I Think Of You Like A Son

June 24, 2013 at 6:19 am 4 comments

| Gabriel |

One of the innumerable WTF moments in HBO’s Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra is when Liberace suggests that he adopt his young lover. I think we’re clearly meant as an audience to first think gross, that’s fictive kin incest (see also: Nugent, Ted), and second, you know, before gay marriage that would have been the closest available approximation of marital fictive kinship available to homosexuals.

In the big picture I think the second intuition is on the right track, though it’s interesting to note that historically (adult) adoption does not necessarily connote sexual inappropriateness. In classical pederasty there was an apprenticeship relationship between erastes and eromenos, in which the older erastes would mentor the younger eromenos and this sometimes culminated in adoption. (It helps if you know that in real life Tom was 17 when he met Liberace, which makes this similar to classical pederasty in terms of age gap — although not sexual roles).

A more common practice is the adoption of a son-in-law. Again, from our perspective, adoption makes someone kin which by extension makes marriage to a daughter incest. However in some times and places they think of adoption and son-in-law status as a sort of belt-and-suspenders approach to dynastic succession and incest doesn’t enter into it because after all it’s just fictive kinship. Again, we see this in antiquity where the Roman emperors in particular used adoption to clarify dynastic succession and often combined it with marital alliances. For instance, Augustus had a triple fictive kinship with Tiberius: marrying his mother while he was still in utero (the rare wife swap marital alliance, also used by Cato), marrying him to his daughter (who yes, was Tiberius’s own step-sister) Julia, and finally adopting him.

Likewise, son-in-law adoption is also common in Japan. When a wealthy Japanese family has no sons, the family will identify a non-kin heir, marry him to its daughter, and adopt him. Thus the daughter doesn’t inherit property, nor exactly does even the son-in-law in his capacity as son-in-law, but rather property goes to the adopted son-in-law and so the family maintains (fictive) continuity of the male line even though genetic continuity is matrilineal for that generation.

What I think we see in these cases is people trying to find some mechanism to game around anomalies or problems presented by kinship and are rather selective in how they parse the implications of fictive kinship. My son-in-law is also my real son: great, I like the cut of his jib and I want this young go-getter to carry my name and inherit my property. Isn’t it weird that my adopted son is married to his legal sister: don’t be so literal, they’re not blood relatives.

That said, Behind the Candelabra doesn’t take place in Japan or ancient Rome but Las Vegas c. 1980 so it’s still pretty creepy.

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4 Comments

  • 1. Bill Roy  |  June 24, 2013 at 8:17 am

    Very informative. It all makes sense if we realize that the family institution is as much a device for rights, entitlements and responsibilities , especially regarding property as the regulation of sex.

  • 2. drschweitzer  |  June 24, 2013 at 8:35 am

    Liberace was very odd in some ways, but adoption among gay couples is not as uncommon as you might think, and adoption would be particularly legally useful for somebody like Liberace with a lot of property to dispose of at his death. I knew two older lesbian couples where one adopted the other as a legal dodge–so that property could be inherited readily and end-of-life decisions made. One couple decided to make the move to adoption when member of the partnership was in a serious car accident, and when her partner of 34 years rushed to hospital, she was refused visitation–the hospital security guards actually escorted her out and closed the glass doors in her face– because she ‘wasn’t family.’ The biological family took this whole episode as a chance to….accomplish what I am not sure, other than profound unkindness to both women; but during the one partner’s six week recovery and PT the other partner was refused entry and was restricted to telephone calls. Oh, and cards and gifts she sent were thrown away by the “real family.” Classy. So as soon as soon as the one partner got out they lawyered up and the lawyer actually suggested adoption–with it came the ability to set up power-of-attorney both ways and a bunch of other stuff that heterosexual marriage simply conveys. IOW, adoption has been an expensive legal means to get the same legal bundle of entitlements that heterosexual pairs just get for being married. The law is strongly tilted towards blood family and married couples. Robert Benevides was Raymond Burr’s partner AND business partner for 40 years, and Burr’s niece–his NIECE–kept Benevides in court for ages on pretty thin rationale…but had they been married her burden for getting INTO court at all would have been greater, let alone the burden for contesting the will.

    So yeah, the adoption thing seems a little weird and creepy, and probably with Liberace it was because he was a very strange man to say the least, but there are reasons for it, and it’s not necessarily sexually predatory.

    • 3. gabrielrossman  |  June 24, 2013 at 8:49 am

      Yup, like I said, it was the best legal institution available for establishing same sex fictive kinship. I certainly think people used it despite not because of its incestuous connotations and did their best to minimize them.

  • […] we are all paying attention to SCOTUS.  Gabriel Rossman discusses a clip from Liberace that involves adoption, and where Rossman notes that it is a ‘kinship dodge.’ He is […]


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