Queer Families: Expanding Our Understanding of Parenthood

From #10 The Family Issue, Politics Editor Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin speaks to LGBTQIA+ parents about their experiences adopting, conceiving and raising children.

This article originally appeared in BRICKS #10, The Family Issue, which you can buy from our online store here.

ILLUSTRATIONS Emily Blundell-Owers

Queer families are a radical act within a world that exists to not only centre and support, but actively advocate for, the nuclear cisgender-heterosexual family unit. They allow people who are marginalised and stigmatised in society to participate in an innate human experience that has long been kept out of their reach. On a broader scale, there is endless beauty in allowing queerness to challenge the landscape of parenting – to expand the mainstream’s limited view of what a family looks like. Queerness allows us to understand that it doesn’t matter who is part of a family – it doesn’t matter if the parents are same-sex; if a mum, dad, or non-binary parent gave birth to their child; or if the parents are biologically related to their children. What makes a family is the love, care, and nurture that flows from all healthy parents, whether they’re cishet or queer.

With many LGBTQIA+ individuals pursuing alternative routes to becoming parents aside from traditional biological conception – such as adoption and foster care – queer parenting provides safety, support, and consistency to countless children and young people who are in need of loving homes. Despite pushback from those with bigoted views – same-sex couples could not even adopt in England until 2005 – studies have demonstrated that having same-sex parents has no impact on children’s development.

In fact, one would hope that families with queer parents also serve to create an environment within which more children and young people are free to be themselves. An environment where those who naturally exist outside of binary expectations – or don’t align with gendered stereotypes – are able to explore and live as their true selves at a much younger age. Research has shown that parental rejection negatively affects LGBTQIA+ youths’ identity and health. With so much queer trauma associated with an invalidation of our identities, the fact that queer parents are likely to inherently challenge binary gender roles – and instil in their children that they can do anything they want regardless of their sexuality or gender identity – provides a heart-warming picture for our more inclusive and diverse future.

To learn more about their thoughts, experiences, and parenting methods, I spoke with five LGBTQIA+ parents who have all taken different routes to expand their respective families.

Emma and Ann M-M

The only other thing I would say to anyone who was considering adoption as a possibility is: don’t let the negative stories scare you. Everybody’s journey is different. There are some hard realities for people, but it is the most amazing and rewarding experience to bring a child home – to give them everything they need and didn’t necessarily have before. And to just experience that unconditional love that you didn’t think was going to happen.

Emma & Ann

Emma and Ann are a same-sex couple with an 18-month-old daughter, who was placed in July 2020, and they adopted formally in December 2020. Emma had gone through three unsuccessful cycles of IVF with a previous partner between 2012 and 2014 and undertook three more rounds with Ann between 2017 and 2018. After zero positive results, they decided to take some time to reconsider their options for expanding their family. Upon reflection, Emma realised that she wanted to be a parent, and how she became a parent didn’t really matter as much anymore.

In June 2018, they contacted SSAFA – a military organisation – because Ann is in the Royal Navy, and a lot of local authorities were uncertain about how they would support a military family that moved around quite a bit. Following a four-day preparation course, and a house assessment by their social workers, Emma and Ann were linked with their daughter in January 2020.

What are the joys of being a queer parent?

For us, one of the greatest joys of being queer parents is having our chosen family – the LGBTQIA+ community – as a positive influence in our daughter’s life. It helps her to see the world with all the diversity it has. It’s also about our daughter being accepted for who she is and not excluded for who her parents are – our identity isn’t limited to our sexuality and attraction; it’s much more complex and joyous.

Do you think your identity impacts the way you approach parenting?

Our identity as a same-sex female couple impacts our approach to parenting only in that we ensure that all different people and families are represented and celebrated in the books, programmes, and activities we have at home. Our identities are complex and ever-evolving – as is parenting. So while we feel that we have the ability to be flexible and to adapt, our approach is also reinforced by our robust morals and advocacy for our daughter and adoption in general.

What can the world/cishet people do to better support queer parents and families?

The world around queer parents can help and support us by making sure that all children know and understand that families come in all shapes and sizes and that there isn’t one set way to become or look like a family. Society needs to move on and reflect the diversity of all families. We should be able to walk into any card shop and buy something that is for two mums, two dads, single parents, adoption celebrations, and trans parents, alongside the celebration of the extended family – whoever that might include. Visibility and celebration of differences should be embraced in marketing and advertising using inclusive imagery and language that fosters acceptance of differences in a non-confrontational way.

Sarah

Our two kids aren’t biologically related at all. My partner carried first, and I carried second, and each of the dads is the biological father of a different kid. So, it means that sometimes people will say, “You’re not real sisters, are you?” which, obviously, they don’t appreciate. People are very interested to know who belongs to whom, but obviously, we know that we all belong to one another.

Sarah

Sarah and her partner co-parent two daughters – aged 10 and 13 – with their friends, who are also in a same-sex gay relationship. The children’s primary home is with their mums, but they spend Fridays and Saturdays with their dads and holidays are divided between them. While some parents meet with the express purpose of co-parenting, it was easier for this group of parents to build on a foundation of shared values with old friends. Despite worries around what others might think about it and how it might impact their friendships, the four were able to establish a strong line of open communication before the kids were born via monthly check-ins with a glass of wine.

