Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Who's Your Daddy: The Interview

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Who's Your Daddy: The Interview

Nathaniel G. Moore’s Conflict of Interest column appears biweekly.

Recently I had the chance to talk to Rachel Epstein, and discuss her new book, Who's Your Daddy? And Other Writings on Queer Parenting (Sumach Press). The collection discusses the complex issues facing queer parents and their children, with contributions and original interviews with Ann-Marie Macdonald, Elizabeth Ruth, Emma Donoghue, John Greyson and Makeda Silvera.

Rachel Epstein has been a queer parenting activist, educator and researcher for close to twenty years and co-ordinates the LGBTQ Parenting Network at the Sherbourne Health Centre in Toronto, Ontario. She has written about a wide range of queer parenting issues including assisted human reproduction, queer spawn in schools, butch pregnancy and the tensions between queer sexuality, radicalism and parenting. Rachel is the 2008 winner of the Steinert & Ferreiro Award (Community One Foundation), recognizing her leadership and pivotal contributions towards the support, recognition and inclusion of queer parents and their children in Canada.

NGM:

What inspired you to put Who's Your Daddy? together?

RE:

Who’s Your Daddy? is inspired by the desire to move conversations about queer parenting to a new place, while recognizing that we still live in the tensions created by the social and political context within which we parent. In the past thirty years in North America we have witnessed enormous change in the landscape of queer parenting — we’ve seen a shift from a social and political climate that forced queer people to deny huge parts of themselves in order to keep their children to one where we can increasingly claim our sexual and gender identities and our right to parent. This book is about respectfully holding that history while we open and give space to new conversations.

The change that marks this history is staggering. Thirty years ago, 88 percent of lesbians, courageous enough to fight for judicial custody of their children in the U. S., lost (Chesler, 1986). Many, understanding the legal climate of the time, chose to relinquish custody in favour of liberal access (Rayside, 2008). In Canada, the climate was not dissimilar, with courts distinguishing between “good” and “bad” lesbian mothers (and gay fathers); the good ones being those who were not visible, militant or sexual (Arnup, 1995). In 1977, Francie Wyland wrote, “Only once in Canada, and fewer than a dozen times in the United States, has a known lesbian mother been granted unconditional custody of her children” (cited in Mackay, 1982: 16). When I think about the women and men who have lost custody of their children, my heart breaks.

In contrast, in Canada, in 2007, an Ontario court recognized three people (a lesbian couple and the man they are parenting with) as legal parents of a child (London, Ontario, case popularly known as AA/BB/CC). Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans parents in Canada today enjoy unprecedented legal and social recognition. Our presence and our activism have spurred monumental change in the areas of law and policy, access to fertility clinics, sperm banks and reproductive technologies, and social attitudes. Gay men, lesbians, bi, trans and queer folk of all sorts are creating families and transforming the landscapes of their neighbourhoods, schools and communities. At the same time, in some places in North America — Prince Edward Island and Arkansas to name two — queer people continue to be denied the right to parent through laws that prohibit LGBTQ adoption or that prevent non-biological parents from legally adopting their own children through second-parent adoption. Many still fear that their children will be taken away from them and struggle with questions about their own legitimacy as parents. These tensions underlie the writings in this book — the tensions between our history and current realities, between the enormous gains we have achieved and the ways our right to parent continue to be undermined, and how these dual realities affect our daily lives, our consciousness and our sense of entitlement to bring children into our lives.

The legacy of our path to social change continues to affect us. In the 1970s and 1980s custody cases were based on a series of arguments designed to prove that lesbians and gay men were unfit parents. When lesbian and gay parents (and their lawyers) were in court rebutting these arguments, they had no choice but to respond within the framework they were offered. They had to prove that they were “fit” to be parents — that their kids would understand traditional gender roles and behaviours, that the children were no more likely to be gay themselves, that they would not be damaged by the teasing and discrimination they might face and that they would be “just like” kids growing up in heterosexual families. The research carried out during this period helped to bolster these arguments. (For a summary of this research, see Patterson, 2005.) In these struggles, which involved enormous loss and heartbreak, lesbian and gay parents were pushed to present themselves and their children as “just the same as” and “just as good as” an ideologically based notion of the heterosexual nuclear family — itself an artificial construction that never in reality looked or worked like it was supposed to.

