I’m very pleased today to bring you a new wave of posts in my Family Voices series, in partnership with Stonewall Communities. Stonewall Communities is an organization dedicated to creating residential, educational, social and supportive opportunities among older LGBT people.
The previous phases of Family Voices showcased the stories of other LGBT parents and the adult children of LGBT parents. This time, I’ll be posting the stories of LGBT grandparents (and the occasional grandaunt/uncle) once a week for the next few weeks.
Karen, the first interviewee, lies in Canada with an extended family across many time zones. She discusses being a gender variant parent and the social changes she’s seen since she was born in 1948, the year the California Supreme Court struck down the law prohibiting interracial marriage. She talks about male role models for her son, how being a grandparent differs from being a parent, and the influence of her own grandmother on her life. Enjoy her story.
Tell us a little about your family. Who is in your immediate family? Do you live together, nearby, far apart? Did you have to come out to them, or has your orientation/identity always been a part of their lives? Anything else you’d like to share about yourselves?
Our family consists of relatives by blood or marriage, and others whom we have acquired, or they acquired us over time. Family by genetics or marriage include: our daughter, son-in-law, and grandson; our son, daughter-in-law, and two grandsons and one grand-daughter, aunts, uncles, cousins, and our nieces and nephews, and my 93-year-old mother-in-law. Pam and I live in Alberta, while our daughter’s family lives two time zones east in Ottawa, and our son’s family lives in Anchorage, Alaska, two time zones west. Meanwhile many relatives live in Los Angeles, one time zone west, and far south of us. We have built an extended family here in town consisting of married couples (mostly guys, but a few lesbian couples as well), in addition to other couples who aren’t married but have been together for many years, some for more than 22 years.
Coming out to my wife’s family wasn’t as difficult as anticipated because I was not a stranger to them, having been involved in their lives since I was 15 years old. My mother-in-law shrugged her shoulders and said it explained my good taste in clothes. My now deceased father-in-law (bless his soul) said he didn’t judge anyone unfairly. For most people it didn’t seem to matter as long as my wife and I were both OK. Everyone of consequence offered support.
How is being a grandparent different from being a parent?
Diaper changes are optional activities. Seriously, as grand-parents we can be helpful and yet not be burdened with responsibility. Our job is to indulge, listen, support, and spoil.
What has been the most challenging thing you’ve faced as an LGBT parent? What about as a grandparent? How did you handle these challenges?
Our son had an uncle as well as a dear friend of the the family as male role models. Our son did not need them as much as I had thought. We nick-named our son Mr. T because he seemed tanked up on testosterone from the time he was born. The Y-chromosome he inherited from me seems to be working just fine for him, though it didn’t seem to do much for me. I did my best to pass as a guy until our kids were older. Our daughter called me out on my gender during her senior year at high school, but I wasn’t ready to drag the family through a gauntlet of social abuse and ostracism. I held on as long as possible.
Grand-parenting has been an unconditional joy, even if it means getting involved in one of our grandson’s bipolar issues. We are still parents, and now we are extending that to another generation as we still support our own children. For better or worse, for richer or poorer, etc. I’m glad my suicide attempts failed.
How, if at all, do you think things have changed for LGBT parents today vs. when you started your family or came out to your family?
It is possible for gender variant parents to start a family and be part of the social fabric of our society in Canada. It is still a challenge, but it is not impossible. I was born in 1948, the year the California Supreme Court struck down the law prohibiting inter-racial marriage. I was threatened with abandonment and institutionalization as a child. I was gang-raped in May of 1958. What were my choices? I tried to live according to my biological sex, and I managed because I met my soul mate in high school. We felt we were meant for each other, and we had only a vague understanding of what was playing underneath. My wife and I were role models for our children regarding marriage. They in turn had high standards in selecting their respective spouses. That says plenty about marriage and family values.
Incidentally, when I was presenting as a male we got lots of praise from people about how our sound and sane marriage was an inspiration for many. Then after I came out the chorus changed its tune. It seems that society values appearance more than reality. In other words, in America marriage is limited to an apparent male and an apparent female. This is considered sane? But things are changing…
In your view, are there any special resources or advantages that come with being an LGBT grandparent?
Yes, we survive by thinking outside of the box, especially because we are outsiders. That process opens up possibilities for insights that are beyond convention.
What advice would you most like to pass on to other LGBT parents? To other LGBT grandparents?
Children have a knack of seeing through shams, especially when it involves their security. Children, like many autistics, can see through lies, deceit, deception, and insincerity. Be honest, be yourself, communicate with children at their level of understanding. Love always. Set limits. Provide security. Listen. And listen again.
Why did you choose to become involved with Stonewall Communities?
I feel like the spy who has come in from the cold. I feel a debt to other gender variant people who haven’t survived while I have thrived. Survivor guilt. I still feel targeted at times, but I am not afraid.
How else, if at all, are you involved in your community or in LGBT activism/politics?
I am the immediate past president of our city’s Pride Centre. My wife and I sit on the LGBTQ-police liaison committee. My wife and I live openly as a married lesbian couple. My wife and I give talks at the local university.
Please share a favorite memory of being a parent or grandparent.
Some years ago our daughter was asked by her supervisor if she would have difficulty working with a male gay colleague. She answered, ‘Are you kidding? My father is a lesbian!’
After she gave birth, someone asked our daughter about the baby’s gender. She answered, ‘He’s a male, but I’ll have to wait a few years to ask about gender.’
When our son moved to Anchorage he met a woman whom he subsequently married. She had been mentored by a gay couple she referred to as her two Dads. On their web site they have pictures of her and her two Dads, and our son and his two Moms.
I am referred to as Oma in homage to my grandmother who raised me for the first three years of my life. We left Germany when I was three, and I wasn’t with her again until the summer of 1958, a few months after the gang rape. I didn’t want to leave her, especially after she told stories about my antics as a toddler. My Oma. And now I do my turn.