While their family structure sometimes makes navigating their identity easier – as their daughters are always able to talk about mum and dad at school, because they have two mums and two dads – they do sometimes face challenges related to questions around biological connection. But now that their eldest kid is in year nine, she’s proud of her family. Within her group of friends, many of whom are LGBTQIA+ and are actively pushing back against gender norms, having two mums and two dads is seen as a good thing.

What are the joys of being a queer parent?

The freedom to challenge gender norms. There’s a division of labour in our house. So there are things that I do – like handle the bills and cook – and there are things that my partner does – like the DIY. If we were in a mixed-sex couple, I think we would feel quite conscious of falling into stereotypical gender roles. But, because we’re a same-sex couple, we’re already modelling to our kids that people of any gender can do anything. It’s really fundamental to being able to bring your kids up with the idea that they can do anything regardless of their gender, race, or sexuality. 

We also provide a chance for people to think differently. By existing in these parenting spaces, we hope that if other people’s kids come out as LGBTQIA+, they know that they can still have a family no matter what because they’ve seen us doing that. 

Do you think your identity impacts the way you approach parenting?

I don’t think that this is unique to being a queer family or a co-parenting family, but because we are a family with four parents, we have an understanding of the importance of extended family. One side of my family is very British, and the other side of my family is Eastern European Jewish. Within Judaism, there is a real culture of extended family, but I didn’t get that experience because so much of my family lived overseas. Now my kids have four parents and therefore, four sets of grandparents and however many sets of cousins. It allows us to give our children this richness of experience, but we can make sure that there’s always someone to pick them up from school, for example.

What can the world/cishet people do to better support queer parents and families?

Very logistical stuff, like stop making forms that say mother and father. It’s so important to take that step back from your underlying assumptions, and consider how a policy affects people that have two parents of the same sex or have a different family structure. 

Ryan Sanderson

I wish that I had known more about everything. That testosterone would make me hungrier and change my mood. How much having a baby would change me internally. But the biggest thing would be that I wasn’t alone – that there’s a huge community of transgender people who have birthed or are planning to birth.

Ryan

Ryan is a single dad who found out that he was pregnant with his son, Hendrick, in January 2019 after only ten weeks of being on testosterone. Despite having recently split up with Hendrick’s other dad and recently moving back home to live with his parents, Ryan decided to proceed with the pregnancy partly due to worry about future infertility from hormone replacement therapy (HRT). As a trans man, Ryan faced a number of hurdles during the pregnancy – for example, when the laboratory threw away his first bloods for testing, believing that the bloods had been sent incorrectly because they had a male name on them. Luckily, this spurred a change in NHS Pennine’s guidance for maternal bloods. Now if bloods are associated with a male name, they should be tested, regardless.

Ryan explained that he was made to feel like an “alien” or a “weird roadside attraction” for the entirety of his pregnancy. He was worried that he would get unwanted media attention, or that he would be hurled out of the transgender community for having a biological child. It wasn’t until Hendrick was around four months old that he found the community he had been so desperately needing. Ryan is still looking to adopt and foster children in the future though. He continues to curate a loving trans birthing community partly via social media. You can follow Ryan’s story @ryancharlesjacob on Instagram.

What are the joys of being a queer parent? 

One of my biggest joys is that I know that I actively try to avoid stereotyping my son. I’m not ever going to assume that he is straight, that he’s going to be a body-builder, or that he won’t want to play with a unicorn. I try doing this with my nieces and nephew, too. I’ll buy them toys that aren’t traditionally intended for their assigned gender, I’ll encourage all behaviours regardless of what identity they perform – as long as they’re not harmful to others. It fills me with happiness knowing that if any of the children in my family turned out in any way to not be part of the cisgender heteronormative lifestyle, then they would see me as a safe haven to come out to, knowing without fear that they wouldn’t be judged and that I would help them.  

How do you think your identity impacts the way you approach parenting?

I answered this a bit above, but I have a story! When my son was 6 months old, my mum and I were looking at backpacks with a safety harness on so that when Hendrick started walking, we could hold onto it to make sure he didn’t run off into a road or fall too hard. There was a brown one and a unicorn one. The unicorn one was bright, with rainbows and pink and a sticky-out horn, whereas the brown one looked plain and significantly lacking in sticky-out things. My mum wanted to get the brown one, for no other reason than because he is a boy. Whereas I pushed back, saying, “who’s to say that he wouldn’t want the unicorn one?” I ended up getting him the unicorn one and he still uses it now. 

What can the world/cishet people do to better support queer parents and families? 

Educate your children to not assume that all families are cishet. You could do this by reading your children books that are inclusive of LGBTQIA+ parents and their families, so that their first encounter with LGBTQIA+ families isn’t at school, where they innocently tell the child of a queer family that they must have a mum because two men can’t make a baby. You could help by exposing yourself to queer families on social media, following their accounts so that you’re aware of what is going on with LGBTQIA+ rights, and being an ally simply by signing petitions that could be aiding life-changing decisions. Support your own children by not assuming they’re going to be cishet, so that they can grow up without fear of being “abnormal” – i.e. LGBTQIA+.

