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date: 20 January 2022

Queer(ing) Reproductive Justicefree

Queer(ing) Reproductive Justicefree

  • Natalie Fixmer-OraizNatalie Fixmer-OraizDepartment of Communication Studies, University of Iowa
  •  and Shui-yin Sharon YamShui-yin Sharon YamGender and Women Studies, University of Kentucky


The history, principles, and contributions of the reproductive justice (RJ) framework to queer family formation is the nexus that connects the coalitional potential between RJ and queer justice. How the three pillars of RJ intersect with the systemic marginalization of LGBTQ people—especially poor queer people of color—helps clarify how the RJ framework can elaborate the intersectional understandings of queer reproductive politics and kin.


  • Gender (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies)
  • Health and Risk Communication


In June 2019, the National LGBTQ+ Taskforce published a tool kit entitled “Queering Reproductive Justice.” In it, the Taskforce outlined the ways in which reproductive justice (RJ) connected intimately with LGBTQ+ liberation movements as the RJ framework acknowledged how queer people were “impacted by intersecting forms of oppression” in their daily lives (National LGBTQ Taskforce, 2019, p. 6). In addition to outlining the barriers queer people faced in accessing healthcare, the report also outlined the shared legal histories and oppressions between the reproductive rights and justice movements and LGBTQ+ rights.

The Taskforce is not alone nor is it the first in identifying the intersections and coalition potential between RJ and LGBTQ+ advocacy. Long-standing alliances between reproductive politics and LGBTQ+ struggles exist—these include, for example, shared resistance to state interference in sexual expression, reproduction, and family formation, and affirmations of kin outside of White middle-class heteronuclearity (Enke, 2007; Samek, 2016; Thomsen & Morrison, 2020). Explicit assertions of this alliance are increasingly commonplace. In 2007, Miriam Zoila Pérez, a queer Latinx reproductive justice activist and author of the groundbreaking Radical Doula Guide, penned an op-ed, also entitled “Queering Reproductive Justice,” in which she criticized a gay male leader in LGBTQ+ rights after he argued that it would be counterproductive for gay rights activists to take a stance on the federal abortion ban (Pérez, 2007). Pérez argued against divisive, single-issue advocacy that frames movements against one another, advocating instead for queer alliances with RJ through “shared principles based in the human rights to health and a desire for real social change” (Pérez, 2007, para. 6).

Scholars across disciplines have taken up this call to cultivate coalitions across social movements by queering reproductive justice (Nixon, 2013; Price, 2017, 2018; Radi, 2020; Russell, 2018; Smietana et al., 2018; Stacey, 2018). This body of scholarship explores the following: how LGBTQ+ rights activists build political coalitions with other social movements and advocacy groups through the intersectional framework of RJ; how and whether activists can analyze and dismantle the legal, material, and sociocultural barriers queer people face in reproduction and family formation through RJ; and how researchers and activists can productively draw on the confluences of “stratified reproduction,” “reproductive justice,” and “queer reproductions” as three key theoretical frameworks with distinctive lineages. Scholars hold different perspectives on the queering of RJ: While some scholars advocate for applying “political intersectionality” to cultivate coalitions between RJ and the LGBTQ+ movements (Price, 2018, p. 596), others argue that not all queer reproduction and family-making fit within the RJ framework (Russell, 2018; Smietana, 2018) and critique the homonormative impulse entailed therein (Butler, 2002; Stacey, 2018). The conversation is broadly interdisciplinary, spanning fields such as anthropology, sociology, and increasingly communication studies in which scholars draw on critical frameworks that understand human communication as constitutive and world-making in the queering of RJ.

This article first provides a brief background and history of RJ before exploring existing tensions on queer(ing) RJ. Then the article traces two central tenets in queer(ing) RJ: first, how the RJ framework applies to the reproductive health and social lives of queer people in areas such as access to assisted reproductive technologies (ART), adoption, and gender-affirming healthcare; and second, how queer RJ opens up possibilities for coalitions among different forms of “disruptive families” that challenge the heteronuclear familial model (Smietana et al., 2018, p. 121).

The Reproductive Justice Framework

A term coined in 1994 by 12 U.S. Black feminists at a conference in Chicago, reproductive justice includes three pillars: “The right not to have a child; the right to have a child; and the right to parent children in safe and healthy environments” (Ross & Solinger, 2017, p. 9). Reproductive justice expands the scope and stakeholders of the dominant pro-choice movement, led primarily by White women, by addressing the multiple systems of oppression experienced by Black, Indigenous, and other women of color in their reproductive lives (Price, 2010). The reproductive justice framework, in other words, contextualizes reproductive politics and oppression in relation to other social justice issues such as racism and poverty. This alliance of Black women drew on the “epistemic privilege of the oppressed,” while also integrating the shared experiences among women of color organizers who were convening at international human rights gatherings, such as the International Conference of Population and Development in Cairo (Narayan, 1988, p. 34; Price, 2010). This collaboration marked the beginning of a broad and intersectional movement that would slowly transform reproductive rights politics in the United States and, increasingly, in global contexts as well. In recent years, scholars in feminist studies have examined and called for a transnational turn in reproductive justice (Bailey, 2011; Fixmer-Oraiz, 2013; Garita, 2015; Hernández & Upton, 2018; Jolly, 2016; Radi, 2020).

