Nay proposes that political action should orient itself around a degree of paradox: to simultaneously show understanding for wanting to fit into existing family forms and reject the family as an unrightful and exclusionary location of the privileges it holds.

On these terms, it is false and actively dangerous to attempt to solve first the economic problems of neoliberalism and then its social ones. Instead, racism, sexism, and classism must be addressed simultaneously. Nay successfully pinpoints how the family is a core institution where all these processes collide. The interplay of individual needs and structural conditions in the family expose how the economic conditions in which we live have as much impact on our identities and desires as sexism and racism.

Nay breathes new life into the familiar but by no means outdated feminist slogan ‘the personal is political’. The titular phrase 'feeling family' describes how feeling closer to the socially accepted family form provides a sense of comfort, not only because it allows fitting into the social mainstream, but because it provides access to a reciprocity that makes life easier on multiple fronts. When society is organized so that only a specific restrictive notion of family promises that feeling, then to feel family is to attempt to fit into its narrow parameters. Nay’s book makes the case that this attempt is not a question of random voluntarism, but of survival.

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