Much as we would like to leave behind this framework that puts us on the defensive, the political and social context within which we parent does not fully allow us to do so. In 2002, an Alabama court decision denied a lesbian mother custody of her children in favour of a violent father. In his judgement, the Chief Justice wrote that the mother’s lesbian relationship made her an unfit mother and that homosexuality is “abhorrent, immoral, detestable, a crime in Alabama, a crime against nature, an inherent evil, and an act so heinous that it defies one’s ability to describe it” (CLGRO Newsclippings on Adoption and Parenting Issues). The recent 2008 ballot measure in Arkansas effectively denies queer people the right to adopt or foster children. And in Canada, queer parents continue to live in a social environment in which, as recently as 2001, close to half the population believed they should be denied the right to parent (Leger poll 2001, CLGRO Newsclippings). We cannot take for granted our right to become parents or to maintain custody of our children.

Despite massive social change and the creation of new possibilities, queer parents and their children continue to feel pressured to conform in order to be accepted and to present as “poster families” and as “poster children.” Abigail Garner, in her groundbreaking 2004 book Families Like Mine, writes about the resulting reluctance on the part of children of LGBTQ parents to expose the not-so-presentable aspects of their lives. The sanitized version of their families they feel pressured to present does not include parents struggling with depression, alcoholism, or domestic abuse, or those times when the kids don’t like their parents, or feel ambivalent about their parents’ sexual orientation, or long for a parent of the other gender. In this version, “Nobody is in trouble at school. Nobody throws tantrums or threatens to run away. Nobody is experimenting with drugs. Ever. Did I mention that the kids think their parents are the coolest?” (Garner, 2004: 22). There is a dearth of spaces where queer parents and their children can converse honestly about the full breadth of their realities. (See Evans, Hill-Meyer in this volume).

Many of us, and many of our children, are tired of this. We have been forced into a narrow conversation that insists that we prove our “sameness” and that we deny or ignore “difference,” however difficult or interesting. Stacey and Biblarz in their landmark 2001 article “(How) Does the Sexual Orientation of Parents Matter?” refuse this conversation and insist on exploring differences, drawing on fifteen years of research on children with lesbian moms. The differences they highlight in children growing up with lesbian/gay parents include less traditional gender-typing; higher self-esteem and better mental health; more egalitarian, shared parenting; more closeness and communication between parents and children; and increased awareness and empathy in children towards social diversity. While the differences they point out are fascinating, the most exciting contribution they make is the shift from a limiting framework of defensiveness to one of exploration, curiosity and possibility. This shift is made possible by the social and legal recognition and security queer parents, in some places, have achieved.

NGM:

How did you come up with your roster of contributors?

RE:

The process of selecting the pieces for this book was, at times, excruciating. The initial call for papers brought in over 100 submissions. In the end we have included thirty-two of them along with four interviews. I wish there was more space. Clearly we need more books, more collections and more opportunities to hear the voices of queer parents and their children. Decisions about inclusion and exclusion were not easy. We included well-known writers like Emma Donoghue, Makeda Silvera, Elizabeth Ruth and Ann-Marie MacDonald, and many lesser-known writers who make vital contributions to the book. While questions of identity, geography and family configuration were important, the criteria for inclusion became more about which pieces unsettled my assumptions, inspired me to think differently or about something new, engaged or disturbed my thoughts or emotions, made me laugh or cry. At some point I made the decision to leave out poetry, to say no to pieces that were similar to others and to keep the book primarily focused on North American experience. There are volumes to be written about queer parenting in other parts of the world. While I believe the writings in this book are rich in diversity and theme, I know there are many exclusions. These are the limits of one book, compiled, for the most part, from submissions. I look forward to future volumes that will continue to broaden this ever-evolving dialogue.

NGM:

What are you hoping people will take away from this book?

RE:

Who’s Your Daddy? builds on this shift in framework by offering the reader a window into some of the histories, diversities, richness, creativity, complexities, difficulties and joys of queer families. Moving from a place of defensiveness, we can ask more interesting questions and enter into new kinds of conversations. We can talk more frankly about our daily realities, dilemmas and places of uncertainty, about our family creation processes, about sexuality, gender, childrearing and the jolts and bumps of living in our families. The underpinnings of this book are the questions — there are no definitive answers. My hope is that readers will come away having been touched by the diversity and the honesty of the writing and pondering personal, social, political and ethical questions they may not have previously considered, inspired to interrogate what “family” is all about and how and by whom it gets defined. I hope that hearing from such a thoughtful and varied group of writers will help turn on its head the notion that our children are running a deficit by having us as parents. Not by proving that really they turn out okay or “the same as” other children, but by recognizing and celebrating the richness that is forged from our courage to be all of who we are. This richness is what we offer our children — not in spite of, but because of, who we are.

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