Nina Perger
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Affective obligations and obliged affections
Non-binary youth and affective (re)orientations to family

In this chapter, I analyse the experiences of gender non-binary individuals using the web of affects and obligations experienced within the family. I seek to show how the ordinariness of family intimacy is transformed when it encounters transgender non-binary lives. Building on research on the everyday lives of gender and/or sexual non-binary people conducted from 2015 to 2019, I present case studies of four gender non-binary individuals and their stories of ‘journeying away from’ – and sometimes back to – family intimacy that failed to deliver on its promises. By analysing four case studies of non-binary individuals and their stories of negative family reactions to the disclosure of their gender identity, I seek to capture the messiness of family intimacy as it unfolds through the affective orientations of family members. This analysis builds on Ahmed’s work on emotions and affective orientation and Bourdieu’s work on the conceptual pairing of affective obligations – obliged affects. Transgender participants tell their stories of silencing, rejection and neglect, and of being affected by the promise of family as a happy object. Namely, they tell the stories of subtle and more forceful affective mechanisms of shame, guilt and responsibility for upholding the fiction of family as an unconditional, intimate and haven-like relationship, and show how one can be affected by the promise of family as a happy object.


In this chapter, I analyse the experiences of gender non-binary individuals using the web of affects and obligations experienced within the family. I seek to show how the ordinariness of family intimacy is transformed when it encounters transgender non-binary lives. Building on research on the everyday lives of gender and/or sexual non-binary people conducted from 2015 to 2019, I present case studies of four gender non-binary individuals and their stories of ‘journeying away from’ – and sometimes back to – family intimacy that failed to deliver on its promises. By analysing four case studies of non-binary individuals and their stories of negative family reactions to the disclosure of their gender identity, I attempt to capture the messiness of family intimacy as it unfolds through the affective orientations of family members.

I approach the family and its relations with gender non-binary youth through the conceptual framework offered by Sara Ahmed’s work on emotions and affective orientations and Pierre Bourdieu’s work on affective obligations and obliged affections. Ahmed (2014a; see also Ahmed, 2010; Schmitz and Ahmed, 2014) calls for an intellectual horizon within which emotions and affects are ‘not taken as choices that lead us down separate paths’, as if working on one means neglecting the other (Ahmed, 2014a: 230; see also 2006a: 32). According to Ahmed (2010), bodily sensations, emotions and thoughts are not distinct realms of experience, but rather constitute complex, and sometimes, if not often, ambivalent processes and practices of moving and being moved. Moreover, emotions,1 as movements that encompass bodily sensations and thoughts, also orient and attach agents to particular objects, other agents and collective entities (Schmitz and Ahmed, 2014). According to Ahmed (2004, 2010), these movements are not completely random or autonomous but are preceded by histories and experiences (Ahmed, 2004: 120). Sociality, including the historicity of affect and its orienting, directive power, is evident in the case of the family, which is socially constituted as a ‘happy object’ not because it brings happiness but because it promises happiness ‘in return for loyalty’ (Ahmed, 2006a: 35). It is this socially driven and taken-for-granted assumption and expectation that family is ‘good’ because it promises and brings happiness that precedes agents and orients them towards the family. In this sense, emotions and affective orientations are not only about movements but also about attachment and holding in place. More than that, they are also directive: that which is constituted as a ‘happy object’ is at the same time constituted as something one should orient oneself to (Schmitz and Ahmed, 2014).

In telling their stories of family responses to their gender non-binary identities – of silencing, rejection and neglect – these individuals also tell the story of subtle and more forceful affective mechanisms of shame, guilt and responsibility for upholding the fiction of family as an unconditional, intimate, affectionate and a haven-like relationship, even at the cost of undoing their transgender identities. The forcefulness of these mechanisms stems from the sociality of affective orientations, and to gain insight into this I will draw on the conceptions of Ahmed and Bourdieu, which enable a deeper insight into the ways in which affective orientations towards family as a happy object are maintained, even as the promise of unconditional support and happiness is being undone. In the next section, I discuss Ahmed’s thoughts on the sociality of emotions as they circulate within familial intimacy and act as a straightening device and Bourdieu’s approach to family and habitualised affective obligations and obliged affections. In the third section, I focus on the case studies, which demonstrate not only the conditionality of the promise of happiness but also how affective intimacies are (also) ‘bound up with the securing of social hierarchy’ (Ahmed, 2014a: 4).

