(p. 245) Tying Tight or Splitting Up: An Adult’s Perspective of His Parents’ Same-Sex Relationship Dissolution
Excerpt from Aaron’s Maladaptive Guide to Stopping Queer Divorce for Resourceful Eight-Year Olds
Strategy #47: Tie-up
If you can’t get your parents to want to stay together, you can at least prevent them from physically moving apart. Most families have rope somewhere in the house (packing tape will work in a pinch, but should be avoided for its tendency to pull hair from skin as well as serve as a reminder for, you know, packing up). If you have lesbian moms like mine, where one self-identifies as a dyke, it’s likely that your family enjoys camping. Check for rope amidst the summer camping equipment in your garage, basement, attic, or closet. If you have gay dads then they’re not like mine and I don’t know where you find the rope, but you’re resourceful, check in all the same places. You want a lot of rope. Enough that it’s a little hard to carry for an eight year-old.
I was born in Berkeley, California, in 1980 to lesbian parents, making me one of the earliest people born to out same-sex parents in the United States (Hornstein, 1989; Mamo, 2007). When I was conceived through anonymous donor insemination in 1979, lesbians wishing to have biological children had few options (see also Kaufman, chapter 12, in this volume). In the late 1970s and into the early 1980s, sperm banks would not serve “out” lesbians, forcing women to “be bisexual” or marry men in order to procure sperm for reproduction (Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, 1976, as cited in Mamo, 2007, p. 44), although there was also a powerful feminist women’s movement–—particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area (p. 246) where there was a large concentration of LGBTQ people—that helped women procure sperm in other ways. The most common avenues pursued until sperm banks changed their policies were for women to create alternative networks for the procurement of sperm, often involving friends as known donors, or entreating other lesbians to serve as go-betweens to find sperm (Hornstein, 1989; Mamo, 2007). My parents went this latter route, being anxious about the legalities of custody with a known donor. In a support group for lesbians considering having children, they met another couple that was not yet ready to “graduate” to the support group for lesbians actually having children, but who nevertheless agreed to go find some anonymous sperm for my moms. My parents’ initial plan was to find multiple men to donate so they could mix the sperm up to make it even more anonymous, wanting another firewall against the potential legal issues that might come with having a known donor. It apparently took a while to find any man willing to donate, so when my donor said yes, they went with him. He filled out a medical history questionnaire form containing questions like “do you have any allergies?” and “what drugs have you done and when?”, went to a private doctor (also a lesbian) for testing and to drop off the sperm, and that was it (until 24 years later, when my donor contacted me; Sachs, 2009).
Things went pretty well for the first part of my life, at least, as far as I can remember. I was born a healthy, if somewhat hairy, summer baby. My parents raised me in Berkeley, where they were part of a vibrant lesbian community, although having a son—and then, ultimately, two sons—alienated them from some of their more radical and separatist lesbian friends who did not want males of any kind in their spaces. I grew and developed into a precocious kid who had trouble sitting still. When my parents decided they wanted a second child, they used a sperm bank—specifically, The Sperm Bank of (then Northern) California, founded in 1982, which was willing to serve lesbians and single women (Hornstein, 1989). I enjoyed becoming an older sibling when my brother was born a few months before my fifth birthday. Although my parents sent me to private school (“we were pretty sure you’d need special attention” they said, referring to my inability to raise my hand before talking), I was, by my parents’ accounts, a happy kid. That is, until my moms separated in the spring of 1989, when I was 8 and three-quarters years old.
An Autoethnographic Approach
In this reflexive autoethnography (Ellis & Bochner, 2003), I recount the dissolution of my parents’ relationship in 1989 and explore the implications such dissolutions have for children of same-sex relationships. I braid into this discussion a “kids’ guide to preventing divorce” that I imagine I created as a child when my parents were separating. Although this guide is fictional and uses an adult voice beyond the years of its imagined eight year-old author, it is based on real events from (p. 247) my childhood. Throughout the chapter I draw on a variety of academic methods that rely on narrative forms, such as thick description (Geertz, 1973), performative writing (Denzin, 2003; Pelias, 2005; Pollock, 1998), and evocative personal narrative (Bochner, Ellis, & Tillmann-Healy, 1997, 1998). Autoethnography “treats research as a political, socially-just, and socially-conscious act” (Ellis, Adams, & Bochner, 2011, p. 273) and like academic forms of personal narrative, scholars employing autoethnography “take on the dual identities of academic and personal selves to tell autobiographical stories about some aspect of their experiences in daily life” (Ellis & Bochner, 2003, p. 211).
