The power of language is never so clearly articulated to me as when others react to the story of my family.
A few weeks back, I was having dinner with a group of people I know reasonably well when the topic of my background came up. Someone asked the obligatory, yet oh-so-painfully presumptuous question about my accent: “so you moved here with your Dad’s job?” When I explained that, actually, my Mum’s job was what moved us to Australia, the absence of a mention of my father raised some curiosity. This is always the tipping point in conversations about my family, because people tend to follow up with, “so your parents are divorced?” or, “oh your parents have remarried now?” As soon as these questions surface, I feel I might as well tell the whole story, because people have a little trouble absorbing the information that my parents are not divorced. In fact, neither of my parents have ever been married.
This is my situation: I was conceived by artificial insemination and raised by two women, one my biological mother (who, for the sake of simplicity, I will refer to as Mum), the other her long-term (now ex) partner. My biological father is a gay man, still living in America with his long-term partner (also a dad), who was friends with Mum and happy to do her a favour back in 1991.
And so I told them. After a few silent moments of processing someone commented, “wow my family is so boring – I’d need a diagram to get my head around yours!” And there it was – a totally innocuous statement – and yet completely fear inducing for someone who grew up hiding her parents.
Like most people I talk to, I’ve never met anyone else in Australia with gay or bisexual parents. To be fair, this might just be because people aren’t telling me – it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve started sharing my story. I was fifteen before I told my best friend (who reacted by asking if that meant I was gay as well) and seventeen before I told a boyfriend (a decision I obsessed about for three months in preparation). I spent my childhood being terrified that someone would find out, disclose my secret and reject me. I heard how girls at my school talked about a teacher who was suspected of being a lesbian. I knew what people thought about a classmate whose mother was single. I was sure my treatment would be no different.
Things are significantly different now than when I was a kid. I would be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of people in my circle who do not support marriage equality. But that support comes with a qualification: often I hear people say they believe in same-sex marriage, but think there are issues with these same couples raising children. Most commonly, it is suggested that children need both a male and female role model in their lives. Leaving aside the obvious issues with gender binaries and stereotypes in such a statement, I’d like to raise a question: why?
People I’ve posed this to have usually pointed out that their fathers did things with them as a child that their mother didn’t. From Dad they learnt to throw a ball, ride a bike, how to fix a leaky tap – all things that one of my mothers did with me as a child (it strikes me as ironic that at this point Microsoft is suggesting that I’ve made a grammatical error in typing “mothers”). The “male and female” role model argument thrives on limited and sexist assumptions about gender roles in parenting. It takes a village to raise a child and entrenched gender roles reinforce the idea that families are self-contained units without need for external influence. I worry for any child raised with only their parents to look to as role models.
My attack on gender roles accepted, people often move to a more sympathetic line of argumentation against alternative families. They suggest that life is harder for gay people, and therefore probably harder for the children of gay people. This is true. Stigma is undeniable and children can be cruel. But here is my problem: it doesn’t have to be true. Prejudices are taught. The ability to alienate only arises when society gives children something to point to as “different”, such as having different laws for heterosexual and homosexual couples.
For me growing up, the combination of playground homophobia and total lack of representations of alternative families was incredibly isolating. From a young age I knew both that my family was different than all my friends’ families and that for some reason, being gay was wrong and gross – although, admittedly, I had no idea why. I participated in homophobia, vocalising the appropriate “ewww” at the suggestion of a teacher or another student being gay. I didn’t know why we all did it – I simply recognised that having parents like mine made me different, while calling sissy boys “fags” made me the same.
And so I hid. I made myself noticeably homophobic to deflect suspicion and defend myself from exclusion. No-one knew about my family. I honestly do not know how I would have coped with primary school if nine-year-old Morgan had let something slip just once.
Today, we are on the precipice of social change for people of all sexualities. The effects of marriage equality will be more significant than legitimising relationships between same-sex couples. It will speak to everyone, those in favour and those against. To support marriage equality and not see the potential it holds for shifting how we talk about love, sexuality and parenting is a hollow endorsement for change.
If same-sex marriage had been legal when I was born, maybe my non-biological mother wouldn’t have been forced to return to work immediately because she couldn’t explain to her superior that I was her daughter. If same-sex marriage had been legal when I was a kid, regardless of whether or not my parents were married, perhaps I would have been set on a path of questioning why I felt the need to act observably homophobic. If same-sex marriage were legal now, people who hear my story might hesitate before suggesting that my childhood was somehow deficient.
Having different laws for a group of people creates an exclusionary mentality that is difficult to shake. Nuclear families – alternative families. Normal sex – gay sex. Our love – their love.
This is the crux of it: achieving marriage equality isn’t really about getting hitched. It’s about breaking down the notions of difference that are so deeply ingrained in our conceptualisations of sexuality. If we recognise this, then the fight for equality is less about holding up placards and signing petitions, although these things are an undeniably important show of solidarity. However, such acts are directed at the Government when, really, we need to be directing the conversation to society at large.
Simple, right? Stop referring to Justin Bieber as a “faggot”! Call out homophobia when you see it! Two-thirds of Australians support same-sex marriage. Homophobia is something uneducated fringe-dwellers or religious fanatics engage in, it’s not part of our day-to-day lives. Right?
Entering law school, I expected to meet incredibly progressive and well-educated people and I have not been disappointed. Here I have shared impassioned debates, had my mind changed on social justice issues and found people with a genuine passion for learning.
It was because of this that I was caught so off-guard to see any, even if sparse, homophobia. Derogatory language about sexuality is noticeably present, but far more surprising for me was a classroom-audible “gay joke” between two peers on the first day of semester. Forms of subtle homophobia are more common, such as a comment on Law Camp during all of our favourite game: “never have I ever … taken it up the ass.” This is homophobia through heteronormativity: an attempt to humiliate women for engaging in anal sex, while inadvertently outing a gay man in a forum where sexuality shouldn’t be relevant.
Common practice is not a defence here, nor is irony. That only shows a lack of empathy; an inability or unwillingness to consider what it would be like to hear such remarks as a person from the group being mocked. It might seem like a small thing – but it is repeated, unchallenged small violations that create a culture, and it is that culture which creates oppression. Language has power, and when we use language in the wrong way we lose the authority to educate those who actually intend for it to alienate, hurt, and oppress.
Sharing these observations is not an attempt to point a finger at the individuals who made these remarks or a suggestion that those who say similar things are automatically homophobes. We live in a fundamentally heteronormative society with a media and education system that doesn’t challenge stereotypes and ingrained prejudice. These things slip out. No-one is morally consistent, myself included. The take-away is to catch oneself when things do slip out, and to pull others up as well. Consistently challenging homophobia is a step towards creating the social changes that will mean it stops happening at all.
I will admit that part of me was hesitant to write this. Much of that fear and desire to conceal from my childhood is still with me, and I have never spoken about this part of my life in such a public forum. I had a conversation with my mum about how she would feel, after all, this is her secret too and she has experienced blatant and subversive homophobia in her life; from strangers, colleagues, friends and family. What convinced me was thinking about the power of words. It has been language that has instilled me with fear my entire life, it is only right that I use language now to try and create change.