This weekend I was lucky enough to attend (some of) the AMIRCI conference on Feminist Futures (parenting and work commitments meant I didn’t get to be there for the whole three days.)
I delivered a paper on queer motherhood and here ’tis for your non-conference-going pleasure. If you’ve been reading Spilt Milk for a while you might recognise the opening paragraph but the rest is all new content, I promise.
One of my daughter’s favourite games is to construct a pillow fort of sorts; a pile of soft furnishings and fluffy toys on which to luxuriate. She dubs this created space Comfy World, and vociferously claims it as a space for her only. (Usually to say to my partner and I that we have to stay ‘over there’ in ‘tuchus world’!) Who knows what lies beneath a child’s imaginative play? But I can’t help but wonder if my kid is really acting out her own alienation from comfort.
For the first four years of my daughter’s life I was, to the casual observer, a straight woman. That is to say that for her formative years, our family fit the social norm. Her family structure — mum, dad, kid — was represented in almost every picture book, almost every television programme, and was replicated in almost all of the suburban homes around her. Our family was visible, in that we were allowed to be seen anywhere, and invisible in that we appeared so normal as to be entirely unremarkable. And like so many couples, we were afforded a level of comfort that we took for granted even as it demanded a certain amount of silence about how very unhappy we were.
After we separated, my ex came out as a trans woman and in the same year, my female partner moved in with me. Our daughter, quite suddenly, found herself with three mother figures, no dad, and none of the comfort in social interactions that she had been accustomed to. My partner and I couldn’t move out of the suburbs, and we didn’t have the funds for alternative or home schooling. There was no choice but to interact with a large, quite conservative, outer-suburban state school during what was both my daughter’s first year of school, the year I came out as queer, and my ex’s year of transition. School is not the only institution we’ve dealt with; the wrangling with Centrelink, DHS, the family court, Medicare… any bureaucracy you can think of, has reinforced the idea that our family is not normative enough to be accepted. But this paper will largely focus on the school experience, in part because it is the most relentless and in part because, as a teacher, I am acutely aware of the forcefulness with which queerness is suppressed in classrooms.
Many people who describe themselves as ‘tolerant’ draw an intolerant line when it comes to children and education. There is a palpable fear that teaching about the existence of non-normative families will break down the apparently fragile institution of hetero-patriarchy. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wryly observes in Epistemology of the Closet ‘Advice on how to ensure your kids turn out gay, not to mention your students… is less ubiquitous than you might think. By contrast, the scope of institutions whose programmatic undertaking is to prevent the development of gay people is unimaginably large.’ I wish much had changed since Sedgwick penned that in 1990: in the realm of school, not a great deal has.
I have joked to friends that we will love our daughter even if she turns out to be straight. It’s a line that generally falls flat with a straight audience; they are never sure, perhaps, if I mean it. I can’t really be suggesting that heterosexuality is somehow taught, can I? That it is somehow part of the curriculum?
I would argue that it is very much part of what schools aim to teach. Why else would educational institutions so enthusiastically promote social norms which exclude queers? My own teaching colleagues have criticised my decision to tell my students my partner’s name, Emily, as it’s too much information about my sexuality; straight colleagues wear wedding rings or take the title ‘Mrs.’ Facebook memes celebrate ‘mums and dads’ kissing in front of the kids to show them what loving relationships are like; television programmes depicting same-sex kisses are firmly placed in later timeslots to ‘protect children’. Kissing my partner in the supermarket attracts disgusted glances from people who steer their children quickly away; a family wedding with children present can include more than one gently ribald reference to the wedding night or the honeymoon. In short, heterosexuality is relentlessly advertised by those who practice it; queer sexualities are always taboo in ‘family friendly’ spaces.
Our efforts to protect our daughter from bullying have centred around attempting to have the school do the work of explaining the gender transition of one of her parents and that she, like many other Australian children, lives at home with two mummies. Without institutional support, our daughter has to deal with intrusive playground questioning on her own. As a five or six year old, she has been responsible for introducing not only her peers, but much older students, to the existence of trans people and same-sex parents. Our efforts to have adult staff members shoulder this burden in her place have largely failed. I think this is because the school management persistently frames this teaching as part of the purview of sex education. The fear that to acknowledge queerness exposes the reality of sex underpins the erasing of queer and trans identities in children’s spaces. In this way, educators engage in farcical pretense, upholding the myth that they don’t have queer children in their classrooms. That one in ten students – and unknown numbers who love and live with queer and trans people — can’t see their own feelings and identities reflected in class materials should not be so quietly accepted by those who are charged with the care of our children.
One of the ways we’ve tried to support our daughter in her dealings with institutions is actually endorsed by a number of Government and educational bodies: recommending books and classroom resources to the school. After our daughter experienced bullying at school, we duly went along to a meeting with the principal with a pile of texts to offer to the class teacher: 10 000 Dresses, Tango Makes Three, My First Look at Same-Sex Parents and the classic, Heather Has Two Mommies.
