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Image courtesy of Mayra Sierra-Rivera '20, Studio art major

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Bloodlines and/at the Border

The Structural Intimacies of LGBTQ Transnational Kinship

Originally posted on ReproSoc The Blog


By Sonja Mackenzie

Border Questions

“How are you travelling together?” The question came simply but clearly through the glass kiosk and layered mask of the immigration agent. My family and I had just landed in the strangeness of a person-less pandemic Heathrow Airport, days after the COVID-19 B117 variant sent London into panic and lockdown standstill. The day we arrived saw cases and deaths in the UK reaching an unprecedented peak. Why would anyone land in the middle of this? It was a question we had asked ourselves many times. But now we had a new question – ‘how are you traveling together?’

Memories of bustling bodies rushing to catch flights and the stressful vibrancy and sweaty din of these hallways took form as we walked for what felt like miles after our overnight flight from San Francisco. The shared but silent glances with other pandemic travelers were too few and far between to feel reassuring in any way. We gathered our suitcases, all the necessities for the coming months of sabbatical life encased neatly inside one large and one small suitcase each. We were tense and we were worn – for more reasons than the virus. But we were ready – or so I thought – to open this new chapter as I came back ‘home’ to the UK to live -- for the first time as a queer family.

Border questions – literal and figurative - are not new to me. As a Scottish-raised child who moved to California at age 13, I grew used to these interrogations from an early age, asking me to render the journey at hand as I travelled across the world between parents; to narrate my place in this transnational world, my kin. ‘How old are you? Where were you born? Why are you travelling? Where are your parents?’


‘How are you traveling together?

‘We are a family.’ My response came quickly, sharply, evading the many questions held within this inquiry. This apparently simple question – raised, not insignificantly, at the border – was more a proclamation of the heterosexual, biogenetic family system that we were not, asking us to narrate our kinship within the legibility of compulsory heterosexuality (Rich 1980) and the “always-already heterosexual” relations of kinship (Butler 2002). I refused to answer these unspoken questions, wanting the officer to do the work. I handed forward the four passports that were less stamped stories of our travels across countries’ physical boundaries and more structural intimacies of kinship - tracing as they did the insistence of bloodlines, biology and their production at the border - even as we stood there as physical evidence to the contrary.

In my 2013 book, Structural Intimacies: Sexual Stories in the Black AIDS Epidemic, I proposed the framework of ‘structural intimacy’ as a theory for understanding how structural inequalities affect possibilities for and constraints on intimate lives and, in so doing, impact health (Mackenzie 2013). Through three discursive examinations of structural intimacies in the context of the Black AIDS epidemic in the US, the book finds that so-called ‘risk’ for HIV is in fact inextricable from structural inequities of race, class, and sexuality. Structural intimacies are, and are about, stories at the meeting of social structural patterns and interpersonal lives, focusing on the agency of story-tellers as they negotiate and narrate power alongside vulnerability. This ‘optic’ onto the structural and the intimate is informed by theories of embodiment (Bourdieu 1990) and has been used to examine LGBTQ assisted reproductive technology (ART) engagements and their ‘tensions’ through a queer reproductive justice lens (Mamo 2018; Mamo and Alston-Stepnitz 2014). Here, I bring the optic of structural intimacies to the border to consider transnational LGBTQ kinship. Specifically, I ask, what is the role of ‘the border’ as a means of re-producing LGBTQ inequities through the consolidation of heteronormative, biogenetic kinship institutions and ideations of family.

We had arrived at this border-questioning for my sabbatical to further my research on LGBTQ kinships; however, the very issues I sought to understand had been playing themselves out for months in the process of our planning to configure a home as an LGBTQ transnational family.  During this process, biogenetic and heterosexist UK immigration policies rendered one of my children as a ‘legitimate’ UK citizen and the other as not a citizen -- and, indeed, as ‘illegitimate’ by virtue of the necessity of her birth out of legal wedlock (Murray 2012).[i] Through demarcating nationhood along lines of birth status and/or biology, the UK immigration office does not consider me a parent to my 15 year-old daughter because I did not give birth to her, de-legitimating my non-biological parenthood while upholding my biological parenthood. The ongoing navigation of these systems has cost my family unending uncertainty as to whether – and for how long - we can live together as a family this year, whether we can travel together in the middle of a pandemic, whether (and where) my daughter can attend school, not to mention a weighty ‘gay tax’ as we seek to stay together as a family -- to name a few queer family anxieties. The labor enacted to be together as a family has held within it the knowing that, in fact, we are not truly welcome or even understood to be a family here.

