What happens if you ask your kids if they are equal?
I was asked to speak on the theme of ‘Equality’ for the Sydney Mardi Gras, Queer Thinking, EqualiTea Party. This is the text of my speech – thanks, Corin, for the biggest laugh of the day! – and I’ve added some recent pics from our New Zealand trip, just because.
I shared the panel with this excellent group: Bonnie Hart (Intersex advocate), Benjamin Law (journalist and comedian), Teddy Cook (ACON Regional Outreach Service), Jordan Raskopoulos (transgender comedian and Axis of Awesome), Casey Conway (Aboriginal male model and family and youth practitioner), Be Steadwell (songstress and filmmaker).
George Orwell, the English novelist and author of 1984 and Animal Farm, is having a well-deserved resurgence right now and so for the title of my talk today I’ve borrowed – and tweaked – a famous line of his: All families are equal, but some families are more equal than others.
I live with my family in the leafy Eastern suburb of Kew in Melbourne where, as they say, we are the only gays in the village. (We sort of ended up there by accident, but that’s another story.) My partner, Sarah, and I have three kids and today – in keeping with the theme of our “EqualiTea Party” – I’m going to address the seemingly simple question: Is my family equal?
In order to do that, I put that question to my youngest daughter, Cully, who’s nine years old. Cully’s immediate and assured response was: ‘Yes. Definitely, we are equal,’ and with a degree of indignation too. ‘And,’ she went on to say, ‘there are even kids at school who think it’s really cool and they wish they had two mums as well.’ When I asked her if she got teased because of her family, she shook her head and said: ‘Nuh. I think I heard a Grade Six kid say something once, but not actually to me.’
As parents raising a rainbow family, that’s our biggest fear – that our kids will be teased or bullied at school because of our sexuality or gender identity, but in fact many, many parents tell me this fear is actually not realised. Now, that’s not to say our kids don’t ever get teased or bullied. They do. And last year in the build up to the proposed plebiscite there was undoubtedly an increase in name-calling and bullying in many classrooms and playgrounds. And I suspect things may get worse on that front before they get better.
But on the whole – and sometimes it depends where we live – many of our kids – mine included – go through school without any major issues in relation to their family. There’s curiosity certainly, and sometime inappropriate questions, but our local schools, our local communities – the people who know us – are very often supportive of our families and see us – and treat us – equally.
So next I asked my eleven year daughter, Scout: Are we equal? and she also came back with a ‘Yes’, but with some qualification. ‘I’ve never really heard people be rude about my family in real life,’ she said. ‘You just hear it out there – on the news – politicians and people say stuff.’
When our kids are very young we can protect them from the wider world, but at some point they start to understand that other people – often important people like politicians – think there is something wrong with their family. We tried to keep that knowledge from our kids for as long as possible, but they have pretty much unlimited access to media and eventually the message filters through: there are people out there who believe our family is not equal to other families. And that’s tough, for them and for us.
But by that time we’ve also worked hard to build resilience and create a strong sense of pride, and our kids – and the kids of many other rainbow families – understand very clearly that it’s the people who hold those views who are wrong, not them. And that’s really important.
And the flip side of that easy access to media is that they also hear lots of positive messages: ‘All the YouTubers are gay,’ Scout declared suddenly, and then proceeded to name a long list of people I’d never heard of. ‘And there was this dude who died his hair rainbow,’ she said, ‘and there’s another one who does all the make-up and he’s really, really gay!’
A big shout out to all the gay YouTubers, I think!
My son, Corin, is fourteen and last year I discovered he’d been trawling through the Australian Christian Lobby website and had a pretty detailed knowledge of everything they said about marriage equality and about ‘gay families’. And even though I knew he was engaged with the whole marriage equality debate, I found this really distressing. It didn’t surprise me then that his answer to my question: Are we equal? was different from the girls’.
‘No,’ he said. ‘There’s lots of negative stuff in the media and the Australian Christian Lobby gets to say whatever it likes about us because of religious freedom. They insult our families by saying our parents aren’t normal and that the kids will end up dropping out of school and taking drugs and going to prison.’
‘In my everyday life people are fine with it,’ he said, ‘at school and with my friends. It’s more what you hear nationally and on the news. At primary school it almost gave you status. Now, at high school, people say ‘That’s so gay!’ all the time. They say oh it’s just a joke, but I don’t like it because it’s insulting to my family. You can’t stop it. It’s too hard. Maybe we could eventually, but by that time I would have left school.’
The use of ‘That’s so gay!’ as the go to insult for pretty much everything is pernicious. Every child of queer parents I’ve ever spoken to, every LGBTI young person has told me they hate it. Often they challenge it – either directly with whoever said it or with the school administration – but they inevitably end up feeling defeated. It’s really not a battle they should have to fight; we should be doing that for them.
But sometimes kids work out their own a way of responding to these sorts of insults. Corin was in his room recently playing a game online with a random kid in New Zealand, and I was putting away the laundry. The two of them were typing messages to each other and I got the sense they were trading insults, but in a relatively friendly way. Then all of sudden Corin burst out laughing and was literally rolling around on the floor like he’d heard the funniest thing ever. And, still laughing, he leant over his keyboard and tapped in something.
Later, I asked him what it was all about and he explained that in response to an insult from Corin, the kid in New Zealand had come back with the line: ‘Your mum’s a lesbian!’ At which point – after rolling around on the floor – Corin had typed back, ‘Actually… they both are!’
So that was the kids’ perspective – maybe I was right to invoke Orwell. But what of the adults? I wondered what Sarah would make of my simple question.
‘Well,’ she said, with a sigh. ‘I guess I have a fundamental problem with your question. The thing is, I swan through life with so much privilege: I’m white, middle-class, educated, cis gendered, able bodied…and yes, I’m a dyke, but I don’t look like one and frankly, no one knows unless I tell them – and then they’re mostly mortified to have assumed I have a husband and apologise profusely.’
‘So I really struggle with any suggestion that I’m not equal, or that I’m oppressed and, to be honest, the kids are protected by that same privilege.’
‘I totally agree,’ I said, ‘that’s all true, but at the same time our kids are growing up being told by the political and religious leaders of our country – constantly, publicly, across all media and online – that their family is wrong, bad, lesser.’
‘Yup.’ she said. ‘There is that.’
About once a month some research comes across my News Feed that says kids being raised by LGBTI parents are doing as well as kids being raised by heterosexual parents. No shit! I’m happy to read this stuff, really I am; research is important. But I’m also looking forward to the day when we no longer need research to tell us that our kids are ok.
What we know is that children thrive and have the best outcomes when they are raised in secure, stable and loving environments, irrespective of the gender or sexuality of their parents. We know our kids certainly score high on resilience, and flexibility and acceptance of difference – which makes sense.
But there is some suggestion – and before I go down this path I just want to say, for the record, I think heterosexuals make great parents and, in fact, some of my best friends are heterosexual parents – but there is some suggestion that our kids do better in some areas.
I’m going to quote Dr Simon Crouch who published a study of 500 Australian children being raised in same-sex families in 2014 He says:
Overall, children with same-sex attracted parents scored well in all aspects of their health and wellbeing, with few differences when compared to average scores for children in the general population. When there were differences, we found that the children with same-sex attracted parents scored better than children in the general population….The two areas where children with same-sex parents were doing particularly well were overall general health and how well families get along and the impact of this on their health and well-being.
And this brings me nicely back to George once again.
It seems we were right, after all: All families are equal, but some families…are more equal than others.