Tag Archives: LGBT

What having two mums taught me about feminism

When I moved primary school aged seven, my family met with the new headmistress for a preliminary interview. She cut a formidable figure, with her stiff black dress and long grey hair pinned tightly back into a bun. Everything about her seemed evocative of the schoolmistresses of past – she was entirely traditional in appearance and presentation. This older woman though, was unfazed by my unusual family circumstances. Instead, we played a game. “Who does the cooking?” she asked, as my brother and I squealed “both!”. “Well then, who washes the car?”

As an adult, I look back on that game and its significance grows. Most children of heterosexual parents would not have been subject to such a playful experiment, because parental roles would have been taken for granted according to the sex and gender of the adults. Our society typically pegs mothers with domestic duties whilst fathers are viewed as breadwinners. And supposed personality traits accompany these roles – women expected to be nurturing and emotional; men viewed as level-headed and practical. No assumptions were made about my family: we were given the freedom to choose.

Of course, some people did try to force my mothers into typical gender roles, assuming that in the absence of a man to do so, one of the pair would play the fatherly role. And it’s only natural that there were some divisions of labour in our family; my mothers had different preferences and these were reflected in the activities they spent the most time on. The important thing was that their gender didn’t automatically ascribe their role within the family – their own inclinations did. And very often, they both partook of the same activities: they both cooked and cleaned, they both mowed the lawn and assembled IKEA furniture, they both took us swimming at the weekend, and they both pursued their own careers.

My brother and I grew up with no belief that our biological sex or gender set us apart in any meaningful way, or that any roles or behaviours were inherently gendered. We saw our mothers cooking (alas, there was in fact a general lack of baking in the house), and we saw them operating drills (well, admittedly, just one of them was handy with the DIY…). Similarly, Reuven and I were brought-up in a fairly gender-neutral way. My mums play-wrestled with myToys brother, but his biggest delight was gymnastics, not football. And whilst I spent great swathes of time playing with my soft toys and dolls, I could just as easily be absorbed in lego and playmobile.

The two of us were encouraged to be open in our ambitions, to be who and what we wanted to be. If I wanted to, I could grow up, marry a woman, and live in a commune. Or I could marry a Prince and live in a sparkling neo-classical palace, Disney-style. I didn’t really want to get married at all, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that I knew that all of those choices were open to me: I was certain that my parents would support me whatever I did, and that any choice I made would be seen as a legitimate one. My biological sex and gender didn’t pre-determine anything about my life: I was encouraged to consider every possibility, and to believe every option equal.

At this point I want to add a quick disclaimer that there are lots of heterosexual families out there who have similarly questioned traditional gender roles; doing so isn’t unique to LGBT+ families. What matters is talking about gender from an early age – having conversations about what sex and gender mean, whilst rejecting the idea that someone’s biological sex should limit them in any way. Feminist principles need to be explicitly discussed, as well as being modelled day to day.

My own feminist understanding definitely matured as I aged. There are so many different societal issues that are core to feminism today. From the sex industry to the food we put in our bodies, education to domestic violence, the portrayal of women in the media to our reproductive rights. The list is endless; indeed I don’t think there are any issues untouched by feminist concerns.

For me, feminism at its most basic will always be connected to my early years though – it is simply about the right of all children to enjoy the childhood I was privileged enough to experience. For girls to be able to wear their hair long or short, without commentary or judgement. For boys to benefit from the men in their lives, but recognise that their mothers can provide for all of their varied needs. For teenage girls to choose to study the sciences in the same numbers that they opt for the arts, and vice-versa for their male peers. For all children to know that they can be exactly who and what they want to be when they grow up (and that they should respect the choices of other people too). That’s obviously quite an over-simplification of feminism, but a good place to start, and a good thing to aim for. Feminism has always seemed natural to me, and I’ve always been proud to identify as a feminist thanks to my childhood. Feminism is about equality between the sexes, and equality between our boys and girls is a great place to start.

In loving memory of my granny

My Granny

My Granny

It’s five years now since my granny passed away. She was a wonderful woman and I’m sure I’ll continue to miss her throughout my life. I’ve been thinking recently about the important role of grandparents and other relatives in a child’s life. I think the measure of a good family member might just be whether someone is loving, generous and self-confident enough to welcome new members into their family. I couldn’t have asked for a better granny, and this post is in memory of her.

