Prism & Pen
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Prism & Pen

Queer as Kin

The lineage of a love that connects

Intergenerational wonder on our shared plot of land. Credit: Gabriel Harper Photography

I am knee-deep in an unruly patch of strawberries at a community garden in San Francisco. Hidden beneath overgrown leaves, fruits dangle like precious gems, some seductively red and others still budding. Many have already fallen to feed the worms. I ask my host, Alberto, whether I should trim back the stems to give the berries more room to grow. He laughs as he tells me there are no rules in this garden. “Once you start adding rules, you have to call upper management for every little thing.”

I take stock of my surroundings through this new lens of garden anarchy. Messy rows of lettuce and flowers jut in all directions, with no walls defending their soil. Nearby, a group of older Chinese ladies sing in Mandarin while pouring neon blue liquid into their beds. I ask Alberto whether any portions of the garden are organic. “We don’t use labels,” he shrugs. I know his statement isn’t about me, but as a queer human I feel welcome.

After filling several cartons of strawberries, I place the bulk on a table for the other volunteers and keep one container for my friend Rachel, whose son Jasper was born just weeks prior. Rachel has mastitis from breastfeeding, and I want to bring her something sweet. Alberto contributes a bunch of fresh-cut flowers.

I hop on a cross-town bus with arms full of berries and flowers and dirt-crusted gloves and pull a stem out for the bus driver, who clutches her heart and threatens to cry. I meet Rachel with Jasper lying quietly against her chest, and we find a vase for the flowers while we savor the fruits. These are small gestures, but I can’t help but feel like a fairy leaving a trail of treats around the city. The place feels more alive today.

Jasper is just the first stop on my list this week. Next I’ll be visiting Lola with my drums for her very first jam session. And then joining Cullan and Emer for a messy dinner. After, I’ll fly to New York to see Sloane, born to my brother and his wife a few months ago.

Being an uncle is a new label for me, and it’s not one I chose. During the pandemic, I suddenly went from the youngest of my line to an uncle of five tiny humans. There’s my blood niece, Sloane, and then there’s also the new generation of my chosen family in California, a group I share land with. When we signed our contract to live together, we also made an implicit commitment to one day become the proverbial “village” raising collective offspring. Ready or not, that day is here.

As the sole queer member of the group, I never imagined children of my own, and I never planned ahead for family. Caught up in my own life, I didn’t see room for the all-consuming project of parenthood.

Instead, I looked to queer theorists like Lee Edelman, who protested against our cultural obsession with “reproductive futurism” in his defiantly titled book No Future. In Edelman’s view, our society is overly obsessed with children as a symbol of innocence. Queerness should not be about the palatable gay couple raising a child but the pleasure-seeking self saying no to the reproductive social order.

What feels right to me, here and now, should be enough. Yet somehow I find myself, here and now, inexorably pulled towards a new generation.

I am back in my own garden, applying what I learned from Alberto. I eschew structured formalities like planting schedules and formal structures like deer fences. Instead, some friends and I patch together beds from a leftover chicken coop, plant an assortment of gifted seeds and tubers left too long on our kitchen counters, and wrap the whole setup in simple netting. Babies watch from the shade, and I keep them company in tentative shifts. Interpreting their cries feels as foreign to me as diagnosing dried-out leaves.

But it is not long before we see bunches of lettuce blurting from the ground, tendrils of snow peas gossiping between them, anchored to stalks of corn as they shout above the nets. Meanwhile, not a peep from the potatoes.

We are listening to hear what works, in this earth, in this season. We are prodding at the land, inquiring into its lineage. With which plants have you slept, we ask, faithfully evolving together? And which progeny do you abort, for lack of nutrients, or warmth, or microbial suitors?

This patch of life returns me to the problem of reproduction, no longer a promise of the future but a fact of the past. Entangled lineages make us who we are — beings selecting, over and over, to meet and create more life. Yet somehow, somewhere, the earth said yes to an unlikely mutation that said no, that queer revolt praised by Edelman, punctuating life’s branches over and over with refusals to reproduce. I am the unyielding potato, indulging in its own slice of time. The future, you say? I can’t be bothered. Wouldn’t it be more delicious to lather me in oil?

Digging through the past, I discover that the lineage of queer evolutionary thought extends back to an unlikely origin, with the founder of natural selection himself. After publishing his famous Origin of Species, Charles Darwin went on to confront a thorn in his theory: individuals often act at the expense of their own fitness, in the form of altruism. He later concluded in The Descent of Man that we evolve not just as individuals but also as groups. When we work together, we form a kind of super-organism that can outcompete other groups. After all, what is an individual but an orgy of countless smaller beings?

