29 | Desperately Seeking Queer Characters

Meet the Guests

Sadie Epstein-Fine was born in 1992 to her two moms, surrounded by eleven other women in their home in Toronto. Raised going to Take Back the Night Marches and Jewish Women against the Occupation protests, Sadie combines her passion for activism with her professional theatre career as a queer-political theatre maker. Sadie loves going on canoe trips, at-home dance parties and coffee.

Makeda Zook was born in Vancouver in 1986 to her two lesbian feminist moms. She was raised in a mixed-race family surrounded by anti-oppression politics and her OWLS (Older Wiser Lesbians). Makeda grew up in Toronto going to dyke marches and being encouraged to talk about her feelings. She currently works in sexual health promotion for a feminist NGO.

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Episode Transcript

Emily M.: Welcome to outspoken voices, a podcast by and for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer parents, people with LGBTQ parents, future parents, and everyone else who is part of our family journeys. I’m your host, Emily McGranachan, and I am the Director of Family Engagement with Family Equality Council. There is something validating and exciting about seeing, reading, or hearing reflections of yourself in all types of media. Everything from portraits of LGBTQ families to movies to books can always really be affirming, but so often these depictions are challenging or factually inaccurate or sensationalized. It’s complex and there is a lot of pressure on that media that attempts to represent LGBTQ families because there is so little out there. It’s not possible to show every story, but at a minimum the depictions should stem from the voices of people living those realities. So with me to talk about the trials and tribulations of LGBTQ families in media are Makeda Zook and Sadie Epstein-Fine, co-editors of the anthology “Spawning Generations :Rants and Reflections on Growing up with LGBTQ parents.” Who is in your family and how was it formed?

New Speaker: I grew up with two moms, Corrine and Annette. We have this very extensive lesbian feminist community that I feel like I really grew up with. They really became what I refer to as my OWLs – older, wiser lesbians – who really helped me form parts of myself. My core family are my two moms and then I have this wider, chosen family.

Sadie E-F.: I was born at home. So my mom, Rachel, gave birth to me and my other Lois was there to support and they conceived me through an anonymous sperm donor. And then prior to me being born, my mom Lois had parented my brother, Aaron, in a previous relationship and so he was my brother and then two of the women who were at my birth took care of me one night a week and they became like my third and fourth parents. And then when they eventually had a son, he became my brother. So my family is very much made up of chosen people in my life.

Emily M.: I also have lesbian moms and I was conceived with an anonymous sperm donor who later became identity release and I was able to contact. And I’ve have three moms. My bio mom was with one partner until I was four and then another around like six years old.

Sadie E-F.: I really should actually mention my step family in my family. Like it’s really weird that I just actually left them out. I guess sometimes there’s just a lot of people to contend with. My moms split up. And my mom Lois has been with her partner Alice, since I was 10 and then Alice has two children and they’ve become my step-siblings. Our family is quite blended at this point.

Makeda Z.: I think it’s actually really complicated question too. Even though I’ve answered it a million times, I have trouble sometimes answering it because, first of all, I answer it differently depending on who I’m speaking with. And also because, two years ago one of my moms, Corrine, died. So I’ve had to sort of switch some of the way I talk about my family to the past tense, which is actually really hard. Depending on the moment, I don’t necessarily want to feel all the emotions of that. So it’s actually a really challenging question. I also was born from an anonymous donor. My moms really actually struggled to find a donor and they ended up finding somebody who through a mutual friend, but he wanted to remain anonymous. Then actually later on in my life, way later on, I’m in my late twenties now, I ended up somewhat randomly connecting with him. So I have met him and I do see him occasionally.

Emily M.: Yeah. Thank you. And that is so true. I know the way that I talk about my own family definitely depends on the situation and how much I feel like sharing. But by leaving something out there is always that feeling of like, oh, I should have said more.

