Meet the Queerspawn . . . Again!
Two weekends ago, I sat at a coffeehouse table with a 59-year old writer who’d traveled far to meet me . . . not for my editing services, or to consult about literary publication, but because she grew up with two mothers. For hours, we compared notes on what our life was like as part of a marginalized, politically-fraught demographic–and how, for years as young women moving through our separate eras, we didn’t even know we had a demographic. I lingered over the family photos she’d brought, so much like my own–smiling siblings embraced by two women. I thought about how her moms, like mine, didn’t dare hug or hold hands in public, and then I told her how I’d walked across the University of Oregon campus last week behind a couple of young men strolling past the daffodils and flowering cherry trees hand-in-hand. No one gave them a second glance.
This week, big changes may befall same-sex couples. On Tuesday, lawyers challenge California’s ban on same-sex marriage and argue that gay couples across the country should be allowed legally to wed. On Wednesday, lawyers challenge a section of the Defense of Marriage act that prevents legally married same-sex couples from receiving benefits which heterosexual married couples regularly receive. I’m chewing off all my fingernails in anticipation of which message the children of these couples will receive about their parents.
Those readers who know my family’s story will understand why this week means so much to young and older kids of same-sex parents. My biological mother came out in the late 1970s; my father sued for custody and won. I’ve chronicled this experience in my memoir, Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood (Seal, 2009). Sadly, ours wasn’t the only case of this nature. Hundreds of women who came out during this era lost their children. One film, Mom’s Apple Pie: The Heart of the Lesbian Mothers’ Custody Movement, provides a look at the history of lesbian parenting, and the homophobia that regularly ripped apart families like mine.
The voices of the kids of same-sex couples seem particularly effective in these political debates. Check out YouTube for clips showing how children and young adults have taken the stand in courtrooms across the country to explain that they’re happy, well-adjusted, and eager to see their same-sex parents offered the same rights as those afforded to heterosexual couples. Put a face on an issue, and it becomes real for people who may never otherwise consider how this week’s legislation might affect a son or daughter . . . regardless of age.
Meet the ‘Queerspawn’
THROUGHOUT my adolescence, I assumed that my siblings and I were the only children of gay, lesbian, or bisexual (GLB) parents. In 1979, we were removed by court order from my mother’s house and allowed to visit her only two weekends a month. She and her partner weren’t politically active. Their lesbian friends had no kids, and coming out about my mother to my classmates didn’t feel safe, so I missed the opportunity to meet others like me. Still, they were out there, growing up in the 1970’s and 80’s, coming of age in the 1990’s, and entering the 21st century determined to gain respect for themselves and their families.
Gay and lesbian offspring defy ready classification. Abigail Garner, 33, was five years old when her father came out as gay and her parents divorced in Minneapolis. She deliberately befriended homophobic classmates in an effort to educate them about her father and his partner. Noel Black’s gay father and lesbian mother attempted unsuccessfully to live as a married couple the year after he was born in Colorado. His father later died of AIDS. Last year, 34-year old Juliana (by request, not her real name) witnessed her father’s coming out and his consequent divorce from her mother with anger and resentment. A homophobic judicial system took Tammy and Sandra away from their lesbian mother in the early 1980’s. Now in their late twenties, the girls were forbidden to see their mother and sneaked to their grandmother’s house to phone her on the sly.
The most recent studies show that approximately ten million children in the U.S. have one or more lesbian, gay, or bisexual parent. The media present us alternately as either blissfully well-adjusted or angrily screwed up—or ignore us altogether. “I think we’ve been invisible on both sides of the fence for way too long, and both sides want to use us as poster children for their opposing political causes,” notes 33-year old Noel Black.
Much research on children with GLB parents has been motivated by family law for use in custody cases that seek to determine whether a child’s welfare is impacted by the sexual orientation of his or her parents. A 2004 study conducted by the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health found that adolescents with same-sex parents are as well-adjusted as their peers in terms of psychosocial well-being, school performance, and romantic relationships. Studies have also indicated that if children experience any negative repercussions from growing up with gay parents, they’re largely the result of homophobic attacks from peers.