On ‘family feelings’ and failing to live up to the promise

Intimacy, which implies close connections, close familiarity (Seymour, 1999), affect, mutual knowledge, actions and norms, is socially shaped (Berlant and Warner, 1998; Forstie, 2017). It is, as Forstie (2017) points out, a socially, politically, historically and even geographically specific idea. Although socially embedded, intimacy is not just about the social and its tendency to create intimacies in its own image. It also involves reflexive practices, active constructions, negotiations and compromises, and an active present and ‘future building’ of intimate worlds (Holmes, Jamieson and Natalier, 2021; see also Berlant and Warner, 1998; Seymour, 1999; Jurva and Lahti, 2019). It is constituted through relational practices that build and make up the feelings and experiences of close relationships and a specific affective atmosphere based on feelings of mutual love and of being special to one another (Jamieson, 2011).

In relation to the family, there exists a ‘love plot of intimacy and familialism’ (Berlant and Warner, 1998: 554), or, in Bourdieu’s (2001: 110) words, the promise of an almost ‘miraculous truce’, ‘loving dispositions’ and ‘family feelings’, of unconditional love, support and loyalty (Bourdieu, 2000: 144–5). However, precisely because it is socially embedded, family intimacy can be disrupted when it encounters transgender lives. As Ahmed (2010: 46) notes, the family can become a ‘pressure point’, a point of encouragement and nudging towards certain (cisgender) lines that are inherited and expected to be reproduced. This encouragement can take on the subtle language of ‘love, happiness, and care’ (Ahmed, 2006b: 90). As the family is the space of an agent’s initial investment and immersion in the social game (Bourdieu, 2000), the straight lines – of heterosexuality and cisnormativity – that are inherited and expected to be followed are difficult to transcend (Ahmed, 2010), as parental verdicts and judgements, including their affective dimensions (Ahmed, 2014a), are buried at the ‘deepest level [of the child’s] body’ and are moved by the child’s desire to be recognised by those who should count the most’ (Bourdieu, 2000: 167).

As numerous studies demonstrate, relational family dynamics can be altered and reconfigured, at least temporarily, by the range of reactions to the transgender child’s coming out (see, e.g., Catalpa and McGuire, 2018; Fuller and Riggs, 2018; Robinson, 2018; von Doussa, Power and Riggs, 2020; McDermott et al., 2021). Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, grief, sadness and ambiguous loss (Catalpa and McGuire, 2018) can circulate within the family, making way for affective reorientation among family members, not only towards each other but also towards the future temporality of the family, as roles, boundaries and meaning must be reconceptualised within family relationships (Alegría, 2018; Kelley, 2020). When the child’s gender non-normativity is experienced as a deviation from the line and when this deviation is experienced as a threat to the family’s ‘idealisation of domestic privacy’ (Ahmed, 2010: 90), the gender non-normative agent can become an affect alien, killing the ‘joy of the family’ and, by extension, ‘killing the family by killing the association with joy’ (49). Alienation can lead to a particular uncertainty about being in or out of the family (Catalpa and McGuire, 2018).

The family tends to function as a mechanism of social reproduction (Bourdieu, 2000) or, as Ahmed (2010: 91) puts it, as a ‘straightening device’ that attempts to line the agents up with the lines that are already given. Despite familial intimacy carrying the promise of recognition, generosity, reciprocity and loyalty, it sometimes ends up as a ‘terrible spectacle’ of disrespect, violence and negation (Berlant, 1998: 281). Even if the promise remains at least partially unfulfilled, its hold over agents can persist, if only for a time, in an almost ‘cruelly optimistic way’ (Berlant, 2011: 24). This ‘stickiness’ of affective orientation towards the family as a happy object can be difficult to overcome, and as such, it can hold agents in place, even discourage them from straying away from the given gendered lines one is expected to follow: ‘emotions are “sticky”, and even when we challenge our investments, we might get stuck’ (Ahmed, 2014a: 16).

