Laws and homophobia complicate mother/child relationships for lesbians.
Mother’s Day. There are few holidays that raise more emotions for women than this one. For lesbians those emotions may be even more fraught than they are for other women. There is a long homophobic history for lesbians of being abandoned by or ostracized from their families of origin. Many lesbians have also been denied custody of their children from previous heterosexual relationships. Others have been denied access to the right to have children by sperm banks and fertility clinics or by homophobic adoption laws. And even among lesbian mothers, there have been fights over children between birth mothers and their lesbian partners/spouses that have ended in ugly legal battles where the non-birth mother loses access to her own children.
These factors make Mother’s Day a complex holiday for many lesbians as we navigate the space where homophobia situates us – in society at large, in our personal lives, in our lived experience, in our hearts.
Learning from loss of our mothers and building our own lesbian families may be the best way to embrace the holiday that makes so many women ache with loss, rather than celebrate with joy.
When lesbian filmmaker Chantal Akerman committed suicide in October 2015, I began to write about the relationships between lesbians and their mothers. Akerman’s suicide was less than a year after the death of her mother, Natalia, who was a Holocaust survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Akerman’s death stayed with me a long time. I was working on a new novel in which motherhood and lesbian mothers played a significant role and the complex nature of Akerman’s relationship to/with her mother soon became part of that narrative for me as I tried to understand why such a talented and vibrant artist would take her own life.
Akerman had spoken very openly about her deep love for her mother, which she said drove much of her emotional life and her work. Her final film, No Home Movie, was a documentary about the last year of her mother’s life. It was scheduled to premiere the weekend after Akerman took her life. How much, I could not help but wonder, did the loss of her mother contribute to Akerman’s death? And how many other lesbians were coping with a similarly intense grief they were unable to express? My own mother died in 2003 – too young and after a long battle with debilitating illness. Although I was with her in her final days, we had had a contentious relationship since my lesbianism was discovered when I was a teenager. I was never able to make peace with my mother and these many years later, that missing piece still haunts me.
A series of laws passed in just two month’s time all threaten lesbian parenthood. Texas, Tennessee, Alabama and North Dakota each passed laws that will make it harder for lesbians to have and maybe even keep their children.
On May 8, four lesbian couples – all married, all expecting babies in the fall – filed suit in Tennessee against the state protesting the language of a new law that could, they assert, deny them parenthood of their own children by requiring strict adherence to terms such as "husband" to define married couples.
Attorney Julie Tate-Keith filed the lawsuit May 8 on behalf of married couples Charitey and Heather Mackenzie, Crystal Dawn and Terra Mears, Elizabeth and Heather Broadaway, and Emilie and Kathrine Guthrie, all of whom are expecting babies in the fall.
As Reuters reported May 9, Gov. Bill Haslam signed the law May 5 requiring that words in state statutes be interpreted with "natural and ordinary meaning." That would include words like "husband" and "wife," which the same-sex plaintiffs say will interfere with their parental rights. The Tennessee law grants rights to husbands and wives or the father and mother of a child, so Tennessee could deny same-sex couples their parental rights by interpreting these terms "naturally and ordinarily."
It’s difficult to comprehend the need for such language in 2017 when families have become more and more blended, but the Trump Administration has emboldened discrimination against LGBT people and lesbians have already faced increasing discrimination related to same-sex marriage and childbirth in recent years.
In the Tennessee case, the women’s lawsuit states: "Regardless of the actions of the Tennessee General Assembly, the right to be recognized as the parent of a child of one's marriage is a right which deserves Constitutional protection."
In a Facebook post about the lawsuit, Kathrine Guthrie wrote, "We did our best to avoid this but desperate times call for desperate measures when parental rights are on the line… and a due date is a firm deadline."
Some argued that the bill had nothing to do with same-sex marriage or gender, but since lesbians are the ones being directly impacted by the new law, Tate-Keith told NBC News,
According to Reuters, one of the law's legislative sponsors, Andrew Farmer and John Stevens has argued it had nothing to do with same-sex marriage. But the Knoxville News Sentinel reported that the law was intended to subvert lesbian and gay couples. Another sponsor told the Knoxville paper that he proposed the measure partly to compel courts to side more closely with the dissenting opinion in 2015 landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage.
Tate-Keith noted that the SCOTUS ruling legalizing same-sex marriage was definitive. "The Supreme Court said that gay people could get married," she asserted. "If that’s to be meaningful, then same-sex couples have to be treated the same way that opposite-sex couples are, and that means parentage like anyone else."
In April, Tennessee’s Attorney General Herbert Slatery warned the law could impinge on rights provided by the decision on gay marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges. Slatery wrote on April 13,
The intent of the lawsuit is to overturn the law and obtain redress that includes a ruling that same-sex couples and their children have equal rights under the law. If the law stands as signed, lesbian and gay couples could be barred from filing for legal custody of their children, traveling across state lines with their children, obtaining health insurance or any other legal necessity for their children which would require a male and female parent.
