(Originally published by After Ellen, July 16, 2008.)
Filmmaker Meema Spadola made Our House: A Very Real Documentary About Kids of Lesbian and Gay Parents, because it was the type of movie that didn’t exist when she was a child. “If I had been able to turn on the television and see a documentary or any kind of program about kids with other gay and lesbian parents,” she said, “that would have radically changed my life.”
Our House, first released in 2000, profiled five gay and lesbian families with teen or preteen children. It garnered numerous awards, including Best Documentary at both Newfest in New York and Outfest in Los Angeles. Now Spadola has re-released the film on DVD, along with bonus material that brings us up to date with her original subjects.
The five families, three with moms and two with dads, each have very different stories. They live in disparate areas of the country, are of differing ethnicities, and became families in different ways. Some were intentional LGBT families, created through donor insemination or adoption. Some formed after the parents left straight marriages, already having kids.
In the original film, we see the families going through their daily routines: getting ready for school, playing soccer and softball, having a barbecue. The children, ages 9 to 23, express a range of feelings about having lesbian or gay parents, from ambivalence to discomfort to approval. Some of the children don’t talk about their families to their friends, afraid of their reactions. Others are more open, and one has even come out as a lesbian herself.
The families have also faced various levels of discrimination. One family is home-schooling their daughter after she was beaten by classmates when she told them of her moms’ wedding. Another, living in New York’s LGBT-friendly Greenwich Village, fought a four-year custody battle with their known sperm donor. Two sisters from Arizona struggle to reconcile the anti-LGBT messages from their Mormon church with the fact that their father is gay. The New Jersey family, in contrast, attends an LGBT-welcoming gospel church, but has to deal with disapproval from the father of two of the children.
Spadola’s own mother and father were married until she was 10, when they separated and her mother came out. Living in a small town in Maine in the 1980s, Spadola felt alone having a lesbian mom. “I was really scared about coming out,” she explained. “I use that term purposely. I think children of queer parents have their own coming-out process, and I was terrified to come out. … I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to go through my childhood without feeling that kind of fear of exposure and that confusion and isolation.”
Even though she now looks back and realizes her mother’s lesbian friends also had children, she never connected with them. It wasn’t until she left town for college that she told anybody about her family.
Spadola began working in documentary film in 1988 while a student at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. She founded Sugar Pictures with Thom Powers, and they have produced works including Breasts: A Documentary, which explores how breasts have affected women’s and girls’ experiences of puberty, sex, motherhood, health and aging. She has also produced documentary segments for The Vagina Monologues, which aired on HBO, and for public radio’s This American Life.
When she turned her talents to Our House, she said: “I really wanted it to be from the kids’ point of view. I felt a lot of the media I had been seeing was from the parents’ point of view, which is certainly worthy and important and has its place, but I felt that as a kid of a gay parent, I had this role to play. I could help bring our voices to a wider audience.”
While there is structural, racial, religious and geographic variety among the voices she chose, she realizes this is only a small section of the whole. “Trying to sum up the community of LGBT families is next to impossible,” she said. “We are so diverse that it is impossible in one hour to even begin to hint at how varied we are.” She would have liked to have had more time and money to include families with bisexual or transgender parents, to talk more about extended families, and to include families from other locales, among other things.
She does feel good about the families whose stories she was able to tell, though, and is excited to give updates on them in the DVD extras. She noted with pride that they are all still intact families. Two of the children have lives that “changed pretty radically,” though, including one who came out as a lesbian (in addition to the one in the original film). Two of the parent couples got married.
She sees broader social changes since her film first appeared, too. Her mother and her her mother’s partner were able to marry in Massachusetts. Same-sex couples can now marry in Massachusetts and California and may soon be able to do so in New York.
While she celebrates these victories, she knows there is a long road ahead. Marriage equality remains a political touchstone, and there is still homophobia and harassment — even in places like Massachusetts.
Spadola reflected, however, that her toddler son is going to grow up in a very different world than she did. “He knows all kinds of different shapes and sizes of families,” she said, including several with two moms and one with a mom parenting solo. In his own family, he has four grandmothers: “my mother and my mother’s wife and my husband’s mother and my father’s wife. We have names for each of them, because you can’t just say ‘Grandma.’”
She is a member of COLAGE (Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere) and often hears people joke that her son, and others like him, will have to start GOLAGE: Grandchildren of Lesbians and Gays. “The queerspawn have spawn, and wow, now what do we do?” Spadola said with a laugh.
She still worries, however, about protecting him from homophobia. What if he hears people say that two women can’t be married? “He’ll say ‘Wait a second. Baba and Grammy are married. What does that mean?’” Spadola said. “I’m sure we’ll have conversations about that in the years to come. I just want us to be part of the larger American family, to have the right to be just like any other family,” as imperfect as that is.
“I love the phrase ‘love makes a family,’” she explained, “but I’ve always said fighting with your brother at Thanksgiving makes a family, or talking back to your mom makes a family, or all of the things that are normal make a family. I don’t want us to have to be happy and rainbow all the time. I just want us to be able to exist.”
Despite her struggles, Spadola said, “I am profoundly grateful for the family I grew up in, both for my lesbian mother and my straight dad. What I went through wasn’t easy. I wish that I hadn’t grown up in a homophobic society. I think it has made me stronger in so many ways and I’m happy. I feel like I’ve been queered a little bit. I’m not a completely straight person because of that experience, and I love that that’s part of my life.”