To gain insight into what makes this particular affective orientation stick and an agent get stuck, even when the family disregards transgender identity, I turn to Bourdieu’s approach to the family. According to Bourdieu (1996), the family is grounded in particular affective principles embodied in agents. Family intimacy is constituted and sustained by the immense amount of social and symbolic work that almost magically transforms obligations (e.g. caring for a child) into affects (parental love) and affects into obligations (e.g. feeling a certain way towards family members; filial love), giving rise to affective obligations and obliged affections (Bourdieu, 1996; 2000). This web of affects and obligations should be approached specifically as a web rather than as clearly delineated and separate domains, and it is this web that acts as a force of family fusion – especially an affective one (Bourdieu, 1996) – for ‘getting along’ (Ahmed, 2006a: 36) and aiming to overcome the family’s forces of fission (Bourdieu, 1996). Furthermore, and in line with Ahmed’s (2004; Schmitz and Ahmed, 2014) conception of the sociality and historicity of affective orientations, the familial web of affects and obligations covers its traces: it is naturalised (Bourdieu, 1996), and roles within the family, such as ‘sibling’ and ‘child’, along with the practical dimensions of enacting them, are experienced as ‘private, personal and natural identities’ (Freeman, 2007: 298). Because affective orientation to family is naturalised and habitualised – being a matter of the unconscious and routine, of ‘second nature’, as Ahmed (2006b: 129) summarises Bourdieu’s concept of habitus – it is hard to stray from well-trodden paths (Ahmed, 2019), including from the lost promise of familial intimacy (Sanger and Taylor, 2013; Ahmed, 2006b). If familial intimacy typically plays a large role in ‘shaping habitus’ (Jamieson, 2011: 5), such a failure of the family to maintain intimacy when confronted with transgender lives may necessitate the formation and re-formation of the transgender self as tensions between self-identity and its maintenance, on one hand, and, on the other, the relationships with emotionally close others intensify (Seymour, 1999; Sanger and Taylor, 2013).

I am interested in the subtle and powerful affective mechanisms – the one-way stickiness of guilt, shame and responsibility – that circulate within the family and call the familial affective obligations and obliged affections into action in an attempt to overcome the forces of fission. These forces are mistakenly attributed to transgender life rather than to a failure of familial intimacy to deliver what was promised by disregarding, neglecting or rejecting transgender existence (Bourdieu, 1996, 2000; Ahmed, 2004, 2006a, 2010). Affective obligations and obliged affections (Bourdieu, 1996) can sustain a particular affective orientation towards the family as an object to attach to – alive and sticky, despite its now-revealed ‘conditionality of happiness’ (Ahmed, 2010: 56) – and it is these dynamics I turn to in the next section.

On monsters, murderers, betrayals and ‘no matter whats’

As mentioned earlier, in this section I present four narratives told by gender non-binary youth. The generic term ‘non-binary’ is used here to capture the plurality of gender identities beyond the socially dominant genders (men, women). Those who identified as non-binary (23), were over eighteen years old at the time of the interviews, and resided in Slovenia were eligible to participate in the research. The research method used was in-depth interviews, as this allowed participants to dictate the pathways of the narrative and gave us deeper insights into the experiences that are most relevant to non-binary people. I used snowball sampling, where new participants are sampled through the existing ones, which is most useful when researching marginalised, hard-to-reach social groups (Emmel et al., 2007; Ritchie and Lewis, 2003). The average age of all participants was 27.2 years, and the majority of participants (fifteen) were between twenty-three and twenty-eight years old. Interviews were transcribed and analysed (Berg, 2001; Braun and Clarke, 2013), using the MAXQDA program tool for analysing qualitative data (VERBI Software, 2017). Transcripts were read several times to make a set of initial observations and identify core themes across the data. This was followed by code assignments and the formation of a set of higher-level categories based on the thematic similarity of codes (Braun and Clarke, 2013; Saldaña, 2009; Kuckartz and Rädiker, 2019).2

The research focused on various themes, including identity meanings, identity trajectories, experiences of misrecognition of transgender identities and strategies for coping with socially prevalent misrecognition. The latter theme was particularly highlighted in the case of gender non-binary individuals, as at the time of writing there is no legislation that specifically addresses transgender people in Slovenia. Medical and social gender confirmation procedures are possible if an individual receives a diagnosis of a mental health condition, but formal protocols are lacking, and trans health care is considered a low priority (Perger, 2021). In short, trans legal citizenship ‘appears to be emerging in a fragmented and contested way’ and includes many shortcomings, including rights for gender non-binary people, who lack the possibility of achieving legal recognition (Kuhar, Monro and Takács, 2017: 107). The transgender community is increasingly encountering organised resistance from the so-called ‘anti-gender movements’ (Kuhar, Monro and Takács, 2017; Kuhar and Patternote, 2017; Rener, 2018), which further exposes transgender individuals to practices aimed at devaluing their gender identities (Perger, 2020). Furthermore, Slovenia is considered to be a ‘family-oriented society’ (Rener, 2006a), with families strongly characterised by what Rener (2006b) calls ‘generational peace’ with strong vertical (intergenerational) and horizontal (extended kinship) instrumental and emotional support. Thus, family values are strong in Slovenia. According to the 2020 Slovenian Public Opinion Survey (Hafner-Fink et al., 2020), 81.2 per cent of participants considered family as something that is extremely important in their lives (receiving ten out of ten points).