Constructing Citizenship

The letter had come three months prior to our border crossing:

HM Passport Office Decision Letter, Excerpt - 31/10/2020

HM Passport Office Decision Letter, Excerpt - 31/10/2020

But I was a British Citizen at the time of her birth. Being my daughter’s mother is so embedded that I had to read this several times before the sting of this proclamation hit home. She is my first child, the child I had planned and obsessively prepared for with my partner, the child I had welcomed into my hands and into the world that rainy January night years ago. She is also the older sibling to my son, whose UK citizenship approval and UK passport – and the many doors it opened – would arrive just weeks later by virtue of the fact that I am his birth parent.

It slowly took form – I am not my daughter’s mother. Further, it was my status as a British citizen that made me have no claim to parenthood of my daughter. This status is established through the British Nationality Proof of Paternity (Amendment) Regulations of 2015. Indeed, if she had been conceived after April 6, 2009, I could be considered by Her Majesty’s Passport Office at least as some form of parent to her - specifically within the sub-category of father as a ‘person who is treated as a parent of the child’ under the second female parent provision of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 2008 (Sections 42 and 43). At least this would involve recognition as some form of parent in relation to her – even if as a subcategory of ‘father’; ‘mother’ being defined strictly as the ‘woman who gestates and gives birth to the child’ (Fox 2009; McCandless and Sheldon 2010).[ii]

While the structural intimacies of heteronormative and birth-parent nationalism were a new experience for my family as we attempted to configure life together as a family in my homeland, this was not particularly new to me. Indeed, I am already formally defined as my daughter’s father on her California state birth certificate, albeit with the designation that allowed us to include ‘parent’ as queer resistance within the assumed/forced heteronormative mother-father parent designation (see Excerpt).[iii]

Certificate of Live Birth, Excerpt – State of California, 2006

Certificate of Live Birth, Excerpt – State of California, 2006

It had been clear throughout my 15 years as a queer parent that genetics is less a fact of biology and more a state-driven project for constructing (worthy) citizens through and productive of acceptable family forms. And yet the role and power of the border and its regulatory systems in constructing and maintaining (hetero) normative families had become painfully clear. Understanding that this was symbolic may sound easy, and indeed I did write it off as an artifact of the antiquated, biologically deterministic, (hetero)sexist, racist, colonial domain of the British. And yet, the violence of this erasure and its significant instrumental effects welled in me for months to follow.

Structural Intimacies of LGBTQ Transnational Kinship

Bio-genetic parenthood, as “one of the most enduring social norms, identities and experiences in (American) culture” (Mamo 2018), is the subject of an increasing body of work theorizing the ways in which LGBTQ families variously replicate and resist normative family structures through family making practices and navigation of bio-genetics, kinship and race (Jones 2005; Nordqvist 2017). Analyses of decision making and engagement with reproductive technologies are critical, and further sociological analyses are needed of the bio-medical, social, political and economic institutions that continue to structure the very possibilities and practices of family-making across the life-course of queer families and across the various literal and figurative borders of our lives. It is here that we must theorize the biological as a “fascinatingly ambivalent resource through which to fashion essentialising, but malleable, meanings of gender, kinship, and shared reproductive substance” (Franklin 2014), while examining the role of state institutions in re-producing biological, heteronormative forms of kinship. Crossing borders, access to schools and other social institutions, and even the (failed) guarantee of physical togetherness and care – these are all structural intimacies of LGBTQ kinship, narrated through birth certificates, passports, and imaging of bodies via biometric technologies that attempt to situate bodies in heterosexual practice, time and space – and, importantly, the stories we tell.

