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Heather has two mommies on her kinship chart

But not on her medical pedigree

There was an unusually interesting episode of Fresh Air last week in which author Alysia Abbott discusses the childhood she shared with her gay widower father in 1970s Haight-Ashbury. At the beginning of the interview Abbott brings attention to the fact that

the experience of being a child of a gay parent in my generation or the child of a gay parent coming of age today is very different. Most of the children born of gay parents in the first two decades after Stonewall, those children were the products of heterosexual unions, usually straight marriages. […] Children today, they are usually the product of a gay couple who would either adopt a child or go through a process of artificial insemination to have a child.

Abbott’s father could be found in both her pedigree and genealogy, whereas the parents of most gaybies are to be found in their genealogy alone.


A pedigree is a graphic display of biological descent. Abbott’s is shown in the example below.1

family history

Fig. 1. Alysia’s pedigree.


A genealogy displays an individual and relatives of that individual. Like a pedigree, it takes the form of a tree structure. A genealogy may map 1:1 with a pedigree. A simple genealogy could be constructed for Abbott which would look identical to her pedigree above.

The figure below shows the nuclear family of a more contemporary, if fictional, same-sex couple.2

Fig. 2. Heather’s genealogy.

There is no biological relationship between Heather and Kate, so the diagram is not a pedigree. It does visually represent a family relationship, however, and as such is a genealogy.

Prop 8 and DOMA

Advocates for the extension of full rights for same-sex marriage within the United States portray theirs as an effort to gain legal recognition of “one cultural model among others,” as Maurice Godelier puts it.3 That is one possible interpretation. But as Glenn Greenwald puts it, “gay marriage revitalizes a traditional institution—marriage—that heterosexuals have been in the process of killing with whimsical weddings, impetuous divorces, and serial new spouses.”4

In my previous post I made mention of how Lewis H. Morgan’s naming of the descriptive and classificatory systems of kinship he discovered reflect the degree to which his work naturalizes the Western legal and cultural construct giving pride of place to lineal relation, the kind of relation show in both Figure 1 and Figure 2 above. From this perspective, the apparent furor over the legalization of gay marriage appears as something of a tempest in a teapot.

Prop 8 and doma are not the only pieces of family-related legislation currently under judicial review by the United States Supreme. The consequences of the Court’s decision regarding the third, the Indian Child Welfare Act, are in their own way far more revolutionary than the legalization of gay marriage. This is because icwa affords non-lineal relations with the same legal standing as lineal relations. More on this in my next post.


1. A decidedly basic example, and purposefully so. Diagramming “family histories,” as medical professionals call them, becomes very complicated very quickly. See Rich, Eugene C., et al. “Reconsidering the family history in primary care.” Journal of General Internal Medicine 19, no. 3 (March 2004): 273. doi: 10.1111/j.1525-1497.2004.30401.x

2. Newman, Lesléa. Heather has two mommies. Illustrated by Diana Souza. 2nd ed., 10th anniversary ed. Los Angeles: Alyson Wonderland, 2000.

3. The metamorphoses of kinship. Translated by Nora Scott. London; New York: Verso, 2011, p. 14.

4.The gay marriage snowball and political change.” The Guardian, online ed., March 26, 2013.



  1. […] social organization, the author brings it into contemporary relevance with his discussion of ‘Pedigrees, genealogies, and same-sex parents‘, showing the continued practical applicability of kinship studies for modern biological and […]


  2. schrisomalis says:

    Thanks for this fascinating post, and looking forward to reading more. It’ll be very interesting to see, as not only same-sex marriage but all varieties of same-sex parenting (including the prospect, not too far off, of same-sex couples having children that are genetically related to both parents), whether kinship can reestablish its place in the core of the anthropological toolkit.


    • Mateo says:

      Thanks, glad you enjoyed it!

      In his review of Goderlier’s big book I feel that Robin Barnes is being fair when he states that “just at the moment when [the] advice [of anthropologists] is needed, the majority of anthropologists have ceased to be interested in the topic.”


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