In this section, I focus on selected narratives of gender non-binary individuals who experienced negative responses from their families when disclosing their gender identity. I focus on these stories in order to gain insight into the mechanisms of affective obligations and obliged affections that help to sustain affective orientations towards the family. To achieve this, I draw on four narratives by Izak (demiboy, twenty-three), Djuro (non-binary, twenty-two), Metka (trans woman, agender; twenty-three) and Alex (queer, non-binary, twenty-four).

Undoing the social fiction of familial intimacy

Despite negative and often violent reactions, it can prove difficult for non-binary agents to distance themselves from familial relationships precisely because bodily emotions hold them in their place. They find themselves in an ambivalent situation because they are invested in the family according to the social fiction surrounding it – love, loyalty, care, support – but do not find this in practice. A large body of research shows that parents’ negative or ambivalent reactions (‘tolerating but not accepting’) are the main modalities of initial reactions to their child’s disclosure of transgender identity (Grossman et al., 2005; Nuttbrock et al., 2009; Fiani and Han, 2019; Bennett and Donatone, 2020; Johnson et al., 2020). Additionally, non-binary individuals are exposed to ‘contradictory processes of inclusion and exclusion’ (Vijlbrief, Saharso and Ghorashi, 2020: 101) and invalidation practices, giving rise to ‘negative affective and cognitive processes’ (confusion, self-doubt, shame, frustration) (Johnson et al., 2020: 222). However, the affective responses of transgender individuals to such reactions are usually overlooked (Catalpa and McGuire, 2018), and this chapter aims to fill this gap.

By silencing and disregarding transgender identity, the social fiction of the family begins to come apart and is at least temporarily exposed as conditional. The ambivalence of affective obligations and obliged affections, as amplified in the case of transgender identity, is made visible in the following story told by Alex about ‘sibling love’:

[My brother] was very verbally abusive, emotionally abusive. He threatened me a lot, he yelled at me and he was very manipulative … but at the same time, he had this traditionalist, conservative view – that we’re still a family, that I’m his brother, that he would kill for me because he loves me. And there was a lot of aggression, a lot of humiliation that ended with, ‘But no, you’re my brother, and I would kill for you. You’re everything.’ Such an intense conflict between the obligation that we’re brothers and what that’s supposed to mean, and on the other side, he disrespected the only thing about me; he rejected it and wanted it to change. On one side, ‘I love you and I would kill for you’, but on the other side, ‘You have to change because if you don’t, our family is [expletive] up.’ (Alex)

Even though the family is socially endowed with the idea of being a ‘world of non-violence’, grounded in full reciprocity and ‘mutual recognition’, which enables family members to feel justified in existing as they are (Bourdieu, 2001: 110), sibling love, as Alex experiences it, is full of (gendered) conditions. By being conditional, familial intimacy proves fragile because it is vulnerable to affective circulations in all directions, from aggression to declarations of love. Because of Alex’s transgender identity, the family’s existence is perceived to be threatened, and demands for ‘remedies’ are made that run counter to the social fiction of the family: ‘You have to change, because otherwise …’ It is this demand for the family to be reproduced that reveals the ‘vulnerability of its form’ (Ahmed, 2010: 49, fn. 40). Rather than recognising the lack of acceptance as a threat to the family, the source of the ‘injury’ to the family is misplaced to transgender life (Ahmed, 2006a). From the above quote, it is clear that Alex’s sibling is himself stuck in the complex interplay and ambivalence of affective obligations and obligated affects (unconditional love for his sibling) (Bourdieu, 1996) on one hand, and the sociality and conditionality of happiness and family as a ‘happy object’ that contains the demand to reproduce straight (cisnormative) lines (Ahmed, 2010) on the other. Izak’s narrative of the violence they experienced from parents due to their transgender status further shows how complex the web of affective obligations and obliged affections is. In the same gesture in which Izak is rejected by their parents, the parents attempt to emotionally compel Izak to ‘be who they are’ – that is, to live in a gender assigned to them at birth – by appealing to Izak’s affections for their siblings. In other words, affective obligations and obliged affections – Izak’s love for their siblings – are turned against Izak and their transgender identity, rather than enacted for Izak:

