19 | Power in the Telling

Meet our Guest

Molly Pearson is from Lincoln, Nebraska, and currently resides in St. Louis. She is pursuing dual master’s degrees in Social Work and Social Policy at Washington University, focusing on LGBTQ+ policy and community building. As a second-generation queer woman, she is currently developing an oral history podcast project on her family’s queer legacy. Molly is a member of Family Equality Council’s Outspoken Generation program.

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Episode Transcript

Emily: Telling our family stories can be liberating, uneventful, isolating, and even dangerous. It has definitely felt all of those way for me over the years and each new situation we have choices to make. Do I keep it to the bare bones of biology and legality, conception with the donor, second-parent adoption, contacting my donor? Do I dig deeper and talk about my parents breaking up, taking a steps back in parenting or how frustrating it was to feel like the spokesperson for all things queer in my town? I often have to ask, is this person or space safe enough for me to share my truth? All of us goes through my mind when deciding when and if I will tell others about my family. I am so excited to talk with someone today who took a big leap to tell her story in a very large way. We’re talking today about how we sort of bridge those gaps of our queer homes and the rest of the world and how and why we tell our stories. Welcome Molly! Who is in your family and how was it formed?

Molly: So my family was made up by myself, my sister, my mom named Annie, my biological dad named David, and I call him my Stepdad, but that’s not really the right word, and his name was Paul. They were formed when my mom married Paul and he was openly gay and she knew that, but they decided to get married anyway, largely to kind of appease my mom’s parents because they were living together and they were best friends. But quickly what started out as kind of a, hey, let’s do this sort of impulsive thing. It quickly became a very real partnership. all be it, a platonic one. And when my mom realized that she wanted to have children, she spoke to Paul about it and because they were such great partners, he said, you know, I don’t want to be a primary father figure, but I support you in your choices and I’m here for you. So meanwhile, my mom had a very close openly gay friend named David who really wanted a family. And so while married to Paul, she had kids with David. My sister was born in 1979 and I was born in 1987.

Emily: And how has the shape and then the makeup of your family changed over time?

Molly: Absolutely. So our family was very directly impacted by the AIDS epidemic of the 80s. My biological dad died when I was two of AIDS-related illness. And then my mom also died of AIDS-related illness when I was seven. We went from having three parents to having one parent. We were suddenly a single parent household. Even though Paul earlier on in the 70s when my sister was born, he was not prepared to be a father, by the time that my mom passed away in 1994 I think that the HIV and AIDS epidemic was really sobering for him. And he had experienced a lot of growth in that time and his priorities had just shifted. So he gave his word that he would finish raising my sister and I. But that said, I mean, he was a single parent and he wasn’t exactly planning on this, so he needed a lot of help. So I was raised by this queer village. I would go for overnights at our friend’s houses. The queer community and individuals within the community, whether we realize it or not, we have really big hearts because we have to, and we have to be open to loving in a really radical way. But I think particularly in the Midwest because there are smaller pockets of communities, I think that that definitely lends to that sort of family feeling that, hey, we have to be there for each other because we have to be.

Emily: So I’m going to encourage everybody who is listening to finish listening to this episode and then go listen to your absolutely incredible storytelling experience that you had through Campfire. What was that experience like? Sharing and exploring personal stories with the group and especially stories of having LGBTQ family?

Molly: Yeah. Well thank you for your kind words. It was a really incredible experience and one that I’m so grateful for. So Campfire is based here in St Louis and it’s a storytelling event, but it’s interactive. So if you’re familiar with the Moth, a storytelling podcast, it’s kind of like that. But with audience participation and facilitation built in. Each season has a theme and that theme is framed in a question. So the question that I had to answer was, how did you find your place in the world? So I approached that question by talking about navigating this line between this safe queer space in my family and then this big scary heteronormative world outside of our family. And straddling the line between those worlds. And it felt so good to do this on a stage because the narrative was in my control. There’s a really supportive work-shopping process leading up to the event. And my initial draft looked so different than how my final talk turned out. And I kept having to remind myself the goal of the event was to answer the question, how do you find your place in the world? So I really like crafted the story to answer that question. Just that editing process reminded me that I can cultivate other opportunities to give my family a voice. Particularly giving a voice to my biological mom and dad. I so badly want people to know them and to know what they were up against and how hard they loved and the choices they made to create a family. I am actually in the process of collecting oral histories from Paul who raised me, my sister, and other members of our chosen family to take a deep dive into not just queer families but also queerness in the Midwest. Often we think of Stonewall, we think of gay liberation and then we think of San Francisco. But I think so much of what goes on in flyover country gets lost in the shuffle.

Emily: So one thing that was really interesting that you had mentioned in your Campfire talk was how different the school experience was for you as you grew up. Your elementary school experience, your middle school experience, and then high school was just so different. I grew up in Massachusetts and a lot of the stories that you shared from elementary school and middle school sounded so familiar to me. But when you talked about high school, it sounds like from what you had shared, it was a much more positive experience. You had teachers and administration and clubs and policies that acknowledged that queer people existed and was even positive and affirming. That’s just so different, I had none of that at my school. What was that like to go from having either silence or teachers turning a blind eye to homophobia and discrimination, to being in a place with an administration that at least seemed to be more accepting?