Working alongside other women of color in the United States through the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective, the first SisterSong national conference in 2003 featured reproductive justice prominently in its programming (Ross & Solinger, 2017, p. 66). The reproductive justice framework proved pivotal in assembling a broad-based coalition that drew over 1.15 million people to the 2004 March for Women’s Lives and other grass-roots initiatives organized by women of color-led advocacy groups (Hayden, 2009; Silliman et al., 2016). Shortly thereafter in 2005, Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice (ACRJ) published a formative report that distinguished the reproductive justice (RJ) framework from those of reproductive health and reproductive rights. ACRJ clarified that while the reproductive health framework focused on enhancing access to reproductive healthcare, the reproductive rights framework “is a legal and advocacy model that serves to protect an individual woman’s legal right to reproductive health care services,” often with an emphasis on the individual’s right to privacy and to choice (Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice, 2005, p. 2).

Distinct but connected to these two frameworks, RJ is based on an intersectional approach to social injustices and oppression. While reproductive health and rights, respectively, emphasize the access to healthcare and legal infrastructure, RJ focuses on grass-roots organizing and coalition-building across advocacy organizations because reproductive oppression is the outcome of interlocking systems of power (Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice, 2005). As one of the cofounders, Loretta Ross, put it: “Reproductive Justice posits that the ability of any woman to determine her own reproductive destiny is directly linked to the conditions in her community and these conditions are not just a matter of individual choice and access” (Ross, 2006, p. 2). Rather than focusing on singular reproductive issues, such as abortion rights that preoccupied many White feminist activists, RJ focuses on “reproductive oppression” writ large, which Ross defined as “the control and exploitation of women, girls, and individuals through our bodies, sexuality, labor, and reproduction” (Price, 2010; Ross, 2006, p. 2). Given the multi-issue coalitional approach of RJ, scholars and advocates from across disciplines have used the framework to explore issues such as environmental justice, disability justice, immigration, transphobia, and prison reform (de Onís, 2012, 2015; Gaard, 2010; If/When/How, 2017; Olivera, 2018; Piepmeier, 2013; Radi, 2020; Smith, 2019).

RJ’s principles, approaches, and vision—including its focus on movement building across social causes—are shaped by intersectionality. A term coined by legal feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989), but with a rich lineage traceable throughout the history of U.S. Black feminist activism and thought (Collins, 2008; Nash, 2019), the theory of intersectionality clarifies how marginalized people are often oppressed by multiple interlocking systems of power. In the context of reproductive politics, the mainstream pro-choice narrative grounded in “privacy” and “choice” fails to address the complexities of reproductive oppression for women marginalized by class, race, nation, and immigration—women for whom the right to have a child (or to parent children) has been violently curtailed through various mechanisms (e.g., eugenic state policies that rendered poor women and women of color particularly vulnerable to forced sterilization throughout most of the 20th century). Thus, an intersectional account of oppression in the context of reproductive politics significantly broadens the scope and potential impact of the movement.

As RJ scholar Kimala Price pointed out, intersectionality highlights “structural and institutional aspects of oppression” and sees “oppressions as overlapping and co-constituting” (Price, 2018, p. 594). Acknowledging structural intersectionality provides fertile ground for the RJ movement to bring together different marginalized communities—including Black women, Indigenous women, and queer and trans people—to organize in solidarity with one another (Price, 2010). As a multi-issue advocacy and movement-building network, for example, SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Collective encompasses organizations and groups that share common goals, albeit having their unique political concerns and emphasis; the organization also collaborates with other social justice and reproductive rights grass-roots advocacy groups, including Black Lives Matter, to address reproductive oppression at the nexus of gender, race, and class (Rankin, 2016).

While RJ is founded by Black women in the United States, the framework has transnational significance and relevance. In addition to RJ activists’ involvement in the 1994 U.N. International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo and the founding of a U.S. Women of Color Coalition for Reproductive Rights at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing (Carrión), SisterSong co-authored a shadow report in 2014 for the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination with the Center for Reproductive Rights and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. Scholars have drawn on RJ frameworks to consider transnational women’s rights organizing (Carrión; Garita, 2015) to interrogate requisite sterilization for legal gender recognition by numerous states (Radi, 2020) and to think through the ethical terrain of transnational gestational surrogacy (Bailey, 2011; Fixmer-Oraiz, 2013). However, despite RJ’s transnational history and involvement, most existing scholarship and political agendas continue to center RJ in the U.S. context. Jallicia Jolly (2016) and Sharon Yam (2021) have called for more uptake of the RJ framework to interrogate transnational oppressions of multiply marginalized women and queer people of color and to cultivate coalitions across national contexts. While this article attempts to address this gap by exploring queer and reproductive justice outside of the United States, it is limited by the scope of existing scholarship and research.

