A Family Is A Family
By Sarah-Jane CollinsJune 20, 2012
What was it like to have two mums — or four? Listen to some adult Australians who grew up with same-sex parents share their family memories. Spoiler: it’s just normal stuff.
When Eamon Waterford's mum taught him to ride a bike, the plucky young boy with a head of blonde curls was a little over-eager.
"[My mum] Jill taught me how to ride. She took me around the streets of Katoomba in the Blue Mountains and then sent me down a hill that was probably slightly too steep for me, or I think I probably pushed myself. I was like, 'Yeah, I can do this!' and I ended up coming off my bike. Which probably taught me more, really, in terms of how fast you can go," Waterford recalls.
Are Your Family Memories Much Different?
Kids. We do silly things, full of bravado, and our parents patch us up.
When Waterford tells me his story he is laughing, and at first he can't remember who it was who let him hurtle headlong down the street. Which is fair enough when you have four mums.
"My parents, Mary and Jill, decided to have a child back in the mid-80s. A friend of theirs, a man, they got him to donate sperm for artificial insemination, so Mary gave birth to me. When I was about three they broke up, and within a couple of years both found new partners, also women. So really, ever since I can remember there's been four mums in my life," he tells The Global Mail.
It may seem like a relatively new phenomenon, but gay and lesbian parents have been raising families in Australia for decades. The Global Mail spoke to four adults, now aged between 19 and 41, who were raised in families with same-sex parents, about what family means for them.
"It's been sort of a complementary process I guess. Having four parents has meant they've been able to complement each other in their parenting skills and give me quite a well-rounded upbringing," Waterford says.
On June 18 this year, the federal parliament began debate on two private member's bills that seek to legalise gay marriage. The vote on the first bill, moved by New South Wales ALP MP Stephen Jones, is expected in August, but with the Coalition binding members to oppose both the bills when they come up, they will most likely fail.
The same day the debate began, an Australian parliamentary committee recommended that legislators vote to allow same-sex couples to marry.
Just one day prior, religious leaders from the Catholic, Anglican and Greek Orthodox churches urged their congregations to oppose any changes to the marriage act.
One of their main arguments is that gay and lesbian parents will not provide the best environment in which to raise a child.
But that horse has well and truly bolted.
Fiona Timoney's mother came out as a lesbian when Timoney was about 11 years old. She is now 41. Following her mother and father's divorce, when she was about 10, Timoney lived in Canberra with her mother and two siblings — a childhood she remembers as happy, loving and supportive.
"I think I just accepted it because my mother was such a fantastic person. The last thing I was ever going to do was feel anything other than love for my mum, because she is the most wonderfully accepting and selfless, do-anything-for-anybody person. Although it was an adjustment — the idea your mother was gay — I think the divorce was more traumatic," says Timoney, who these days works in the public service.
At high school in the 1980s, a time when public consciousness around sexuality was rising, Timoney says she didn't suffer taunts or discrimination about her mother's sexuality. She certainly seems to bear no lasting emotional scars.
"Very few friends ever questioned it. I used to find that if anyone made homophobic comments around me I would say, 'Well, my mum's gay.' That used to shut them up, and that was a fantastic tool. Since then, if I ever hear a conversation going in a way that I don't like, I throw that in and it just instantly changes the dynamic. Some people are curious but I think most people don't see it as extraordinary anymore," she says.
Studies of same-sex parenting show that in many cases children of same-sex parents can do better than their peers. The Australian Psychological Society reviewed the literature on the subject in 2007, and concluded that children were highly unlikely to be worse off simply because of their parents' sexual orientation.
"The research indicates that parenting practices and children's outcomes in families parented by lesbian and gay parents are likely to be at least as favourable as those in families of heterosexual parents, despite the reality that considerable legal discrimination and inequity remain significant challenges for these families," it says.
In early June 2012, a University of Texas study suggested children of gay and lesbian parents are worse off than those in other family structures. But there's debate around how relevant the study is, given that it focussed heavily on children of traditional families which had broken up as a result of one parent coming out; and many subjects in the study didn't live with their gay parent all the time. So family break-up and divorce were significant factors in any disadvantages faced by the children. Gender and sexuality writer Rachel Hills wrote of the research: "The New Family Structures Study (NFSS) is unadulterated media catnip, flying in the face of other recent research into same-sex families which have found that gay couples parent just as well — if not better — than their heterosexual counterparts."
Scarlett Squire, 19, is a student at the Queensland University of Technology. Her mum came out when Scarlett was about 10 years old and they were living near Grafton in northern New South Wales.
As a child, Squire and her siblings would band together when any of them were picked on at school because of their mum's sexuality.
"They were pretty great to have when dealing with all that stuff at school," says Squire of her brothers and sister. "Because three siblings is like a fucking army man, and if anyone gives you shit well [you can say] 'I have three siblings to stand up for me'. We never really felt alone.
"Over time the town really grew to accept my mum into the community. She was president of the P&C [Parents and Citizens association] for three or four years, and she became known as the best canteen lady of all time. So it was really interesting to see us go from social pariahs, the children of the gay lady, to [doing] really well at school and being accepted within that small community. It was interesting starting off, but definitely grew to be a pretty normal, happy sort of childhood."
Talking to Squire, the youngest of the people interviewed for this report, it seems that if a gay or lesbian family fulfils a child's needs, then it's only outside pressures that are likely to influence their confidence and happiness. Which holds true for any family and can be likened to the effects of bullying on any child.
Squire has at times been irritated by the stereotyping that having a gay parent invites: "I've definitely got it from certain people, if you mention 'Oh, yeah, my mum is queer', you get an immediate kind of 'I know everything about you now and everything makes sense.' They automatically have this image of who you are."
Which must be frustrating. But then, revealing anything about yourself can be fraught, whether you mention you go to church on Sundays, or that you once had an abortion, or that you keep tropical fish.
Amber Jacobus, 28, says that as a nine-year-old she was excited when her mother told her that the new friend who had been coming over for dinner quite a bit was something more serious.
"I really liked her, this woman who became my mum's partner, Chris… I just found her really interesting and was kind of in awe," she says.
"I remember the first night that she stayed over I got up early and got the fancy teapot out of the porcelain cabinet and made them a special pot of tea and took it to them in bed."
The thing that stressed her out about her mother's new relationship was how people around her might react.
"While I really enjoyed them being together, I was really scared to tell people for the first few years. It's just not something that's talked about all that much...I would sort of say [describe Chris as] 'My mum's friend.' It wasn't really until I got to high school, and then I went full swing and I was really proud of it. I'd meet someone and I'd go, 'My mum's a lesbian and if you've got a problem with that then we can't be friends.'"
The night before we spoke, Eamon Waterford's sister needed a place to stay.
"My sister and her husband and their two kids, their house is being renovated and they needed a place to stay for the night, so last night I had two very small children running around — it certainly didn't feel like a small family at that point."
Waterford doesn't think he's missed out on anything because of his family structure.
"On a personal level, it's frustrating to be told that somehow I'm defective because my parents didn't happen to be male," he says.
It's a sentiment shared by all four interviewees, who speak with uncompromised warmth about their upbringing, and the parents they cherish.
"In my experience, mums are great. So if you have one, great, but if you have two that's even better. I just think it's really silly to talk about children like they're going to be damaged in some way," Jacobus says.
Maybe it's time to start listening to the children.