For Joe von Malachowski, coming out to his lesbian mothers proved unexpectedly difficult. He investigates a new generation of queer people who have found being raised by LGBTQ parents both a privilege and a challenge.
“It was a little bit of an accident how I found out.”
It is 2012 and 17 year old Rachael has just got home late from a babysitting job. As she throws her bag down by the door, she notices the house seems strangely quiet. A friend of her mum’s was due to be staying with them, and she expected to be greeted by the sound of the end of their evening. But the house is still. As she always does, Rachael heads upstairs to let her mum know that she’s got back safely. Luckily she knocks on the bedroom door.
As Rachael walks in her mum scrambles to pull the duvet up to her chin. She is naked in bed, clearly drunk when she goes to speak. Lying next to her mum, despite their best efforts to hide under the sheets, is the family friend.
“It was a bit awkward… my mum sheepishly came downstairs in her dressing gown a few minutes later and said, ‘sorry about that…Jenny and I are seeing each other.”
That’s when it all fell into place for Rachael. Whilst she’d met some of her mum’s boyfriends over the years, now she could begin to put together the missing pieces. She remembered her mum’s female friends that she’d been introduced to but had sometimes disappeared abruptly. “Oh! That makes sense now. I understand why that friend would sleep over!” Her mum was bisexual.
“It’s never been awkward since then. And we’ve had lots of conversations about LGBTQ stuff ever since. I really don’t know why she didn’t tell me. I mean, I grew up in Brighton!”
But 18 months later Rachael was the one keeping a secret from her mum.
“I probably didn’t realise I was bi until I was about 18. And luckily for me, because of how I was brought up, I knew it wouldn’t be an issue with my parents. But I still had this really strong feeling that I didn’t want to tell my mum. So I just let her assume I was straight.”
However, now at university, Rachael was dating another woman, and it was serious enough that the time had come to have a conversation with her family. And her mum really hates surprises.
“I just had to sit them down and say- ‘I’m dating Helen.’ And it was the just the weirdest reaction from my mum…”
Rachael is speaking to me via video call, and she lets out a very startled, very high pitched ‘oh, ok’ to illustrate this weird reaction.
“My dad (who is the most fantastic feminist) got a bit too excited and said ‘Oh! I didn’t know you were a lesbian!’ And it didn’t go much further than that. That was the end of that conversation.”
So why was she so nervous about telling her bisexual mum that she was also bisexual? Surely, if anyone would accept and understand Rachael’s sexuality it would be her mother?
“I guess it’s just that sort of awkwardness. Anything related to sex and relationships I wanted to avoid.”
Even though Rachael knew it wouldn’t be an issue for her mother- even though Rachael knew her mother had gone through similar experiences- coming out wasn’t as easy as you might expect.
Rachael’s is an experience shared by many second generation queers- the LGBTQ children of a queer parent. The very existence of such a group can be seen as a triumph of the gay rights movement, evidence of the growing societal acceptance of diverse family set ups.
But whilst this group can exemplify progress -they rarely face rejection, disapproval or violence from their families- being a second generation queer is not without its own unique complexities and challenges.
I can claim this with some confidence as a second generation queer myself.
“One of my mum’s likes to think of herself as very butch. And when I started to do this research, I started to realise; when I look at very butch women, that’s a very maternal thing for me. They seem very motherly to me. Which is probably the complete contrast to what most people think. But it’s because they’re the women who raised me.”
Eliza was raised by two lesbian mothers. Her adopted brother is gay. Her grandmother on her mother’s side came out as a lesbian when Eliza was a child.
“So when I came out at 17, it was quite funny because we were all gay. All the kids were gay! And obviously my granny as well. So we were this big, LGBTQ family. My straight aunt felt left out!”
As a rare example of a third generation queer, it is perhaps understandable that Eliza developed an academic interest in LGBTQ families. She is currently a researcher at the University of Southampton working on a project studying people raised by LGBTQ parents; some of whom, like her, are queer themselves.
It is an area of study that has been largely neglected up until now. Researchers have historically approached the topic with wariness, fearing that highlighting the experiences of queer youth with queer parents would play into the hands of homophobic critics. Namely, the archaic and inaccurate argument that LGBTQ parenting ‘makes’ children queer.
But Eliza is adamant that the academic community shouldn’t be scared to delve into the experiences of second generation queers. She cites the groundbreaking work done by researchers such as Susan Golombok in showing that children raised in same-sex households were just as well adjusted as the children of heterosexuals. This work was vital in protecting the rights of lesbian mothers at a time during the 1970’s and 80’s when they were at high risk of having their children taken away from them.