Kym A-B

Before I became a parent, I wish I’d known just how much you should value your own time! I would not give up being a parent for the world – there are millions of benefits that come from it – but I think it’s important to try and remember the person you were before you became a parent because every other part of you is consumed by your new role. And, eventually, your kids are going to fly the nest. What’s going to be left behind if you don’t keep part of who you were before? I don’t think you can be the best parent if you’re not being good to yourself as well.

Kym

Although she initially planned on carrying her wife, Jade’s, child – via a procedure called reciprocal IVF – Kym decided to biologically carry first, due to the NHS’ limitations. They were successful on their second round of treatment and now have a three-and-a-half-year-old son. In order to introduce him to how he came to be in the world, Kym and Jade are creating a photo and storybook for him about his life. The book will be filled with a lot of stories and age-appropriate resources explaining that a doctor helped Mommy and Mama, and that there was another person who was a donor who helped them to make their family.

When they started the journey, they actively set up an Instagram to connect with other families that were trying to do the same thing. It’s been really important to Kym and Jade for their son to see other families like theirs. You can find them on Instagram @amumcalledmama.

What are the joys of being a queer parent? 

For me, seeing my son turn into a thriving, clever, well-rounded, and inquisitive child brings me joy daily. The proof is in the pudding that the hetero norm of a mum and a dad is not the only way to parent and raise children.

Do you think your identity impacts the way you approach parenting?

Before identifying as a lesbian, I identify as a mum so my approach is always to keep my child’s mind nourished and fed with a world of information that serves him with good knowledge and life skills. The main thing that being a two-mum family has forced me to do is question gender norms, i.e boys can be nurses and girls can be train drivers, etc. I want our child to grow up knowing that it is possible for anyone to be anything they want to be!

What can the world/cishet people do to better support queer parents and families? 

Teach your children about families like mine from as early on as possible! Buy them books where there are gay families in them, and play roleplay games where you explore the different types of families that exist. It’s so important that when my child tells people that he has a mama & mummy, they aren’t shocked. My son doesn’t deserve to believe that his family isn’t right because you haven’t taken the time to educate yours.

Vikki Harris

Foster parenting is very strange because there’s no immediate reward. If you look at it from a negative perspective: you’re investing your time into young adults who, in the end, will move on and potentially completely forget you. But the thing that I’ve found rewarding is when my foster children have the choice to leave, but they’d rather stay. One of mine has permanency now, the other one is just about to have it. Both of them are happy where they are. How much more recognition do you need?

Vikki

Vikki was already a parent to two boys with her ex-partner when she started fostering around five years ago. She had always been a leader and somebody who looks after people, but upon transitioning, she realised that it was maternal instinct. Vikki soon decided to exit the corporate world to do something that suited her more, with a reward at the end beyond financial remuneration.

She wanted to give something to other people that would hopefully help them become happier and more content, and also to give them somebody that they could rely on even after the placement finished. In the past five years, Vikki has fostered 15 young people – currently, she’s fostering two teenage girls, both long-term. Maintaining that honesty is the best policy, she has always been open with her foster children about her identity, without going into the details. Along with providing a loving home to numerous children, Vikki has also learnt that, as a foster carer, one needs to understand that it’s never personal – even if the children are upset, hurting, or lashing out at you.

What are the joys of being a queer parent? 

As a single parent, it doesn’t really come into day-to-day life. I’m just a woman getting on with her day. All my family just see me as Vikki – so it’s business as usual.

Do you think your identity impacts the way you approach parenting?

Like all single parents, I have to be both mum and dad a lot of the time. Of course, I have insights into both sides that most will never have and, wherever I can, I use these to help the kids. I believe it makes me a lot more flexible – for example, in what they like to wear, the life choices they make, and many other aspects. It also makes me a lot clearer on some of the grey areas, such as what boys are like as teens, how they think, and why it’s ok to be gentle but firm with your views.

What can the world/cishet people do to better support queer parents and families? 

Stop judging and teaching their children to judge – all it does is show their ignorance and insecurity. We need the world to understand that while we are different to them, we are still very capable individuals. In fact, many of us have faced challenges and diversities that they would never see – this makes us stronger, not weaker.

Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin
Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin

Our Politics Editor, Prishita (they/them) is a writer, editor, and LGBTQ+ community organiser. They’re currently a Trustee with Voices4 London and sit on the Advisory Board for Split Banana, a social enterprise redesigning relationship and sex-ed by bringing in the perspectives of groups traditionally excluded from the curriculum. Prishita has been published or featured in METAL, gal-dem, Hunger, and Dazed, amongst others. They also featured in ‘Soul of a Movement’, a film by British creative directors Carson McColl and Gareth Pugh that documents some of the British LGBTQ+ activists, artists and allies carrying the revolutionary fire of the Stonewall Uprising today.
Prishita‘s writing is represented by The Good Literary Agency, and they’re also a signed model and social human with CRUMB.

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