Sadie E-F.: And also it’s like, you know, all of us were in our twenties and thirties and we’re still having to talk about who makes up our families. People with straight parents haven’t really totally had to do that probably since they were eight. Is that an interesting queerspawn phenomena? Where we’re into our adulthood being like – And my mom birthed me in our home surrounded by lesbians.

Makeda Z.: You want to reveal more to other queerspawn. But it’s also the reminder that you have that experience. So even you, Emily, sharing about your family, I think it both Sadie and I perked up and are like yes, this is our opportunity to talk to someone with a similar experience and share a little bit more and maybe get a little bit deeper than we would with just everybody.

Emily M.: Yeah. Queerspawn are amazing. And queerspawn spaces are amazing. Did you know other people with LGBTQ parents when you were growing up?

Sadie E-F.: Yes, somewhat. Growing up my moms were a part of a group that they called Dykes with Tykes. It was an informal social gathering of dykes with tykes around my age. So there were a handful.

Emily M.: So you had some family members, you had some people that you knew, some friends, some peers, but do you remember any of the first books or movie or TV show that you saw that depicted LGBTQ families?

Makeda Z.: In print was the first that I saw like other people who had two moms. It was really two children’s books – “Heather Has Two Mommies” and “Asha’s Moms”. “Asha’s Moms” is actually Canadian and I think “Heather Has Two Mommies is American. That was in the nineties and eighties. But for TV or popular media, it really wasn’t until The Kids are All Right that I saw a mainstream depiction of my family, sort of.

Emily M.: Yeah, what a first depiction!

Sadie E-F.: And sure, there were queerspawn in the L Word when Tina and Bette have a baby. But the queer families that were depicted in the media would have babies and then the babies were depicted, there was never like queerspawn who thought and felt…

Makeda Z.: …And have their own identities, experiences and lives. I think The Kids are All Right was the first of that. And then the more recent one, which I really love, is The Fosters. Oh, and Transparent.

Sadie E-F.: I just love how for our entire lives we needed to prove how perfect we were and you know, so many queerspawn I’ve talked to have the ‘poster child syndrome’ and have some complex around perfection. In Transparent, their parent came out later when they were already adults, which is the experience of some queerspawn. I just like that they didn’t just depict the kids being like, Oh wow, you’re trans, yay! That’s how we’re expected to react and if we do, great. And also if we don’t, there’s not always space for that.

Makeda Z.: With all these shows that we’re naming, they are imperfect shows in a lot of ways. And they’re imperfect in their depictions of queer and trans families for many reasons. Each one of them have been the site of controversy and criticism. That’s really important to think about and talk about. And at the same time, with The Kids are All Right, for example, a lot of other queer folks in the larger queer community and in our parents community too, were really upset about that film as being the first depiction of our families in the mainstream. And I felt like yes, it had its problems – big, big problems – but for me the daughter character, the way she written was actually incredibly liberating for me to see on the big screen. I was an older teenager when that movie came out or maybe even in my early twenties, and it was the first time that I saw somebody talk about the pressure that they feel to be perfect because of being queerspawn. And to me that was liberating and to me that one moment or like maybe one scene and the way her character responded in that scene was just so empowering to me.

Emily M.: My parents were very intent on me seeing representation wherever we could find it or try desperately to find it. So we watched some movies that for them, were where they saw ourselves, or at least LGBTQ people in the movie. So we watched Torch Song Trilogy where the main character does end up kind of fostering an older teen so there was a queerspawn. It was honestly a lot of films that, coming out in the eighties and early nineties, were tragic. It was just all emotional and the physical tolls of the AIDS crisis, the challenges of coming out, and being denied the right to adopt. That was the media. So to see a family that was just going through challenges that have to do with their family structure, but not really about the fact of their parent’ sexual orientation. That felt that felt good to see. Even though I was sort of like face palming a lot of things and frustrated with some of the pieces in the film. But to see even something that just had some rough outline that resembled my experience was still really exciting and affirming.

