Heather Carlson was new to the queer scene when she signed up for the Dykes Planning Tykes program, a course for queer prospective moms, back in 2004.
“I decided to have a baby and come out as queer all at the same time,” says Carlson, whose son Shaw Carlson Hall is now two.
“When I signed up for the program, I didn’t know what to expect. Queer parenting is not something that has been discussed in the mainstream, so you end up feeling like you’re in a little box. But there were so many other women that were having the same questions and concerns. To know that everything I was thinking and considering was completely normal — that was important to me.”
Celebrating its 10th anniversary this month, Dykes Planning Tykes was created by midwife Kathi Duncan and mother Rachel Epstein in 1997. The 11-week course helps queer women explore the legal, practical, social and emotional issues associated with queer motherhood.
“There was absolutely a need,” says Epstein, who continues to facilitate Dykes Planning Tykes, as well as coordinating the LGBT Parenting Network. “At the time more and more dykes were thinking about planning families. Perhaps it had something to do with increased access to reproductive technology associated with sperm banks and fertility clinics, but queer women were beginning to see this as a possibility.”
Shira Spector, who completed the course back in its inaugural year, remembers how important it was to have access to the information Dyke Planning Tykes was providing.
“[Dykes Planning Tykes] really helped outline my options and the resources that were available,” she says. “I was determined to get pregnant, and I remember there was great information about who were the cool doctors who wouldn’t hassle you or refuse to inseminate lesbians.”
“We also got to hear from real live queer moms with actual children who could ruminate about nonbiological mothering and answer questions like ‘Where the hell do you get sperm from anyway?’ No one else in the world was talking about these things.”
Although the gayby boom was already underway in 1997, Epstein says the social and political climate was just beginning to evolve to give prospective queer moms access to services under the healthcare system.
“[In the inaugural session of the program] we put together a skit about women going to a fertility clinic and being denied insemination because of their sexual orientation — which was the reality,” recalls Epstein. “People were required to have psychiatric assessments before they could have access to fertility services. Things like that were happening; this was the climate.”
Epstein says that the Dykes Planning Tykes curriculum has evolved over the last decade to reflect changes to the realities of queer parenting. Legal information is constantly changing, especially for the growing number of dykes who are considering coparenting, adoption and more complicated family configurations.
“One of the exciting things about queer people forming families is the way that we do it, and how we often don’t necessarily reflect traditional looking families,” says Epstein.
“Sometimes we create families that have three parents or four parents, and lots of different configurations. I think it’s one of the exciting things. But I also think that it presents its on set of challenges in terms of how you build negotiations, how you build trusts, how you build flexibility, and all those things that you have to think through.”
The topic of race and antiracism was also added to the curriculum to help the many prospective moms considering interracial adoptions.
“The issues that you are dealing with are your deeply held values about parenting, about family, about blood, about biology, about race,” says Epstein. “We tried to create an environment where people could think though these issues in a nonjudgmental way.”
Along with sharing information on fertility, insemination, adoption and coparenting, Dykes Planning Tykes emphasizes the importance of coming out as a queer parent.
“I think that it’s really important as queer people having kids that we deal with any internalized shame that we have about our own queerness, because we don’t want to pass that on to our kids,” says Epstein. “We have to be prepared to be out everywhere, because your kid is going to do it for you. You’ve got to be prepared to be strong, and to back that up and to not be ashamed.”
“I find it difficult,” admits Shana, a grad from 2004. “Even though there’s a gayby boom going on, I still think that most people associate having a kid with being straight. I’m also black, so there are other preconceptions in terms of black women and sexuality. It’s been a big challenge — to say that we are queer and this is our kid — I’ve never really had to explain myself like that before.”
Parenting can be a challenging and emotionally charged journey, but for graduates of Dykes Planning Tykes, the program plays a central role in how they handle the difficulties of being a queer parent in an overwhelmingly straight world.
“When other queer families came and shared their stories with us, you could see their struggle,” says Shana. “It made us think that if they could make it work, then hell, yeah, it could work for us, too. The encouragement we received from other families in the program and in the queer community made us realize that we are never going to be alone.”
Perhaps one of the most significant developments in the group’s 10-year history is the work it’s done to close the gap between what queer parents need and what supports are being provided. The program now brings in representatives from fertility clinics and sperm banks to talk about their services.
“It’s powerful for us to be able to sit down and ask questions [of service providers],” says Epstein, who was involved in lobbying to develop regulations around 2004’s Assisted Human Reproduction Act.
“We want to make sure that Health Canada recognizes that we are huge users of these services, that our needs and concerns are somewhat different and should be part of their agenda.”
Amid the lobbying, the LGBT Parenting Network in collaboration with the 519 Community Centre has created two new programs to reflect the changing face of queer parenting: Daddies And Papas, a program for potential queer fathers and, more recently, Transfathers, a program focussing on the needs of trans men and their partners. Epstein says that in the last session an effort was made to run all three courses together so that some sessions overlapped.
“It’s created a real sense of community,” says Epstein of the combined classes.
What have been the most rewarding aspects of her 10 years at the helm of Dykes Planning Tykes?
“Oh God, you’re going to make me cry!” says Epstein. “I feel so blessed to be part of this process, and also part of this history. We’ve made such incredible gains for queer families over the last 10 and even 20 years. To be part of that history, and in a really personal way… has been extremely powerful.”
In celebration of 10 years of helping queer moms create families, Epstein and a group of alumni have organized a full day and night of festivities.
There will be a reunion on Sat, May 12 at the Sherbourne Health Centre (333 Sherbourne St) from 2pm to 5pm for alumni of the program as well as other dykes and their tykes, familes and friends.
With a total of 18 sessions run since the program began in 1997 and a grand total of around 300 alumni, the festivities could make for quite the extended family gathering.
The highlight of the event, according to Epstein, will be the onsite massage service that will be available throughout the day.
“We just wanted to provide massage for tired moms and make it a relaxing thing. People who are parenting often have a lot on the go. We wanted to make it fun and stress-free.”
That same night the party continues without the kids. A Night For Dykes Without Their Tykes will take place at the Croissant Tree (625 Church St) from 9pm to 2am. Featuring DJ Carma, the cover is $5 with all proceeds benefiting the program.
But the revelries don’t end there. As the honoured group for this year’s Dyke March, Dyke Planning Tykes is gearing up to make a big entrance for this year’s Pride. The group is inviting all queer parents, their kids and friends, families and supporters to march in its contingent.
“Our vision,” says Epstein, “is to get a fire truck to lead the parade with lots of kids and their moms dancing and playing with water squirters, and tons of dykes and tykes in sizzling red T-shirts dancing and enjoying the moment.”
It is fitting that the theme for this year’s pride is Unstoppable, and that Epstein — a seemingly unstoppable woman herself — has been chosen as this year’s honoured dyke.
“Rachel is just fantastic,” says Carol, an alumni of the 2006 session. “She’s a pillar. She really tries very hard to bring as much into the course as possible. I really can’t say enough good things about the work she’s done.”