Many people still think about family in the context of blood relations. It’s understandable why that is to some extent: when you have a child or grandchild who is related to you by blood, it’s easy to think about the genes you share and which bind you together.

Non-biological parents in LGBT+ families don’t have a genetic connection with their children, but their role in their children’s lives is still that of a parent. They’ve chosen to create and raise a child, to nurture and parent them. They’ve actively and voluntarily taken on the role and relationship of a loving mother or father.

For grandparents, aunts, uncles and other relatives, the experience is a different one. My granny wasn’t tied to me by blood, but neither did she deliberately dream me up into existence, as my non-biological mother Deborah did. My granny’s role was neither defined by genetics, nor purposefully crafted. What that meant is that she could have chosen to reject me, to refuse any relationship with me. She wasn’t my biological grandmother, and being a grandmother in any other way would have been her choice, a choice she could have made or resisted. Had she spurned a relationship with me, that would have been the end of the story. Blood didn’t link us, so our relationship was defined entirely by our personal connection, and if she didn’t want one, I would have been left without one.

Luckily, that’s not what happened in my family.

My granny and grandpa accepted me wholeheartedly. Visiting their house in rural Scotland, I was just one more of a big bunch of messy, noisy grandkids. They treated me and my brother Reuven exactly the same: even though their genetic relationship to the two of us was different (as Deborah carried Reuven and Leah carried me), their familial one was not.

Having grandparents, aunts and uncles who accepted me unconditionally as Deborah’s daughter has been extremely comforting. When family is defined as a biological fact, relationships can become fractured, but they can never be entirely called into question. When that biological connection isn’t there, there can be a lot more uncertainty about your position in a family.

When I’ve been up in Scotland visiting family, I’ve never felt different to my brother or cousins. And for that I thank my granny and grandpa. When I was born, at the end of the 1980’s, LGBT+ families were not too common. And yet my granny and grandpa never questioned my right to belong in their family, my position as Deborah’s daughter, or their role as grandparents to me. They took on that role willingly, and built a relationship with me. It wasn’t a role they created, but it’s one they accepted and enacted when they easily could have chosen differently.

Granny and me

Granny and me

I’ve always felt comfortable and confident in my own little family unit, but it’s nice to know there’s a bigger support system around us, and that I fit into Deborah’s family too. Homophobia is never easy to deal with, but it’s much worse when it comes from friends and family and there are certainly children out there who haven’t been as lucky as me, who have been rejected by their wider family because they possess different genes.

So that’s why my granny was an amazing woman – because she had room in her heart for one more grandkid, even if I didn’t physically resemble her. And that’s why when I have kids, some time in the future, I’ll remember to tell them how awesome their progressive, tolerant, loving and loveable great-grandmother was, back in the 1980’s. I feel privileged to have called my granny just that, precisely because she welcomed me and extended that privilege to me.

When a same-sex family separates

The separation of any family is difficult, but this is perhaps even more true for LGBT+ families. This is because a child in a same-sex family will only have a biological connection with one of their parents. That’s normally pretty irrelevant to the child in question, but of apparent significance to society. Separation in itself need not be difficult: it is people’s reactions which make it so. People often question the relationship between a non-biological parent and their child, and a family separating seems to enflame that prejudice. They suddenly have apparent justification to see the bond between parent and child as temporary, the parenting relationship as having ceased, or as having lacked significance to begin with.

When I was fourteen, my family’s collective household was disbanded. We moved out of our single end-of-terrace house, into two separate smaller ones. Reuven and I moved between the two new houses, dividing our time equally between our two mothers. It helped that our mums had chosen to live fairly close to each other – a choice that not everybody is able to make. We adapted quickly, as children do. I joked that I was a ‘suitcase kid’, but apart from the occasional realisation on a Sunday evening that all of my school shirts were at the wrong house, I pretty much ended up with two sets of all my essentials and was quite content.

At the time, I was faced with a few surprising assumptions. On finding out that the family had formally separated, teachers and family friends would ask if I was living with Leah, or even whether I still saw Deborah. They assumed that, because Leah was my birth mother, my place was now with her.

