Every summer, reading Wednesday Journal’s annual Pride section prompts a mix of emotions. First and foremost, gratitude — for having been raised in Oak Park, with such a long, wonderful history of queers living here, and for the work of people at Wednesday Journal and across Oak Park’s schools, councils, and institutions supporting and celebrating queer people and addressing the issues they face.
Increasingly, as I’ve learned more about the struggles and experiences of queer people outside of my family, I’ve felt frustration with the limited understanding and representation of queer families in the media as well as in the broader gay rights movement.
I am frustrated that within the village we often highlight “mainstream” aspects of queer parenting while overlooking many of the issues faced by the most marginalized queer people in and around Oak Park. In doing so, we continue to ignore and exclude queer people of color, low-income queer people, and other less “poster-worthy” queer groups in Oak Park and across the country. And we miss the experiences that, for me, have been some of the most radical and powerful aspects of being raised by queer women.
“What is it like to have lesbian moms?” It’s hard to figure out what makes my upbringing radically different from anyone else raised in a middle-class, white, suburban family. Of course there definitely were and still are parts of being raised by queer women that were challenging for me — especially 15 years ago when being out as queer and having a child with another queer person, was much less common; hearing “that’s so gay” in the hallways and having teachers say nothing; being bullied about not having a dad; being told by a dinner host not to talk about my parents; and being asked about my sexuality out of the blue and feeling pressured to identify as straight to assuage homophobic fears that queer people will raise queer kids.
Outside of these interpersonal encounters, there were, of course, the more institutional ones like having to purchase extra insurance because one mom’s work plan wouldn’t cover the other mom and worrying that if my birth mom died, my other mom wouldn’t be able to get custody of me and my brother.
While having these bonus benefits certainly would have made my family’s life easier, many of these rights and benefits that come with marriage, white collar jobs, and access to high-quality public and private education, are ones that are not accessible to most queer families of color and low-income families, including child custody protections, health care, quality education, and on and on.
These advantages, and many of the ones advanced by advocates of gay marriage and the mainstream gay rights movement, point less to the uniqueness of my family’s experience than to the fact that any feelings of marginalization were overwhelmingly outweighed by our privilege from being white and middle class.
I’m not against gay marriage, and anyone who wants to should be able to have their relationship state-sanctioned and receive any of the several hundred benefits that our government unfortunately ties exclusively to married couples and families. But as many queer activists have argued, much of the gay marriage movement and connected efforts to increase the visibility of queer families, rely on an image of “the gay family” that erases the experiences of queer women of color, trans people, and low-income queer people. At the same time, it also doesn’t resonate for me with the most powerful experiences that have come from being raised by my moms.
These stem from being raised in a home where gender and sexuality were free to be explored, challenged, celebrated, or completely ignored, and where it was made clear that no matter who we loved, what we wore, or how we identified, we were loved. My moms taught me that you don’t need children or an official blessing to make your relationship or your love real — and that a society in which a person’s ability to get health care depends on being married is one we should challenge. My moms taught me that family does not just mean parents and children but encompasses friends, community groups, and organizing networks. My moms taught me not only that women can do anything but also that there are an infinite number of ways to be a woman (and that you don’t have to identify as either a man or a woman).
More than 15 years ago, when they took me to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, one of the few places where I was surrounded by other queer women and families, I learned for the first time about trans-phobia through hearing about trans women being excluded from the space. My moms have, each in their own way, taught me about the importance of fighting oppression, whether the person being oppressed is you or someone else — from educating District 97 teachers and administrators about their experiences as gay parents, to speaking out against the Israeli Occupation, to supporting survivors of domestic violence, to working toward union bargaining rights in Chicago. Through them I’ve learned not only about the existence of other fights but also how interconnected these struggles all are, and that to work for one, you need to support them all.
I am tired of repeating the “my family is just like every other family” argument, because it’s not true. My family can walk down the street without fear of being pulled over or shot by the police, never worry about having enough money for food or even college, and we will never be deported. And I was not raised with the expectation, or even the assumption, that I’d grow up to be straight and get married.
When we push the “gay families — they’re just like us” line, who is the “us” we’re referring to? Straight people? Straight couples? White straight couples? White middle class straight couples with children and legal citizenship? And what aspects of many queer families’ experiences are we overlooking?
Even as we — rightfully — celebrate everything we in Oak Park have done to welcome, support, and celebrate queer people, we need to do more. We need to focus on the experiences and challenges faced by queer people of color, undocumented queer couples, incarcerated queer people, queer people with and without children, trans people, single queer parents, queer survivors of intimate partner violence, queer people who want more than one or no lifetime partner, queer people with disabilities, and low-income queer parents.
This year alone, Wednesday Journal and the Chicago Tribune have reported about how Oak Park still discriminates against people of color trying to find housing, and disproportionately punishes black students for the same behavior as white students. We need to put more energy into fighting against policing, incarceration, deportation, education cuts, and more issues that affect the lives of the most marginalized queer people. And we need to spend more time learning about and celebrating the lessons these groups can teach us about relationships, about family, and about love.