Since the researcher occupies both positions in autoethnography—that is, the academic and personal selves—this approach is especially good for examining “hidden or sensitive topics” (Philaretou & Allen, 2006, p. 65) that might be difficult to otherwise examine with research subjects, or where subjects may be prone to “dissimulation” or dishonesty because of shame, fear of negative consequences, or concern for privacy (Lee & Renzetti, 1990, p. 511). This may be particularly true in the case of queer family dissolution because of what Lee terms “political threat” (1993, p. 7), something I discuss more later, where a group under political threat may fear that research results may cause intensification of that threat. Of course, issues of research validity may also be true in autoethnography, especially when one faces emotionally charged, negative, or stigmatized aspects of the self (Philaretou & Allen, 2006), yet the distance between the potential cost of the research and the benefit seems to be reduced to zero within an autoethnography—what, in communication terms, we might then think of as “perfect” informed consent, since presumably it is impossible to lie (as the researcher) to yourself (as the subject).
Adding to the rationale for using reflexive scholarly approaches to personal narrative like autoethnography, Bochner, Ellis, and Tillmann-Healy (1998) write, “Ambiguous, vague, and contingent experiences that cannot easily be covered by concepts or organized into coherent systems of thought are bypassed [in social science research] in favor of experiences that can be controlled and explained” (p. 45). Autoethnography, as a qualitative approach to social science research, thus produces knowledge that fills in a gap between marginalized “subjective” or individual experiences and the normative body of scholarly literature that seeks to generalize or theorize about those experiences in order to create “objective” knowledge. Autoethnography allows for individual subjects to expose distances, inaccuracies, and deeper insights that can be missed in studies that rely on more aggregated data collection.
Since my subject position as an adult recalling a childhood experience of queer relationship dissolution is highly individualized, subjective, and potentially sensitive in its dealing with childhood trauma, a more idiographic approach like autoethnography makes sense. That said, one of the key features in autoethnography is the use of an individual’s personal narrative to try to understand a larger cultural experience or phenomenon. Thus, this approach also offers me an opportunity to comment on some of the larger issues that intersected with (p. 248) my experience as I examine the dissolution of LGBTQ family relationships from the inside. In sum, autoethnography combines the rigor of academic inquiry with the accessibility of narrative prose to create a meaningful (Bochner, 2012) and potentially therapeutic (Ellis & Bochner, 2003) writing and reading experience for stakeholders from multiple perspectives. With that, I mostly leave the academic jargon behind.
The Main Event
Your first instinct is going to be to tie your parents up. This is not a winning strategy. Let me explain why. First of all, it is unrealistic to expect that you will be able to overpower your parents to effectively tie them up. It takes time to tie a person properly. If your hope is to fasten them together, then please refer to Strategy #19: Cuffs, for a quicker and easier way to accomplish this goal. Second, your parents might misinterpret your actions as aggression, and you’ll end up in the wrong kind of therapy. If your parents are like mine (i.e., middle-class white women with advanced degrees, who like whale songs, art that looks like vaginas, reading mystery novels like they were romances, and protesting war and all forms of violence, including GI Joe, and thus not letting you watch the good cartoons), there is a high likelihood that you will be in therapy either way because of all of this. Instead of playing board games while someone analyzes and interprets every move you make—the right kind of therapy they send you to when they feel bad for traumatizing you—you could end up spending a lot of time explaining why you are angry—the wrong kind of therapy they send you to when they think you’re traumatizing others. While it’s tempting to think that the aggression-therapy narrative might unite them in a shared problem, or at least just distract them enough to forget about their plans to split up, there is too much risk—go for a cute/tragic distraction rather than a scary/dangerous one. However, if you’ve already been acting out in school too much to play the cute/tragic card, see Strategy #52: Splatter-Painting Your Classroom (but as with all Strategy #s 50–72, it should be seen as a last resort, as it carries increased risk of negative blow-back).
My memory of the evening has been crystalized in a freeze-frame of all of us: Mom (the Jewish one) and Imah (confusingly, the not Jewish one, since Imah means mom in Hebrew), my brother, and me, sitting in Mom’s office in the back of the house where she saw her therapy clients. I used to be able to hold the image in my mind easily, but in the last 5 years I have done a lot of work—some therapeutic, some research—around childhood trauma and as a result find that the image is now fuzzy. Mom sits next to me on the red couch. Imah sits across from us on a white and tan speckled chair with my brother, just a month shy of his fourth (p. 249) birthday, sitting on her lap. They are telling me that they are splitting up; that Imah is going to move out; that my brother and I will divide our time between Imah and Mom; that Mom has fallen in love with a man, Jay, who was formerly homeless and whom Mom has known since she did her Masters-in-Social-Work internship in New York. It is a lot to handle. It is sometimes hard to separate out what one actually remembers of an event from what one is told about an event by others, so a lot of the details of this event feel clouded by uncertainty, filled in by imagination. For example, the following exchange:
“Your mother has decided that she doesn’t love me anymore and has chosen to end our relationship.”
