4 min

Family ties

Queers make extended families work

Queers are constantly finding creative ways of including children in our lives and, in the process, have formed a wide range of familial constellations.

“Parents bring children into their lives in a variety of ways. Sharing your DNA with your romantic partner to create a child is just one of them,” says Chris Veldhoven, coordinator of the 519 Community Centre’s Queer Parenting Programs.

“Biological connection and romantic partnership aren’t necessary. Gay and bisexual women and men have had marriages of convenience for decades where they quietly integrated their authentic sexual desire with their desire to parent. We see friends biologically have kids together with various ways of sharing parenting responsibilities. We see lone and coupled parents adopt. We see different numbers and combinations of adults committed to parenting no matter how the children came into their lives. And more and more of our families of origin and neighbours support our diverse families.”

But the pressure to conform to the nuclear family model can be intense.

“I know that my son’s mother doesn’t tell people she had a gay man as a donor, or that he’s involved in his life,” says one gay dad, who didn’t want to be identified for this story. “Her family is very conservative and she’s had to be very quiet about it. So for this generation that’s how things have to work, but my son knows he has two dads.”

His family is definitely a constellation — the exact opposite of the tidy, nuclear family. As the sperm donor for a single, straight woman, he and his husband see their son every other weekend. His husband also had a daughter with a different straight woman, and they share custody on alternating weeks. With a lesbian friend, they coparent two more boys who live with them 80 percent of the time.

Heather Jopling agrees that kids know who their parents are, even if the law doesn’t. Jopling is straight woman who parents one child with her husband. She’s also been a surrogate to a gay couple, and her husband has been a sperm donor for a lesbian couple, which makes them part of a big queer family.

“The three families see each other every six to eight weeks,” she says. “We don’t live in the same city, so that limits thing. We all rented a cottage for a week this summer to spend time together. My daughter considers these kids her half-brother and half-sister; that’s how she identifies them. She also has an older sister, a girl the dads had with another surrogate, although they’re not biologically related, of course.”

Jopling has written children’s book about gay families and also The Not-So-Only Child about her daughter’s extended family, which also includes her husband David’s parents who have divorced and remarried.

“When David’s parents split up, his mom came out. She’s now married to her wife who has four kids, and his father has another partner with three kids. We’re so lucky that our extended family has such incredible diversity… and we just added to it by extending our family in this way.”

These families are just the tip of the iceberg. Little by little we’re taking apart some of the fundamental myths about the family — that biology and romantic love are the underpinnings of a stable environment for raising children. But because most extended families aren’t recognized by law or by society, they are often invisible to anyone but close friends and relatives.

“If we were to die today there would be no legal record we ever existed as a single family,” says André, a gay father with two children who requested only his first name be used for this story.

André is raising both his children with a female couple; a son who is his biological child as well as a daughter who was added to the family when one of his coparents adopted her. His family has taken legal steps to secure individual relationships, but there’s not an easy way for the law to recognize the whole family.

“We can keep trying to make it fit, but it doesn’t,” he says. “We have to keep fixing this system that doesn’t work.”

André’s family has chosen a joint custody agreement as their legal tool to ensure that the nonbiological mother is named as a custodial parent (or step-parent) and has the recognized right to travel their son, deal with school and medical authorities and make decisions for their son. André has no legal relationship with his nonbiological daughter.

“I have them every other weekend and spend time with [my daughter] and with my son, and at one point she asked me if I was her daddy. I said I had to talk to her mom about that, and from that point on I became her dad. But there’s nothing on paper to prove it. We haven’t written up a consent order saying that they have custody and I have access.”

Despite an Ontario Court Of Appeal ruling earlier this month that gave three adults — a lesbian couple and a sperm donor, known as AA, BB and CC — parental rights with respect to their five-year-old child, the law still makes it difficult to recognize nonbiological parents. Instead of challenging existing family law, the ruling only applies to that specific case, which means that to achieve the same result, André’s family would have to go through the courts as well.

“The law will only go so far,” says André, “but it doesn’t recognize that [his son’s nonbiological mother] is his mom.” Not without taking away André’s status as father, at any rate. Although a couple can do a step-parent adoption, adding one parent had always meant removing another until this month’s ruling set a precedent allowing three parents.

It’s a small symbolic victory for the gayby boom that’s been well underway for a decade. Family law and mainstream attention are only starting to catch up with us.

“We’ve been in parenting and caregiver roles for centuries,” says Veldhoven. “For our own children, nieces, nephews, parents and elders. Those who have demonized us have not given us credit for this. There are many well-functioning family constellations outside the nuclear model, with people of differing sexual orientations and gender identities in parenting roles.”