In recent years, LGBTQ+ and RJ advocacy groups have been building coalitions to address shared concerns and intersecting structural oppressions. For example, SisterSong collaborated with the National LGBTQ Task Force and Ipas—an international organization on safe abortion rights and contraception—to put together an interactive online database that ranks different U.S. states based on their laws on reproductive and LGBTQ+ rights (National Organization for Women, 2006). In addition to queer reproductive justice activists like Miriam Zoila Pérez, who advocates for coalitions between the LGBTQ+ movement and RJ, a recent article in Out made the case that the two movements were interconnected, as queer people of color often face barriers in accessing inclusive and gender-affirming reproductive healthcare; LGBTQ+ people of color also face tremendous legal difficulties and prohibitive costs when they try to foster, adopt, or have biological children (Berg, 2019). Moreover, as Blas Radi (2020) explained, gender-affirming care is often pitted against reproductive rights: “For trans people in many countries, the resignation of their reproductive capacities has been, and still is, a condition to access the legal recognition of gender identity” (p. 398). Radi and others insisted that a reproductive justice framework was critical to addressing the complexity of reproductive oppression for queer people. Monica Simpson, the current executive director of SisterSong, explained that she came to RJ organizing after working, respectively, in prison reform and in an LGBTQ+ community center. She states:

In doing LGBTQ+ work, it couldn’t hold my Blackness. In doing work around the prison industrial complex, you couldn’t talk about queerness. [With RJ,] you didn’t have to check off the boxes at the door. . . . The Reproductive Justice Movement felt like my political homecoming.

(Cited in Berg, 2019, para. 6)

The reproductive justice framework has proven itself both powerful and nimble—a theoretical framework capable of understanding oppression as complex and multifaceted and an organizing strategy poised for unprecedented coalition building. Leading RJ scholars and activists Loretta Ross and Rickie Solinger have referred to reproductive justice as “open-source code,” encouraging others to draw on and expand its capacity, to use it well in order to build better worlds (Ross & Solinger, 2017, p. 71).

ART, Queer Family Formation, and Reproductive Justice

Reproductive justice meets a critical edge in its consideration of LGBTQ+ lives: Individuals for whom the ability to decide when, whether, and with whom to create a family is less straightforward. First, for LGBTQ+ couples who are interested in biological reproduction, many lack the physiological capacity to do so without some form of fertility assistance. Additional barriers stem from homophobic and transphobic beliefs that queer people will make unfit parents. Significantly, similar arguments about “fitness” have long been used to curtail the reproduction of poor women, women of color, immigrant women, and women with disabilities (Roberts, 1997; Solinger, 2007). Thus, myriad questions related to reproductive rights and justice emerge as a result. The second and third pillars of reproductive justice—“the right to have a child” and “the right to parent children in safe and healthy environments” (Ross & Solinger, 2017, p. 9)—are most central to LGBTQ-specific reproductive justice (RJ) struggles and thus the focus of this section.

The Right to Have a Child

Because the family and the nation-state are figured through White heteronuclear ideals in Western imaginaries, LGBTQ+ people face immense sociopolitical barriers when trying to exercise their right to have children (Wingard, 2015). While the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2017 that sterilization requirements for trans people who seek legal recognition constitutes a human rights violation, as of April 2018, 14 countries in Europe still either explicitly or implicitly required trans people to undergo sterilization before they could change their gender markers on legal documents (Transgender Europe, 2018). In addition, fertility preservation for trans people is widely misunderstood, costly, and unlikely to be covered by medical insurance, thus rendering it inaccessible to many (Cheng et al., 2019; Nixon, 2013). Thus, while basic human rights protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity have recently garnered greater international attention (Human Rights Watch, 2016), eugenic practices such as these have been largely ignored.

In addition to structural barriers that bar trans reproduction outright, some reproductive justice advocates focus on LGBTQ+ individuals’ limited access to assisted reproduction, adoption, and surrogacy. For lesbians and other queer people who lack sperm but are able to carry a pregnancy, access to assisted reproductive technologies (ART) is a primary site of concern. The specific concerns regarding access vary based on locale, but include some combination of expense, legal barriers, clinic restrictions, and health care provider bias. For example, ART in the United States lacks federal regulation and oversight. As a result, accessibility is determined by a patchwork of state laws, uneven insurance coverage, and private fertility clinic policies—all of which are shaped by various biases that prioritize the reproduction of wealthy heteronuclear families. Assisted reproduction is expensive—one vial of donor sperm generally costs $800–$1,000 and a single round of in vitro fertilization averages $10,000–$15,000 in the United States. ART is not uniformly covered by insurance policies; even among states that mandate coverage, some deliberately exclude LBGTQ families by barring the use of donor gametes (Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, 2020).