As has so often been the case with these discriminatory laws, those enacting them fail to acknowledge the damage to real people – in this instance, lesbian couples with children. After signing the bill, Haslam insisted that he believes the law will not change how courts interpret legal precedent. Yet that is clearly false. The women’s lawsuit cites a portion of Tennessee law that could not be more succinct on this point: it says that a "child born to a married woman as a result of artificial insemination, with consent of the married woman's husband, is deemed to be the legitimate child of the husband and wife."
What if there’s no husband?
Tate-Keith said that while Tennessee interpreted "husband" to include the female spouses of lesbians after the high-court ruling, that could change under the new "natural meaning" law. And in any event, the women are not husbands – they are spouses or wives. Tate-Keith said the law's aim was to take away same-sex rights. "It absolutely is about denying gay people equal protection under the law," she said on May 9, and said the lesbian parents deserve the rights to constitutional protection.
In 2014, Valeria Tanco and Sophy Jesty became the first lesbian couple to be listed on a baby’s birth certificate a year before the SCOTUS decision on same-sex marriage. The couple had been married in New York in 2011 and then moved to Knoxville, Tennessee where they teach at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine.
When Tanco gave birth to the couple’s first child, Emilia Maria Jesty, in March 2014, both women were listed on the birth certificate but Sophy Jesty was listed as the baby’s father. Until the SCOTUS ruling, courts could void Emilia’s birth certificate and require that it be reissued with only Tanco listed. The new law signed by Haslam could create similar issues for lesbian and gay couples because of the "husband" and "wife" language that’s been re-inserted into the laws.
On May 10, the Texas state House of Representatives passed a bill allowing adoption and foster care agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples. Alabama passed a similar bill in April. North Dakota passed such a bill in March.
The Texas bill, known as the Freedom to Serve Children Act, is yet another law that melds anti-LGBT discrimination with a so-called religious freedom law. Religious freedom laws are becoming increasingly common and are supported by the Trump administration. These laws allow almost anyone to discriminate against LGBT people based on religious beliefs. In the case of the Texas law, it is state-funded child welfare agencies.
The law prevents the state from taking any "adverse action" against any service provider acting within the construct of their "sincerely held religious beliefs." The bill overwhelmingly passed the Texas House on May 10. It now moves onto the state Senate where it is expected to pass as well. Texas is the second most populous state in the nation, so millions will be affected.
LGBT advocates as well as social welfare experts assert that the bill will have wide-ranging impact not only allowing adoption and foster care agencies to keep children from being placed in same-sex households, but also allow kids who are placed for adoption or foster care to be subjected to anti-gay counseling and even conversion therapy, which is legal in the state.
The ACLU asserts that there are nearly 200 pieces of anti-LGBT legislation being considered in 2017 in the U.S. These religious freedom bills are the ones that have seen the most success. These bills also, according to the ACLU, are intent on preventing the creation or support of lesbian and gay families.
For those of us in conflict with our families of origin, building our own families becomes ever more important. Support for those families is not available to many lesbians and these laws make creating and building our families harder than it is for straight couples.
In 2010, a study led by Dr Nanette Gartrell and Dr. Henny Bos and published in the prestigious journal Pediatrics and reported on in Psychology Today, followed a group of children born to lesbian mothers for nearly 25 years to chart their psychological health and development.
As reported in PT, the study by Gartrell and Bos was launched in 1986 with a goal of following children of planned lesbian families into adulthood. They described the families as "planned" because the children were conceived with donor insemination opposed to being conceived with a man from a previous relationship. After nearly 25 years, the authors reported the results on the psychological adjustment of the children. Compared to established norms, the children of lesbian mothers were rated significantly higher in social, school/academic, and total competence. They were rated significantly lower in social problems, rule breaking, and aggressive problems.
These details mitigate against this move to crush lesbian families with claims that they are "unnatural" or unhealthy because there are no men involved in the parenting, as proponents of these recent anti-LGBT bills have claimed. Religious freedom bills become a backdoor to discrimination against LGBT people and lesbians are increasingly under specific threat with regard to their children and families.
But not all lesbians have or even want children. A 2014 U.K. relationship study of 50,000 couples revealed that lesbian and gay couples without children were the most contented in their relationships. The lesbian couples – with or without children – were shown to have the most affection and longevity.
Lesbians have long been involved in mentoring younger lesbians. I was mentored by writer Audre Lorde and several other lesser-known, but no less important butch lesbians when I was in my teens and twenties. I owe those women as much in some respects as I owe my own mother, for what they taught me and the lesbian world they opened up for me.
So as Mother’s Day looms before us, whether we are engaged with our mothers or not, have children with whom we celebrate or not, we need to recognize both the mother and daughter in ourselves and embrace her. As Audre Lorde – herself the lesbian warrior mother of two – wrote, "We have to consciously study how to be tender with each other until it becomes a habit."
Happy Mother’s Day.