[My parents asked me] why I have to make such drastic changes, whether I couldn’t accept myself as I am … that I should think of my brothers and sisters and how they will suffer. I don’t know, [my parents said] that the fact that I am who I am is worse than dying. That I’m a freak. … Who’s going to love me anyway? Because when I get hormones, I’ll be, like, I don’t know, the biggest freak in the world. (Izak)

To secure its fiction of stability and unity, the family can use the force of affective obligations and obliged affections against those who supposedly threaten to dissolve the family by their gender non-normativity. Izak’s story shows that affects move and circulate between agents in ways that are not entirely random (Ahmed, 2004). They can (predominantly) stick to those who transgress boundaries (e.g. the boundaries of gender normativity). In this case, the ‘calls for affection’ – towards siblings, towards family – while one is denied the same because of being transgender, act as ‘calls to order’ (Bourdieu, 1991: 124), aiming to discourage straying away from the well-trodden path of cisnormativity in the name of family and to maintain the signs of ‘getting along’ (Ahmed, 2006a: 36).

Loosening the grip of affective obligations and obliged affections: ‘Journeying away’ from (and sometimes back to) the family

Despite the suspension of the aforementioned ‘miraculous truce’ of familial intimacy, the weight of affective obligations and obliged affections on non-binary individuals remains, even though their transgender identity is disregarded. This shows the affective dimensions of the difficulties of walking ‘the wrong way’, as it is the collective feeling of a crowd, including a collective affective orientation towards the family as a happy object, that keeps pushing and shoving the non-binary individual towards the ‘straight line’ (Schmitz and Ahmed, 2014: 106). These difficulties attest to a deeply embodied principle of affectivity, inclining individuals to feel a certain way towards the family, regardless of its practices, and these inclinations are not easily overcome by will and choice alone; they may demand attempts, failures and fighting against what is embodied in the agents themselves (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992; Bourdieu, 2000, 2020):

Every weekend, they [expletive] me up, and then it would take me the whole workweek to get myself back into shape so they could [expletive] me up all over again. … I had to go through some processes because I was brought up to believe that family is an environment that suits you best, is the coolest and is kind of a safe haven … and then the pure physical distance – that I wasn’t going home every week – helped. … It helped me to see that I’m cool without them, that they’re the real problem that’s been gnawing at me, that I’ve always gone into some kind of fight mode when I’ve been home because of them so I could survive the fact of being home. (Izak)

As Izak’s story shows, the weight of affective obligations and obliged affections attempts to hold them in ‘the most appropriate’ place, despite the family ‘gnawing’ at Izak’s existence. The story shows how Izak is affected by the promise of the family as a happy object, and how a refusal to reproduce straight lines gives rise to attempts to affectively reorient themself (Ahmed, 2006a). Nevertheless, the weight of affective obligations and obliged affections is not fully determining; a gap remains in the determination of feeling (Bourdieu, 1996; Ahmed, 2006a). Alternative affective intimacies of ‘other worlds’, such as friendship and LGBTIQ+ communities (Hines, 2007; Sanger, 2010; Perger, 2020), and physical and temporal distance can encourage affective reorientations towards and attachment to the family by allowing the grip of affective obligations and obligated affects to loosen its hold. This may suffice to strengthen the steps taken on the less-trodden gender-non-normative paths enough to make them resistant to affective ‘calls to order’ by family (Bourdieu, 2000: 176). At the same time, it is a child’s distancing from familial intimacy that can push the family to acknowledge its initially failed promises and attempt to fulfil them after all. The following story shows the possibilities of (re)building affective practices in such a way that non-binary gender existence becomes (more) possible without sacrificing either transgender identity or familial intimacy:

I went back [to the family] and [the brother] is still in those stories, but I managed to set the boundaries and tell him that things are not black and white. […] Now it’s really good because even though our relationship is not optimal yet, he doesn’t overwhelm me or my parents. […] I also told my parents that, yeah, my gender identity is confused, and they were like … we talked explicitly for the first time about my orientation, my identity, and it was like, ‘Look, Alex, whatever happens, happens. We’re in this together.’ […] It’s important for me […] that there are no outright rejections now like there were in the beginning. (Alex)

For others, loosening the grip of the web of affective obligations and obligated affects and affectively reorienting away from the promise of a happy object is not so much a temporal step as it is a prolonged, if not a final, step. Metka’s story below demonstrates the weight of affects as obligations that make it difficult for her to distance herself from the family that silences her transgender identity in order to secure the seemingly threatened existence of the family. The web of affective obligations and obliged affections remains embodied and is carried around in a more or less heavy ‘bag’ of guilt, shame and feelings of betrayal: of betraying the family by becoming transgender and of betraying herself by allowing her gender identity to be misrecognised and devalued by remaining in contact with the family and maintaining the idea and image of its intimacy:

Guilt? Yes. Absolutely. I still have it. Still, because I would prefer not to have any interaction with [family] at all. This supposed relationship that I have with them – that we call each other, that I visit them at Christmas … while my life as such is completely disregarded, that’s terrible. I don’t want to have that. Nevertheless, I still do that; I’d feel guilty if I said, ‘Hey, I never want to hear from you again because you have a bad influence on me.’ I don’t know. Would that make me responsible for my parents’ heartbreak? I would feel totally guilty. I already felt guilty when I told them I had a boyfriend because there was such a negative reaction that I thought I’d killed people, like I was a [expletive] murderer, like I literally destroyed their lives, like they told me. And I was like – am I really that person? So, yeah, you can … maybe guilt is a very mild word. I don’t even know how to describe it. (Metka)

Furthermore, and as shown in the next excerpt, despite intimacy being lost due to a disregard of Metka’s transgender identity, family still ‘binds and is binding’ (Ahmed, 2010: 45). In other words, affective obligations and obliged affections – especially guilt and the feeling of responsibility – hold Metka in place in terms of her orientation towards the family:

You know, I think I’ve lost respect. I’ve lost so much of this … sharing of intimacy, sharing of, you know, things that matter. I don’t care about it anymore. I think … I feel bad because it’s obvious that, I don’t know, my mother wants to have some kind of relationship with me. […] But look, honey, it can’t be good as long as you refuse to see me as a person. […] Yeah, we can talk about the weather once a week. We can tell each other what we’re going to make for lunch on Sundays, but that’s it. What kind of relationship is that? None at all. It’s the dregs of a relationship. (Metka)

In other words, despite losing the ‘things that matter’, the signs of ‘getting along’ (Ahmed, 2006a: 36) are maintained. The pretence is kept up because the price of not doing it – feeling responsible for the heartbreak of one’s parents, for destroying their lives, for ‘murdering’ one’s family, in other words, of feeling responsible for family fission because of one’s transgender identity – is felt to be too high. It is the feelings of responsibility and guilt that circulate within the family and one-sidedly stick to Metka that holds her in place despite becoming affectively alienated (Ahmed, 2006a) by familial relationships becoming ‘none at all’. Deeply embodied affective obligations and obliged affections (Bourdieu, 1996) set the price for her supposed ‘betrayal’ of the family, stemming from her straying away from the inherited lines of cisnormativity. The family, stripped of its intimacy, persists but at the expense of Metka’s transgender identity, which remains unrecognised and silenced. Despite maintaining family relations, affective intimacy is lacking precisely because of the demands to silence transgender identity ‘in the name of family’.

While a family’s chipping away at transgender existence (‘we don’t accept you as you are’) serves as a ‘pressure point’ for directing one towards the straight lines of cisnormativity, it may also become a ‘breaking point’ that unbinds one from the family and the embodied affective orientation towards it that stems from the promise of happiness attached to an image of family (Ahmed, 2006b: 90). Nevertheless, even though it is now reduced, the weight of affective obligations and obliged affections remains, as the promise of a happy object leaves its traces in the form of a feeling of loss:

In the end, [family] are the people you know all your life. ‘Knowing’ is now something relative, but you live with them, coexist with them, and it’s not easy to lose that. That sense of belonging and the sacredness of [family] that presumably stays when everyone else leaves you – I’ve never experienced that. […] At the same time, they don’t give you that actual sense of belonging – ‘We don’t accept you as you are. We are bothered by you, but you are still one of us.’ And I presumably belong. […] But it’s terrible to miss people who are toxic to you. Once, I wrote down a phrase – wait, I need to remember it – ‘Trying hard to heal my wounded heart by loving its poison.’ … That’s one of the worst things because you love that poison, like a drug, even though you know it’s killing you, but you can’t do without it until you make a decision, but you’ll always need it. Because this addiction doesn’t stop! (Djuro)

To avoid a deterministic reading of the affective orientation towards particular objects, that is, of being disposed to feel in certain ways, it is important to keep in mind that the above stories are a snapshot in time. They provide a snapshot of a dynamic rather than once-and-for-all affective (re)orientations towards familial intimacy. Although Djuro’s narrative was fatalistic at the time (‘because this addiction doesn’t stop!’), affects do move and re/make worlds (Ahmed, 2004), and affective orientations towards the family can be reconfigured based on heterogeneous experiences throughout life (Bourdieu, 2000; see also McNay, 2000). Nonetheless, Djuro’s narrative offers significant insight into the ways in which affective obligations and obliged affections can be experienced and felt. The perceived and experienced fatum, a fatalistic verdict of never being able to renounce that which ‘kills you’, of what is tearing away one’s transgender existence in order to secure the existence of family – ironically as united and mutually loving – shows how the sociality and historicity of an affective orientation towards the family, embodied as affective obligations and obliged affections, tend to hold people in place.


Experiences of family rejection due to one’s transgender status are not the only possible outcome, although they are common, given cisnormativity (see, e.g., Fuller and Riggs, 2018; Riggs, von Doussa and Power, 2016; Weinhardt et al., 2019). Moreover, Bourdieu (2001: 83) notes that the family is one of the most important mechanisms contributing to the ‘maintenance’ of social permanencies, including gender divisions. An agent who deviates from what the family unwittingly and sometimes unwillingly reproduces, namely, gender normativity, is perceived as becoming ‘unsupportive’ of the forces of family fusion. As Ahmed (2014b: 113) notes in her discussion of wilful subjects, such a child is perceived as refusing to become ‘a supportive limb’ to ‘give a hand’ in the social reproduction that (also) takes place through and with the help of the family. In other words, an agent becomes a ‘non-reproductive agent’, an agent who does not follow the (gendered) ‘footsteps of those who have gone before’ (Ahmed, 2019: 212).

By being perceived as a force of fission (Bourdieu, 1996) – of division rather than fusion – the agent is held responsible for disturbing the promises of family as the happy object (Ahmed, 2010). Through these cracks seeps a story of naturalised rather than natural affective orientation towards the family, of socially shaped affective obligations and obliged affections. It exposes the social dimension of affects, involving an orientation towards the particular objects. What is more, the story exposes the normative and evaluative dimension of the affects, to which the affective intimacy of family is not exempt despite the myths surrounding it: ‘The process of deciding what is bad or wrong involves affects’ (Ahmed, 2014a: 203), which makes emotions, understood as moving and being moved, bound up ‘with the securing of social hierarchy’ (4). Through these stories, the affective intimacy of family is exposed as being full of ‘subtle affective mechanisms’ directing agents towards the inherited lines that one is supposed to follow. What is more, these affective mechanisms of familial intimacy are powered by affective obligations and obliged affections (Bourdieu, 1996, 2000; see also Threadgold, 2020) that one should feel towards the family and its members, and it is these affective obligations and obliged affections that make the stakes high. Namely, straying away from the inherited paths, refusal to inherit them, means being perceived as responsible and, what is more, feeling responsible for others’ unhappiness: ‘To follow a different path would be to not only compromise your own happiness but the happiness of others’ (Schmitz and Ahmed, 2014: 103). In this way, Metka fears becoming a ‘murderer’ of her family, ‘as if her life would amount to the killing of the body of which she is a part’ (Ahmed, 2014b: 113). What is more, this web of affective obligations and obliged affections keeps an affective orientation towards the family – as an object one should be oriented and attached to – alive, because it promises happiness, even when it fails to deliver on the promise. However, it is also affects, including affective obligations and obliged affections, that can reorient parents towards a child’s transgender status, as is evident from Alex’s narrative, where family fusion (‘no matter what’) was reaffirmed after an initial rejection of Alex’s transgender identity.