“I’ve fallen in love with a man and want to see where those feelings take me with him.”
“I knew it!” I say darkly, hunching inward. “You’re never going to fool me again.” My brother is crying. Everyone feels far away even though they are all close enough to hit. I want them to just go away.
This is what I “remember” happening, although it is clouded by hearing my parents recount that evening enough times in my life that I can no longer distinguish what comes from me and what comes from them. The layers of telling a story overlay the facts of the story until something like a truth comes out—the truth of my identity as the sum of that narrative, a feeling of what happened to me, how it felt, even if factually it did not really happen the way I remember it.
The better rope-based strategy is to identify which parent is going to be leaving your current residence, and then tie that parent’s car doors closed. To do this, sneak outside with your rope while your parents are arguing. As you likely already know, they are too busy hashing out their own feelings to notice you, so you will have some freedom of movement. Go to the driveway. Start by throwing the rope over the top of the car. If you have one, enlist a younger sibling to get the rope on the other side of the car and crawl it underneath to meet back up with where you stand. If you are the younger sibling, you might be the one crawling on the ground, so change into a white shirt to make sure all the dirt is clearly visible, as this adds to the effect. If you are an only child, I am sorry, as doing it all alone might make things more difficult; you will not have a companion for the next several years to alternately scapegoat and find solidarity with if you fail to keep your parents together and you must split your time between two households on your own. It also means you have to get the end of the rope yourself.
The part of that evening that has always haunted me is my response—“I knew it!”—which belies the coping mechanisms I had come to rely on: turning inward in a transition from extrovert to introvert; detachment, or more accurately an avoidance of attachment, especially in romantic relationships; a belief in self-sufficiency, (p. 250) or put differently, a distrust of others; and the conviction that if I just paid enough attention, nobody would ever “fool me” again. For years, I thought this response was just my way of saying that nobody would hurt me the way my parents had—Mom for leaving but also Imah for letting her—letting me think that we were part of a loving family only to then dissolve it before my eyes. But when I was older, Imah told me a story of how she and Mom got in a fight in the weeks leading up to that evening. They yelled about something. Perhaps it was about Mom thinking she was falling in love with Jay, whose intermittent appearances in our lives had become a little more regular since he’d “settled down” at a correctional facility a couple of hours away to serve another term for parole violations. Or, perhaps it was about something else. I have no memory of the incident myself and Imah did not describe the cause of the fight when telling me about it.
After the fight but before my mothers told us they were separating, Imah said she intended to go stay at her friend’s house. Somewhere between her telling me and my brother this, and her going out to her car, I had gone outside with a rope and yes—actually tied her car doors shut. I imagine that she, and perhaps Mom, tried to reassure my brother and me that Imah was just going to spend the night at her friend’s and nothing more, and that this lie was what I later referred to when claiming that nobody would ever “fool me” again. Yet, in the intervening years, as their separation became a reality, I seem to have lost track of what my statement really meant. Regardless of whether it initially referred to a previous statement I considered a lie—a specific incidence of being fooled—I seem to have behaved as if it was an indictment of vulnerability—a more general stance of refusing to be fooled. Thus I turned toward a kind of walled-off self-sufficiency that, while successfully making me feel safer as a child, was ultimately less (or perhaps just dys-) functional as an adult, making it difficult to move beyond the somewhat superficial “6-month mark” in romantic relationships. Interestingly, many people with LGBTQ parents seem to have similar difficulty with trust, especially those that experienced parental dishonesty around sexuality—and particularly when this was accompanied by or discovered in the context of a heterosexual divorce (Goldberg, 2007a). It is thus possible that some of my distrust came from Mom’s apparent “switch” from a lesbian to a heterosexual relationship, and not just that I felt lied to about the fight they were having.
In some ways, it is comical that I thought tying up Imah’s car doors would be an effective way to keep our family together. I can picture it as a scene in a sitcom about a dysfunctional family. A “kids do the darndest things,” moment: an 8 year-old enlisting his toddler brother in tying their parent’s car doors shut in a hair-brained scheme to get her to stay. Since I do not remember it myself, I have creatively fleshed out what my moms told me I did in imagining Aaron’s Maladaptive Guide to Stopping Queer Divorce for Resourceful Eight-Year Olds. At the same time, the humor that I find in this story covers over a lot of the sadness, hurt, and trauma that I felt when my parents split up. It may be yet another way I found to cope with the pain that I felt in the rupture of my family.
