A lesson in Queer: interview with a lesbian mum
Jennifer Power is an Australian academic, social commentator and researcher of LGBTIQ concerns. Her PhD explored gay activism and HIV in Australia and she’s had a long association with same-sex and gender diverse communities through her work at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society and The Bouverie Centre, both at La Trobe University. Jennifer has published many works about same-sex parented families in Australia in both academic journals and in social media forums. She is a mum of two young children and is connected with the rainbow families community in Victoria. In this interview with Henry von Doussa, she talks candidly about how her queer identity is shaped by, and shapes, her work as an academic, her relationships, her parenting and her desire to interrogate norms.
Henry von Doussa: Jen, I want to start by asking you a bit about what it’s like working in the queer family space as a researcher and academic having to research an area that is personal for you; that is your life?
Jennifer Power: There is always a tension for queer academics doing work in sexuality or gender studies because your personal life is part of the story in some ways. For me, being a queer parent and doing research on same-sex parented families has made me really think about how and when (and when not) to insert my own life into my academic work. But there are certain criticisms levelled at queer academics. I’ve been named on right wing websites saying, in effect: ‘this is a queer parent so don’t trust her research’. There’s this assumption that if you’re a queer parent you can’t be producing reliable research on the subject. And there’s an assumption that, as a queer academic, you must have a political agenda, so therefore your research is unreliable.
Obviously, that sort of critique is not levelled at say a cisgender straight man who’s working in men’s health. No-one assumes he’s got an agenda because he wants men to be healthy. But because you’re on the margins you get identified as such. And because you’re in a political field, it’s a sort of tension you need to navigate. Usually I argue that if your work is reliable and rigorous and transparent, then it just doesn’t matter who you are personally. And I stand by that. But I think that’s a pity in some ways because sometimes it’s really powerful to draw on your own life and it can genuinely inspire research and writing.
HD: So what do you do, Jen? How do you deal with that?
JP: I’ve tried to keep myself as anonymous as possible, and have not been involved in activism in that area for a while to avoid any perceived conflict. But at the same time, when your research has a political edge, you are an activist of sorts. So, for example, the work I’ve done around gender diverse or same-sex parenting has connected to this issue of whether the kids raised by same-sex parents are ‘all right’. And it’s all everyone wants to ask about, ‘are the kids all right?’ Over and over again I get asked to write or talk about whether kids with queer parents are damaged compared to other kids. And that is a highly political question. Most people aren’t asking if the kids are okay because they really care if the kids are okay. Usually it is being asked by people on the ultra-right who want ammunition to vilify gay people, to prove they should not be allowed to have kids. Or, people want a defense against the ultra-right—‘the kids are okay, look the science proves it!’ Really, if they thought the kids were not doing well they might be asking what they could do to better support kids who have queer parents, not asking whether or not they should have been born in the first place.
So I hate having to answer the question because it feels like putting up a defence against a question that just shouldn’t be asked. It’s just that people know these days that they can’t directly critique adults’ right to be gay, so anti-gay campaigners have to find these other issues to mount their attack—usually they find a way in through the idea they are just protecting children. But I don’t think they are protecting anyone. It’s also frustrating because generally the evidence we use to debate whether the kids are okay is based on these tiny, little deviations in psychometric measures. I can see why those measures are good in a clinical sense to help individual kids. But are these really a good marker of whether a group of kids is okay? I am not sure. But I am not a psychologist, so maybe not the best person to talk about that. Anyway, all those psychometric measures say the kids are fine, in case there was any doubt.
HD: Does that have an impact on how you do your work or what you put out there? Do you feel constrained by that?
JP: Sometimes. I certainly feel vulnerable because of it at times. When there was controversy over sex education in schools and a lot of academics were being publicly critiqued, everyone felt a bit vulnerable. I took some things down from my blog, laid low. Made sure my personal life was invisible.
