Tuesday, 6 March 2007

experience to share

i'm going to send this to the guardian weekend column 'an experience to share'. although it seems strange to me that my childhood could be counted as an experience, recent rows about gay parenting have made me think seriously about my childhood. no one asks the kids when they start bitching about how evil lesbian mothers are! and who else really knows what it is like, except the children? the archbishop of wherever didn't have a lesbian mum, so how can he judge how it effects her child?
i DID have lesbian mums and every day i am grateful for it. so i have written this to try and show the world why it isn't wrong for the child. if a child is loved, then it needs not much else.

Experience to share

I am four years old and we have just dropped my dad off at the navy base, when Helen suggests we go to see ‘Kathy’. I thought she meant go to a cafĂ©, so I was fairly surprised to find that we are at someone’s house on top of a hill. Kathy answers the door and lets us in, giving me and my three year old brother a Paddington Bear toy and a Pink Panther duvet to play with. Sarah is sitting in the grey chair against the window. Everything is a bit dark, but I think that is the effect of distance on my memory, rather than actual lighting.
This is my earliest clear memory. Not long after, my mum left my dad and Kathryn left Sarah and we moved in to the house at the top of the hill, and they have been a couple ever since. That was eighteen years ago.
My parents’ marriage was pretty much over before my mum met Kathryn. She wasn’t some kind of home wrecker. And after the divorce my brother and I continued to see our dad, at first regularly and then more and more sporadically as we got older. However, we have both always maintained contact with him and his wife. It was a hard decision for her to leave him, and to start a new life as a lesbian. For a long time we couldn’t tell our grandparents where we lived, as they wanted to put me and my brother in to care, and a lot of my mum’s friend severed all contact with her. However, Kathryn was always really supportive, and had a wide network of friends in the city, when I look back on my childhood I always feel surrounded by people who were willing to look out for us.
As me and my brother grew up, we weren’t really aware of what a lesbian was. Mum and Kathryn never sat us down and had a conversation about their sexuality. I remember thinking as a child that if you didn’t have a dad, then naturally you would have another mum. My dad had settled down with a new girlfriend, so why wouldn’t my mum be the same. I think my mum felt that if she had made a big deal of discussing it with us, it would have made my brother and I feel that we were different from the other children, that our family was somehow wrong. As it was, we were the only kids at school for a while with divorced parents, something which seems crazy now, even though it was only eighteen years ago. Children are so adaptable, and we were no exception. By never making an issue of it, her sexuality never became an issue for us. This did, of course, cause some embarrassing moments for my mum, if me or my brother inadvertently would say something that gave her away (“and then we went and woke up mummy and Kathryn and all climbed in to bed”) but she believed it was far better for her to privately blush, then for us to feel we had to hide our lifestyle, as if it was somehow shameful.
Of course, as we got older this changed, and as ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ became insults that kids used against each other at school, we became more aware that my mum’s lifestyle was not exactly accepted. We became a lot more private, and at one point I was inventing convoluted excuses as to how we all lived together. I hated hearing people say ‘uhh, that is so gay,’ because I felt that they were insulting my parents. However, it never made me resent my mum or Kathryn. Instead, it made me more determined to fight the prejudice that I encountered. Now I am completely open about their relationship, and if people have a problem with it, then it is their problem, and not mine.
Every day I feel happy for my childhood. I often think how different it could have been if we hadn’t had Kathryn. Financially we would have been much worse off for a start. But emotionally also. All my life I have lived with two people who love and care for me, and it is this that is most important for a child, two loving parents, it doesn’t matter what sex. Kathryn raised us as her own, and even though children were never part of her plan, she never made us feel that we weren’t wanted around. She supported us financially when mum was studying and in marginal employment, and she looked after me and my brother when my mum was in hospital, as well as pulling my mum through her illness. Nowadays, Kathryn is like a rock to me. She is the person I can turn to when I am stressed or unhappy, and I can’t quite face telling my mum about it. It is like having an extra best friend, and if I need my mum to know some issue or problem, but am too shy to approach her directly, I know I can always talk to Kathryn first. When I was going through depression, one of the things that helped me through was the knowledge that I had a strong support in my immediate family, and that no matter how bad I felt, I would never be completely alone.
Having lesbian parents also made me a lot more secure about my own sexuality, and when I ended up with a girlfriend, I didn’t have any of that fear of telling my parents or worry about how they would react. It also made me aware of the options I had sexually, and I’m proud of my bisexuality. Because throughout my childhood, I was confronted with the problems caused by small mindedness and prejudice, I have grown up to believe in equality and how all discrimination, be it racist, sexist or homophobic, is inherently wrong, and this has informed my own work, study and future career plans.
There has been so much talk in the media lately about gay parenting with the recent adoption row, but no one ever thinks to ask the children what their experience of being raised by gay people was. And surely, no one else is in a better position to judge than they are.

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