Increased media interest has resulted in new and provocative terms to describe our demographic category. We’ve become “alternative families,” “queer families,” “families of choice,” and “gaybies.” Several years ago, a politically savvy group of young adults with an edgy sense of humor decided to adopt their own label: “queerspawn.” It’s a word that amuses some and repels others. I first came across it on alternative radio. For me, it captured the campy, ironic humor I grew up with in my mother’s house, cheerfully subverting the negative connotations surrounding the word “queer.” “My vision for this word is that it speaks to a population—not a political demographic,” says Garner, author of Families Like Mine: Children of Gay Parents Tell It Like It Is (2004). “We need to keep the word as broad as possible—it’s not a term that anyone should own.”
“We’re the children of queer parents, but also of the queer community,” explains Beth Teper, Executive Director of colage (Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere). “Historically, we’ve been ignored, without a language to describe our experience. In calling ourselves queerspawn, we’re creating our own language.”
But some same-sex parents and their children find the term insulting. “They see it as vulgar and in-your-face,” explains Garner. “The queer family’s traditional attempt at equality seeks to demonstrate that we’re just like everyone else, with warm and cuddly portrayals of loving parents and children. When these families see kids who are not warm and cuddly, but in fact are pimply and angry in their “queerspawn” T-shirts, they’re afraid these kids will undermine their cause.”
Homosexuals raising children is nothing new. In 1972, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon included a chapter on lesbian mothers in their book, Lesbian/Women. A year later, Ms., The New York Times, Newsweek all ran articles on lesbian mothers. Numerous married men came out during this era, as well, facing nationwide discrimination as they sought to keep custody of their children. “Dozens of gay fathers’ support groups sprang up in major cities,” says Teper. “By 1979, they’d created the Gay Fathers’ Coalition, now called The Family Pride Coalition.”
As a child, Garner wasn’t allowed to attend Pride events in Minneapolis. “My father felt it wasn’t necessary to celebrate just one day of pride if we were truly proud of who we were,” she says. “His crowd was white and professional. They weren’t flamboyant, weren’t ‘those guys in the parade.’ Everyone thinks my parents shaped me into an activist, but I’m an activist because of their complacency.”
Garner and I were both born a decade before the “lesbian baby boom” of the 1980’s. We and our queerspawn peers grew up appreciative of, or humiliated by, our parents’ sexuality, depending on the political climate of our community. Meema Spadola, 35, witnessed her parents’ separation and subsequent divorce when she was ten. Although her mother didn’t come out to her initially, Spadola knew she was a lesbian. “We lived in a small town in Maine and I was paranoid about people finding out. The homophobic jokes were non-stop in junior and senior high school, and I just tried to blend in.”
Black was eleven when his mother came out about both herself and his father. “It freaked me out,” he says. “I was mortified by the fact that both my parents were gay. There was an unspoken understanding that if other families in the neighborhood found out, I’d either get beat up, taken away, or ridiculed. It made me secretive and distrustful of anyone who got too close.”
This is a far cry from the children I see on my city streets now, happily holding hands with their same-sex mothers or fathers. “There are two types of queerspawn,” claims Teper, who was born in the early 70’s, “those whose parents came out before we were born, and those who came out afterward. Our attitude about this depends on our environment and whether divorce and blended families were factors. We have a huge range of experience.”
These days, GLB parents can take their children on cruises hosted by Rosie O’Donnell and to weeklong celebrations comprised of queer families across the U.S. Young queerspawn find community in high school gay-straight alliance clubs. I gave a talk to one such group last year, made up of several gay and lesbian students, a transgendered student, a handful of kids who identified as heterosexual, and two girls with same-sex mothers. “Some kids still use ‘fag’ and ‘gay’ as insults,” one student told me, “so we’re here to help educate them about how hurtful that is.”
Scattered across the country with no real community, queerspawn who grew up in the 1970’s and 80’s had no group like colage to support them. We internalized the sense of the injustice that our parents experienced. However, unwilling to come out about our families, we often channeled our societal discomfort into other causes. Garner protested nuclear weapons. I grew a garden and wrote about environmental concerns. Black fixated on issues surrounding sexuality and gender. “Looking back, I wish I’d been able to recognize that my family was part of a rich culture I could have been proud of and part of,” he says. “Instead, I put all my mental efforts into passing, trying to fit into straight culture, and wishing my parents were straight.”