But I don’t feel constrained as such. I’ve had lots of thoughts about that sort of tension since you suggested this interview, about how if you’re queer and politically engaged and an academic, there’s an ongoing tension. But tension is creative as well. Doing the sort of social science research that I do, your job is to unpack what’s going on in the world and to question it and to challenge it and imagine what else is possible. That is our job and when you focus on gender and sexuality, it’s inherently queer and inherently political in some ways. And so your identity and your job and your politics do converge. And they should. But you constantly have to reflect on your own sense of self and your confidence. You have to be constantly prepared to put yourself out there on all levels—as a researcher and as a writer and personally—and to be rejected and critiqued. It’s the whole nature of the game. It’s a real confidence trick. But maybe that’s what all queer people do—be willing to put ourselves out there because the world looks different to us and we challenge it.
HD: But I can imagine other people who would not perhaps feel the same about confidence as you might. And that is what I’m curious about, whether there is a way in which that queerness, or internalised queer oppression, or women’s oppression, sits on you in a particular way that means you’re not personally ‘Jen who’s struggling with her own confidence’, but that actually there are structural constraints at play.
JP: Absolutely. And I wouldn’t be the first person to say that. I think this game—academia, but the whole world of course—has been designed for cisgender white men, because you do have to be very confident. The people who do really well are those who are very confident in their position, who can talk the talk, who don’t question themselves, who haven’t had to question themselves. And who’s that? Cisgender, straight white men. No disrespect to them. There are plenty of men in that category who do fantastic work and are highly self-reflective. But they just haven’t had to question their legitimacy in the world. That’s the reality. And, not to mention the time commitment. Once you’re a woman with kids it’s really very hard to keep up professionally. We all know a lot about that. That’s a confidence trick too—it takes confidence just to get up every day, and get everyone out the door and get to work and pretend your day isn’t as chaotic as it really is.
HD: So thinking about the family focus of this interview, tell me a bit about your parenting journey.
JP: So I had my first child in 2009. I had another one in 2013. But when I had them I was in two different relationships—a different relationship for each child. So in effect, my children are biological siblings (I carried them both and they have the same donor), but they have two different family experiences because they both have different other parents, other mothers, besides me. But now I live as a single mother and co-parent with their two other mothers. It’s complicated. I sometimes feel like I have to draw a picture to explain my family—like a genogram. But for me, that process of having babies and separating and living as a single mother has been an interesting lesson in what it means to be queer.
HD: Tell me more about that lesson in queer.
JP: One thing that surprised me having babies as a lesbian—well there were lots of things that surprised me about having babies— but one thing I don’t think I quite expected was that all that stuff around mother guilt … and time pressure, and feeling guilty about going back to work, and trying to make the family perfect and all that. It really did hit me quite hard. I don’t know why I thought I would be different. But I thought as a queer parent, maybe I would be a bit liberated from that. Mothers get such a hard time. And what I found was that I felt this enormous pressure to be normal, to be really normal as a mother—normal normal. What does that even mean? I have decided it is nostalgia. That nostalgic vision—summer holidays, dad cooking the BBQ, and mum in the kitchen. That ideal upbringing in that very nostalgic way. But I couldn’t do it. Once separation and single parenthood was in the mix the nostalgic vision was a mess. It was just a sense of failure
HD: Do you think that your heterosexual sister would have the same nostalgia—your straight sister would have the same or similar nostalgia about bringing up kids well
JP: Oh I think she feels the pressure stronger than I do in a way. There is pressure on all women. But she probably focuses on different things, and even not having to have the same gender politics in the household as my sister let me do it from a slightly different angle
HD: Do you think that there was an added pressure to do a good job because you were a same sex parent?