Sadie E-F.: Yeah. And of course like for me, I want to be able to see what you all can feel or what Makeda talks about feeling. But when I think about The Kids are All Right, I just feel deep rage. The moment the mom character slept with the sperm donor was a betrayal to queer families actually. And I can’t get over that rage.

Emily M.: I get that they’re creating tension and drama. But even the depiction of the process for contacting a donor was so inaccurate that I know I’ve been responding to that for years. People who are becoming parents see the film, one of the few depictions of sperm donor, and it is so stressful for them. Other depictions of sperm donors aren’t much better. They’ll have 500 youth or young adults discovering they’re all related because the sperm donor went all over the place. They feel like scary kind of cautionary tales, which I’ve also had to dispel. I’ve had people believe that I also had hundreds of siblings.

Makeda Z.: That’s interesting. When I talk about my family there is a lot of response of, Oh, have you seen that movie where…There’s this one particular documentary where it’s exactly what you just described, Emily, where people find out that they’re related, like half the people in America or something. It’s a horror story. And they’re like, oh, have you seen that? You should see that. And I’m like this is not what I want to talk about right now.

Emily M.: Yes, I did for years have the fear of, what if I fall in love with a half sibling because I don’t know my donor? I honestly had that fear, but the chances of that happening are minuscule and I did check before I got married. I mean I knew my donor, but I did have in the back of my head like, well, if I’m about to get married to somebody, I’ll just ask if their dad was ever a sperm donor, I can just rule them out.

Sadie E-F.: I mean I just got married, but now I’m like, oh darn. I missed opportunity. Something that I definitely thought about. It is a funny thing because how much of it is just other people’s fear getting into you?

Emily M.: In my house we were often so eager to see representation of LGBTQ people in general and especially LGBTQ families that I read that in shows and depictions, even when it really wasn’t there. We would read in the subtext and decide a character was coded gay. Like, this is a queer character. We’re claiming this character. Anytime one parent wasn’t as present in a show, in my head, I was like, Oh yeah, well I’ve only seen one parent on screen or one parent and the, wink, wink, the Godmother. And I thought, oh, I know what’s going on there. That’s a queer family. And I’d just hunt for it.

Sadie E-F.: I recall those conversations happening with my parents. Do you know what I mean? Like, Oh yeah, gay for sure. But I will say is that, for example, they started allowing me to watch The L Word probably far younger than they would have allowed me to watch explicit straight content. I started watching The L Word as of ten. They wanted to share with me these lesbian characters and I really wanted to witness these lesbian characters. It became our family’s show because that was the only show that we had.

Emily M.: We would do the same. There are absolutely other films that, thinking back, I can’t believe we were watching. But it was just that desire for representation with very few depictions in the queer cannon. My parents decided that we should watch. It doesn’t matter exactly if this is appropriate and especially since, at the time, a lot of films with queer characters ended in death or violence. Even in those depictions, being LGBTQ and being a family was often something that was under threat. So even though I felt safe in my community, through the media representation we saw because we were so hungry for it, we sought things out that were reinforcing the reality for many people that it wasn’t safe to be out.

Sadie E-F.: That’s so interesting because I grew up in alternative schools where people generally accepted my family and they didn’t harass me for having queer parents. But I still felt this deep fear of queerness and being gay and whatever. I just having this realization? I mean yeah, it was the zeitgeist, but watching these films, the only thing you saw represented was gay people dying or being abused or kicked out. So of course when I think about coming out or being gay it looks really violent.

Makeda Z.: But I think that’s really interesting too. Like with the coded stuff. In the nineties, explicitly queer characters were so rare in media and to have queer families in media was even more rare. I remember watching the episode of Ellen coming out. My aunts who are lesbians as came over and my moms and my aunts had a viewing party to watch Ellen coming out.