It can be hard accessing queer-parent families, given the relatively low numbers even in 2021. And second generation queer families are even rarer. But Eliza explains that second generation queers are out there and their experiences deserve to be understood too.
“The research is clear that people raised by LGBTQ parents are just as fine as people raised by straight parents. But there are unique situations that come out of queer parenting, and we shouldn’t shy away from talking about them.”
Through her research Eliza has found that every second generation queer story is different. As you might expect there are stories of support, encouragement and queer households where there wasn’t even the need to ‘come out’. Stories of the unbridled joy of a community shared with those you love most. But there are also examples of misunderstandings and mistrust. Of the inherited fear of homophobia. Of intergenerational conflict over what it means to be queer. And the clashes that unavoidably occur between parent and child.
But as that even rarer individual- a third generation queer- what unique experiences does Eliza feel she has gone through?
“I think being the lesbian child of a lesbian mum- especially when you add in my lesbian granny and my gay brother…you get more of a reaction when you tell people. So I don’t always reveal it all at once. Not that I hide it. But people feel like it’s a lot. And start asking you about what’s in my genes!”
My own story as a second generation queer has, in part, been defined by this fear of what might be inherited.
My mother didn’t want me to be gay. She would repeatedly tell me as much. I remember as a teenager- in the midst of hero worshipping queer musicians, adopting androgyny, and refusing to touch a sports ball of any kind- she would warn me. “You better not be gay.”
I understood it was a joke. One we had shared for as long as I could remember. But underneath the joke, I also understood she was being serious. That for me to be gay could bring negative attention. It could undo the hard work she had committed to being normal, the sacrifices she had made to protect me from reflected homophobia. The sacrifices she had made in part out of guilt for who she was and who she loved. It would be best for everyone if she raised a straight child; not through any prejudice on her part, but because of what everyone else might think. Because she might be blamed.
North Yorkshire in the 1990’s felt a long way from Brighton. There were no other same-sex parents at the school gates. My mother worked in the same job for 16 years without coming out to a single colleague. This is despite having a long-term committed partner who helped raise me and my sister. Despite always being honest with me about her sexuality. The language she used to describe to me her relationship advanced as I did, but the sentiment stayed honest, simple and positive. She was happy living with the woman she loved, and that was all that mattered.
Yet to the wider world, my mother let people believe she was a divorced single parent.
It was a deception that I was encouraged to propagate. In the playground I would talk of weekends and holidays with my dad, but leave my home life deliberately vague. If friends of mine did come to our house, I would point out the spare room as the place my mum’s ‘friend’ was staying. I became adept in subterfuge before I could have possibly understood why it was necessary to deceive. And I learnt to hold two seemingly contradictory truths in my head at the same time; that my two mums were completely normal, something to be proud of; and that we needed to hide that fact from most of the rest of the world.
“We just thought- you can’t be gay! And we knew that was stupid, if you’re gay, you’re gay and people will just have to get over it. But inside me, there was a real part of me that was saying, please don’t be gay! But of course, as a lesbian, the other part of me was saying, yea, lets hope he is gay!”
I have not seen my mother since I came out to her as bisexual. We’re speaking via FaceTime about my childhood and how ‘trained’ I was to present like a child of a heterosexual. To lie, as I put it to her.
She doesn’t remember it being as staged as that.
“I think I explained to you that our living situation was absolutely fine, but not everybody will understand it. And not everybody will be kind to you if you tell them. It was about; do you need to tell people? It was probably me being over cautious and wanting to protect you. From being made fun of. And that making life hell for you.”
Those stakes sound pretty high for a child. And I must have recognised that, because I lie- or cover or mislead or omit- about my home life throughout primary school, before moving to live with my father for high school. There, as a teenager, I am honest with a select group of friends about the mums who raised me, and I am rewarded for my honesty by complete acceptance. And luckily for my mum- for everyone- I am straight. Or at least I’m pretty damn sure I am. Give or take a kiss or two.
This could have been the end of the story- and indeed, it was for almost a decade.
It is tempting to attribute my ability to live a double life in my 20’s- queer when it suited me, straight for all those times it didn’t- to the skills I developed as a child in Yorkshire. Learning carefully who to trust. Learning how to omit without lying, how to steer the conversation away from dangerous areas.
Or, as more than one person has suggested to me, learning how to have my cake and eat it.
“If there’s a pride parade or march anywhere around here, our kids are the ones at the front holding their placards saying ‘I’VE GOT TWO MUMS AND IT’S GREAT!’ It’s a thing we do as a family because we’re proud of ourselves as a family.”
