Tag: Memoir

Charting LGBTQ Parenting Through Memoir and Research

Charting LGBTQ Parenting Through Memoir and Research

Three new books variously offer insight, inspiration, and social science rigor as they chart the contours of queer parents’ lives.

No Blanks, No Pauses - The Other Mothers - We Are Family

In The Other Mothers: Two Women’s Journey to Find the Family That Was Always Theirs (Sourcebooks), Jennifer Berney tells the story of how she and her spouse Kellie became parents despite fertility challenges and a healthcare system not designed for queer families. Berney had always known she wanted kids; Kellie wasn’t so sure. Although they eventually both agreed to move forward, however, they ran out of reserves from their chosen unknown donor before Berney got pregnant. Yet the medical professionals they saw had no protocols for dealing with lesbian patients, resulting in much lost time before Berney received an effective infertility diagnosis and treatment.

Berney’s story illuminates the need for change within the fertility industry, but is first and foremost a story of relationships, expectations, and building family despite the obstacles. She writes of what led her and Kellie to eventually use a known donor, the ways that fate and kinship tied them to their donor and his family, and how queer people as a whole have reimagined families. Along the way, she educates us about the history of assisted reproduction, the legal hurdles of second-parent adoption, the racist origins of the international adoption industry and the gynecological speculum, and how the emerging science of epigenetics (how our experiences impact which genes are turned on or off) blurs the lines of nature and nurture, reinforcing a nonbiological mother’s role.

Berney weaves her story and her broader reflections into a textured and thoughtful narrative. This isn’t the first memoir by a queer woman struggling with infertility (see my database at mombian.com for some others), but it does honor to the genre.

No Blanks, No Pauses: A Path to Loving Self and Others (Amplify), by Shelly McNamara, chief equality and inclusion officer at Procter & Gamble, is part memoir and part self-help book, using vignettes from McNamara’s life, told through prose and poems, as a way to encourage readers to find their own paths and “bring more compassion into the world.”

McNamara offers snapshots of difficult or transformative moments in her life: growing up as the youngest of 15 children raised by a single mother; losing family and friends, some very young, to illness and injury; coming out as a lesbian and starting a family; dealing with harassment; and coming out at work. She shares how she found inner strength through self-reflection and writing. At the end of each chapter, she offers questions for readers’ own reflection, like “What do you feel called to do?” “What regrets or wrongs do you carry?” “Who do you see as less than?” This is memoir as pedagogy and inspiration. The overall narrative may not feel as seamless as some, but each story and poem within it has a message about loving oneself and others. As McNamara tells us, “I want my story and storytelling to help heal the pain that exists within and between people.”

Susan Golombok’s We Are Family: The Modern Transformation of Parents and Children (Public Affairs) sits in a different genre. Golombok, professor of family research and director of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge, is one of the world’s leading social science researchers on LGBTQ and other non-traditional families. This volume, however, is aimed at a general audience, offering not only Golombok’s learnings from decades of pioneering research but also, more importantly, sharing many of the personal stories behind them. It looks at families in the U.K. and U.S., LGBTQ and not, formed with sperm, egg, and embryo donations and through surrogacy. Along with these stories, Golombok relates the history of the assisted reproduction industry and societal responses to it, which were not always positive even for straight, cisgender people. She also explores the implications for families and society of reproductive technologies like egg and embryo freezing, mitochondrial donation, uterus transplants, and even synthetic eggs and sperm.

Golombok’s top-notch reputation is warranted, though I did find one small error in the book. She says that in 2010, lesbian couples “began to have children through shared biological parenting” using one woman’s egg and the other’s womb. My spouse and I had our son this way in 2003, however, and I know we weren’t the first. One point could also use clarification: She refers to Thomas Beatie, who in 2008 “appeared on the ‘Oprah Winfrey Show’ as the world’s first pregnant man.” Golombok then says (rightly, as far as I know) that he was “the first legally recognized man to have a baby,” but fails to note that a number of other transgender men had previously given birth, although they were not legally recognized as men. Still, her discussion of transgender parents bearing, adopting, and raising children is unfailingly positive.

Readers here will not be surprised by the conclusions Golombok has reached again and again in her research–that children in these non-traditional families do just as well as any others–but should appreciate her insights into the similarities and differences among them, why it is important for children to learn about their origins as early as possible, and how social science research has played—and must continue to play—a role in supporting these families and shaping public policy.

This is a fascinating volume by a luminary in the field, and a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the history—and future—of LGBTQ families and other diverse family forms.

Originally published as my Mombian newspaper column.