You don’t need me to tell you that that’s not what a child of heterosexual parents would likely be asked. A child of heterosexual parents might have the question asked of them in a gendered sense – an assumption that they were living permanently with their mum and visiting their dad less regularly – but this wasn’t the same assumption being made of me; for I’m sure Reuven was asked if he was living with Deborah.

The assumption made of our family, was that the kids belonged with the woman who had carried them in their womb for nine months. Much less thought was given to the years of carrying us as babies and toddlers and young children which followed, and which was split equally between both of our mums.

The physical separation of our household meant that people who’d previously grudgingly accepted our family, could now openly question our relationships. As though fourteen years’ worth of love vanished in one day, one moving van, one mile’s distance.

That we moved into separate houses after fourteen years of my life, didn’t make Deborah any less my mother, or Leah any less Reuven’s. Leah and Deborah had conceived of our family together, imagining us up and making us reality, and then shaped that reality, by caring for us and growing us.

So naturally, the change in the relationship between Leah and Deborah did nothing to alter the relationship between me and Deb, or Reuven and Leah. Why should it?

My mums might not have been a couple anymore, or living together, but they certainly continued to co-parent us. Whenever Reuven and I moved from one house to the other Leah and Deb would have a chat about the past and upcoming week. They made sure they were always on the same page, and that Reuven and I weren’t able to play them off against each other. But more importantly, even if they hadn’t remained cordial, even if the relationship between Leah and Deborah had been acrimonious, even if they’d disputed custody of me and Reuven, even if I’d moved halfway across the world and not seen Deborah for the next five years, she would always be 100%, fully, completely, my mum.

People have been added to our family. Deborah got civilly-partnered to my step-mother Anne a good few years ago and I inherited a whole host of step-cousins. But thankfully, our family has never had reason to shrink, only to grow. As I write this I’m up in Scotland with Deborah and Anne, visiting my grandpa, and my aunts and uncles and cousins. They may not be biological relations, but they’re still family – and that’s a truth independent of any other connections. So while family separation can no doubt be difficult for a whole range of reasons, it should never invalidate a non-biological paren’t role, or affect the relationships a child has with the people they call family.

18 years on - separate, and loving

18 years on – separate, and loving

Back then - together, and loving

Back then – together, and loving

Myth Busting: the children of gay and lesbian parents will be gay and lesbian themselves

One of the most common arguments I hear trotted out against gay and lesbian parenting, is that the children in those families are likely to grow up to be gay or lesbian themselves.

Let’s have a look at why that’s unlikely, and why even if it is true for the occasional child (statistics, kids), it’s not the massive problem it’s flagged up to be.

1. Gay and lesbian parents know what it’s like to have a minority sexuality

Most LGB adults have grown up in a society where homosexuality isn’t widespread and isn’t assumed or expected. That means they may have had to struggle to come to terms with their own sexuality, they most certainly will have had to expressly ‘out’ themselves to friends and family, and they will have faced prejudice and discrimination, including legally (it was only this year, 2014, that gay marriage was finally allowed), and personally.

Regardless of whether you believe that sexuality is due to nature or nurture, we can agree that for the majority of people it’s not a choice that is made. Instead, it’s something which people cannot control, and which can cause suffering if not accepted by friends, family and society. This is significant for two reasons:

1a)      LGB parents know that the same will be true of their children. No matter what you role model or expect, children’s  sexuality won’t automatically alter in response: it will be as it is. No doubt the parents of many gay adults wanted them to be straight, and all that hope added up to nothing. Why? Because sexuality is not something we can choose at will, and nor is it an isolated product of a person’s home environment. The belief that gay parents will ‘turn’ a child gay is predicated on the assumption that sexuality can be easily controlled – which simply isn’t true. Check out this awesome letter by a Washington Post agony aunt on just that point.

1b)       LGB adults know how painful it is to have one’s sexuality judged and potentially rejected. This means they’re more likely to create a safe and open environment for their children, one which does not insist upon a certain sexuality, but instead welcomes any eventualities. This was definitely true in my own house – I grew up knowing that my parents would be there for me whoever I fell in love with, rather than pressure me into one choice.