The First Look book, with its explicit use of the words lesbian and gay and frank discussion of how to deal with homophobic bullying was rejected outright, presumably as too hot to handle. Ultimately only Tango Makes Three – an adorable and wholly innocuous book about two male penguins raising a chick at the New York Zoo – made it into the prep classroom. This was a pretty minor concession. But it did make a difference; my daughter told us that at least the teacher asked children about the differences in their families — she was able to say that she has two mummies out loud for the first time within a context which affirmed, momentarily, that not all families look the same.
I was surprised, though, and have become increasingly dismayed, at the failure of our school and school in general to adopt a book like Heather Has Two Mommies as a regularly-used resource. Heather is a classic for a reason: not only does the book depict a loving same-sex couple as parents, but it places this within the broader context of family diversity. Despite the potential for the genre to spark change, literature for very young children remains relentlessly hetero-patriarchal. I’ve never seen anything in a Scholastic catalogue which openly deals with stepfamilies or even single parent families, let alone extended families, foster carers, gender diverse people, or queer families. So I think there is more than homophobia behind the discomfort with Heather and her parents, Mama-Kate and Mama-Jane. What Leslea Newman very gently challenges in her landmark – and still beloved – children’s book is not only homophobia, but a range of normative family structures. The children Heather meets inhabit stepfamilies, extended families, single-parent families, adoptive families encompassing a range of racial identities, abilities and, perhaps, socio-economic backgrounds. And there is a kid with two dads, too – a little girl without any mother at all.
In her book Queering Motherhood, Mothering Queerly, Shelley Parks explores what she calls monomaternalism: that is, the assumption that all children can only have one ‘real’ mother. This pervasive idea leaves stepmothers in the unfortunate position of having to either usurp a biological mother to attain ‘real’ status or exist in the no-woman’s land of the unreal mother. The dynamic works similarly for adoptive, or foster mothers. The legacy of this is a pattern of serial mothering; one ‘real’ mother is replaced by another ‘real’ mother, and thus becomes unreal. If hetero-patriarchal culture does rely on an understanding of motherhood as an expression of mono-maternalism – and Parks writes convincingly that it does in fact do so – then queer mothers problematise not only the notion of a heterosexual nuclear family but the institution of motherhood itself.
My daughter enjoys Heather Has Two Mommies and keeps returning to one page in particular. Sometimes she spontaneously quotes from this page of the book as she hugs my partner and me, as if she is working hard to displace one set of beliefs and internalise this new, radical viewpoint. It is the section of the book where Heather presents both of her mothers with pictures of them she’s painted at daycare. She says of the picture of Mama-Kate ‘This is the mummy I love the best!’ and of Mama-Jane ‘And this is the mummy I love the best!’ Heather, having grown up presumably from birth in a queer family, has resisted the pull of monomaternalist narratives, to a degree. But what is expressed in the book at this moment is an acknowledgement that to have more than one mummy is to have more than one ‘best’, more than one of the special relationship that children are generally taught is a one-of-a-kind experience. To be the child of lesbians is to negotiate the discomfort of having the archetype of the singularly perfect, good and loving mother exposed as incomplete and misleading from the beginning. Queer families problematize hetero-patriarchy not only by foregrounding same-sex love and expanding the definition of family, but by de-centering the ‘real’ mother.
I believe it is this discomfort with the possibility of two or more real mothers which has made it difficult for us to negotiate the spaces of the school drop-off and the parent-teacher meeting. Not only do we raise the spectre of queerness each time we are visible at school (and my partner and I hold hands in front of the children, no less!) but we also challenge gender roles by existing. The other suburban mums we know do mum things, and most of them have husbands or partners who do dad things. I am generally seen as the ‘real mum’ in public interactions and gradually, as initial discomfort with my queerness has worn away, there has been a place for me to inhabit in the social dynamics of the school yard. But for my partner, there is rarely any respite from the bristliness of those first weeks; no one knows how to talk to her. If she’s not a dad, then she’s a mum. But she’s not, in the eyes of many others who know that I am the birth mother, a mum. She’s invisible because there is no role to play in hetero-patriarchy for another ‘real’ mother.
Sara Ahmed’s work on ‘Queer Feelings’ in The Cultural Politics of Emotion resonates strongly with my personal experience of interacting with institutions as part of a non-normative family. Ahmed says ‘normativity is comfortable for those who can inhabit it…to be comfortable is to be so at ease with one’s environment that it is hard to distinguish where one’s body ends and the world begins.’ When straight parents – and I am talking mostly of married, able-bodied, white parents, although heterosexuality affords a certain level of ease to all who can claim it – enter an institution such as a school or kindergarten, the space is oriented towards and for them. At my daughter’s school, everything cries out in welcome to straight parents; from the casual address ‘mums and dads’ to the heterosexual romance plot of the school production, straight lives are affirmed and reflected back to children and their parents again and again.
I know it is easy to sink so comfortably into a chair that is built for you because when I was a married mother who was read as straight, the efforts made to make heterosexuals comfortable were less visible to me. I still felt discomfort; the discomfort of ‘passing’, and of benefiting from an arrangement which simultaneously silenced and hurt me. But it was only when I came out to my daughter’s carers and teachers and fellow parents that the sharp edges of heterosexism came into focus. Coming out late in the parenting game is like solving the world’s least rewarding Magic Eye puzzle. All that staring at the gaps in your own comfort can only be rewarded by bringing the extent of homophobia and biphobia into sharp relief.