A Graphic Memoir by Kimiko Tobimatsu, illustrated by Keet Geniza – The Lesbrary

A Graphic Memoir by Kimiko Tobimatsu, illustrated by Keet Geniza

Kimiko Does Cancer: A Graphic Memoir by Kimiko Tobimatsu, illustrated by Keet GenizaKimiko Does Cancer is about about a queer, mixed-race woman getting breast cancer. This is a short book, only 106 pages, and it moves quickly: the first page is about Kimiko finding a lump above her breast, and then it moves through her diagnosis, treatment, and the aftermath. Tobimatsu explains in interviews/articles that she wanted to write this book because the mainstream narrative around cancer didn’t include her experience. She wanted other queer people with cancer to have a reference that better reflects their lives.

For one thing, she comes into this experience already skeptical of doctors, especially around sexual health. One panel shows a doctor saying, “Only women who sleep with men need Paps,” (labelled on page as “Bad medical advice”). This is something that I was also told by a doctor, after she blushed and seemed flustered when I told her my sexual experience was with AFAB people. Although she’s grateful for her medical team, she also finds it overwhelming, especially when they give different advice. She also continues to face similar microagressions: a doctor who assumes she’ll immediately want reconstructive surgery on her breast before asking her–Kimiko had been interested in exploring what a mastectomy would mean for her exploration of gender. Later, another doctor asks if she’d like both breasts enhanced as long as they’re “plumping” one.

In her article on Rethink Cancer, she explains,

I didn’t want to talk about how to recover my sense of femininity despite breast scars and menopause; I wanted to explore how losing my breasts might allow me to lean into my masculinity. I didn’t want to talk about how changing femininity could affect a hetero relationship; I wanted to talk about the implications of breast cancer on queer relationships between women.”

This genderizing of breast cancer extends outside assumptions around patients’ relationships to their breasts. In “Straight Cancer in a Queer Body” at The Polyphony, Tobimatsu explains,

Whether we know it or not, ideas around gender are frequently at the forefront of conversations about breast cancer. Little is as connected to notions of femininity as breasts, hair and fertility – all things that can be lost following a breast cancer diagnosis. Perhaps for this reason, society’s response to the disease is to throw pink ribbons, make-up tutorials and a peppy outlook at the problem. For many queers and gender non-conforming folks, this feminization of the disease is stifling…

A page from Kimiko Does Cancer showing Kimiko meeting three women in a cancer support group. They introduce themselves and then transform magic girl style into feminine fighters. "I'm Macy, Stacy, Lacy! We're survivors, fighters, warriors! We kick cancer's butt! And look good while doing it~"

Page from Kimiko Does Cancer

Not only is Kimiko uncomfortable with the whiteness and heteronormativity/gender norms, she also is alienated by how apolitical these spaces are. Kimiko considers the ethics and greater implications of each of the choices she’s making in this journey, and the structure around them. She recognizes the privilege she has to be in Canada and have the medical support she does, and the special treatment she gets as a young cancer patient. She contemplates the ethics of freezing her eggs for $7,000 when she’s not sure whether she even wants kids–or whether it’s ethical to bring kids into a climate crisis. On top of that, she feels pressure to have had some great epiphany as a cancer survivor: to have a whole new outlook on life, and no longer care about the “little things.”

Kimiko Does Cancer follows the aftereffects of her treatment as well. She has menopause induced to (hopefully) prevent cancer from recurring. This leaves her with hot flashes, which play a major role in her life. I had no idea what having hot flashes really entailed:

Page from Kimiko Does Cancer shows stages of a hot flash, including anger, raging heat, hunger, and more.

I highly recommend this book, and I hope that it finds its way into the right hands. I’ll leave off with one last quotation from the author, who explains the importance of changing this narrative. She explains that vague cancer fundraisers often get more attention than specific actions needed to improve marginalized peoples’ lives. (And of course, it’s all connected: racial justice and ending poverty are inextricably linked to health.)

When we centre certain bodies and not others, it has dire consequences – black women with breast cancer get diagnosed at later stages than white women and have lower survival rates… By depoliticizing cancer, it becomes an easy cause to support. Pink ribbon campaigns offer a way to give money to an easy-to-sympathize-with-cause that doesn’t force engagement with more difficult issues like poverty or racial justice.

“Straight Cancer in a Queer Body,” The Polyphony

Queer History, Memoir, and Satire from the Nib – The Lesbrary

Queer History, Memoir, and Satire from the Nib – The

Be Gay, Do ComicsBe Gay, Do Comics is an anthology with more than 30 contributors, all discussing some aspect of queer life. This was a refreshingly diverse and thought-provoking collection. Most anthologies in this vein that I’ve read have played it pretty safe: they’ve usually been very white, and mostly focused on gay cis men, with the overarching message being one of acceptance. Be Gay, Do Comics covers a wide range of topics from a lot of different voices, including many artists of color and trans artists, and includes comics about queer liberation and resisting assimilation.