JP: Yes. And that was really visible to me as a separated parent. There was genuine shame for me in the separation, still is. Like I really struggled with feeling that I was a terrible mother, not being good enough to keep my family together and it was in those moments I really questioned whether there was an extra layer of possible damage for my kids because of being a queer parent. It’s crazy though, that sort of shame. There’s a sort of intellectual part of me that thinks, ‘Get over it, you’re allowed to be who you are and the kids are okay!’, and all of that. And I feel a bit silly for naming it as shame. But even when you can intellectually rationalize this sort of shame, it’s still a very deep-seated thing. There still really is this pressure deep down, a kind of emotional and social pressure—to be sort of normal, in a way. It’s harder to challenge that stuff when there’s kids involved—because you have to try to convince yourself that they are ok even when the world tells you that you are not good enough as a parent. It’s quite intense. It makes me teary even saying it out loud to be honest.
HD: Can you to talk a little bit more about shame?
JP: Yes. All right. Because no-one does do they?
HD: Because no-one does. And I imagine you’re not the only separated lesbian Mum in the world. But I reckon that not many of them are getting to talk about this stuff, which is why I wanted to do this interview, ‘The individual is collective’ kind of notion. Given that the idea of one mother and a nuclear family is so strong, is there shame for you around having another mother and not another father—not a father, in some way? Or have you gotten over that years ago, just being a lesbian out in the world?
JP: No, no. I think that actually comes back to bite you a bit with kids. Like in some ways I got over that years ago. I’ve always been pretty out as a lesbian, even when I was young, I didn’t struggle much. You know, I lived in a progressive family, I came out in a progressive environment at uni. I had a pretty easy run.
But I would say that awareness of homophobia has hit me more in my older years than in my younger years, some of that—whatever you want to call it—internalised homophobia. Because once you have kids, you’re out. You have less choice—you have to be out in all these everyday, mainstream places—the doctor, the school, the childcare, the dentist. And maybe in hindsight I—because I had a ponytail and looked like a straight woman—I passed a lot. I was very acceptable in mainstream life. Mostly I was out. I didn’t deliberately pass, but I probably just did. When you have kids and move into the suburbs and you have to go to schools, that, for sure, takes bravery. You don’t get to pass and you don’t get to choose who you interact with. There’s degrees of that, but sometimes you just don’t want to be the queer family on the block. You just want to be the normals. Some days, you know? Monday morning, seven AM … you wanna be the normals.
HD: So it feels a bit like there’s always someone watching—a spectator in a sense? You’re always being witnessed as a queer family?
JP: Maybe, a little bit, yes. You’re more visible. It’s a bit tiring. But for me too then I’ve got the layers of separation over that. So I think I’ve told you that story about going into the administration office at school to enrol my daughter. I had to explain my whole family situation because we were out of the school zone and I needed to justify her attendance. And I just felt awful. So that’s when the ‘I’m really outside the norm here’ hit home, explaining it to the administration woman at the front office at the school. She was so nice. I was practically in tears and obviously looked upset. She said to me, ‘I’ll just take it away and get my head around it, shall I?’ But in a nice way, not a derogatory way. The shame was in my head, not coming from her. But it was still real. Not that I live my life in doom and gloom, I think that is important to say. It’s just these moments, where difference become more tangible.
HD: So you think separation might feel different for queer parents? Heterosexual people probably feel shame about it too?
JP: I think queer parents have different pressures that aren’t often spoken about and that are difficult to speak about. In lesbian families there are two mothers. And there is pressure when it comes to biology and legitimacy. Mothers who are not the birth mother, or biological mother, often feel really vulnerable in the role as a parent—and I reckon this is magnified for some people after separation. If there’s insecurities and tensions in the backdrop, that’s when it’s really going to show or come to the fore. But for me, as a biological mother, I also felt vulnerable as a mother through that process of separating from my partner and found it hard to make sense of this and hard to talk about. I was really conscious of how it might be perceived if I spoke about my grief at being separated from my children or fear of how people might see me. How do I acknowledge that ‘biological privilege’—the fact that I don’t have to question my legitimacy on those grounds—while still talking about how vulnerable I felt as a mother in that moment? I mean it’s all in there but some of it’s unspeakable.