Ahmed describes the discomfort a queer subject experiences in heteronormativity as a ‘feeling of disorientation: one’s body feels out of place, awkward, unsettled.’ In this sense, having queer parents has queered my child. I observe a new lack of ease in her body whenever she is in public with her family, and most particularly, when her parents are at school with her. She knows, acutely, that school is not a safe space for queer feelings. At the age of six she is afraid of homophobia and transphobia, phenomena she can’t yet name. And the failures of institutions to protect her from this problem – which, incidentally, they apparently also can’t name – only compounds her discomfort. My daughter’s not-fitting-in is attributed to her when the school recommends she see a counsellor rather than educating her classmates about LGBT issues. Implicitly, it is always her body which must re-shape to fit the heteronormative armchair proffered by the school, not the furniture itself which should move to accommodate her.
In spite of, or probably because of, this lack of comfort, my daughter clings to her recollections of an idealised (and largely fictional) past where she inhabited a happy mum-and-dad family. It is hard to imagine how she could not do so, when almost every text she consumes reflects back to her not images of her present but of her past. The only way she can relate to the majority of the textual representations of childrens’ lives that she is exposed to is to delve into memory and constantly strive towards a fantasy of cis, heterosexual normality. This is painful to witness not only because it reinforces the marginalisation of us all as queer or queer-adjacent subjects, but because on a material level it affects her ability to maintain uncomplicated attachments to her family. As Lauren Berlant argues in her book Cruel Optimism ‘all attachments are optimistic. When we talk about an object of desire, we are really talking about a promise or a cluster of promises we want someone or something to make for us and make possible for us.’
On some level, what my daughter wants is for us to promise her comfort. We can’t; this world doesn’t offer it to our family. And so even though it hurts her, she seeks out reminders of what she has lost, borrowing books from the library with titles like ‘What does your Daddy do?’ and acting out ‘mums and dads’ in imaginary play. Berlant asks, ‘what happens when the loss of what’s not working is more unbearable than the having of it?’ That’s not a question I can answer. I can only hope the future becomes less unbearable. For now, my daughter suffers a cruel optimism fostered by a culture of heteronormativity which actively harms her and her family.
What is needed is a refiguring of the role of schools in dealing with LGBT issues. When we hold hands and behave as a couple in front of small children in the school yard, my partner and I are merely repeating behaviour that heterosexual parents take so much for granted that is barely visible to them. Far from being intruders into the space of the school yard, my partner and I are being intruded upon by the normative demands of heterosexist attitudes. Where are the efforts to provide us with comfort? And more importantly, where is the affirmation for our daughter that she is right to live and love as she does, in her unconventional family?
In a conference about feminist futures, I feel like I can ask for a better future for queer children and children with queer families, despite how unlikely it is that schools will be providing this under the purview of Education Minister Pyne. That Pyne has appointed Kevin Donnelly – whose anti-queer writings are widely accessible online – to head up educational ‘reform’ does not bode well for queer students and families. And, like many schools, ours has an ACCESS ministries chaplain from a homophobic evangelical church and with the present funding model, the chance of us getting a secular social worker instead are less than nil. I am tired of the blithe inattention of the majority of heterosexuals – that is, the majority of parents, school council members and teachers – to the pernicious influence of homophobic chaplains and curriculum leaders on queer students and families. We are left with little institutional and social support. It is insufficient to pay lipservice to tolerance whilst benefiting from the comforts of heteronormativity: we require straight allies to challenge schools and institutions to include families like ours.
We can’t change social norms all on our own, but what my partner and I do each day when we queer up the suburbs is claim a little patch of space for us. The promotion of heterosexual and gender normative futures to school children is disrupted by our presence. My ex also disrupts when she enters the school grounds and visibly plays the role of affectionate parent; not one generally associated with trans women who are still so maligned in the media.
Emily and I take inspiration from our daughter’s Comfy World play in deciding to mark out some comfortable place for ourselves. Holding hands at school pick-up, attending parent-teacher night as a group of queer women, expecting that adults use the gender-neutral ‘parents’ instead of the exclusionary ‘mums and dads’, and putting bumper stickers on the car are small ways to demand that the suburban furniture fits OUR queer bodies for a change. Reclaiming this little bit of space doesn’t feel anything close to restoring social comfort; if anything, pushing at the boundaries of suburban heteronormativity is far more discomfiting for us that it ever could be for the straight folk we encounter, who after all remain in a world which validates their relationships. But it’s a step towards a future where queer kids and kids with queer families can find the world comfy in more than just their fantasy play.
Ahmed, Sara The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Routledge, New York, 2004
Berlant, Lauren Cruel Optimism, Duke University Press, 2011
Park, Shelley M. Mothering Queerly, Queering Motherhood: Resisting Monomaternalism in Adoptive, Lesbian, Blended and Polygamous Families, State University of New York Press, Albany, 2003
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky Epistemology of the Closet, University of California Press, Berkely, 2008 (1990)