35 | LGBTQ Divorce Equality

Meet the Guests

Emily Harnett identifies as a second generation queerspawn who has two moms. Emily’s moms used an anonymous sperm donor to create her. Her moms were together for twenty years before separating when Emily was twelve. Emily is twenty years old and an Acting major at Point Park University’s Conservatory of Performing Arts. While Emily is extremely passionate about the arts she is also very passionate about her queerspawn identity and how theater and social justice can intersect. She has over twenty donor siblings and has found eight of them over the past eleven years.

Dori Kavanagh is a licensed clinical social worker in New Jersey. While training to become a social worker she was the New York Chapter Coordinator of COLAGE for almost 5 years. She has done extensive research and clinical training within the LGBTQ community and is passionate about redefining “family” and complex family formations. Raised by her lesbian mom in the 1990’s, they were forced to remain closeted in their town for implicit safety reasons. 20 years later, Dori lives back in her home town with her husband and their 3 daughters and is happy to report that the town had its first Pride Day in 2018, and she and her mom are very much out of the closet.

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Episode Transcript

Emily M: I have three lesbian moms. My bio mom, Cathy was with Grace when I was born and they separated when I was four. For a while I went to Grace’s house every other weekend. Cathy met Nan a few years later and they were together until I was 14. Cathy, Nan, and I lived together until I finished high school and they actually continued to live in our house until they sold it just a few years ago. So that’s a very concise way of sharing many, many years of love and sadness and forgiveness. It really glosses over how I started acting out after grace moved out, or how loved I felt on my wedding day with my three moms there, or how we all celebrate holidays and our triumphs together because we’re all family. Divorce and separation with LGBTQ+ families is complicated and contains extra layers of bias and homophobia, transphobia, biphobia and social expectations. So with me to unpack some of that from the queerspawn perspective is Emily Harnett and Dori Kavanagh. Emily, would you tell us a little bit more about who is in your family and how your family was formed?

Emily H: Yeah, so I have two moms. One is lesbian, one’s bisexual and they created me through donor insemination. They were together for eight years before making the decision to have me. Over the past 11 years I have found a lot of my donor siblings through the Donor Sibling Registry. So I have that kind of network, but I consider myself an only child, as I was raised by myself with like my moms. My mom separated when I was 12.

Dori K: It’s interesting because now I’m in my late thirties, so I’ve had my own family in addition to the family I was raised in. So I have this nice big family now, which I really appreciate and consider a part of my story as well. My mom and my dad were in a straight heteronormative marriage when they had me and my mom really, really wanted a child. I was born in 1981 and at the time there just weren’t accessible methods for lesbian women to have children on their own. It also was an extremely different time. I think my mom at the time really thought that she could do it, that she could be in this marriage in order to have a child. They separated when I was six. They actually divorced when I was 10, but my mother’s partner moved in with us. I was living with my mom and she moved in with us when I was eight years old. So that happened. And then she also helped raise me. So it was my mom, her partner who was a woman, my dad who had moved out. Now I have a husband, Jesse, and we have three daughters. My husband identifies as straight, I identify as queer and we all are just kind of a part of this big family now.

Emily M: Well thank you both for sharing. So when you talk about your family or tell people that you have LGBTQ parents, do you include divorce or separation as part of your story? I know that sometimes I’ll just say that I have lesbian moms and just leave it at that. Do you find yourself telling that full story often when you’re explaining to people that you have LGBTQ parents?

Emily H: When I was born, I had my two moms and it was all about my pride for having queer parents and what that really meant to me. Then once they separated I kind of really did struggle with my queerspawn identity and how my family could still have these queer roots when they’re not together. So currently I’ve been coming to terms with being able to explain that a lot differently. But I definitely just say I have two moms and I don’t really get into the fact that they’re separated, unless it comes up in conversation or if I’m like talking about the different houses that I’ll spend time at.

Dori K: It’s interesting because I feel like a big part of my story and my identifying as queerspawn is because of my mom and dad’s divorce. I pretty much will mention that every single time when I talk about my family or my story. When it comes to when my mom and her partner separated, when I was in my early twenties, they had been together more than 15 years. They shared a home, they had a lot of legally binding things in their relationship. But this was before marriage equality and they never had a domestic partnership or a civil union as New Jersey loves to call it. I never used the word divorce. I said they split up or they’re not together anymore. The language was very different. But sometimes now I find myself just saying I’ve been through two divorces because both of those breakups had very similar impacts on my life.