Molly: Yeah, it changed everything. So I went to the oldest high school in Lincoln, Nebraska. I think when I was going there it was like already a hundred years old or something. They had the first gay straight alliance in the whole state. I remember the very first week of classes we had this big welcome assembly and there was like a band playing and they were playing music and it was beautiful and they called up people – if you wanted to come up on stage and dance, you could. And like, before I knew it, all these kids were going up on stage and there was a football star, there was a theater kid, there was a cheerleader, there was a skateboarder. And one of my new friends that I had just made that week, an out gay kid, were up there and they were all dancing together like in a circle and holding hands.

Molly: And I just like lost it. I started sobbing because I never thought that I would have a moment like that in school. I just had this really cathartic moment of feeling seen and feeling comfortable and feeling safe. And so I talked with this handful of teachers that I felt especially comfortable with and they were just so clear in saying, I’m so glad you told me. I want you to know I’m here for you. They were just present and then just listening made all the difference. It just changed everything. And I think that really speaks to how the culture of a school environment can make such an impact on an LGBTQ student or children of queer parents and can make all the difference between feeling included and not. But I mean, I would even go so far to say that in certain communities, teacher response and administrative response could mean a difference between life and death. Because we know that suicide rates are higher among LGBTQ teens. I think that creating that environment and that very intentional culture is so important.

Emily: I had teachers who would privately talk with me and that I had come out to about my parents. Or my parents had both shown up to a parent teacher conference or something like that. So they knew and I could talk with them about it. And it was all positive. I got a lot of teachers telling me about their gay sister. When I was 10, I had a gym teacher who took me aside and was like, I have a lesbian sister and she and her partner want to get pregnant. Like what should they do? And I was 10 not the best person to talk to. But I tried to be helpful. It wasn’t until I was an eighth grade and about 14, when finally in class one day a teacher said that people had to stop saying ‘that’s so gay and faggot’. Like that was like I had a teacher stop and say we’re not going to use derogatory language and this is why. And the teacher maybe knew, but I wasn’t out about my family to that teacher. I hadn’t talked to them yet, but I like felt so sick and I was in a cold sweat. I was just so excited. I just, my body completely shut down. And afterwards I stayed behind in class to thank the teacher. I just felt like this teacher needed to know that this is huge for some student. And I tried to stay back and thank her and all I did was like sob and just lost it because no adults, other than my parents, had ever like stopped another kid and said you can’t say that and here is why and this is why this matters. Unfortunately that was the only time that ever happened. We never even acknowledged authors who were gay in English classes. It just never came up again. And then I had some really negative experiences and when I would try to bring it up and advocate for myself, it was a lot of teachers didn’t hear it, even though everybody else in the room heard. Finally at one point I like insisted I get moved out of a class, I was in a gym class with the kid who the semester before had been relentlessly bullying me and a closeted friend. I just grabbed my friend and asked, do you want to go to this class? And he said, Yep. So we just walked over together to the guidance office and I was like, yeah, this kid has said x, Y, and Z to me. I refuse to be in a class with him. And that was it. And that’s what it took for anything to happen. No punishment for him for anything that had happened of course. I give so much admiration for schools that take that extra step to make things not just like, you can talk to me one on one. Like I have a sticker on my door. Like, that’s great and we appreciate teachers who do that, but to go that extra step to be so affirming is really inspiring. Being older and having conversations with people, I’ll often tell them a little bit about myself or my family. And then they’ll just be curious in a way that is coming from a place of kindness but wanting to know more. But it’s still sometimes exhausting to take that on.

Molly: I totally relate to that. Not just about having queer parents but also regarding HIV. So sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes people do try to ask me if I am HIV positive and the way they ask it is usually in a really timid way. There’ll be like, so are you or do you, do you have it? And you can see how uncomfortable they are and they shouldn’t be uncomfortable because it’s no one’s business. But when people ask, I usually do answer. I am HIV negative and I have conflicted feelings about telling people my status, but ultimately I feel like it can be used as an educational moment. I think a lot of people genuinely believe that all children born to HIV positive mothers are born with HIV. And so I use it as kind of an educational moment. Even before sophisticated antiretroviral therapy was available, the chance of transmission during childbirth was still relatively low. But especially today when HIV is managed and when it’s undetectable, it is perfectly possible to have HIV negative children. So I kind of used that as an educational moment. And then usually people are like, oh, I had no idea. But what’s asked more often than my own status is people want to know how my parents got it. Because it’s the way the conversation goes, typically what comes out first when I’m getting to know someone is, oh, well, you know, my mom died when I was young. Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. How did she die? I say AIDS related illness. Oh, oh, well. So, and like they have so many questions. Like, you know, was she dating a bisexual man? Was she a drug addict? Was it a blood transfusion? And I think maybe it’s unconscious, but I think in wanting so badly to know how it was transmitted, people are inadvertently making a value judgment.

