In seventh-grade health class we watched a movie about alcoholic parents. It was the first time I saw anything that resembled my family in a movie — the same yelling, crying and sporadic violence — except my parents never drank. I knew something was terribly wrong, but I didn’t know what it was. It would be three more years before I’d learn that the problems in my family resulted from mental illness. My mother’s partner had bipolar disorder.
There was no health-class movie about bipolar parents, no helpline to call back in the 1980s. Even if there were one, I couldn’t have called it. My family was in the closet — my mother was a lesbian, and if people found out, she or her partner could lose their jobs. If they lost their jobs, we’d lose the house, and my biological father would have a very large weapon if he decided to fight for custody. There was another layer to the problem, too. There were so few visible lesbian families that I knew that confessing my family problems would reflect negatively on the whole queer community, people who were constantly struggling to be seen as equal to their heterosexual counterparts.
As a child of lesbian parents, I felt like I needed to be normal, well adjusted and heterosexual. My parents told me that many people thought gay people were perverts who wanted to hurt children or turn them gay. I understood that it was imperative not to throw my family like chum into the shark-infested water; doing so would be risky not only for our family but for all other queer families.
When I talk about the problems in my family, some people — usually heterosexual ones — are quick to point out that it’s important for me to clarify that not all lesbian families are like mine. But this should be a given. If a friend has a bipolar or alcoholic father, I don’t assume that all heterosexual men are alcoholics or suffer from mental illness. One family should never be singled out as a representative of their entire culture, but with so few visible gay families, it’s hard not to be treated as a voice for the movement.
So silence on any familial dysfunction seems imperative just for survival. It may sound hyperbolic, but over the years plenty of children were taken from their home, or threatened with removal, just for having gay or lesbian parents. Daniel Winunwe Rivers writes about the custody battles in the 1970s and ’80s in his book, “Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, & Their Children in the United States since World War II.” He quotes the judge in the 1967 custody battle Nadler v. Nadler as saying, “The homosexuality of plaintiff as a matter of law constitutes her not a fit or proper person to have the care, custody and control of … the minor child of the parties hereto.” If your family can be dissolved just for your parents’ sexuality, how can you ever risk discussing abuse or mental health? Although same-sex marriage was legally recognized in the United States in 2015, it is still under attack.
Children need to feel safe to talk about the big problems. Alcoholism, mental illness, abuse — these issues exist across all cultures, genders and sexual orientations. Children don’t deserve to live in fear and secrecy, no matter what their family looks like. They need to be able to get help.
This is the reason that I tell my story, both publicly and privately. I am open with friends and parents of my children’s friends. My own children obviously know that they have two grandmas, and that some women marry women, some men marry men, some men marry women, and some people don’t marry anyone at all. They don’t think that’s a big deal. So far, their friends and their friends’ parents don’t think it’s a big deal, either. Being open is normalizing.
As my children have gotten older, we’ve discussed my stepmother’s mental illness as well. I hadn’t planned on it, but sometimes she’s short-tempered and snaps, and other times she’s hyper-happy-manic. I wanted my children to know that it isn’t their fault. We also talk about how most of the time she’s well regulated. I don’t go into much detail about my childhood with them. I let them love her as she is now.
How do we as adults create a culture that allows children the safety to seek help? It starts with simple acceptance. If a child tells you that they have two mothers, don’t ask them what it is like to have lesbian parents. Instead, simply ask them their parents’ names, or whether they have a dog, or any other question you would ask a child of heterosexual parents. Let them know that you aren’t making them act as representative for their whole culture. Only when they know their family is safe will they have the ability to be vulnerable and find help, if needed.
Lara Lillibridge is the author of “Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook or at LaraLillibridge.com. She holds an MFA from West Virginia Wesleyan College and recently won Slippery Elm Literary Journal’s Prose Contest and the American Literary Review’s Contest in Nonfiction.