There is therefore no reason to expect that LGB parents would naturally raise a higher proportion of LGB children than straight parents. Even if they did (which is contrary to all available stats), I can only imagine that that would be because there are lots of people out there feeling same-sex attraction but choosing not to act upon it, due to their fear of rejection, whereas children in most LGB families will have been given the support they need to explore and accept their sexuality, whatever it happens to be. As J.J. Bigner articulated so well, “If heterosexual parenting is insufficient to ensure that children will also be heterosexual, then there is no reason to conclude that children of homosexuals also will be gay.”

2. Parents are influential, but so is society

I mentioned above that home life is only one influence on a child. This matters even more for children in LGB families, because the society around them remains overwhelmingly heteronormative. The majority of relationships that they’ll see, both in real life and represented in the media, will be straight ones. This means that children in LGB families will never grow up thinking that gay relationships are the norm, or their only viable choice. They’ll be fully informed about the types of relationships open to them, and able to explore heterosexuality quite freely.

And what’s the big deal anyway?

Now that I’ve hopefully convinced you that LGB parents are unlikely to have a disproportionate impact on their children’s sexuality meaning that they grow up to be gay, I’m going to ask why we care so much anyway?

Why are we all so traumatised by the idea of children growing up and defining as LGBT+? Is being LGBT+ that terrible a thing? Something to be protected against at all costs?

Surely our number one concern should always be that any individual is happy. If the child of gay or lesbian parents identifies as LGB, and is satisfied by the relationships in their life, what could possibly be wrong with that? It’s purely their own (and their partner’s) business. As long as an individual is able to be true to their own sexual preferences, and does not feel pressured to suppress their natural feelings, we should celebrate their sexuality, whatever it may be. 

So let’s all raise a cheer, for any adult, of any sexuality, from any type of family, being able to find joy in a consenting relationship that satisfies their personal sexual and romantic preferences. And let’s stop worrying about whether kids will grow up to be straight or gay, and just focus on enabling them to be happy.

The proud place of LGBT+ family members and allies at Pride

The worldwide Pride season is now in full swing, with London Pride this coming Saturday. I would be there, if I wasn’t out of the country. Last year I partied in Spain, and the year before I could be found celebrating in both London and Bristol. But in between my early years, when my parents would wheel me around the parade in my buggy, and my more recent involvement, there were several years when Pride didn’t feature significantly in my life. This article by the heterosexual daughter of lesbian parents got me thinking about who should be included in a Pride march, and what the role of the children of same-sex families is when they grow up.

Bristol Pride 2012

Showing off our face paint at Bristol Pride

My memories of Pride as a child are bright, colourful and noisy. I remember men dressed in drag with giant multi-coloured eyelashes, whistles to blow and horns to beep, glitter, feathers and laughter. I shouldn’t downplay the presence of politics either, as Pride isn’t all about the (sometimes transgressive) fun – angry speeches and rousing chants are just as important too. The last Pride I attended before my adult years was when I was about fourteen. I marched in a band (I have no musical talent, but percussionists were welcome so long as you could keep beat) which made it up onto the main stage at Trafalgar Square. Afterwards I was awarded entry into the VIP area and was disproportionately pleased when the lead singer in the band Never the Bride sent her girlfriend to ask me where my ridiculously gothic trainers were from (they were black with red spikes: I was a teenager, what can I say?). I also remember gay Conservative MP Michael Portillo being booed from the stage by an audience still furious about Section 28 and resolutely anti-Tory, in any gay-friendly guise.

When I was fourteen, my own sexuality was still a mystery to me. I was a child, and I was proud of my family and happy to be marching for the LGBT+ community. Whatever your own sexual persuasion is, being a member of an LGBT+ family is significant in itself, and your life is likely to have been practically different from someone belonging to a heteronormative family. Stefan Lynch coined a term for this – he calls the children of LGBT+ families ‘queerspawn’ – recognising that whilst you may not be LGBT+ yourself, your identity is still immersed in queer culture and community and that should be acknowledged.