Trans and nonbinary people experience additional obstacles and discrimination in the context of assisted reproduction, pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum care (e.g., Cheng et al., 2019; Darwin & Greenfield, 2019; Lee, 2019). While existing research on trans people’s opinions on fertility and desires to reproduce remains scant, several studies have shown that many trans people would like to parent biological children, but their desires are often hampered by the lack of legal protections and gender-affirming treatments such as hormonal therapy and surgeries that include fertility preservation (Tornello & Bos, 2017; Wierckx et al., 2012). Recent research further demonstrated that when trans and nonbinary people obtained access to reproductive health and prenatal care, they faced “rampant discrimination, harassment, lack of provider knowledge, and even refusals of care” (National LGBTQ Task Force, p. 6). Overt hostilities were compounded by cis-sexist norms that structured patient encounters and the near-exclusive reliance on feminine vocabulary for prenatal and—case in point—“maternity” care. Thus, reproductive and birth justice includes significant changes in the material conditions of reproduction and childbirth, such as the provision of a culturally competent healthcare provision for trans and nonbinary birthers and addressing the forms of structural racism that disproportionately bar Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people from accessing health care (National LGBTQ Task Force). RJ also includes discursive shifts to encompass the diversity of gender experience and identity in the context of reproduction. Transmasculine advocates, scholars, and parents have directed necessary attention toward these matters (Aizura, 2019; Fixmer-Oraiz & Wehman-Brown, 2020; Pérez, 2012; Wehman-Brown, 2018).

Trans women are less visible in the cultural conversation around assisted reproduction for trans and nonbinary people, as Micha Cárdenas (2016) noted in her art installation, Pregnancy, which traces her experience as she temporarily suspended femininizing hormones in order to produce gametes. A queer reproductive justice framework demands attention to the fertility and reproductive desires and experiences of transfeminine individuals and trans women. Current medical research has shown conflicting results on the extent to which feminizing hormonal therapies might hinder fertility due to “impaired spermatogenesis” (Cheng et al., 2019, p. 209). While technologies of fertility preservations are available, trans people—especially trans women of color who are multiply marginalized—often lack the financial resources and social support to benefit from them (Mitu, 2016). Moreover, many medical experts and providers have questioned whether trans people are fit as parents and, in particular, whether trans parents negatively impact the psychological development and mental health of their children (Freedman et al., 2002; Gómez-Gil et al., 2008; Murphy, 2012). The Ethics Committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (2015) has issued a statement refuting these concerns. Taking this refutation a step further, a queer reproductive justice framework would recognize these concerns as stemming from eugenics ideologies that deem any nonnormative bodies unfit for reproduction.

Some research demonstrated that many LGBTQ+ adults preferred adoption as a path to parenthood and that the number of lesbian and gay adoptive parents has doubled in recent years (Wrobel et al., 2020). Still, adoption by LGBTQ+ individuals and couples remains controversial in many places. Ample research and case studies have shown that cis-gay couples faced significant barriers in fostering and adopting children both domestically in the United States and abroad due to homophobic laws and policies (Baumle & Compton, 2017; Goodfellow, 2015; Mamo, 2007). Laws that govern adoption by LGBTQ+ couples in the European Union are inconsistent among member states and create legal precarity for transnational couples and families in particular. As scholars and activists have argued, because the barriers LGBTQ+ people face in adoption are structural in nature and disproportionately affect multiply marginalized communities, they are examples of reproductive injustices that fall within the purview of the RJ framework (National Women’s Law Center & Law Students for Reproductive Justice, 2011; Nixon, 2013; Russell, 2018).

The right to have a child, however, is fraught when fertility and biogenetics are not in one’s favor (e.g., LGBTQ+ people and straight people who cannot biologically reproduce). Moreover, the terrain itself is uneven—scholars have noted profound asymmetries in access to assisted reproduction between lesbians and gay male couples, asymmetries linked to gendered assumptions about parenting that privilege motherhood over fatherhood (Imaz, 2017). One common avenue for gay and lesbian parents to have a child is through foster care and adoption. However, a number of RJ scholars and activists have raised significant concerns regarding foster care and adoption as systems that profit from the destruction of families who lack social, political, or economic power. For instance, Laury Oaks (2015) argued that while baby safe haven laws allowed parents to relinquish a newborn anonymously to a specified institution, they did not help structurally marginalized people, such as poor women of color and others culturally labeled as “bad mothers,” to raise their children. Laura Briggs (2020), Dorothy Roberts (2012), and Rickie Solinger (2007) have examined how the state has long used foster care and adoption systems to remove children of color from their parents in lieu of offering resources and support for these children to be raised in their families and communities of origin. The current foster and adoption systems also harmed LGBTQ+ people as they were often marked as undesirable parents and prohibited from having and raising children (Baumle & Compton, 2017). The second pillar of the RJ, hence, encompasses critiques of policies and systems that regulate parenthood and family formation outside of the White heteronuclear ideal. The right to have a child also entails advocacy for all forms of family formation, including those that are crafted outside of heteronuclear biogenetics that are not readily recognized by the state, such as LGBTQ+ chosen families, young (“teen”) parents, and othermothering (Collins, 2008; Newman, 2019; Vinson, 2017).

