Growing Up Other

These articles, by Maeve Marsden and Maya Newell, first appeared in Cherrie Mag in February 2012, in the lead up to the Queer Thinking panel discussion, Growing Up Other, that Maeve hosted and coordinated.

Maeve Marsden and Maya Newell both have two mums. As part of the Mardi Gras ‘Queer Thinking’ program they are presenting Growing up Other: Adult children of same-sex parents speak. Along with other ‘gaybies’, Marsden and Newell will discuss sperm donors, school bullies, siblings, privacy, the power of language and the meaning of ‘family’. They spoke to CHERRIE about the forum and about growing up in ‘culturally queer families’.

Maeve Marsden…

You get asked a lot of questions when you grow up with two mothers. Unfortunately, people rarely ask the ones you want to answer.

If I had a dollar for every query about my sperm donor, what I call my mothers, discrimination at school or if I wish I had a dad, I’d be a rich woman. But when I’m ready to discuss the more complicated emotions and experiences associated with growing up in a family deemed ‘other’ by society, people are less inclined to tune in.

This is why we decided to organise a forum for the coming Mardi Gras Festival’s Queer Thinking: a chance for myself and other ‘gaybies’ to answer the questions we deem pertinent, without the gaze or agenda of mainstream society, the media, or even the GLBT community itself. Un-moderated discussion between myself, my brother, Rowan, young filmmaker and now friend, Maya, and brothers Raj and Jesse.
We want the chance to talk about alternative families: our families.

The media and the naysayers talk about children’s rights without ever speaking to any of us. The conservative Christian Right says I have a ‘right’ to a mother and a father – a “normal” family – without ever asking me what I want, or needed as a child.

I’ll say it clearly, as I have said it countless times before: I loved growing up with two mothers. I never wished I had a father. I believe a child needs love, security and support, whether that comes from one parent, two parents or more.

But that’s not all we want to talk about. Growing up Other will be a chance to delve deeper into the challenges our lives posed. Discrimination from outside, yes, but also challenges from within the community, where our families, as ‘pioneers’ of same-sex parenting, were pressured to be high achievers, to succeed, to show society children of queer parents can thrive.

We want to discuss how current and future parents might talk to their child about other-ness, instill a sense of pride in difference, and explore expectations around family structures and what is deemed “normal” or “normal enough” to be accepted.

Gathering together to prepare for the forum, we discovered that a common denominator of our experience is an eagerness to talk passionately about and maintain deep connections with the queer community, regardless of our own sexuality as adults. So early were we expected to have the language to describe our other-ness that many of us quickly became outspoken, opinionated kids. I know I did.

For that, I am really grateful. I love that my parents encouraged awareness and a questioning mind. I’m not perfect, and I stumble around my own privilege sometimes too. But I think kids of queer parents have the opportunity see difference in a more complex way, and for that I feel lucky.

Being a child of same-sex parents might not be so unique today. But for us it felt that way; a ‘secret society’ with its own idiosyncrasies, stereotypes and social norms – road trips with 80s lesbian folk cassette tapes, anyone? Not to mention the amusing antics that went down at the Lesbian Mothers with Children meet-ups my parents organised pre-Rainbow Babies! Despite not growing up as friends, the five of us panelists have a certain familiarity when we meet.

For all the similarities, we each have different ideas and experiences to communicate as well, and we don’t always agree. For me, this is about sharing what I’ve experienced with fellow future queer parents, exploring society’s ideas about family and discovering new ways to fight for our rights, and create community. My wonderful, clever brother, an academic through and through, wants to discuss how queer families challenge other established schools of thought, such as in the realm of psychology. He also has a great deal to say about being the only boy in a feminist family full of women!

Maya has been interviewing young children of same-sex parents, so she has beautiful stories about how things have changed in the last twenty years or so. Maya, Raj and Jesse also have unique perspectives on difference as children of white mothers, who had non-white sperm donors, and Raj and Jesse also had vastly different experiences to the rest of us, growing up in Sydney’s outer Western suburbs, rather than the inner city.

Between the five of us, we have much to discuss, and we hope that by doing so in front of an audience, we can offer insight, thought provocation, or at least a good story or two!

Maya Newell…

Australia is in the midst of a gayby-boom. Twenty-four per cent of gay and lesbian couples are now raising a child and their queer spawn are roaming Australian streets and schools. But while the new generation of kids from GLBT families are becoming more and more visible, gays and straights alike still don’t know much about their experiences.

To those that ask, I answer in this order: No, I didn’t spend my childhood longing for a father, I call my mothers by their first names, and yes, I was occasionally teased at school. But what about the things that aren’t asked? The funny, surprising and understated moments, the embarrassing stories, coming out for my family at high school and the feeling of slapping the crowd’s outstretched hands in the Mardi Gras Parade as a small child. These are among the things that make growing up culturally queer unique.

My first memory of one of these particularly gayby moments was when I was about three years old. My mother, Liz, and I were doing the weekly shopping and walked into the butcher shop. The only reason Liz ever went into the butcher shop was to buy off-cuts for the dog, as my other mother, Donna, was a raging vegetarian. So we are standing there in the shop, and Liz leans over the counter and says, “Just a kilo of bones for the dog if you’ve got any.”

To which the butcher, a big muscly man, replies jokingly, “Your husband ain’t getting lucky tonight, eh, do you want some chops with that?”

By this time Liz had become all but immune to these sorts of assumptions, however, on this particular day she was in no mood to have that conversation with this particular man, so she replied, “Yeah, he doesn’t eat meat much.”

I vividly remember my complete horror at her answer: how could she betray us like that? I turned and looked up at the butcher, feeling very self-righteous and said, “Actually, Donna is not a man. I have two mums.”

I realised for the first time that my family was different, and apparently sometimes it was easier for that to be a secret.

My family hasn’t changed, but the way society sees it and my own reactions and understandings have. As a child, I have hidden and also bragged and now as a young adult, living in a social climate that still grapples with equality for gays and lesbians, my inbuilt sense of justice has sparked a need to make a documentary about the experiences of children in GLBT families. Having interviewed about 30 or so gaybies and spent considerable time with a few in particular over the last year, I am beginning to construct an idea of the qualities of us kids. The big question being, what exactly is different about growing up in a gay or lesbian family? This is a question for the panel, and also for my documentary…

While most kids are getting their teeth into the idea of Man + Woman = Baby, gaybies are fluent in IVF, Assisted Reproductive Techniques and the many uses of turkey basters. They have donor fathers or surrogate mothers and perhaps even some donor siblings. They are well versed on how to hide or proudly flaunt their families. Kids with LGBT families often have more fluid ideas around gender, they see a very different side to discrimination and it is largely unrecognised that gaybies have to ‘come out’ too.

What is most exciting about this upcoming panel discussion is that it is the first time, in Australia, that the ‘kids’ have been old enough to speak out. We are grown up and have our own stories to tell. Being the first-ish of the Australian gayby generations, all five of us have been treated like beacons of queer parenting advice since we were old enough to murmur. We have been pushed onto panels organised by our mothers, or made to chat endlessly to the pregnant lesbians. This time it’s our turn to choose the topics and frame the questions.