(p. 251) Coping with Trauma
Once you’ve retrieved the other end of the rope, you will be faced with a dilemma over how to join the two ends together to prevent the doors from opening. If you are like me, then you are not a Boy Scout, as your parents won’t let you be part of an organization well known for being homophobic (update to the 2015 version: you may now be a Boy Scout as they allow gay members and leaders, so show off your skills). If you are a Girl Scout who has participated in the Camping Skills Patch Program, you may have some understanding of knots, so apply your skills. In any case, use your preferred knot-tying technique to secure the ends of the rope as tightly as possible; even if you end up with a simple box-knot, or even a bow, the rhetorical effect will be similar.
Looking back on my parents’ separation from the perspective of adulthood, I think my moms did a pretty good job. I do not remember custody battles or character assassinations that often characterize the messiness and added trauma of post-separation parental dynamics. While whole-family get-togethers were sometimes tense and awkward, they pushed through to the point where, nearly 30 years later, I would say that my parents are, somewhat surprisingly, good friends again. This is not to diminish the pain breaking up must have held for my moms or the hurt it caused my brother and me during their separation, but simply to say: it could have been a lot worse. For example, Mom, who is the biological mother of both my brother and me, always reinforced the notion that Imah was equally our parent. In fact, it was never even a question (see also Kauffman, chapter 12, in this volume). And this was at a time when Imah had absolutely no parental rights, given the legal and political climate for queer families. Whatever other conflicts they may have had, their commitment to continuing to co-parent us remained strong, even as Jay moved from prison to Mom’s house after and became our de facto stepdad.
What I remember of the time right after their separation is dominated by the memory of going to therapy to play Monopoly—and apparently cheat at it, something I vaguely recall doing and certainly have been told I did—and perhaps occasionally talk about my feelings. The day Imah moved us into the new apartment she had found, I fell off my bicycle, knocking out my front teeth and sustaining a concussion and cuts to the forehead and chin, both requiring stitches. I have always conflated the trauma of that fall with the trauma of my family’s rupture, the injury to my body standing in for the emotional wounds that I felt inside. That should tell you something; despite therapy, I found it difficult to cope. I became more moody. Both of my parents recall that I also suddenly turned inward, becoming a quieter and more introverted kid. I think that their account of such a stark contrast is probably a little hyperbolic, since I had been something of a troublemaker before their separation and continued “acting out” in a variety of ways (p. 252) after (talking out of turn, paying more attention to my peers than my teachers, splatter painting a classroom). However the contrast between the more outgoing version of Aaron pre-separation and the somewhat more withdrawn version post-separation still marks an important shift in my disposition and thus a psychological effect of their separation.
I went to a small private school for kindergarten through sixth grade, where classes held about 20 students and I mostly moved from class to class with the same people, though I was half-held back (i.e., assigned to a third/fourth grade class when many friends went to the purely fourth grade class) shortly after my family dissolved. There were two other kids in my class for the last 3 years of my schooling there that had lesbian parents—a respectable 15% of the class—so I did not entirely feel alone in my identity as the child of lesbian moms. It was not until I switched to public school in junior high school and later high school (partially a function of a the lower combined socioeconomic status of my family when each parent has individualized rather than shared living costs—namely two houses) that I recall really grappling with the queerness of my parents’ relationship and thus the consequences of its dissolution. As I grew older and entered public school, the ways in which my family differed from the more conventional families of my new classmates were much starker to me. It is actually hard to recall exactly what I felt about my queer family—and its dissolution—when I was younger, in that my strategies for coping tended toward avoidance and detachment. It is almost as if, every night, I would sneak into my memory and erase the tapes, hoping to reduce the feelings I feared would overwhelm me, but consequently making it difficult to remember any of those childhood feelings as I continued growing toward adulthood. It is difficult to come to terms with feelings one cannot remember.
Coming to Terms with Queer Family Dissolution
My teammate’s question hailed me as I walked away from my mom’s car toward the dock at 6am:
“Who was that?”
“My mom,” I answered, knowing what would come next and wishing I could focus on getting ready to row with my teammates instead of explaining myself to them.
“Then who were the other people that picked you up before?”
“And the other woman last week?”
“My other mom.”
“Oh, okay. It looked like a different Volvo than before.”
“Yeah, the Berkeley car of choice. We have one at each house.”
(p. 253) Despite having something similar happen a few times since starting high school in 1994 and meeting new people, I always got a wave of anxiety, then relief, and quickly followed by guilt when folks would ask about my parents. I mean, seriously, I had enough to deal with already as one of the weakest, and thus lowest ranked, rowers on the squad—a status I disliked but was unable to change for all 3 years I rowed. It was enough being called a pussy regularly. This was standard locker-room fare for boys’ sports, but it was especially bad as one of the lowest ranked guys on the team. So why tempt fate by adding my parents’ sexuality (and perhaps mine by association) to this volatile mix? But . . . the guilt! Was I being dishonest? Well, not really. I was not lying. I just was not filling in the whole truth, knowing that these guys would inevitably use their own biases to fill in some kind of jerry-rigged explanation that conferred heterosexuality on my family. Or perhaps it just gave them a sufficiently plausible excuse not to ask. Either way, I still felt bad. Was I being ashamed of my parents by not being more forthcoming? Was I reinforcing their homophobia by avoiding the topic and feeling relieved to do so?