There is a mix of one-page comics and longer pieces, with some being fairly simple one-off jokes or observations and others looking at queer history. I was especially interested in the comics that looked at queer history and culture that is lesser known, including looking at gay characters in Puerto Rican TV shows, comparing that to the history and present state of LGBTQ rights in Puerto Rico. Another explores how LGBTQ people have been treated in the Philippines, pre-colonialism up to the present. There is also a comic including interviews from queer parents raising kids in Malaysia.

Some comics are biographies of queer people in history I wasn’t aware of, including Gad Beck, a gay Jewish spy, and Baron von Steuben, an openly gay military leader in the American Revolution. Some of these figures at larger than life, others are everyday. Others look at events, such as Hazel Newlevant’s comic about queer uprisings that preceded Stonewall, or an explanation of the Lavender Scare, or the history of the rainbow flag.

Of course, there are also a lot of personal stories included. Some talk about exploring their gender, or coming out. One is about being non-binary while taking folk dancing lessons. Another talks coming out in their late 30s, and the pride and embarrassment and mourning of that–mourning for their younger out queer self who never was. While I’m used to LGBT anthologies being mostly cis gay men, there were lots of trans comics in this one, and even an intersex contribution. There was also a variety both in identities and politics, including a comic about gay Republicans, comics about gatekeeping in the queer community, and one about gay liberation.

It’s hard to speak about an anthology like this in a cohesive way, because they are all so different: in art style, tone, topic, and identity. Overall, I really enjoyed it. Although as always there were some comics I liked more than others, there weren’t any that I felt were weak. It’s a great opportunity to be exposed to a lot of different artists as well. This is one I would happily recommend. It’s not focused specifically on lesbians and bi women, but there is definitely sapphic representation. I’m happy to see that queer anthologies are expanding to be a little more challenging and diverse than they were just a handful of years ago.

A Lesbian Mom’s Memoir of Cancer and Life

A Lesbian Mom's Memoir of Cancer and Life

A new memoir by a lesbian mom interweaves the strands of her life from San Francisco in the 1960s through teaching, law school, coming out, starting a family, and surviving two types of cancer.

I'm Still Here - Martina Reaves

Martina Reaves’ I’m Still Here (She Writes Press) moves us back and forth between two periods of her life, beginning with her arrival in San Francisco at age 20, where she marries a hippie streetcar driver and lives in a commune that he founded. We then jump forward several decades to when she and her female partner are trying to figure out how to tell their grown son about her diagnosis of tongue cancer. Each thread evolves gradually to fill in the details of her life, from living in the commune, to teaching in the Virgin Islands with her husband, to becoming a lawyer and mediator, meeting her future wife at the law firm where they both worked. This braiding of narratives gives texture to the tale and avoids the linear, one-thing-after-another plodding that mars some memoirs. We are given glimpses of her later life and wonder how she got there, then move back to explore the earlier events and encounters that shaped her.

While the book does not focus primarily on becoming a lesbian mom, Reaves nevertheless offers insights into life as one of the first intentional lesbian families. “No lesbian mom handbook existed,” she observes, and takes us through the process she and her partner Tanya went through to find a donor, define his role, and raise their son despite criticism from Tanya’s Bible Belt family and a lack of legal protection. “We struggle with systems that don’t actually recognize our family,” she writes. Later, she observes, “The thing about being the first lesbian family in your neighborhood or school is that any time your child acts out, you fear that everyone will think it’s because he’s from a lesbian family.” Both are sentiments many readers here will likely understand. We also see the everyday challenges of parenting that she and Tanya face as their son grows into his teens, and how their family expands when, in college, he wants to meet his donor.

This is not a story primarily about parenting, however, even though parenting occupies much of it. Rather, is Reaves’ emotional and spiritual journey after her ostensibly terminal cancer diagnosis that provides the core of the narrative around which the rest intertwines. How can she make meaning of her life when she thinks she is about to lose it? What are the important moments and relationships that have shaped her into who she is today, and how can they help sustain her?

Despite the somber topic, however, this is not a sad tale but rather a hopeful one. There is gentle humor here, too, as well as self-reflection and wisdom that may benefit many, whether grappling with serious illness or not. After finishing radiation treatment, for example, before she knows the outcome, she observes, “All I can do at the moment is live my life day by day and savor what’s important: intimate moments with family and friends, the yellow roses that just bloomed in my backyard, and the wisteria falling over the front fence, so softly blue.” Those seeking an inspiring read as well as a look at one early intentional lesbian mom family should find much to satisfy them here.


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