But when I think about it, perhaps it is not just about biology. There is such as lack of cultural imagination for two mothers—even more so for two fathers. Because culturally, there’s one mother. Every vision of motherhood, there is just one mother. Even though the lesbian community has done a massive amount to shift that and to queer that vision of what a family looks like, most of the world doesn’t understand how two mother families operate and it can be hard to write that script for yourself—especially in separation. You sometimes step on each other’s toes a bit to feel legitimate or safe as a mother—in my experience anyway, a bit of two-mother turf-war. It can feel vulnerable.
HD: Yes. So two-mother turf-war …
JP: Sort of. Like you both … you grow up with this idea of what it means to be a mother. And then you have to share that role. It can be quite confronting. It can be amazing when it works well. But obviously people separate for a reason and it isn’t always working well. So you have to learn to reimagine motherhood in a two-mother family in quite interesting ways—and I am still doing that as a single mother. It’s kinda ironic.
HD: You also talked about the absence of imagination. And I guess that’s what you’re talking about now, is that a cultural imagining of what family is?
JP: Well you really do have to craft that when your family is different. Same-sex couple families have to craft that and, bloody hell, you have to craft and recraft when you are a separated same-sex couple family. There is no cultural scripting for that. But maybe there is liberation in that too. But that’s not always easy. Coming back to that issue of whether the kids are okay, I had this weird time where I was writing about whether kids are okay and presenting evidence that shows that kids are okay in same-sex families, but kids who experience their parents’ divorce or kids with single parents are much more vulnerable. It felt really weird writing that. So at the same time as I’m sort of feeling like I could be critiqued for being a queer parent with a political agenda, justifying why the kids are okay, what I’m writing is that my kids might not be okay.
HD: Yes. Wow that must be tough.
JP: Yes it sucks. It sucks. And no-one knows that. No-one—because my story’s so hidden, no-one sees that, obviously, because I am just presenting evidence in a fairly objective framework.
HD: So when you’re writing ‘the kids are okay’, you’ve got another narrative going in your head that says that ‘mine are not okay’?
JP: Well yes and no. I think this is where the queer stuff comes in. People assume kids do best in a heterosexual, nuclear family. Every other family form has to justify itself. So our basis for measuring ‘okay’ is flawed, because there are plenty of kids raised in stable, hetero families who aren’t okay. We just don’t look at them as a group.
Also what do you really mean by okay? What if your kid is emotionally up and down, but highly creative and a wonderful artist. Are they not okay? What if a kid has a tough childhood, but develops into a highly resilient adult? Was their life okay? I am not entirely sure I know the answer to that. I just know that we need to always question the assumptions made in all this stuff.
And I reckon queer people are good at questioning this stuff. We have had to. We know that most assumptions people make in the world don’t make sense. We live with that. And so for me in a way, being queer, or living a queer life, is just as simple as actually trying to challenge some of those assumptions and some of that shame—honestly—around divorce and separation and single parenting and normal parenting and what makes kids okay. And shame seems really like an intense word I think because there’s such a long history now of divorce and separation and single parenting, but I think it’s still really there for women in particular, or men probably too. The sense of failure and that families are meant to be a certain way and parents are meant to be a certain way and you’re meant to raise your kids in a certain way. It’s very strong.
HD: Because there’s a queer lens that sits over that and makes it harsher at this moment in history?
JP: No, I think the queer lens is forgiving, at least for me. Because it’s a lens that sort of reminds me you can—you’re allowed to lead your life differently and that actually for generations of us there’s creativity and resilience in being queer and celebrating not being normal. And why would my kids be any different? So they may not have had the normal, heterosexual or even homonormative life. But that doesn’t mean that that’s a lesser life. It’s still a cool life. And that’s a queer narrative I think.