Similar to the foster care system and the adoption industry, many scholars who study ART have demonstrated that the fertility industry many LGBTQ+ people rely on to form biological families often employs practices that perpetuate stratified reproduction and reproductive injustice. For example, studies of assisted reproduction in various locales underscored the structural privileging of lesbian motherhood over cis-gay and trans parenting; many noted this pattern as a residual effect of the deep-seated gendered ideologies undergirding heteronormativity and compulsory motherhood (Hašková & Sloboda, 2018; Imaz, 2017; Willems & Sosson, 2017). In short, for lesbians who do not struggle with fertility or finances, biological reproduction is increasingly accessible—a fact that other queer-identified people do not (yet) enjoy. Researchers have also called attention to the unjust conditions that shape commercial gestational surrogacy, particularly in the case of surrogates from developing countries who provide service to clients from wealthy countries like the United States (Bailey, 2011; Deomampo, 2013; Fixmer-Oraiz, 2013; Khader, 2013; Markens, 2007; Rudrappa, 2015). International labor markets facilitate exploitative and racialized reproductive relationships between brown women and wealthy White clients, including middle-upper class gay men (Mamo, 2007; Mamo & Alston-Stepnitz, 2015; Pande, 2014). As a result, common practices of commercial surrogacy fuel stratified reproduction due to the expense of the process, power imbalances between clients and surrogates, and—in some cases—constraints that pivot on citizenship status (e.g., in the United Kingdom, only citizens and permanent residents can access surrogacy). As Judith Stacey pointed out, “reproductive justice discourse is primarily critical of the stratification of assisted reproductive technology” in which only those who fit in the normative model of ideal citizens are encouraged to reproduce, often by relying on the reproductive labor of low-waged, racialized subjects (Stacey, 2018, p. 5). As Stacey noted, “generally, the types of family created through transnational surrogacy are not queer families in the affirmative sense” because the technology and process tended to reify and reproduce the nuclear family ideal (Stacey, 2018, p. 6).

The vexations of adoption and surrogacy leave gay men (and all who struggle with infertility regardless of sexual orientation) in a web of contradictions within the RJ framework. Camisha Russell (2018) argued that the RJ framework did not apply to gay men who sought biological kinship, particularly if they were affluent enough to purchase the service of a gestational surrogate. Distinguishing dysfertility (“a relationship within which biological children cannot be reproduced without a third party”) from infertility, Russell cautioned against using “justice” to discuss gay men perusing surrogacy as it problematically implied that someone, most likely a woman with limited financial resources, had a duty to serve as an egg donor and a gestational surrogate. She argued instead for a productive expansion of Roberts’ concept of “procreative liberty” in order to “emphasize the creative nature of family formation, affective bonds and kinship, whether biological or not” (Roberts, 1997, p. 312; Russell, 2018, p. 138). This way of thinking encourages gay men who want biological children to form alliances with women of color fighting for RJ through their shared goal of reimagining forms of procreation and family that fall outside existing norms.

As Smietana, Thompson, and Twine summarized, queer reproduction is connected to RJ because “self-identifying as LGBTQ+ should not place exceptional demands or restrictions upon one’s access to reproductive care and services, any more than one’s class, race, gender, nation, disability, religion, infertility, or relationship status should”; at the same time, one cannot lose sight of the fact that the fertility industry many queer couples rely on to form biological families is deeply entrenched in “racial ideologies, heteronormativity, gender logics, and European neocolonial practices” (Smietana et al., 2018, p. 119). Queer reproductive justice, therefore, must take into account not only the structural barriers LGBTQ+ people face in family formation and reproductive health care, but it must also acknowledge the inequities in transnational bioeconomies and hold privileged stakeholders accountable for the material conditions transnational reproductive laborers like gestational surrogates and egg donors face (Mamo, 2018).

The Right to Parent Children in Safe and Healthy Environments

The third pillar of reproductive justice directs one to broader intersectional considerations. Barriers to safe and sustainable parenting are compounded for poor queer people of color who are multiply burdened by interlocking systems of oppression, with much overlap among LGBTQ+ communities and their straight and cis peers. Parenting in safety and dignity includes addressing environmental racism, police brutality against racialized minorities, mass incarceration in the United States in particular, poverty and housing insecurity, disparities in education and health care, and the abuse of migrants and refugees by the state.