I’m speaking to Lisa, Kel and their teenage daughter Dara about their LGBTQ activism work. Work the whole family seems to get involved with.
Lisa and Kel had been together about a year when Dara came out to them as bisexual. Dara was 12 at the time. As Lisa explains, Dara “just came home from school one day, and put her school bag down in the hall, walked into the kitchen and said, ‘right, I’ve got something to tell you. I’m bisexual and I have a girlfriend now.’ And we were like…right! Ok!”
It seems to me a remarkably self-assured declaration from someone so young. Dara, who is now 15, explains that although she was nervous before telling her mums, she was nowhere near as anxious as some of her friends who have had to come out to straight parents. In fact, she told her parents on the very first day that she knew herself.
“I needed them to know who I was, and support me. And I knew they would react great.”
And how did Lisa and Kel react? They were certainly surprised and ‘kind of dumbfounded.’ But then again, as Kel reflects, “kids are full of surprises.”
Dara- who is now a youth ambassador for Pride in Surrey- has since been involved in setting up a Pride society at her school, with the support of openly LGBTQ members of staff. She describes feeling very proud that she has two mums, although she admits that her friends love joking about it. I ask in what way her friends joke- does she mind the teasing? But Dara assures me it’s only because she’s so lucky; a lot of her friends aren’t out to their straight parents yet.
Dara’s experience is very different to her mum Lisa’s upbringing. Lisa, who attended a convent school in Ireland, didn’t come out until she was 37. She describes a silence on LGBTQ issues throughout her youth, and a community still living in the shadow of the AIDS crisis. It is a far cry from the gender neutral toilets, Pride club and out teachers of Dara’s school in Brighton.
Yet, Lisa is philosophical about the generational progress that has been made.
“I think what’s brilliant about where we are now is that young people like Dara have the freedom to explore who they are and to be fluid about their sexuality and their gender. I think that is fantastic. And society overall is much more accepting of people as they are. And I hope that continues to build, particularly for trans kids- I think we still have a long way to go there. Moves have been made in right direction. But there’s still a way to go.”
Are Lisa and Kel in anyway jealous of Dara and her next generation of queers?
“For sure! Yea! Absolutely! Life would have been so much easier!”
Dara blushes slightly at her two mums, as all three of them- two generations of queer- burst out laughing.
How LGBTQ parents navigate being ‘out and proud’ has an effect on how second generation queers navigate openness about their own sexuality. In Eliza’s research at the University of Southhampton, she found that queer people who were brought up in houses where there was some secrecy around sexuality find it harder to be completely open going forward.
“Because you’re brought up with some level of you can’t talk about this, there are spaces where you can’t speak about this. And it brings some anxiety about when and how you should be honest, and what words you should and shouldn’t use.”
Eliza explains that one of the factors that may be an influence on second generation queers is the exposure to homophobia- or fear of homophobia- directed at their parents.
“People who have LGBTQ parents often see a lot of the difficulties- the discrimination and the hurt, and everything that comes with being LGBTQ- and for some people that almost puts them off. It almost delays their coming out and makes them question whether it is something they want for their life.”
This experience of discrimination works both ways. Being a queer parent is no guarantee that you will want a queer life for your children.
I exchange emails with a woman called Freida, who identifies as a lesbian. She describes to me how she was raised by two women who had used a donor to conceive her and her sister. When the relationship broke up, her biological mother ‘returned’ to having relationships with men. Freida describes being ‘terrified’ of coming out to her biological mum, only doing so after she had been in a relationship with a woman for over 6 months. True to Freida’s fears, her mother didn’t react well.
“She said I had chosen a difficult life, and was very against the idea. She was terrified of me holding hands with my girlfriend, and never accepted them as my partner.”
Freida explained to me that when her mum had come out to her own parents, she had been cut off from her family as a result. Her mum was motivated in part by her fear that Freida and her girlfriend would be the victims of a homophobic attack. For her, bisexuality was ultimately something it was easier- and safer- not to act on.
Freida is now married to a woman, and the two of them have a child together. Freida’s mother did not live to see her daughter’s new family, but Freida hopes if she had she would have realised that being queer is ‘not all doom and gloom.’ And Freida’s non-biological mum- still an out and proud lesbian- remains a constant source of support and acceptance.
As Eliza notes, “a lot of people expect that it’s going to be easy. That if you have LGBTQ parents they are definitely going to accept you, but that’s not always the case.”
I hurt my mother by choosing not to come out to her. That I kept my sexuality hidden from her for years was all the harder for her to understand given that she is queer herself. It is something she feels guilty about.