If this is true, queerness could have evolved as a kind of altruism: an eschewing of the drive to further our own line in order to further the group. And when those we helped were related to us, they passed down our own genes, some of which predisposed offspring to more queerness. This theory has historical grounding, particularly during crises when selection plays an acute role.

I land upon the story of the 1917 Halifax explosion, when soldiers and sailors played the biggest part in helping their communities survive because they lacked the responsibility of their own families. I imagine myself in such a calamity. I don’t fancy myself much of a soldier, but with earthquakes and fires ever on California’s horizon, I hope I would rise to meet the need.

If the evolutionary function of queerness is to advance the group, Edelman was both right and wrong. Queerness may not be found in reproduction, but it is equally absent from selfish pleasure. It is expressed most in the will to make kin, here and now, on a planet that needs us to mend more and produce less. We weave relations in the form of blood and chosen families, broader communities, and acceptance of love in its abundant diversity.

A renewed sight in our garden is the busywork of bees. We have set up new hives just in time for spring. Some of our older residents made it through their first winter, while others did not. We are still listening.

I dress up our oldest nibling, Cullan, in an oversized beekeeping suit, and he cautiously inches toward the hives before letting out a sharp “No!” and sprinting back to safety. Huddled close to the ground, he yells out bee facts he learned on YouTube while the adults tend the honeycomb. “Only the queen reproduces!” he reports over the buzz. “The rest of the females are workers.” Now that’s a society with healthy queer representation.

I watch a worker bee buzz from flower to flower. She inserts herself so deep into a pride of Madeira that I can only see the tip of her butt cradled by tiny blue petals.

This queer bee, I think, is moved by a perfectly Edelmanian pleasure. Lacking a will to reproduce, she is simply immersing herself in the presence of nectar. But so is the flower immersing in desire, for it has located its nectary at its base, drawing the bee as deep as possible into itself so that its grains of pollen will join with the bee’s body. These are selfish desires that attract, not just between organisms but between species. If there is a role for me in this garden, it is not to control but to nurture these relations.

What makes their desires unique from Edelman’s is that they originate beyond the self. They have co-evolved in an ancient story that troubles the boundary of the individual. The bee says to the flower: Your pleasure is my pleasure, and mine yours. You and I have been in a dance for millions of years, and look at all we have created by the simple act of desire. The flower says: You are right, dear bee, but you are not mine alone; you desire many flowers. And the bee says: My love is one that connects.

This is a different story of queerness: a love that connects. It tells me I have work to do now, following my desire toward broader and deeper relations, each producing greater abundance than we could make alone. It softens the hold of an older story: that love is something we find only in a partner, that it is in short supply, that it must be defended from other potential loves. It allows me instead to fall in love over and over without diminishing the love I already hold for others. It is an anarchy grown in Alberto’s garden, foregoing structure in favor of a simpler tending, to relations here and now.

Most of my niblings might not be related by blood, yet we can still make each other kin. The small gestures — picking strawberries for Jasper or beekeeping with Cullan — are tendrils on a vine reaching out to touch another, listening to what works, in this earth, in this season. They are attempts to learn what it means to be an uncle in a lineage of altruism, in a story of connection. I trust I will learn from the bee, practicing the sacred work of entangled desire.

With time, I imagine these acts filling gaps left between the nuclear families in my community like mycelium stitching soil so that plants can thrive. Together, these acts make a garden, and to the garden itself I call myself uncle.

Having stepped into my new role as uncle to the collective, last of my genetic line, I receive one more call, this time from my friend Andy.

Andy wants to be a single mom, but she is not alone. She organized her own collective support network, a “sperm donor selection committee,” which met regularly to review the profiles of anonymous sperm donors and ultimately determine Andy’s genetic match. Having arrived at a shared choice, she threw one final option into the mix: What if the donor were not anonymous? What if the donor were kin? What if the donor were me?

I ask Andy what I would be called. She says, of course, uncle.

Her offer dangles before me, a bright gem of a fruit hanging from the vine. Another nibling in the garden. An expanded sense of what it means to be an uncle. A shared desire entangling us both. I say yes.

Thanks for spending time with these thoughts. You can to subscribe to my writing or visit my website to learn more.

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Steve Daniels

I serve a vision for the more-than-human world grounded in interdependence. You can subscribe to my newsletter at https://stevedaniels.space