Poverty, for example, limits one’s ability to parent in a safe environment. As political science researcher Virginia Eubanks (2019) has noted, the government often equates parenting while poor with poor parenting: Children whose parents are in poverty are much more likely to be taken into the foster care system. Socioeconomic marginalization disproportionally affects LGBTQ+ people. According to recent research conducted on the poverty rate of LGBTQ+ people in the United States (Badgett et al., 2019), LGBTQ+ people have a poverty rate of 21.6%, much higher than the 15.7% among cisgender straight people (p. 2). Within the LGBTQ+ community, transgender people experience poverty at the highest rate of 29.4% (Badgett et al., 2019, p. 2). Queer people who are young, disabled, non-White, and live in rural areas are the most likely to be in poverty (Badgett et al., 2019, p. 3). These intersecting vectors of marginalization diminish LGBTQ+ people as parents and caregivers in the mainstream familial imaginary—limiting their right to have children and to parent in a secure and safe environment.

In addition to poverty, various forms of state and transphobic violence also create barriers for queer people, particularly trans people, to parent safely. For trans women who experience disproportionally high rates of violence, murder, and premature death, their opportunity to form families and parent children may be shortchanged or foreclosed entirely (Bailey, 2013). Because trans people are often barred from participating in formal economies due to transphobia and stigma, they are more likely to participate in underground economies in order to survive, including theft, drug sales, and sex work (Zavidow, 2016). Trans people are also more likely to be unjustly profiled by law enforcement and targeted by the criminal justice system (Strangio, 2014). Once incarcerated, trans men who can become pregnant suffer additional forms of reproductive injustices, such as the denial of prenatal treatment, shackling during birth, forced feminization, and coercive sterilization (Ross & Solinger, 2017). By incarcerating poor trans and gender nonconforming people during their most fertile reproductive years, the state is destroying the potential for queer people to reproduce and parent (Arkles, 2008). For queer and trans people who do become parents, they continue to face struggles due to social and legal transphobia—for instance, they are more likely that their cis peers to be embroiled in custody disputes over their children (Smietana et al., 2018). LGBTQ+ people who are constantly worried that their children will be taken away lack the reproductive right to feel safe while raising their children.

Queer(ing) Kinship and Family

The framework of reproductive justice (RJ) acknowledges that the biogenetic heteronuclear familial ideal is often mobilized to oppress people and families who exist outside of it, such as the practice of “othermothering” by Black women (Collins, 2008, p. 13; Gumbs et al., 2016). Those barred from reproducing the heteronuclear norm will experience more reproductive freedom when various forms of families are recognized and accepted just as they are. Dismantling the heteronuclear family ideal, therefore, is a matter of reproductive justice (Fixmer-Oraiz, 2019). Sociologist Joshua Gamson (2018) observed that family justice, “self-determination in the making of our families and in the use of our bodies in the creation of kinship, free from coercion and stigma,” was intimately connected to RJ because “unconventional family creation,” which included families formed by LGBTQ+ people with their biological or nonbiological kin, often faced structural barriers that prevented such families from thriving (Gamson, 2018, pp. 1–2). For example, single parents and queer people both experienced frequent discrimination and stigma in their family structure (Baumle & Compton, 2017; Dowd, 1996; Palmer-Mehta, 2016; Suter et al., 2016); the prohibitive costs of ART in the United States barred poor people—both queer and straight—from accessing the technologies (Smietana, 2017; Thompson, 2016). The latter connected LGBTQ+ people who desired biological offspring with Black women as Black women were much more likely than their White counterparts to experience infertility and were less likely to seek medical help due in part to stigma and racism (Wellons et al., 2008).

This confluence of shared concerns has prompted scholars like Gamson (2018) and Luna (2018) to advocate for cultivating solidarities among people who form nonnormative families through the RJ framework. In particular, they have argued that while these families faced different forms of marginalization, they can form alliances by recognizing their shared struggles against the heteronormative nuclear familial ideal. Public intellectual Alexis Pauline Gumbs (2016) noted that queer Black feminists have long engaged in nonnormative mothering and family-building as a form of revolutionary resistance. For Gumbs, nonnormative families challenged the property model of patriarchal relationships, thus allowing parents and children who may or may not have biological and legal ties with one another to function as autonomous subjects. The intersectional and coalitional spirits of RJ provide an avenue for connection among families and kin ties that are not readily recognized by the state.

While there is coalitional potential between RJ and queer family formation, scholars have long debated whether all families that involve LGBTQ+ people are by default queer. As Luna wrote, the perennial question was whether queer was “a political stance that can include anyone of ‘deviant’ reproductive modes or [if it] only describes people engaging in particular sexual practices” (Luna, 2018, p. 97). Drawing on Lisa Duggan’s oft-cited work on homonormativity, Lasio et al. (2019) noted that “equal rights politics under neoliberalism have resulted in a new gay normality that privileges the normative family model over radical social change or a critique of heteronormativity” (p. 1059). Similarly, Judith Stacey argued that as the mainstream movement focused increasingly on the legalization of gay and lesbian marriage and parenting rights for married couples, the families queer people formed “are decreasingly queer, and increasingly normative and exclusionary” (Stacey, 2018, p. 5). For Stacey and others, many families created through ART, from intrauterine insemination (IUI) to commercial surrogacy, were not queer by its political definition even when queer-identified people were involved.