Emily M: Yeah. That is so real for me. In both cases when I was four and then when I was 14 my parents never had a legally recognized relationship. When it’s 14, divorce wasn’t a word I felt I could use. I would often say like separated but not say divorced even though like that’s what was happening. Now thinking back, I really wish that I had used the language, because I don’t think others understood when I would talk about it. Emily, when you would share to people that your parents had divorced or separated, do you think using that language like made a difference in how others responded?

Emily H: For me personally, I don’t necessarily think that language made a difference in the people that I was talking to. Being the age that I was, it was my mom’s being together was on the forefront of being accepted socially a little bit more then. But I think that using ‘separated’ was not something that people really respected and could understand, especially since my mom don’t live together and things like that.

Dori K: Yeah. It depends on the audience, right? I mean if I’m speaking with both of you right now, having a similar shared experiences I do, it’s easy to just use the term divorce and not feel like I have to explain further. Whereas if I were speaking to people that didn’t really get our kinds of families, I feel like they would get more into the logistics of what that might actually be defined as on paper. You know, it just kinda depends on the audience. I feel like when you can actually say the word divorce, for me it feels like, okay, so this really impacts me, this had a deeper effect. Whereas if I just say my mom had a girlfriend or a partner who helped raise me and then they separated, I don’t know if others would fully grasp that it had such an impact on my identity, on what my family was, and also what the loss and the grief involved in that breakup.

Emily M: Yeah, that’s a really good point. In my experience, it does seem that divorce has a connotation that means children and youth in that family are also impacted where something like a breakup/split/separation has more of a connotation that it only impacts the two people in that relationship. Whereas people kind of understand divorce. It becomes more of a whole family situation as opposed to something just between adults in a relationship. And I definitely miss that. When my parents were divorcing, when I was 14, I had a good friend whose parents were also divorcing and she was getting a network of support that understood what divorce meant to children. I think part of it was the language.

Emily M: When my parents sat me down on the couch to tell me that they were separating. I was 14 and that summer was actually the first time that I had gone to Family Week in Provincetown. And I had met all these other people with LGBTQ parents at Family Week and now had friends I could go on to AIM and chat with. So when my parents told me, their immediate response was to give you space and suggest I go upstairs and talk to my COLAGE friends because those were other people who had experienced divorce and also were queerspawn and so could understand. Did you seek out spaces or other people whose parents were divorced or other queerspawn in those early days?

Emily H: Looking back on everything I really wished that I had in third and fourth grade. I went to COLAGE programming at Family Week the first time around then, though I had been going to Provincetown ever since I can remember. But that was the first time I really participated in like queerspawn activities. Once my parents told me that they were separating, I kind of didn’t feel valid in that community because I thought since my moms aren’t together, I’m not this strong queer family, or I mean I still think my family is very strong but like I didn’t feel that my queerspawn identity was going to be taken as seriously. And so I actually took off many years of going to COLAGE at Family Week. My first year back was not last summer, but the summer before and that completely changed my life. And being around those people and having some shared stories meant so much and I wasn’t getting that for such a long period of time that I almost regret not just going back the next summer, because it was always an option for me. My moms were always offered to bring me back for Family Week. I was like, no, I’m kind of ashamed. I really wish that I had sought out that kind of community when I was going through such a hard emotional time.

Dori K: When my mom and my dad were getting a divorce, it was interesting timing in terms of what the elementary school I was going to was providing in services. There was this group they called Banana Splits. It was formed by the school nurse and a consulting social worker, who would come in and do these early morning groups for kids that had been going through issues of divorce, separation or loss of a parent in some way. I was in the pilot group of that, around the time my parents were going through their divorce. So that to me was super helpful to have a space provided to me by my school that felt safe and confidential and really normalized what was starting to happen with me. I’m an only child also. I didn’t have siblings with this shared experience. I didn’t have anyone to really talk about. It was the late eighties, maybe 1990. I felt, in my upper class, very white affluent suburb of New York City, like the only one at times. And I didn’t see my family reflected, so that was really helpful. There were no other kids in that group, however, whose mom’s best friend, a woman, had moved in just like me. So I was feeling really weird about that. I didn’t really have the language for it. I didn’t have the words for it. It was okay to talk about the divorce, but I didn’t talk about my mom coming out as lesbian. We’re we’re ready to really acknowledge that just yet. And so we were really closeted growing up. It was really for inherent safety reasons.