Yet, my use of accurate terms (mother, other mother, and stepdad) to describe my family in the form of what Land and Kitzinger (2005) call an “embedded corrective” actually seemed to enhance rather than correct my peer’s heterosexist assumptions in this case. This may be because the parental labels that I used were nevertheless discursively “closed” in the minds of people that would have no personal reason to “queer” the terms I used. In other words, though “mother,” “other mother,” and “stepdad” are at least one “father” short of forming a conventional heterosexual family, my teammates’ prior use of these terms in the context of their own families led them to assume that my family resembled theirs; a set of assumptions at the core of heteronormativity and other forms of normative privilege. As a speaker in this exchange, making this unacknowledged corrective allowed me to both “pass” in the moment and create a trail of breadcrumbs so that, should I choose to “come out” later, or should they find out on their own, I could “preempt” (Goldberg, 2007b) accusations of being dishonest in my passing (i.e., I could blame it on their own heteronormativity and not my dishonesty). While treading a fine line, I found this strategy to be important for me in navigating the negative effects of passing, like identity fragmentation, feeling inauthentic, and, though to a lesser extent, shame, while also attempting to minimize the fear that my actions would be seen as deception (Verni, 2009).
By the time I got to high school, I had also started adopting the language of “divorce” to describe my family. As in the anecdote above, it allowed me to “pass,” or at least not “out” my family and thus myself, something I clearly wanted on occasions when I knew being out could lead to negative social consequences (Goldberg, 2007b). This complex and ambivalent set of feelings seems normal for people who can pass in a given context. I experienced it as a simultaneous feeling of relief when confronted with the possibility of being caught combined with guilt, or perhaps suppressed anger, in the way passing seemed to leave intact the initial oppressive power differential leading one to need to pass in the first place (Verni, (p. 254) 2009). This mix of feelings can be exacerbated when a child, like me, does not share the same sexual identity as a parent, making passing a doubly alienating experience. It felt like a betrayal, like I was siding with the oppressors against my family by pretending to be one of them and being silent about something that was both not me (“I am not gay”) and yet still of me (“I am descended of gay”).
Both Garner (2005) and Goldberg, Kinkler, Richardson, and Downing (2012) refer to this as a kind of biculturalism, where a heterosexual child of LGBTQ parents may paradoxically feel that they belong to both mainstream/straight culture and LGBTQ culture while simultaneously feeling like they belong to neither. I prefer to call this feeling—of being “betwixt and between” two identities—“liminality” (following from Turner (1967) via Schechner (2002) and Johnson (2003)) because, like the threshold of the door the term is named after, it highlights the marginal position that I felt standing on the border of both cultures and communities, not quite in either, but unable to get outside of either. What further complicates this example of biculturalism is that, for someone like me who identifies and generally presents as a straight male, I have the privilege of being able to avoid the potential negative consequences of homophobia or sexism by choosing to pass. This was, I believe the source of guilt and shame that I felt. Not a shame about the sexuality of my parents (Goldberg, 2007b), but, rather, a shame in my choice to exercise the privilege of not saying anything—something I return to later.
However, I also soon found that the language of divorce—and the act of passing—did not have to be alienating, but could surprise me with moments of identification. For example, three of my four closest friends in high school came from divorced heterosexual-parent families. While we rarely talked about the fragmented nature of our families, I found a calm in just finding a place I felt like I belonged; a group of people I could not talk about my feelings with but just easily be with. All of these friends knew that I had two moms, so I never felt like I was actively hiding that part of my identity from them, nor that they would not or did not accept me for my parents’ sexualities. We simply did not talk much about the particularities of each other’s families, choosing, perhaps unconsciously, to focus more on the feeling of belonging we got from generally having fractured families than on discussing what it meant or felt like to have the particular families we had. I also found that passing gave me a way into conversations that otherwise might have been closed to me and thus lead to moments of intervention where I could challenge heterosexism and homophobia with more success than chastisements for using the terms like “that’s so gay” or “fag.”
For example: A high school classmate and I started talking about gay marriage on the way to Yearbook my sophomore year. I do not quite remember how the conversation started. It was the 1995–1996 school year, around the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which federally defined marriage as between one man and one woman, so it is possible this was the event that prompted the subject. I also do not really remember the details of how the conversation proceeded. (p. 255) I do, however, remember the end, and the clear impression that my classmate was not in favor of gay marriage from the start.