“What makes it hard is that it feels as if you didn’t think we’d understand. And/or that we wouldn’t accept it,” my mother explains to me. “There may have been some disagreements or questions, but in terms of not accepting it…that would never have happened.”
In truth, echoing what I was told as a child, my bisexuality was not something I ever felt the need to talk about with her. At least not at first. It was too easy to hide, and too exhausting a prospect to explain. But there’s a famous maxim about both eating and having cakes that eventually comes true, no matter how skilled you think you are at playing it both ways.
And as it turns out, I wasn’t skilled in the slightest.
Whilst I would defend the right of anyone to come out in their own time and to whomever they choose, I would also now add that it is perhaps ill-advised to publish an article about their sexuality before they had told their parents. Yet last September, I was published in Cosmopolitan UK describing the ways in which being bi made me a better lover. (Yes, I’m cringing too.) Before I had told my mother I was anything other than completely straight. Such was my confidence that my two worlds- my queer life in London and my family in York- could never collide.
It took under two hours after the article had gone live for the tendrils of gossip to reach my mother, via a relative in Canada. The truth of my bisexuality was literally half way around the world before I could even contemplate the need to be honest with my family.
It was far from a perfect coming out, and in the ensuing confrontations no-one showered themselves in glory.
However, the privilege of having a queer parent- one who has made mistakes and struggled with their sexuality too- is that these things are quickly forgiven. COVID has kept me from seeing my mother since my accidental coming out, but after the initial shock, we were soon back on good terms. And interviewing second generation queers for this piece has made me realise the unique experiences we could have shared had I been honest with her sooner.
Rachael (the second generation bisexual who walked in on her mum) described to me preparing to come out to her grandmother by seeking advice from her mum, who had the same conversation with her 30 years previously.
When Rachael’s mum told her parents decades ago, their reactions were far from ideal. But 30 years on they reacted to Rachael’s news with complete joy and acceptance.
“Because their response was very different, it was a very clear way of seeing how their perspective had changed over 30 years. That is quite powerful, I think. Especially for people of my grandparents generation-for whom it was illegal for a lot of their teenage and early adulthood- to change. To see that journey through history is really cool.”
The growing acceptance of queerness in Rachael’s family, propelled forward by two generations of queer people choosing to be honest, is indeed a cool journey through history. One that is echoed by the three generations of proud lesbians in Eliza’s family, and the flag waving children of Lisa and Kel, leading by example at every local Pride march.
It is, in short, progress; a hope for the future that every second or third generation queer family member I spoke with shared.
It’s one of the huge positives that Eliza has found throughout her research; that having an LGBTQ parent- whether or not you are queer yourself- makes you more accepting.
“[The children of queer parents] embrace more people, they understand equalities more and they understand what it means to be discriminated against. And a lot of them end up having a lot of gay, bisexual, and trans friends because they feel quite rooted in that community and those networks and they gravitate to those people. It’s what they know.”
It used to be that queer parents were scared that society would accuse them of ‘indoctrinating’ their children; somehow damaging them and ‘making’ them queer. Society obliged by propagating this absurd criticism, meaning that gay couples couldn’t legally adopt in the UK until 2002. But now research is finding that queer parents may be producing more tolerant, accepting and open minded children- regardless of their sexuality. This is the power of living- and loving- honestly.
Not that Lisa, Kel and Dara see it in such grandiose terms.
“Our family isn’t really any different from anyone else’s family,” Kel is at pains to point out to me. “We have the same squabbles. We still bicker about what we’re going to have for dinner, we still argue about bedtimes. We’re a normal regular family. Don’t look at us as if we’re entirely different. We just happen to be same sex parents and we just happen to have a daughter who is queer. It’s as simple as that.”
It is 2007 and my mother is at her work leaving drinks. After 16 years in the job, she is moving on. And in all that time she has not told a single colleague about her sexuality, about the partner that she has lived with for almost two decades. But tonight, emboldened by too many drinks, she decides to change that. She decides to take this last opportunity to be honest for the first time. Cornering her boss- a man 20 years her senior, also swaying from the drink- she discloses that she is a lesbian.
“I know,” he replies. “I just assumed you didn’t want to talk about it so I didn’t bring it up!”
14 years later, my mother reflects on what she would have done differently.
“If I have any regrets, it’s that I couldn’t be honest in terms of the life I’d chosen and why I’d chosen it. I don’t know what I thought, I don’t know why I didn’t. It gets to the point where you go, I can’t tell them now! Not after all these years!”
In her next workplace, through to her retirement, my mother would be honest with all her colleagues.
Things continue to change, she adds. “And if you’re lucky, what happens is your kids teach you something.”
Written by Joe Von Malachowski