Emily: I don’t know if you get this now as an adult at all, but that follow up question that I often got was – Oh, your moms are gay. Does that mean that you’re gay too? You know, the first time I was asked to that I was probably eight and was continued to be asked to that for many years. And it was interesting. I know that at least when I was about 16, the question came in the form of like, oh, so are you dating? They didn’t just say like, oh, raised by lesbians, are you a lesbian too? But that’s what they were getting at. I know what that question was and it is there. Is there more delicacy or less delicacy when people ask those questions to you.

Molly: I think there’s more now with age. We tend to surround ourselves with people of similar ages as us and as people grow up and just learn how to be better, they don’t just like walk up to you and be like, so are you a lesbian? First time it happened to me, I was in second grade. It was in the lunch line. This kid asked me and I said, well, I don’t know, I’m eight. I don’t know that I can answer that right now because I actually knew what lesbian meant, but this bully, he didn’t, he just knew it was something weird or something gross. So when I said I don’t think I can answer that I am eight, I don’t really find myself attracted to anyone right now. He then turned around and screamed to the whole lunch line that I was a lesbian. And so yes, I would say that there is more delicacy now. People don’t really ask me now at all, now that I really think about it. And I myself do identify as queer. And you would think that being raised in the household that I was raised in that I would have figured that out much sooner. But I actually didn’t because I think I felt a lot of pressures of respectability and that pressure to prove that LGBTQ parents were just like every other parent and you can still be queer but raise straight kids. And I felt this pressure to like prove that. But I also felt some feeling of guilt that queerness was kind of handed to me. Like queerness was absolutely on the table. And I actually remember once when I was a kid, I was maybe in like third grade or something. I remember like trying to balance what I was being taught at home that all identities were welcome and celebrated and it wasn’t a big deal. But then externally, outside of our family, I was getting these messages that people who were coming out were being disowned by their parents or were being murdered. I remember one day I asked Paul, what would you say if when I got older, I told you I was a lesbian? And he was just like, oh, I would say that’s great. Good for you. And then after like a pause, he was like, you know, your mother so badly wanted you and your sister to grow up to be lesbian psychics. She was really into like new agey, crystal stuff. She totally wanted you to grow up to be lesbian psychics, but we’ll see. Everything was on the table when I was a kid. All the possibilities were just as legitimate and valued as all of the other possibilities. And so I recognize the need for clearly defined labels because some people feel comfortable falling into those. But personally I just feel free. And to me the word queer really encompasses that.

Emily: Why is speaking out and telling your story important to you?

Molly: Like I mentioned earlier, I think a big part of my motivation is giving my parents a voice because theirs was taken too soon. I often find myself wondering that if the Reagan administration had acted sooner, if they would still be alive today. And so I just think about the importance of fostering change. And in order to change, to create change, we have to change the story. We have to tell stories that reflect our real experiences. And that involves a lot of vulnerability and that involves risk. But I ultimately think that’s what it takes to reach people. When I really stepped back, it’s not even really about me. Again, it comes back to my parents and wanting to share the profound loved that they carried, not just for each other, but for community. And I think that as a society, as a culture, we have so much to learn from queer people.

Molly: I think that taking a really strengths-based approach to talking about queerness and talking about the beauty and the openness and the love is something that can be really transformative. So that’s in a nutshell, that’s kind of what motivates me to put these things out there. There will always be that voice in the back of my head saying, oh, no one really wants to hear this. You’re just another person. With the Internet, anyone can get online and say whatever they want. But I know that when I found Family Equality for instance, when I literally stumbled upon your wall last fall, I said, oh my God, I didn’t even know this existed. And I got so excited and this podcast, I mean it’s so affirming to hear other people’s stories. So I think that I really have something to perhaps offer other people, even if it’s only one person. I think that that can make all the difference. Another project that has really been transformative for me as the Recollectors. It’s an online storytelling and support group for people who have lost parents to AIDS-related illness. So that’s been another space where I’m like, wow, we do need these stories. Okay, I can do this. It feels really good to finally be more public with all of this.

Emily: I was so excited to have you join as a member of the Outspoken Generation program with Family Equality Council. I think that’s one of the important things that the LGBTQ movement hasn’t always had – people with LGBTQ parents who are young or are now adults speaking out and sharing stories. I know that the narrative for a while that was used and was useful was my, our families are just like yours. We just want the same rights and my family’s just like yours. We’re not scary. We’re not different. And it really has changed now in a good way to say yeah, my family is different. It is not like yours. There are major differences and that’s beautiful and it’s complex. And let me just tell you how beautiful it is.

Molly: Yeah. I think about so much of the messaging around marriage equality and you know, love is love. Yes. Okay. But I think that there are many different shades and nuances and variances between types of love. Queer families are different. I think that that’s such an important shift in messaging to really embrace because, like I said, I think that society at large has so much to learn from queer relationships, whether they’re romantic relationships or community relationships. I do kind of have a queer agenda and I think that that’s a really exciting thing that’s shifting right now.