I used to joke on an online dating profile, that I’d attended more Prides before the age of ten than after the age of sixteen. I’m hoping that the next few years will correct that. There was no particular reason why I stopped attending Pride for a bit. The main one, probably, was that I didn’t have anyone to go with: my mothers don’t always attend, and in my secondary school years I didn’t have friends I could go with instead. Now I’m delighted that I have a beautiful bunch of LGBT+ friends to walk with. But even if I didn’t identify as LGBT+ myself, I’d still like to be there: supporting my family; proudly acknowledging our social significance; and championing LGBT+ visibility and rights.

These days there are many people who boycott Pride, disappointed with its commercialisation and de-politicisation, or resentful of the implication that LGBT+ people should only be visible one day of the year – their kisses and hand holding not nearly as welcome in the streets the other 364 days. I think that an opportunity for a community with many disparate individuals to come together, and tell the world that their sexuality and gender are worth celebrating, can only be a good thing. It gives hope to people who are unsure about whether they’ll be accepted, and assures them that they too belong in our society.

I believe that there is a definite place in Pride for non LGBT+-identifying people, but that that place should be as allies, on the sidelines, cheering on the marchers, supporting their more personal pride. I think that non-LGBT+-identifying queerspawn probably occupy a slightly different place again, and should be welcome among the marchers. If you’ve grown up attending Pride, and living among lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered people and gay men, your connection to the LGBT+ community, and the many personal and political implications of your existence, don’t automatically cease once you enter adulthood.

I’m sad I can’t be there this weekend, but to everyone marching – Happy Pride! I’d like to hope everyone feels welcome in some way at Pride, whatever their history and identity is, as long as they in turn want to celebrate the many different kinds of loves that exist in humanity.

Friends and me at Bristol Pride 2012

Friends at Bristol Pride 2012

 

Does race matter when choosing a sperm donor?

Another question that could have been included in my recent post on Questions not to ask the mixed race daughter of two Jewish lesbians, but which I thought deserved a bit more space, is why my parents chose an Indian sperm donor? It’s not the question itself which bothers me, but some of the assumptions that can lie behind it: had my parents chosen a white sperm donor, I very much doubt that their decision would be subject to questioning – even though the broad category of ‘white’ can still encompass many differing cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

The act of choosing a sperm donor can be more or less complicated dependent on personal preferences. Primary decisions need to be made around the role and relation of the donor – whether he is someone known, and potentially involved with the child, such as a relative, friend, or friend-of-a-friend, or someone entirely anonymous. Basic non-identifying factors are typically considered, such as height, hair colour, medical background and blood group. And finally, some prospective parents are interested in more than mere appearance and health, considering the donor’s personality and achievements, such as education level, musical talent and sporting prowess; looking at childhood photos; and reading letters from the donor explaining his decision to donate.

For my own parents, the criteria were pretty simple. He had to be:

  •         A man, with functioning sperm
  •         Healthy, and free from any genetic diseases
  •         Willing to donate sperm for a second child in a couple of years’ time
  •         Happy to be contacted should my brother or I wish to later in life

Clearly my parents erred on the side of nurture in the great nature v nurture debate; picking a neuroscientist wouldn’t necessarily ensure that I’d grow up to be bright, and seeing as they’d be stuck with me regardless they might as well just let nature do its random thing and focus their efforts to mould me into a tolerable human being on the parenting side of things.

In actual fact, the sperm donor who finally ended up contributing to my existence, was the second man my parents tried to conceive with. We’ll call the first man Pietro.

Pietro was a man known to my parents, and he was half Indian and half Italian. The plan was for Pietro to play a role in my life. For a good two years, Leah tried to get pregnant with the aid of Pietro’s sperm, but to no avail. They had to pretend to be a heterosexual couple to seek treatment on the NHS (luckily, things have moved on since the 1980’s). Turns out that Pietro’s sperm weren’t quite up to the job, so Leah and Deborah had to find a new donor. Race didn’t really come into it – having two healthy babies was the primary concern.

Leah and Deborah could have used a sperm bank, but at the time these were uncommon and unregulated (until the passing of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990). Men donating to sperm banks were also guaranteed anonymity, and my mums wanted to make sure my brother and I would have the choice to make contact with our donor when we were older. In a sense, their desire to give us choice therefore limited their own.