Dori K: And I look back now and I get why we did what we had to do, but it was extremely difficult and completely changed my life in so many ways, having to be the bearer of that secret. Fast forward 15 plus years and I feel like, okay, now I’m out of college and I’ve started to tell people and I found COLAGE in 2005 and things are feeling really great and safe and maybe it’s kind of cool to have a gay mom and her partner who helped raise me. I was excited to start to share my story and feel like people were like, that’s fine, that’s normal. And at that same time they were splitting up. And at that time I was then like, okay, I need to find another space that was similar to what I had in elementary school, but that was just for those with one or more LGBTQ parent. I needed to know other people that were raised by gay parents. I needed to know other people that had a family like mine. I need to feel like I exist in this world. Because without the words to describe what my mom’s partner was to me, if they didn’t have a legal marriage, I felt lost in how to cope with the loss of what was happening. So when I went to my first Family Week as a counselor for the middle school group, it was just so great for me, it was everything I needed for myself while I was also feeling like I was giving back to our community.

Dori K: In one of the first nights that all the staff and volunteers came together, we were playing, I Love My COLAGEr Who… and someone went in the circle and somebody said, I love my COLAGEr who has divorced parents And literally, I think it was like 90% of us got up and rush to find different seats. We didn’t even have to say what kind of divorce are we talking about. It was accepted however we define it for ourselves and it felt just so validating to see that other people had experienced this. So for me at that point in time, it was really important. And I think I started to seek out other people that had families like mine specifically because I was like, I don’t even know where to go right now and I don’t even know how to deal with like my mom and her partner breaking up. So that was really important.

Emily M: I really felt often that I couldn’t and that I shouldn’t talk about it outside of queerspawn spaces because in my town we were the only family that was out. My parents were divorcing when I was 14, that was the year that Massachusetts got marriage equality. So LGBTQ families and the validity of our families were big news and suddenly being talked about in my classrooms. And meanwhile everyone’s asking me if my parents were going to get married now. And I had to say like actually they’re getting divorced – if that was allowed, if they had been able to get married, this would be a divorce time. So I felt an additional external pressure that our I needed to be that poster. I need it to be perfect. Our family needed to be perfect. I needed to be this living proof that LGBTQ people can make good parents. Divorce already has stigmas attached to it and I really believe that there was an additional layer then attached for LGBTQ people who, at the same time that we were fighting for marriage equality, were breaking up and getting divorced. I really felt I shouldn’t talk about it because we have to be the shining example. I don’t know if either of you ever felt that.

Dori K: Having to like keep the secret really strikes me. It was harder for me to find support because for so many years I had to keep my family a secret. If you’re keeping your family a secret to begin with, what do you do when you actually need help with sorting out real issues if your family is breaking up? Finally I’m really comfortable with my family and I love having my mom and her partner and I’m so out and proud of this now. And then they split up. As soon as I started to become really comfortable with it and out about it, they broke up. So I felt like, you made me keep this secret for I don’t even know how many years, and I’m finally owning this identity. I love it. And you’re breaking up. How do I go to everyone who’s been so loving and accepting and tell them this? Right. That was almost like a, you gotta be kidding moment for me.

Emily H: My moms actually got married in Provincetown, Massachusetts and that was the peak of what I thought my queer identity was. I was really excited about it and then when they told me that they were separating a couple of years after, it was how do I go from being so proud of something and so outspoken about something and being this person who sticks up for so many different people in my school community, now that my parents aren’t even what I’m fighting for? And I think it really had me question the ‘love always wins’ kind of thing. How do I fight for that when my moms aren’t even together anymore? If you’re going to get marriage equality, you’re going to get divorce equality. You’re going to get all the other messiness that comes with this. I feel like queer separation and divorce kind of humanizes the fact that we’re just people too and we deserve the same opportunity as everyone else. And that’s the same opportunity to get separated in divorce.

Dori K: Yeah. And just because there is marriage equality, I think it’s putting more heteronormative standards on queer couples, especially those that have children where it’s like, well now you could get married. As if that’s what every single queer person has been waiting for or define how great their relationship is.

Emily M: I remember when I was like 16 finally working up the courage, and I was so nervous for some reason, telling my moms that it’s okay if you want to date somebody else. I felt like I had never said that to them and neither of them had dated anyone. And so I just wanted to share that. Did your parents start new relationships and what was that like for you?

Dori K: I mean before my mom and dad were even divorced my mom’s partner was living with us. I think my dad would tell his version of the story that they got divorced because my mom is gay. Whereas I think that’s definitely not the only reason. I mean it’s a huge one, but I don’t think they would have stayed together. So my mom was with someone pretty much during the whole breakup and that person went on to help raise me and live with us and be my mom’s life partner until they broke up when I was 22 or 23 years old. It was not easy.