And that’s a narrative I get to hold onto as a queer woman, rather than being imbued in the normative heterosexual frame. That’s really important to me. The experience of queer for me now is as a separated, single parent. And recognizing that a different family is okay and it can be fun and subversive in a great way and not a failure is like a queer project of sorts. And that’s where queers come from, you know? We’re not pathology and we’re not aberrations and we’re not doing the wrong thing. We’re living our lives differently to this normative standard. And there’s real strength and pride in that. And community. So yes, that’s what queer is for me now. I’m not cool and I am not particularly radical in my everyday life. I am kinda middle-aged. I am just figuring out how to be okay as a parent.
HD: How does Marriage Equality sit over all of this for you, just thinking about the temperature of gay activism at the moment, of queer life?
JP: Oh I felt really alienated from it, partly because of all of this. Partly because for me I felt so alienated from the homo-nuclear family model. And alienated from some of that politics which was a bit geared toward ‘please like me’. ‘Please like us because we are normal and we want to be married and monogamous and have kids just like you’. The stupid vote forced us all into that position. And I didn’t feel like I wanted to be that. And I certainly didn’t feel like I was that or could be that. I am not against marriage equality at all. I think it’s cool. I just felt very detached from the whole thing. I think a lot of people did.
HD: In your book, Movement, Knowledge and Motion: Gay Activism and HIV AIDS in Australia—you said, ‘Vigilance is necessary to ensure that once the basics have been achieved, the cause does not get forgotten.’ Is there any way you can apply this statement to activism around queer parenting and families. While there’s a lot that’s been achieved, do you think there’s a sort of greater cause that needs to be held onto around family activism and queer family?
JP: I think there’s a greater cause that needs to be held onto around diversity, and that family diversity doesn’t get lost. So I think the world will come to grips with gay marriage and kids of same sex couples. But there’s much broader diversity than that. Trans people who transition after they’ve had kids, or before, or trans men who are pregnant. Even queer single parents. There’s lots of us out there. The narrative that kids can’t adapt to their parents changing, separating, living their lives and being human and being gender diverse or diverse in other ways needs to be challenged. I think it’s important that that keeps getting challenged without it seeming like we aren’t doing the best we can for our kids. I’m not a child psychologist so I don’t want to be attacked for not taking kids concerns seriously. I know change and loss is tough for kids and they need support. But I am not convinced that kids can’t thrive despite this. And we need to talk about that. Why can’t we celebrate family diversity in all its glory?
With Marriage Equality too, lots of people have said this, what does it mean for diversity in terms of sexuality and relationship styles and status and people who aren’t monogamous and people who are polyamorous and people who are single and have casual sex or are just queer in other ways? I think that’s been dropped off, that celebration of diversity is what needs to be protected. Queer community used to do this so well. Celebrate diversity. It used to be the cause more overtly, before marriage equality came along.
And also, not sanitizing things so much. There is bodies and there’s sex and there’s pleasure. And sex and sexuality is important in a lot of queer culture, queers know how to have fun and how to do sex. And a lot of that was erased I think from the Love is Love campaign. We talked about relationships and romance, but not sex. I think there’s this pressure to sanitise it all a bit. But why should we? Sex, sexuality, pleasure. It’s part of diversity. And maybe that sort of links back to the queer family thing too. For me, queer the narrative, even though it adds a layer of shame or whatever sometimes, it also adds a layer of ‘fuck, it’s okay to do life differently!’ It’s cool and there’s joy and pleasure in that and liberation.
Henry Von Doussa is a researcher working at The Bouverie Centre (Victoria’s Family Institute) and Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society. Family health and wellbeing is his key area of interest. Henry has published numerous academic and fiction pieces including a novel, The Park Bench.
Jennifer Power is an Australian academic, social commentator and researcher of LGBTIQ concerns. Her PhD explored gay activism and HIV in Australia and she’s had a long association with same-sex and gender diverse communities through her work at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society and The Bouverie Centre, both at La Trobe University. Jennifer has published many works about same-sex parented families in Australia in both academic journals and in social media forums. She is a mum of two young children and is connected with the rainbow families community in Victoria.