Sadie E-F.: All our parents did! I still think in my house, my mom has like a VHS of the Ellen coming out on tape. We no longer have a VHS player, but she’s keeping it. It was historic. What’s also really interesting about that, is that after that season, her show got canceled and she didn’t work for three years after that. And Laura Dern, who kind of facilitated Ellen’s coming out, she’s the one who was, quote unquote the recruiter. The actor didn’t work for a year after that. That’s how dangerous coming out and being out in the media was. It actually ruined or for a short time ruined careers.

Emily M.: My family’s show that we would watch altogether was definitely Will and Grace. And when one of the main characters, Jack found out he was a father, I was just beyond thrilled. But again, it’s like a big reveal, a kind of moment, which I saw in other shows. In teen dramas it was always a ratings spike or a character arc to have somebody’s parent come out. But it was so often because they caught them cheating and it was a big deal. The teen would get bullied at school about it or it had to be a big family secret. Just to have a show where having LGBTQ parents is a matter of fact, like The Fosters feels like a big change because being queer or being out isn’t used as this big dramatic shock.

Makeda Z.: I was also thinking about it being liberating for me to see a queerspawn character really talk about the pressures of being perfect and being a not perfect character. Sadie was talking about how it was refreshing to see characters on Transparent as not perfect as well. And that means, maybe not likable. That’s our challenge in the media as queerspawn. Which is actually kind of the opposite of the challenge we were speaking to earlier around how in the nineties, any form of being queer or gay or trans was most often shown as violent and as subtexts and the story is – don’t come out because it’ll be a horrible experience. Whereas we’re maybe craving content where we see people just kind of being themselves and struggling with the pressures that are put on them because of who they are, how they have to represent themselves, but also they just want to live their lives.

Emily M.: You’re just mentioning being able to be honest about the challenges both from within our own families, because our families are imperfect and complex and deal with all kinds of things, and also the challenges that we get because of society’s biases and discrimination. The title of your book is “Spawning Generations: Rants and Reflections on Growing Up With LGBTQ Parents”. I love that it starts right away by recognizing that rants and ranting is a valid part of our voice and the queerspawn experience.

Sadie E-F.: It’s funny because that actually comes directly out of the title our youngest contributor’s piece, our nine year old. We realized that was a great way of summing up all the pieces in the book. Some pieces are rants, some pieces are deep reflections. But I love saying that. Because the most brilliant ideas can come from, maybe the most unlikely of places. But yeah, our nine year old Liam Sky is super brilliant and kind of gave us the title of our book.

Makeda Z.: That’s such an interesting reflection that you have and that you can see that in the title because that was a main thrust for us about what we wanted to see in the book – space for queerspawn to tell their story the way they wanted to tell it and to not airbrush it. I feel like there was space to rant about the things that were hard from both inside their family and then the way that those things that might be hard in lots of families were just compelled by systemic issues like homophobia, transphobia, and ranting about those influences of those systemic factors on, on their family.

Emily M.: So where can people find the book? How can people get a copy for themselves?

Makeda Z.: It is being sold as an eBook on Amazon. We do recommend that you get the printed copy. It’s really nice to have in your hands and feel the weight of it. So if you are an American listener and you’d like to buy a copy, we suggest that you buy it directly from our publishers Demeter Press.

Emily M.: So people can find the book on the publisher’s website, which will be linked in the show notes, Demeter Press, or the electronic book on Amazon. And where can folks find you both on social media?

Makeda Z.: Oh, uh, we can be found @ spawngen. And then we have an Instagram account @SpawningGenerations and our Facebook account is also @SpawningGenerations, but you can also look us up on Facebook as Queerspawn Anthology.

Emily M.: Before we started recording, you mentioned exploring some in-person readings or other events and so we definitely want everyone to stay up to date so that they can get the book and meet you sometime.

Makeda Z.: Yeah, well we will be in New York on January 23rd 2019. We are being hosted at Bluestockings Bookshop in Manhattan. We’re going to be inviting contributors who are in the book who live in New York to join us and we’ll be reading pieces from the book.