Then, in 1990, a few dozen adolescents with same-sex parents attended a conference hosted by the Family Pride Coalition. Parents attempted to organize workshops for young people, with little success. Recognizing the need for peer-run seminars, a few queerspawn formed a steering committee to oversee their part of the conference the following year. This coalition became “Just for Us” and developed a newsletter for queerspawn, who were beginning to emerge across the country. In 1993, members assumed the acronym colage. Two years later, they opened a national office in San Francisco to support queerspawn worldwide. Currently, there are some 44 chapters in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. Their mission is to “engage, connect, and empower people to make the world a better place for children of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender parents.”
In 1992, researchers found that people with GLB parents show the same incidence of homosexuality as the general population. Colage maintains a resource sheet, an online discussion list, and a FAQ section on their website to address the needs and interests of these “Second Gen-ners.” Still, many adult queerspawn are reluctant to identify publicly as gay, straight, bisexual, or transgendered for a variety of reasons. Garner believes heterosexual children of same-sex parents are prized in a society that breathes a collective sigh of relief on learning that they came out “normal” despite their upbringing.
Stefan Lynch was the first director of colage. As a teen, he coined the term he felt best described him as the heterosexual son of a gay father and lesbian mother. “Culturally queer, erotically straight” remains a defining catchphrase among queerspawn. However, GLB society has not always been receptive to the idea that straight people can be devoted fans of drag shows, pride parades, and marriage equality.
At 22, Garner came out about her family and began to speak publicly about her experiences growing up amid same-sex political and moral debates. She created FamiliesLikeMine.com, offering advice and community to queerspawn around the world. Her book, published in 2004, was the result of interviews with more than fifty children of GLB parents. A frequent speaker at events across the country, she’s concerned that once youths hit eighteen, they’re unwelcome in the queer community. “When I’m at [GLB] events, I get asked ‘what are you still doing here?’ as if this is no longer my community,” she says. “The more I’m asked, the more I stick around. We have to get to a point in which queerspawn aren’t asked these questions. We have a right to be part of the community that raised and informed us.”
With support groups firmly in place and a solid sense of their own history and identity, queerspawn are emerging as activists both for the GLB population and for themselves. Meema Spadola makes TV documentaries shown on HBO, PBS, Cinemax, Sundance Channel, and others. She made Our House: A Very Real Documentary About Kids of Gay and Lesbian Parents, which premiered on PBS in 2000; the film continues to air abroad and on Sundance Channel. Garner’s Families Like Mine earned her endorsements from such luminaries as Melissa Etheridge and former NFL star linebacker Esera Tualo. Candace Gingrich, manager of the Human Rights Campaign’s National Coming Out Project, notes that the book “establishes GLB families as vital, vibrant parts of our society.”
While many queerspawn fight for same-sex marriage and adoption laws, some question their adolescent experiences. Juliana, whose father came out last year, believes her family lived a lie for decades. Ryan Enschede, 34, was an adult when his parents divorced and his father came out as gay. “I think growing up I missed a male heterosexual role model, and I think I missed the role models of parents in a good relationship,” he says. “I think my growing-up experience has contributed to my adult feeling of being an outsider in our American culture.” Still, Enschede enjoys the vibe of being around gay men and maintains optimism about the power of queerspawn to transform the world. “We’re a large enough group to have some clout,” he says. “Our mere existence as a visible active group could force social/political change within the gay world which supports gay families, as well as the religious Right world which condemns it.”
Teper agrees. “Frankly, we’re in a time of war,” she says. “Elements of our patriarchal society cling to a form of family that supports that society. The [religious] Right is trying to protect kids, but we are the authorities of our own experience in having GLB parents. We’re at a pivotal moment in history in which our unique perspective helps to shape a broader, more fluid definition of family. We’ve learned to be who we are and to love who we love.”