Dori K: And you know what’s interesting, the reaction I had to my mom’s partner moving in with us was this same that I’ve observed other people’s reactions to a step-parent moving in with them in straight relationships. Where I just was like, I don’t like you, you’re trying to take my mom away. And that was very much the eight or nine year old reaction that I experienced. And then I remember kind of feeling it again in my twenties so I think it’s important to note that divorce happens all the time, right across the lifespan for young children. And I’m putting air quotes right now because I think a lot of assumptions that divorce happens when kids are kids. But divorce happens when kids are adults as well. And so when I went through the second divorce, it’s almost like I was regressing again as a child. I was feeling like I was put in the middle between the two of them and they were kind of like using me to get at each other. And I didn’t really know what to do or how to handle it. And I felt like I had to throw a temper tantrum at times. I feel like it’s important to just acknowledge that all of those reactions are normal and it doesn’t matter how old you are at all.

Emily M: So how has your parents getting divorced impacted your own view on marriage or monogamy or relationships? Dori, maybe do you want to start since you’ve been married for 10 years?

Dori K: You know, it’s funny, I read Joan Didion once and she described when she was getting married to her husband, they said it’s not till death do us part. It’s if we don’t want to do this next week, that’s okay too. And I think it was important for me to be with someone, but I did put extra pressure on myself to be I’m not going to be affected by all of the broken families I’ve been a part of. There was a stigma I carried. When I met Jesse I knew I was going to fall in love with him because on our first date, coming out about my mom had turned into first day conversation at that point, I remember saying, you know, I just want to let you know now like my mom’s a lesbian. And he was like, okay. Every other person I had dated had a reaction and all I wanted was nothing, because we always have to explain, right.

Dori K: There are people out there that look at me and say, oh, well Dori is a success story because look at how she’s in a healthy relationship and has these three kids and after everything she’s been through. But you don’t really know what I’ve worked through or continue to work through. You just see what’s on the surface. And let me tell you, with divorce, there’s a lot that we hide right beneath the surface, that the kids hide, that the parents hide. It could go on for many years. So I think it did impact me, but there’s still a lot of unresolved pain I feel. It’s not something I grieve about constantly, when it comes to the two divorces I experienced. But I do feel that at the end of the day, no matter how bad their relationships were, you wish they could have worked out. I think so for me it’s extra important to just make my marriage and that foundation a priority in my life and also for my kids to really see what a true, loving relationship is.

Emily M: It’s interesting that you had mentioned like the people describe you as this success story because success is then clearly defined as like a marriage.

Emily H: Yeah. You can find the love within so many different aspects of your life. It doesn’t need to result in marriage, but that’s just my outlook. We will see as time progresses what kind of relationships I get into and things like that.

Emily M: Yeah. Well with just a few more minutes left, what do you wish more parents knew in order to support their queerspawn through divorce? And then the other side of that is, what would you say to queerspawn listening?

Emily H: I think what I would say to parents of queerspawn who are going through divorce is just to really listen to your child and understand that the world is not necessarily equipped for the type of situation that you’re going through. And it’s important to be able to be there and hear that your child might not have the same resources or understanding from their peers as someone going through a straight separation or divorce would. I think that’s really important. And then also to a fellow queerspawn – it’s going to be okay. And I know that sounds so big and vague, but it really is and there are resources of COLAGE and people that are so here to listen to you. And while they might not be at your fingertips, just with a little bit of digging and a little bit of putting yourself out there, you can have this vast community that is here to support you and really care and love you. Also not to worry about what other people in your community and home might think about your parents because your family’s still your family no matter what. And if that results in divorce or separation, your moms or dads or trans parents are still yours. That’s something that I really would have appreciated hearing from a fellow queerspawn when I was 12 years old.

Dori K: If I were to add anything to that, what I would say to parents that are getting a divorce is you have to love your kids more than you hate each other. Because we as the kids, we feel it. We see it, we know it. Even if it’s all behind closed doors, we going through our own pain and redefinition of the family and it changes our stories, but they’re still our stories. And so helping your child through it, finding them a safe space where they can speak with others that have a similar shared experience is just so, so important.

Dori K: And for queerspawn I would definitely echo what Emily said about how it’s going to be okay and you’re not alone. I really just want to back that up as a person who’s been through this twice. It doesn’t define the family. It’s up to you to decide how you want to define your family, to share your story. Even without the defined language, it’s completely up to you. You’re the narrator of your story. And there is a lot of help, whether it’s through individual therapy or group support, to help you get through that and own it, to come out on the other side. Because if there’s anything that I know I’ve been through, it’s looking at my family as one of my biggest weaknesses. And then through meeting people with other shared experiences and becoming the true owner of my story, I realized it was actually one of my biggest strengths.