Last week I spoke at an event organised by She Speaks: Northside about some of the issues faced by LGBT parents. The first question – put by MC, Jo Thomas – was about the key messages I’d taken from researching OUTspoken Families; Jo’s question has been spinning around my head ever since. So, here are my Top Ten Takeaways from forty lengthy and detailed interviews with a wide range of LGBT parents.
- We’re doing really well
We don’t come to parenting quickly or easily – or by mistake. We come to it with thought and care and questions. Because what we’re doing is relatively new – and not firmly based on traditional gender roles – we try different ways of doing things and that can be great for everyone. We are acutely conscious of the fact that we are raising our kids in a world that hasn’t quite come to terms with LGBT parenting and we face many small daily challenges – and some bigger ones. We approach these challenges in a careful and considered way and come up with creative, positive and workable solutions all the time, and mostly we don’t even realise we’re doing it. We are at great pains to make sure our kids’ world is safe and supportive and on the whole it is.
- What the ‘Ordinary Australian’ thinks
We are constantly told what the ‘Ordinary Australian’ thinks about us and our families and it’s generally not very complimentary. In actual fact most ordinary Australians couldn’t give a stuff and wonder what all the fuss is about. The people in our immediate local communities – neighbours, teachers, coaches, shopkeepers, health professionals and other parents – are completely accepting, especially once they get to know us. Many of these ‘Ordinary Australians’ become advocates on our behalf. Those who don’t know us, and who constantly rail against us, are small in number, but speak with a loud voice.
- Our biggest fear
Our biggest fear as LGBT parents is that our kids will get bullied at school because of their family and we choose our schools very carefully with this in mind. Many of us get involved in the school community by being on School Councils or Parent Teacher Associations or by volunteering. We do this as a deliberate strategy so people can get to know us and so that we can ‘keep an eye of things’. On the whole, our kids are not bullied about their families any more or less than other kids are bullied about other things. Certainly, they have to deal with questions about their family which can be difficult or get annoying, and they may get teased too. Teaching our kids ways to handle this and encouraging a little resilience generally works well.
Co-parenting seems pretty easy and straight-forward at first sight, but it’s not; it’s complex and difficult and challenging. Some co-parenting arrangements work really well, but many don’t and at their worst they end up in the Family Court. Some factors that contribute to a successful co-parenting arrangement are: a lengthy lead in time of months, if not a year or more; lots of conversations about the big issues: money, sex, religion, politics; a clear understanding of the rights, roles and responsibilities of everyone involved; a capacity to manage conflict effectively and deal with change in a positive way; clear expectations about the roles and status of grandparents and extended family; honesty and openness in all interactions; taking advice from trusted others, including friends and family, specialist counsellors or lawyers; writing everything down and having shared values. When it works, it’s fantastic for everybody.
- Our experience of service providers
Service providers range enormously in their willingness and capacity to deliver informed and inclusive practice to our families. More often than not it comes down to the individual practitioner on the day as to whether it’s a good or bad experience for us. Things that we find particularly difficult or annoying are: non-biological parents being ignored or excluded; having to come-out repeatedly; intrusive or inappropriate questions; and obvious awkwardness or discomfort in consultations.
Good service providers convey a sense of being supportive even if they may not be especially well-informed about our families, or know exactly the right language to use. If we’re not comfortable with them, we don’t go back and we tell other people. If they’re good we let everyone know; word of mouth is hugely important.
- Non-biological parents
Non-biological mums and dads often experience anxiety or doubt about their relationship with their future son or daughter at some point or another. Concerns arise around two key issues: bonding and roles. These concerns are generally most apparent in the early stages of pregnancy and parenting, but tend to disappear very soon after the child is born.
Biology and genetics are not unimportant, but don’t affect how non-bio parents love their children. Support and affirmation from family and friends helps the non-bio parent feel more confident in their role. Once pregnancy, birth and breast-feeding are over, the biology matters a lot less and both parents are on ‘a level playing field’. A baby or young child loves both parents and doesn’t differentiate or care; it just has two parents who love and nurture it.
- Life in the country
Somewhat surprisingly, life for rainbow families in rural or regional areas is generally very positive too. Country people value contribution and involvement in the local community; they don’t like ‘stand-offishness’. Where families make an effort to be involved in events and activities, and are seen to be making an active contribution to civic life, they are welcomed into the fold – though perhaps not in their first week! Even places that have a reputation for being somewhat less tolerant, are supportive of the families in their midst.
- Educating the community
We recognise that there is work to be done in educating the broader community about our families and mostly we are okay with taking on that role. We understand that it benefits our kids if others have a greater understanding of who we are and what matters to us. Sometimes people cross the line and ask questions that are inappropriate or intrusive and we have to manage that. Creating an environment where people – especially other parents and service providers – feel comfortable to ask questions is really important and can often lead to valuable discussions and change peoples’ attitudes. It’s important to acknowledge that sometimes people say things out of ignorance and not homophobia.
- Mother’s Day and Father’s Day
Mother’s Day and Father’s Day really annoy us – and not just because of our kids, but because of other kids who may not have both parents. ‘Special Person’s Day’ is slightly better and more inclusive and increasingly more common. ‘Family Day’, where kids get to choose who they bring from their family is a great way to manage it, but it’s much less widespread. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are still very popular and fairly entrenched in most schools, not least because they are important fund-raisers.
- Rewards and challenges
The big challenges for us are: constantly having to come out; worrying about how people will respond to us; dealing with negative comments in the media; managing other kids’ and parents’ comments or behaviour; feeling isolated and not knowing other families; a lack of representation of our families in popular culture; and just being different from the norm.
But the rewards are huge: being able to have kids when we thought we wouldn’t be able to; not being tied to traditional gender roles and creating new ways of doing things; being part of a diverse community and teaching kids about the value of diversity; raising kids who are resilient and who are tolerant and inclusive; being out and open in both our local and the broader community; and raising great kids in the face of judgement and criticism.
I shared the She Speaks: Northside panel with Sally Nicholes of Nicholes Family Law, who does a huge amount of work with the LGBTI community, and Georgia Weymouth Large, a smart, articulate first year uni student who was raised by two mums (if you ever need a young person to speak…).Thanks to Stephanie Mayne and Shea Heard for organising such a great event, and to Julia Irwin from the Northcote Leader for covering it.
The full version of OUTspoken Families: A resource kit for rainbow families is available here.
Thanks to Amanda Withey for use of her great photos.