As a sperm bank was ruled out, my mums placed advert and half a dozen men responded. Of these, a couple weren’t willing to forego their right to anonymity, and others were unsuitable on health grounds. The man they chose was the best respondent by far, fitting all of their criteria. He also happened to be Indian. Race was never a dealbreaker. My mums certainly weren’t going to decline any suitable candidates on racial grounds. Heck, they were lesbian mothers who knew to expect a certain degree of ignorance and intolerance – they weren’t intimidated by adding more layers of diversity to the family.

Furthermore, my parents knew that they wanted my primary identity to be a Jewish one, and Jews of different colours and sub-cultures can be found all over the world, including India. Had my parents used a white donor, who’s to say that I would have been any culturally closer to my biological roots? There’s arguably as big a gap between a tall, athletic, light-haired Dane (Danish donors being particularly common) and my Ashkenazi, Mediterranean-looking birth mother, as between her and a small Indian man. And as my mums wanted to give birth to a child each, they couldn’t choose a sperm donor who looked like the other mother, as some couples choose to do so that their children can resemble both parents.

My parents chose to use the sperm available to them, and not to worry about the race of its donor. Like any good parents of biracial children, they believed that race wasn’t all-important, but acknowledged that it was meaningful. When they’d planned a child with Pietro, he had been expected to play a part in educating us about our heritage. Although this wouldn’t be possible with the eventual donor, who wouldn’t be involved in our lives, my parents had still spent two years thinking about the relevant implications of having mixed race children, so when the best potential donor turned out to be of Indian origin, my parents couldn’t see a reason not to use him.

When you have a child, there is a lot you can’t control, and some things that you won’t share with your child but which you have to learn to deal with quickly. Your child might have a physical disability or medical condition. They might be transgendered, have learning difficulties, or be a genius. Good parents will adjust to their child’s circumstances – raising them in recognition of their personal needs, even when they don’t share the exact same position.

Similarly, my parents knew my race would make me different and they parented me accordingly. As I grew up, they had age-appropriate conversations with me about racial identity. They filled the house with books and films which featured people with different skin tones and bodies, belonging to different races and cultures. They replaced words in fairy tales – turning Goldilocks into Shoshilocks. They bought me brown dolls (which was surprisingly hard to do at the time – I remember Leah being thrilled on finding one in a charity shop). The only Barbie I owned was a Pocahontas (though I’m sure that’s also in part due to their feminist sensibilities). They based themselves in a diverse city and made sure I mixed with other non-white children. They encouraged me to embrace my Indian heritage, but allowed me to self-define as I wished.

So I guess the point of this post had been to say that whilst my donor’s race was not at all important, mine and my brother’s is, and has been treated as such by our parents, but not to the exclusion of other aspects of our identity – race is just one feature of who we are. Racial identity is far more complex than somebody’s external appearance, and my brother and I differ in the ways we identify and perceive ourselves – to be half Indian was never a guarantee that we’d turn out a certain way. My parents did an excellent job of bringing us up to be proud of who we are and aware of what it means to be mixed-race and brown. I’m pretty sure though, that had my parents used a white sperm donor, the child I would have been would be fairly similar to who I am today. Certainly my life has been shaped by being half-Indian, and I have a high awareness of issues around race, but it’s only been one of many influences in my life. Mostly, I’m just glad that I’m happy and healthy – which was always my parents’ number one priority.

Image

 

Five further reasons why having lesbian mothers can suck

  1. When you attend lesbian nights out as a  twenty-four-year-old, you invariably end up bumping into your mums’ friends, who babysat you as a youngster
  2. Dates turn into coaching sessions when the guy sitting opposite, apropos of nothing, says “So I totally agree that gay people should be able to get married but I really worry about the impact on the children”
  3. Applying for the very lowest level of national security clearance takes you almost a year longer than most of your colleagues and you assume that’s because the form forces you to document four separate ‘mothers’ and write explanatory notes in the margins – the Government’s relationship options don’t quite cover the bases
  4. Your biggest struggle at university is learning to cope with toilet seats being left up
  5. You’re the most unfashionable kid at school, because your mums don’t teach you how to apply make up and don’t own any high heels you can borrow for the school disco – instead you turn up to hikes massively over prepared