Some ethnographic research bolsters this claim. Focusing on lesbian motherhood through the lens of reproductive justice, Sandra Patton-Imani’s (2020) research found that, despite the legalization of same-sex marriage and adoption in the United States, poor women of color continued to experience structural barriers as they navigated family-making. Other scholars (Baumle & Compton, 2017; Mamo, 2007; Smietana, 2017) demonstrated that gay couples tended to reproduce the existing norm of nuclear families in order to minimize legal precarity and to be granted recognition by dominant publics and the state. Studying the relationships between gay men and their surrogates in the United States, Smietana (2017) observed that both parties tended to hold tight to the conventional ideal of family: Neither parties engaged in relationships that would form politically queer kin against the heteronuclear grain. Smietana attributed this to the financial contracts between the gay men and the surrogates, which de-kinned the surrogates’ parental claim (Smietana, 2017, p. 9). This form of financial de-kinning also occurred in commercial gamete donation through donor anonymity as the dominant industry norm. As a result, commercial surrogacy rarely resulted in families that deviated from the nuclear model.

Outside of biogenetic reproduction through surrogacy, Alison Shonkwiler (2008) observed that gay parents who chose to adopt were also increasingly assimilated into hegemonic familialism. This is not surprising because, as David Eng pointed out, “the possession of a child, whether biological or adopted, has today become the sign of guarantee not only for family but also for full and robust citizenship—for being a fully realized political, economic, and social subject in American life” (Eng, 2003, p. 14). In order to gain state legibility and protections, in other words, queer people must reproduce the heteronuclear family structure.

Thus, the “ideology of familialism” compels LGBTQ+ conformity as a way to counter the exclusions they face (Shonkwiler, 2008, p. 19). These familial norms, ironically, reside at the heart of long-standing anti-LGBTQ sentiment, discrimination, and violence. In this way, there exists a deep coalition potential between queer family formation and RJ. In one example, historian Don Romesburg (2014) offered “queer transracial family” in order to attend to the “power constellations”—including racism and poverty—that make his family (and, of course, many other families) possible. He wrote: “By articulating the historical, structural, cultural, and political processes through which we constantly renegotiate belonging, it seeks to narrate where we come from in ways that make personal and social justice possible for more people” (2014, p. 3). For Romesburg and his partner, this meant defining their family—in name and in practice—to include not only himself, his partner, and their foster-adopted daughter, but also their daughter’s family of origin. Nonnormative family formations enacted by differentially marginalized people, Romesburg argued, functioned as a praxis that “contests colorblindness, homonormativity, and the consumerist, privatized family” (Romesburg, 2014, p. 1). Other examples might include the building of donor sibling registries, the embrace of voluntary kin, and the uptick in people parenting solo by choice (Fixmer-Oraiz, 2019). The queering of family formation, hence, opens up coalition potential across axioms of marginalization, which is a main tenet of the RJ framework.

Indeed, scholars on queer reproduction and family formation have been interrogating the ways in which LGBTQ+ people can form alliances that help advance the RJ agenda. For example, Mamo and Alston-Stepnitz argued that as LGBTQ+ people “negotiate and, at times, reinforce these contours [of marketplaces, notions of belonging, and inequalities], they also participate in new kinship forms as they demand inclusion in one of the most durable and supported social practice: having children” (Mamo & Alston-Stepnitz, 2015, p. 521). Mamo and Alston-Stepnitz (2015) pointed out that by deviating from the opposite sex two-parent familial model, LGBTQ+ people were already reinventing family structures in a significant way. Mamo’s earlier research (2007) showed that when selecting sperm donors, lesbians took into consideration not only physical resemblances, but also a sense of affinity through shared interests and values. Kinship and families, in other words, were not merely defined by biological ties, but were formed by a constellation of choice, biological, and social connections that Mamo called “affinity ties” (Mamo, 2007, p. 205). Hence, Mamo and Alston-Stepniz posited that rather than focusing solely on the ways in which LGBTQ+ people reinforced reproductive inequalities and heteronuclear family structures through ART, it was more productive to queer the RJ framework by interrogating how “queer bodies and lives participate in the global form of reproduction in ways that enhance and limit power imbalances” (Mamo & Alston-Stepnitz, 2015, p. 528). By paying attention to the “structural intimacies” in transnational queer reproduction, RJ activists and scholars can better understand how marginalized actors negotiate intersecting power dynamics and social structures in ways that simultaneously produce power and precariousness (Mackenzie, 2013, p. 7).

While LGBTQ+ people and communities have historically, out of necessity and commitment to justice, engaged in practices that most readily destabilize the heteronuclear family ideal, scholars such as Gamson (2018) and Anthony Kwame Appiah (2016) have argued that they should not be obligated to shoulder all the responsibilities in promoting family justice. Rather, a queer reproductive justice framework demands communities and advocates from different positionalities to collectively reimagine and expand family structures and formations while remaining in solidarity with LGBTQ+ families who continue to negotiate their precarity. In one example of this, some scholars in family communication have questioned the centering of biogenetics within dominant imaginings of kin and explored other ways that families narrate their sense of belonging to and with one another beyond shared genetic material (Baxter, 2015; Braithwaite et al., 2010; Suter et al., 2014, 2016).