“Oh, and why don’t you think gays should be allowed to marry?”
“Well, I’m Christian, and it’s not right according to the Bible,” she said.
“But isn’t there a separation of religion and the state? Why should your religious beliefs be law? What if someone else has a religious belief that says it’s okay?”
“Well, it’s not just religion though, there are other reasons why gay marriage would be bad. You know, being gay isn’t natural like a man and a woman are natural.”
“What is natural? There are gay animals in nature.”
“But we aren’t animals, we’re better than animals.”
“True, so then why should nature be the measure by which we determine if something is good or not?”
“Well, gay people can’t just have kids. That’s what I mean by natural.”
“Really? Not the same way that heterosexuals can have kids, but they can adopt, or go to sperm banks. Plus some heterosexual couples can’t have kids, like two 70-year-olds, but they can still get married.”
“Yeah, but the kids . . .”
“What about the kids?”
“Yeah, what about them? Can you imagine what that would be like, having to be raised by gay people?”
“Actually, yes, I can. I have lesbian parents.”
I imagined the sounds of an explosion—hopefully her mind being blown, but definitely her argument.
“ . . .oh . . .”
“How do I seem?”
“Normal, I guess.”
In seeking to understand these two conversations—one with a teammate, one with a classmate—and my appropriation of the language of divorce, I see the ways that language, and naming, can move beyond just reinforcing or correcting heterosexist norms (Land & Kitzinger, 2005) to subverting them. In applying the term “divorce” to my family, I adopted the most widely accessible language available to describe what was happening. Though this legal language, at the time, applied only to the end of state-sanctioned heterosexual relationships, it was the closest thing I had to describe something that, while not “technically” a divorce, had all the hallmarks of one. In doing so, I tried to legitimate the end of my mothers’ relationship, thereby hoping to retroactively legitimate the relationship itself, and by extension, my own existence as the fruit of that relationship. This was important for me in a world that did not seem to condone queer families like mine, as antigay (p. 256) organizations like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council often invoked “the children” in ways that echoed my classmate’s argument.
Naming has discursive power, but it is important to note that this power is not ahistorical (Butler, 1993). It is deeply embedded in the particular matrix of history, politics, and social and cultural discourses. Naming can have power, but not always, as I learned when I tried to shift the usage of “that’s so gay” to signify not “that’s bad,” but “that’s good,” an act that, even among my small clique of five, was ineffective in combating the more powerful forces of homophobia present in the public sphere. (I also made several attempts to rhetorically use “chinky” in the same context so my half-Chinese friend would at least get what I was saying about the use of “gay”; a not very successful or wise move given he had both 70 lbs and 5 inches on me.) And it should be noted that my friends all knew about my family, but could not fathom how “that’s so gay” was in any way about my family so much as it was about some negative idea of gayness.
Thus, on the one hand, adopting the language of “divorce” worked to erase the queerness of my mothers’ dissolved relationship, “reidealiz[ing] heterosexual norms without calling them into question” (Butler, 1993, p. 22, italics in original ). On the other hand, “sometimes the very term that would annihilate us becomes the site of resistance” (Butler, 1993, p. 22), as my use of the “divorce” narrative also allowed me to undermine my classmate’s argument by subverting her heterosexist assumptions. In other words, by “trapping” her into thinking that I was the product of a straight relationship, I could then “spring” my lesbian parent status on her with a triumphant query about my “normality.”
I remember feeling nervous to spring this trap. Would it work? Would it change how my classmate felt about gay marriage? About me? The potential social repercussions of telling her seemed limited, given that she was a first-year student, and, additionally, my high school was large (over 3,000 students), thus enabling one to feel relatively anonymous. Still, “coming out” gave me butterflies. Knowing myself as well as I do now, it is more likely that I was worried I would not “win” the “argument” than that I was trying to defend my family (Goldberg, 2007a) or attempting to educate my classmate and help her change her mind (Goldberg, 2007b). Many kids with LGBTQ parents disclose information about their family in order to educate others, to “screen out” homophobic individuals in social settings, and to ultimately be open in their relationships, and some research has linked their disclosure choices to their feelings of pride versus shame about their families (Goldberg, 2007b).
