Legislating the Family: Heterosexist Bias in Social Welfare Policy Frameworks

Article excerpt

This article addresses the effects of heterosexist bias in social welfare policy frameworks on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals and families in the United States. It discusses the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), federal definitions of family and household, and stereotypes about LGBT individuals. It argues that poor LGBT individuals and families lack full citizen rights and access to needed social services as a result of these explicit and implicit biases.

Key words: Welfare reform; family policy; civil rights; gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT); heterosexism


Welfare reform is fundamentally about family policy--about promoting and privileging particular kinds of families, and about penalizing and stigmatizing others. (Cahill and Jones 2002: 1).

Two pieces of legislation were passed in 1996 that set an important tone for family policy in the United States: The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), an act that expanded welfare-to-work programs throughout the country, restricted people's access to public assistance, and crystallized the broader restructuring of public-private boundaries; and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman. At first glance, the two initiatives appear unrelated and inconsequential, although the reality is quite different. Combined, they constitute a national policy context within which legal and cultural definitions of "the family" have been restricted and where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) civil rights legislation has been blocked or challenged, both on moral and legal grounds. Although some important victories have been made by LGBT civil rights activists, heterosexist biases in federal law and policy continue to have negative effects for LGBT communities. Poor LGBT individuals and families, in particular, suffer consequences from these policy decisions because they do not have full citizen rights nor, in many cases, can they access needed resources.

This article addresses the effects of heterosexist bias in social welfare policy frameworks on LGBT individuals and families. It brings together three often-disconnected arenas of public policy: social welfare, family, and LGBT civil rights. Although contemporary scholarship on social welfare and family policy have put into question the "nuclear family" as the basis for policy (Haney and Pollard eds. 2003), and rightly so, few studies have addressed the role that institutionalized heterosexuality itself plays in shaping and powerfully influencing social welfare agendas. While many scholars have addressed the gendered and racialized dimensions of social welfare frameworks, including how racism and sexism provide foundations for restricting people's access to much-needed forms of assistance and to their civil rights, few have addressed how heterosexism, too, works to restrict access and limit citizenship for individuals who do not fit within sexual and gender norms (Phelan 2001; on racism and sexism, see Gordon ed. 1990; Gordon 1994; Gordon and Fraser 1994; Mink 1990; Mink ed. 1999; Naples 1998; Moller 2002). Even fewer have addressed the ways in which gender identity discrimination intersects with heterosexism to affect the lives of transgendered as well as non-transgendered lesbians, gays, bisexuals and heterosexuals. And the few researchers and policy-makers who have made important contributions to "queering," or examining the heterosexist biases in, American social policy, have yet to be taken seriously within mainstream policy circles (Butler 1990; Sedgwick 1992; Cahill and Jones 2002). In fact, policy struggles over the meaning of family and attacks on LGBT communities and civil rights have gone hand-in-hand: "It is no accident that the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) were passed and signed into law within days of each other," as Sean Cahill and Kenneth T. …