In another example, activists in the RJ movement have been advocating for greater recognition and celebration of family diversity. Founded in 2005, the Strong Families Network challenges conservative heteronormative representations of families; their advocacy connects diverse families with immigration and queer politics, as immigrant and LGBTQ+ families are often not readily recognized by the state (Zavella, 2020). Emerged from the movement building group Expanding the Movement for Empowerment and Reproductive Justice (EMERJ), the Strong Families Network “is committed to creating the culture and conditions necessary for all families to thrive,” including families that are outside of the normative national imaginary (Zavella, 2020, p. 55). This initiative is an example in which the intersectional framework of RJ effectively bolsters and supports queer family justice.


As an expansive and intersectional framework that recognizes the experiences of differentially marginalized people, reproductive justice (RJ) highlights the coalition potential among queer people, women of color, and people who struggle with poverty—in fact, RJ reminds people that these marginalizing positionalities often overlap with one another through intersecting systems of oppression. As this article has illustrated, multiply marginalized queer people often face structural barriers when they try to build families outside of heteronuclear norms, whether through biological reproduction, adoption, or through a more expansive definition of kin. Chosen families face great precarity as they are largely illegible to the state; still, even the embrace of more familiar family formations (e.g., the use of assisted reproduction by an LGBTQ+ couple to reproduce biologically) often involves confronting various forms of discrimination, hostility, and legal challenge. Much of reproductive health care—whether in research or in the provision of care—neither understands nor accommodates gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, and nonbinary people, and mainstream reproductive rights discourse often fails to consider the unique challenges trans and nonbinary pregnant people face.

Despite the promise of coalition potential between RJ activists and LGBTQ+ people advocating for reproductive freedom, tension remains. As noted, critics have questioned whether some families created by queer people are, by default, politically queer, or whether they partake in homonationalist ideologies in ways that bolster rather than subvert the existing paradigm (Puar, 2007). Citing geopolitical power imbalance in commercial surrogacy and gamete transactions, some remain concerned that LGBTQ+ people who want to form biological families perpetuate transnational power imbalances (Lewis, 2019; Smietana, 2018).

Queer(ing) reproductive justice sharpens the critical edge of RJ, prompting new horizons in research and activism. Queer sensibilities may facilitate an RJ-informed expansion of belonging and relationality in ways that challenge the primacy of biogenetics and, relatedly, the entanglement of family and neoliberal capital. Reproductive justice, in turn, provides a critical framework, organizing tool, and set of alliances through which to interrogate myriad reproductive oppressions experienced by LGBTQ+ communities. By attending more to transnational mobilities, circulations, and networks of reproductive politics, queer(ing) reproductive justice could disentangle competing interests and further identify grounds for solidarities across differences. This nexus, rich with possibility, fuels the capacity of researchers and activists alike to advance reproductive freedom, bodily autonomy, and expansive understandings of what it means to form family.

Further Reading

  • Baumle, A., & Compton, D. R. (2017). Legalizing LGBT families: How the law shapes parenthood. New York University Press.
  • Enke, A. (2007). Finding the movement: Sexuality, contested space, and feminist activism. Duke University Press.
  • Gumbs, A. P., Martens, C., & Williams, M. (Eds.). (2016). Revolutionary mothering: Love on the front lines. PM Press.
  • Mamo, L. (2007). Queering reproduction: Achieving pregnancy in the age of technoscience. Duke University Press.
  • Mamo, L., & Alston-Stepnitz, E. (2015). Queer intimacies and structural inequalities: New directions in stratified reproduction. Journal of Family Issues, 36(4), 519–540.
  • Nixon, L. (2013). The right to (trans) parent: A reproductive justice approach to reproductive rights, fertility, and family-building issues facing transgender people. William & Mary Journal of Race, Gender, and Social Justice, 20(1), 73.
  • Roberts, D. (1997). Killing the black body: Race, reproduction, and the meaning of liberty. Vintage.
  • Ross, L., & Solinger, R. (2017). Reproductive justice: An introduction. University of California Press.
  • Silliman, J., Fried, M. G., Ross, L., & Gutiérrez, E. (2016). Undivided rights: Women of color organizing for reproductive justice (2nd ed.). Haymarket Books.
  • Smietana, M., Thompson, C., & Twine, F. W. (2018). Making and breaking families—Reading queer reproductions, stratified reproduction and reproductive justice together. Reproductive Biomedicine & Society Online, 7, 112–130.
  • Thomsen, C., & Morrison, G. T. (2020). Abortion as gender transgression: Reproductive justice, queer theory, and anti-crisis pregnancy center activism. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 45(3), 703–730.