The previous anecdotes reveal that my relationship to pride and shame with respect to my family was somewhat different. I understood that my family was LGBTQ from birth (Goldberg, 2007b), and was never ashamed of my family; however, my pride as it related to my family was more often wrapped up in pride around my own position as one of the first people born to gay parents and less about my gay parents or gay culture. It was probably an adolescent narcissistic utilitarianism; my choices to tell or not tell people usually revolved around my own cost-benefit (p. 257) analysis and my understanding of dominant attitudes about sexuality. If I thought I would personally benefit by disclosing—for example, by winning an argument, talking to a bisexual girl in the Gay-Straight Alliance, or looking cool in front of friends by being interviewed by a news crew in the quad—then I would definitely be out. If I saw only a cost—for example, increased teasing on the crew team—then I would not. I refused to ever lie about my family, but I also felt uncomfortable with what I saw as gratuitous openness; if there was nothing shameful about it, why would I feel the need to always come out about my family when my friends with heterosexual parents did not? I understood the difference between feeling shame, and feeling shamed, and while I did not feel the former as it related to my family, I knew others could make me feel the latter. All these calculations likely came from my own typically adolescent social insecurity—perhaps exacerbated by the dissolution of my parents’ relationship—and it was only years later as an adult, when I found peers with LGBTQ parents, that I defaulted to being “out” about my family without all the calculations.
Moving Forward After Splitting Up
As you may have deduced, the point is not to actually prevent your parents from splitting up, but to lay the largest guilt trip you can on them both so that it’s crystal clear how much “this whole divorce thing” is going to really mess up your cute innocent little brain. Again, enlisting a younger sibling can add to the effect. If you are unsuccessful at stopping the parent from leaving, you can at least take some consolation in knowing that you are making them pay in the form of intensified feelings of guilt and a real certainty that they’re on the hook for at least ten years of your therapy. Be strategic about how you use that guilt. It is a finite resource. As always, refer to Appendix A: Contingency Planning for how to lay the right groundwork to make the most of the situation if you fail; Appendix B: Making Them Pay for advice on how to milk this for all its worth (remember, two houses, two birthday parties, twice the presents); or Appendix C: Guilt Tripping and Emotional Manipulation at All Ages for how to appropriately shape parental behavior over the long term through careful stewardship of your parental guilt portfolio. Remember, if this split is going to have a legacy, it should be a legacy you control.
What legacy did my parents’ divorce/separation/dissolution leave me? A final anecdote will help.
I first went to a Pride parade at 28 years old. For someone raised with LGBTQ parents, that felt a bit like losing my virginity at, well, 28; it certainly hurt my LGBTQ street-cred. The Pride parade was never my parents’ thing, so when I found myself working—and perhaps seeking a way to procrastinate—on my dissertation in New York in 2008 on the day of Pride, I thought I should remedy that failing. Of (p. 258) course, it helped that the apartment was too humid to stay in, and I figured if I was going to go downtown to work at a library, I might as well just swing by the parade on the way. For good measure, I looked online to see which contingents were marching and found the rallying point for COLAGE. A few years earlier, while writing a graduate seminar paper on my family, I had come across COLAGE, which at one time, stood for Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere—and has long since expanded to work for and with children of people on the whole LGBTQ spectrum—and seemed to have programming for kids with LGBTQ parents. As an adult, I did not think that sounded to relevant to me, but I thought it might be interesting to check out their parade contingent nonetheless.
Three weeks later, I was on a bus to Boston, where I would be taking a ferry to Provincetown, the supposed gay vacation mecca of the East Coast, for “Family Week”—7 days when LGBTQ families from across the United States and beyond would descend on this tourist town in a loosely organized group vacation. I had met several adults with LGBTQ parents at NY Pride who had convinced me to march with them—and to become a volunteer facilitator at the COLAGE-sponsored day camp for kids 7 to 17 with LGBTQ parents at Family Week. They were apparently short on straight male-identified facilitators who could work with their high school group, so I spent the next 6 days facilitating student workshops on racial and economic inequality, sex-positive sexual health, and public speaking for social justice, as well as more free-form discussions on different people’s experiences growing up with LGBTQ parents. It ended up being one of the most rewarding, and exhausting weeks of my life, but one that also stirred up some heavy emotions, including jealousy and loss.
I found myself yo-yoing between various intense emotions I felt ill-equipped to handle. First was awe and appreciation; these teens were amazing! They seemed to have reached a level of critical consciousness that it had taken me 5 years of critical cultural studies training paired with therapy, not to mention about 10 years more of life experience, to achieve. They did not tease each other, but instead, seemed to support and nurture each other. They talked about issues like race, gender, class, and sexuality in ways that would have quieted my fellow grad students back in Iowa. I knew that much of it was the unique environment of being in a safe-space surrounded only by others with queer families, and that once the kids went back to their home communities they would likely be different. Yet, knowing that did not make it any less powerful to see.
