We recently came back from a terrific trip to Provincetown for Family Week. We had a great time and will likely be attending the gathering again many times. It’s wonderful to look around town and realize that most of the families you see are headed by queer people. Everywhere you look there are two moms or two dads having fun with or being driven crazy by their kids. In contrast, the week before Family Week I was away at a conference in Europe, and any time I mentioned both my wife and my kids in a conversation it gave people pause. And then they had to ask about it. Which was fine — I know my family is different and interesting and I choose to embrace the opportunity to educate people about queer families. But it was lovely to be in a place where my family needed absolutely no explanation because it was normal. It was as if a weight I didn’t know I was carrying was suddenly lifted from my shoulders. So I say a big thank you to Family Equality Council for all of the hard work they put into organizing the event.
However, my Family Week report doesn’t stop there. Family Equality Council is an organization that both provides support to queer families and works to “focus public and media attention on the love, strength and contributions of our families” (from FEC’s about page). They also advocate for policies and laws that benefit our families, and they have my gratitude for that work. So there are two prongs of their mission — supporting our families and advocating publicly for our families. Both of those are important, but what isn’t so obvious is that they can conflict with each other.
As most queer parents and their children know, our families tend to experience a pressure to be perfect. After all, there is an unfortunately large contingent of people out in the world that think it is bad for kids to be raised by lesbians and gay men. The attitudes toward transgender parents can be even more toxic. So, we try to be better than good. We try to show the world that our families are just like theirs. And so does Family Equality Council. Their message is a lovely one, and I appreciate the wording that we want to focus on showing people the “love, strength and contributions of our families.” Of course we do. But there are other stories in our families. And not every family plays as well in mainstream America. In a Q&A during Family Week, I asked Jennifer Chrisler about the FEC’s tendency to emphasize the “homonormative family” — two white moms with 1 or two kids via donor conception. She gave a very fair and honest answer — FEC’s mission is to support all of our families, but when they are trying to lobby, to change minds, to reach those that are scared of us, some families present a more palatable image than others.
The trouble is that advocacy and focusing on the “love, strength and contributions of our families” can keep us from talking about what our families are really like, and can keep us from asking the hard questions about our movement. We need gathering places for non-bio-moms to have safety to explore their frustrations and their fears. Lesbian moms need to talk to each other about how we are handling issues with known donors, anonymous donors, and ID-release donors — and not just legal issues, also emotional issues that we and our children have. We need to talk about if, when, and how to navigate relationships with donor siblings and access to the Donor Sibling Registry. And aren’t trans parents a part of our community as well? You wouldn’t have known it at Family Week. How do we find ways to include and support trans parents? How can we find common ground between adoptive parents and those who are parenting through donor insemination or surrogacy? And while I’m asking questions a person has to ask whether all of our families are really welcome when Provincetown is prohibitively expensive for much of our community? We camped (in a tent), stayed only 5 nights, and our housing cost was still $300. If we were to get a room in P-town, we could not afford to go.
I want us to find a space for our families where we can have the challenging conversations. I felt like a few of them started to happen during the week, particularly in the side conversations, but much of the primary message was that we’re “just like everyone else” and how we need to challenge external structures (laws, schools, etc) to acknowledge and support us. But our families, while they have a lot in common with other families, really aren’t exactly like them. We’re here, we’re queer, and we don’t need to pretend to be something we are not. If we really want to support queer families and to build families and communities that are strong and healthy, we have to move one step beyond simply combating homophobia. That means pushing Family Equality to represent and support all of us, and making programming at events like Family Week places where we can acknowledge and address the challenges we face intrinsically in the structure of our families. We are often parenting kids to whom we have no genetic connection, possibly no legal connection, and many (most?) of our kids have connections outside of their immediate family via adoption, donor conception or surrogacy.
In her “state of the movement” address, Jennifer Chrisler made a compelling case that we, as gay and lesbian parents, are a tremendous untapped resource to “change hearts and minds.” But that doesn’t mean we need to be perfect all the time. Some of the deepest connections we’ve made with other parents have been during conversations about our struggles as parents, such as the difficulty of being an expectant mother when it’s your wife that’s pregnant and the challenge of figuring out what it means to be a mom when there are two. We don’t change hearts just by joining the same carpools or sitting at the same soccer games; it is by talking openly and honestly about our own struggles and challenges that other parents (queer and straight) come to see us as truly like them.
[Pic is a bib from Cafe Press]