Thus, the stories of gender non-binary individuals tell as much about habitualised affective orientation to family as they do about dynamic reorientations that are not contained by sociality and historicity (see, e.g., Blackman and Venn, 2010; Seigworth and Gregg, 2010; Slaby, Mühlhoff and Wüschner, 2019). These are also the stories of affective dimensions – of anger, frustration, disappointments, sadness and pain – that can act as a breaking point for distancing oneself from these relations. Those who ‘journey away’ from affective intimacy may do so only for a time – the time necessary to build up resilience to the family’s negative judgements. Yet, for others, affective reorientation to the family – as something that chips away at their existence by giving rise to feelings of humiliation, disrespect and guilt – is a more final step. However, even in these cases, where affective obligations and obliged affections have been transcended despite the difficulties of doing so, subjective historicity in the shape of memories remains to ‘haunt’ gender non-binary individuals, if only in the form of feelings of loss that give rise to an awareness of a lack of familial affective intimacy in a space where one is socially expected to find it. These stories reveal the messiness of affective orientations and reorientations, of an entangled web of affects and obligations, and, as Ahmed puts it (2006a: 33), ‘how we are touched by what comes near’ and, what is more, by what goes away.


In this chapter, I have attempted to sketch out the dynamics of an affective orientation towards familial intimacy as a happy object and towards the promise of happiness that is disrupted when met with the transgender lives of family members. Using Ahmed’s approach to emotions as encompassing ‘bodily processes of affecting and being affected’ (2014a: 208; see also 2004, 2006a; Schmitz and Ahmed, 2014) and Bourdieu’s concept of affective obligations and obliged affections (1996, 2000), I have attempted to show how gender non-binary individuals are affected by the promise of family as a happy object. Their stories show that family produces not only a ‘happy immersion’ (Bourdieu, 2000: 166) – pleasures, well-being, joys – as the myths surrounding it promise, but also the ambivalences of belonging and alienation. As the stories of gender non-binary individuals demonstrate, it is (also) the deep embodiment of affective obligations and obliged affections that makes distancing oneself from these intimacies difficult and hardly amenable, according to the agent’s ‘controls of the will’ (Bourdieu, 2000: 171).

I argue that this very point of acknowledging the embodiment of affective obligations and obliged affections – affects in their habitualised form – and their social dimensions are one of the most productive intersections of Bourdieu’s and Ahmed’s approaches, on one hand, and affective intimacies on the other. As the data show, affective intimacies are not only about closeness and proximity, but also about exposures, vulnerabilities, and orientations. The narratives reveal an often neglected side of affective intimacies – not only in terms of vulnerabilities and exposures – but also in terms of the social weight they might carry. More than that, they expose the web of affects – obligations that persist within the family even as its intimate character diminishes due to the disregard for, and rejection of, transgender lives.

Although the chapter addresses the phenomenon of affective intimacies from a particular perspective that is in no way capable of fully encompassing their complexities, it nonetheless enables us to gain an insight into socially shaped, habitualised and embodied affective orientations towards family intimacy, where emotions, including their entanglement with bodily sensations and thought categories, move agents towards and away from certain objects as well as render them stuck in an ambivalent experiential mess, containing bags of guilt, shame and responsibility. These bags are hard to put down, precisely because – as gender non-binary individuals’ stories show us – they are carried alongside experiential dimensions of care, pleasure, joys and affections, even if those persist only in the form of memories.


1 Sara Ahmed uses the concept of ‘emotions’ in a way that encompasses bodily/corporeal reactions, values, ideas and judgements, thus including the level of thoughts (Schmitz and Ahmed, 2014). I will use emotions and affects in the broader sense of emovere (Ahmed, 2014a: 11) – to move and be moved – while acknowledging that in everyday life, affecting and being affected, as well as moving and being moved are inseparable domains. Put differently, I follow Ahmed and her understanding of emotions as well as her understanding of affective orientation and affective economies.
2 The research titled ‘Everyday life of individuals with non-binary gender and sexual identities’ was co-financed by the Slovenian Research Agency through its Young Researcher Programme (2015–2019). Additional research work on the empirical data was financed by the Slovenian Research Agency (research core funding No. P5-0183). The funder played no role in study design, collection, analysis and interpretation of data, and they accept no responsibility for contents.


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