The late twentieth century has seen the rise of sexual stories or what sociologist Ken Plummer calls “narratives of the intimate” (Ken Plummer 1995). Stories are “social actions embedded in social worlds,” and are both symbolic interactions and political processes that render, through symbols and language, meanings of the self and others.  Our passports told stories – and held silences – of ‘intimate citizenship’ (Ken Plummer 1995) (or non-citizenship) - that traced state narratives of our kinship structure and configured compulsory heterosexuality in and through the border. Structural intimacies are structural: they denote those social institutions, material circumstances, and relationships between the state and populations that are played out through forms of domination. Structural intimacies are, and are about, the intimacies of everyday life; holding within them closeness and pleasure, longing and silence, and often tenuous struggles for life itself. Structural intimacies create a rhetorical space at the nexus of large-scale social forces, local cultural worlds and their embodiment in kinship structures, situating the practices and experiences of family-making – often understood in the language of neoliberalism as intimate and/or of the private domain - in the context of racism, classism, homophobia, and heterosexism. These narratives indicate that structural vulnerability is felt—quite literally—in the blood, in the possibilities and constraints on kinship, and in the rhetorics of their telling. In this sense, the practices of family-making are themselves situated within the broader fabric of societal structures and the insistence of the regulatory mechanisms of the state is upheld over time in and through the border for transnational LGTBQ families. In this instance, the border becomes a literal and figurative space for the re/production of (heterosexual, bio-genetic) family forms.

Biometrics and beyond: Visualizing queer family citizenship

The dramatic sunset view of Birmingham’s industrial-yet-modern skyline from the seventh-floor immigration office provided a perhaps appropriately layered backdrop for our presence at my daughter’s required biometrics appointment. Biometric technologies – or, rather, the state’s “border technology par excellence… [as] a classification process fueled by xenophobic anxieties and intimately connected to capitalist enterprise” (Magnet 2011) provide the requisite measurements of finger prints and visual ‘evidence’ to substantiate – indeed, even to submit the application for – a UK citizenship application. Biometric scientific practices presume that the human body exists as a “stable, unchanging repository of personal information from which we can collect data about identity” (Magnet 2011). These technologies assume a key role in the construction and regulation of borders through state-driven cultures of security and fear and their exclusionary effects, by controlling and classifying vulnerable populations and serving as an instrument of race, class, sexuality, ability and gender oppression (Wevers 2018). Questions of the role of policies that promote equity at the border remain critical to shifting meanings of borders, nations, biology and kinship – and the overlap thereof. We were here by virtue of the fact that my daughter was not a worthy (UK) citizen based on (non) birth status; and had to participate in the requisite process of classification of her body (and our queer family) as a potential risk to the state.

All the while, children squirmed impatiently and translators sought to render linguistic sense of the process while photos were taken and fingerprints were marked among the hopeful-citizens-to-be lined up in the technologies of citizen-making. Despite being caught up in what Donna Haraway has described as the ‘corporeal fetishism’ of biometrics and the profoundly problematic erasure of the situatedness of its knowledges (Haraway 1997), the queer stakes at hand found us also strangely relieved to be here as my daughter brought her bodily material forward for visualization/regulation as a worthy UK citizen. ‘No, fingers together like this’ – she lined her fingers up, now appropriately, for the state. Our administrator let us know that he was going to review the data on her application. Moments passed, silence. He paused, looking up at me from his kiosk – ‘Sonja Mackenzie – father. XX – mother. Is that right?’ My daughter and I glanced at each other, smiling knowingly behind our masks. ‘Yes, that’s right. Sonja Mackenzie - Father.’

‘Ok, are you ready for me to submit your application?’


The rain fell hard and the wind blew as we left the office, running arm in arm down the abandoned streets of Birmingham that night – caught up in all it meant to be in these systems – and yet, we hoped, soon to officially be able to remain together as parent and child.  Soon to be able to attend school, no questions asked. My daughter saw beauty from those windows. I see a frame that lets us see forever – and meanwhile, an opening onto questions of structural intimacies of transnational kinship.




twin pandemics blog, Human and Community Ties, cah blog feature
Sonja Mackenzie is Associate Professor in the Public Health Program at SCU and is currently on sabbatical with the Department of Sociology in the Reproductive Sociology Research Group at Cambridge University in England. She lost her father to COVID-19 in April 2020.