Then, suddenly, I would find myself a little angry, jealous, and surprisingly grief-stricken that I had not found this kind of community as a kid. COLAGE had come into existence when I was in my early teens, but despite operating in the Bay Area, it never manifested on my or my parents’ radars. That made me angry. Why did these kids get this when I did not? What kind of person could I have been if I had found a place like this where I could belong so completely—a place where I could talk about having lesbian mothers without fear that the “wrong” person would hear, and believe that my pain and anger was a confirmation of my (p. 259) mothers’ failure as lesbian parents, rather than sadness at their separation? Even now, 8 years later, I sometimes find myself crying when I recount that bittersweet moment of seeing how beautiful a space COLAGE had created for the kids there and recognizing a childhood loss for myself that I did not even know I had had until that moment. At the time, I tried to give myself enough space to mourn the lost childhood that could have been if I’d found that community earlier while not projecting that loss onto the kids I was there to serve.
Of course, even as I held that space for the younger generation, there were other moments that began to nurture my own healing. Just as years before, when my high school friends and I created a space where we could belong without having to explain, the experience of hanging out with the other facilitators, all adults with LGBTQ parents themselves, allowed me to just be an adult with LGBTQ parents without having to worry about explaining that. It was almost as if, being in a space organized around one common trait—our parents’ sexualities—made that trait no longer matter, and we were able to talk about all the other things that had been sidelined. By offering programming to unite and empower people with LGBTQ parents, COLAGE created a unique and safe space that helped me distill the legacy left me by the dissolution of my mothers’ relationship. It showed me something I did not know I was missing—a community to help hold back the press of “normative” cultural forces—and a burden I was unconsciously carrying—the unexpressed grief of mourning something valuable to me but systematically devalued by society.
Given the few legal and social support structures available to queer families in the 1980s—even in the relatively liberal San Francisco Bay Area—there was little support available for the kids of such relationships, and consequently, even less support for those kids when their families fell apart. The lack of systemic support for LGBTQ families, and the prevalence of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric—especially rhetoric that implied that LGBTQ people and relationships harm children—increased the already traumatic impact of family dissolution. Like members of many groups battling negative social perceptions, I felt unable to discuss the difficulty of my parents’ separation, fearing it would ultimately validate anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, a fear I did not realize I had internalized until I was surrounded by others with similar families. So even while I adopted the language of divorce to describe the dissolution of my parents’ relationship, and ultimately found friendship with other young people from fragmented families, I remained an outsider within that space, unknowingly holding an aspect of my identity back. The lack of legal frameworks and social supports to validate the same-sex relationship of my parents of origin hindered my ability to cope with the trauma until adulthood, when I encountered a community of other people with LGBTQ parents, many (p. 260) of whom had similar experiences of parental divorce. In that safe space, I could share the traumas of parental relationship dissolution, and speculate out loud without fear of retaliation about some of the things that had haunted the back of my mind for years.
This, I believe, is also key to understanding what implications my story might have for researchers, legislative, legal, and psychological practitioners, LGBTQ parents, and, most importantly, children with LGBTQ parents. So long as there is a continued climate of generalized anti-LGBTQ sentiment—and the 2016 mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando and the rhetoric and actions of the Trump-Pence administration both belie claims that gaining some level of legalized marriage equality means general LGBTQ acceptance—kids from LGBTQ families will likely need to find spaces that feel safe to talk about their families without the added scrutiny of feeling judged for the LGBTQ aspect of their parents. In my own case, peer support from other people with LGBTQ families was more important for addressing issues arising from my parents’ relationship dissolution than peer support from others with divorced parents. That is because I felt more potentially subject to wider social/political threat for my family’s queer identity than from its divorced identity. While therapy was an important outlet for me as a kid, it was insufficient by itself, and I believe that peer support from other people that shared my queer family background would have enhanced the efficacy of that therapy by helping to create a space where queer family is normative, and where kids can feel free to talk about their families with others who may share similar experiences. I would agree with Jamie Evans (2009), that empowerment for “queerspawn” comes through community and voice, and that children with LGBTQ parents whose relationships have dissolved should be encouraged to find community with other folks with queer folks.
1. How did the dissolution of the author’s parents’ relationship affect him emotionally?
2. In what ways were the coping strategies used by the author to deal with the dissolution of his parents’ relationship adaptive and in what ways were they maladaptive?
3. How did the larger social, cultural, and legal context of LGBTQ rights, particularly marriage equality, impact the author’s experience of family dissolution?
4. What is the contribution of this reflexive essay to the study of LGBTQ family dissolution, and what can be learned from the experience of one person?
5. What advice would you give to the 8-year-old version of the author? Include three resources you believe would have helped and why.
(p. 261) 6. What do we learn from the fictional “Maladaptive Guide,” and how does this braided section relate to the rest of the reflexive essay?
7. How did the author deal with issues of disclosure and pride and shame, and how does that compare to studies of people with LGBTQ parents on those issues?
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