“No Path Is Closed Off:” On LGBT Parenthood with Author Sarah Hagger-Holt
“No Path Is Closed Off:” On LGBT Parenthood with Author Sarah Hagger-Holt
by Grace Manger
Grace Manger sat down with Sarah Hagger-Holt, co-author of the new book Pride and Joy: A Guide for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans Parents to talk about what she learned while interviewing over 70 LGBT parents and families, and what she wants others to know about what being a modern LGBT family looks like.
Grace Manger: Hello! Thank you so much for taking the time to tell us about your new book. Can you start by telling us a little bit about you, your family, and why you decided to write Pride and Joy?
Sarah Hagger-Holt: Thank you! It’s all very exciting. My partner and I have been together now for about 15 years, and we have 2 kids—an eight-year-old and a six-year-old, two little girls. About 8 or 9 years ago, before our older daughter was born, we wrote a book together called Living It Out about the experience of being gay and being in the church, because we hadn’t seen any real-life experience like ours being represented.
Then after that, we went through the experience of having children as a lesbian couple at a time where, here in the UK, the law and social attitudes have changed enormously in the last 10 years. It’s even changed between having our older daughter and our younger daughter! We read some great books about LGBT parenting, but they were actually all becoming quite dated as laws and social attitudes changed. They didn’t necessarily represent the diversity of LGBT parents. So we thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to bring some of those voices together, and create a book that other people would find useful and interesting?” That’s where Pride and Joy came from, and then it snowballed from there. We eventually ended up with more than 70 people to interview and take part in the book.
Sarah and Rachel Hagger-Holt, authors of "Pride and Joy"
Grace: Can you talk about how the book is organized and what the layout is, for people interested in reading it?
Sarah: Our goal was to almost give the different people we interviewed an opportunity to talk to each other through the pages of the book, so we used a lot of different interviews to give different points of view in each of the sections. There are four sections to the book: The first is themed very much around the nuts and bolts of how you start a family and how different people have decided to start their family. So that covers things like adoption, surrogacy, co-parenting, all of those different routes to starting a family.
The second section deals with being an LGBT family out and about. It includes things like how you negotiate school, your extended family, and anything else about being an LGBT family in a predominantly straight world.
The third section is my favorite section, and it is around the bigger issues surrounding LGBT families. What does the increasing number of LGBT families say about how important “the nuclear family” is? How important are biological relationships, as compared to family relationships that are not necessarily biological? What do LGBT families contribute to discussions about gender and different gender roles within families?
Finally, the fourth section is around maintaining an LGBT identity as a parent once you’re in this child-focused world.
Grace: What was it like interviewing all the people you spoke with?
Sarah: People were incredibly honest when we interviewed them, and were so up-front about both the difficulties and the things that they celebrate about their families. We put in special features throughout the book, for when we thought somebody’s story deserved a bit more time and space. For example, one special feature is about this wonderful woman who’s now in her 70s, who brought up her son in the 1980s, which was a really different world for lesbian parents. We also feature a man who is a refugee seeking asylum in the UK, and he talks about his aspirations to become a parent, and about what that might mean in his country of origin and the difficulties there. We’ve got somebody who isn’t LGBT, but wants to raise her daughter around LGBT families because she believes in fostering different understandings of families. As you can tell, I was fascinated by all the different stories that we heard about the different sizes, shapes, and kinds of families.
Grace: What about the children of LGBT parents that you spoke to? What did you find most interesting about talking to that segment?
Sarah: When we interviewed older children of LGBT parents, now in their 20s and 30s, they would all talk about how they didn’t know anybody else with a family like theirs when they were young, and about how they felt like they couldn’t be open about their family when they were younger. Whereas when we spoke to younger children now, they were very matter-of-fact about their family and about how they knew other LGBT families. The visibility and how we talk about what it means to be gay has changed so much over the last couple generations, which is exciting.
Grace: I’m curious if you noticed any differences in parenting styles, or how LGBT parents approached issues of gender and sexuality with their kids?
Sarah: It was actually really fascinating to talk to parents across the LGBT spectrum about their attitudes towards gender identity in their children. There is already a lot of gender policing around what toys kids can play with and what clothes they can wear. With LGBT parents, we found that a lot of them wanted to enable their children to have a more fluid gender expression in regards to toys and clothes and such, but they felt much more judged for it than straight parents. I think all parents worry about how they are perceived as parents, but I think being LGBT themselves added an extra layer, whereas straight parents have a bit more freedom to push some of those gender boundaries in their kids.
Grace: Was there anything you came across in your research that surprised you?
Sarah: Definitely. The diversity of experience was really interesting, and some of the stories that people submitted were brilliant. I spoke to a woman who told me about how she and her partner both got pregnant within a few weeks of each other, so they had their babies 10 days apart. She was Muslim and her partner was Sikh. All of her partner’s enormous Sikh extended family all rallied around, and she ended up with her mother-in-law there when she gave birth while her partner breastfed her older daughter. If you ask the right questions, everyone has a really interesting story to tell.
Quite a common thing that cut across all our interviews was people who came out to their parents, and their parents really struggled to accept that they were LGBT. But then becoming a parent was really easy for their parents to accept because all their friends’ children were becoming parents, too, so this was a “normal” rite of passage. I think that was something that did surprise me a little bit, but when you stop and think about it, it makes a lot of sense.
Grace: That makes a lot of sense to me. Something we get a lot at My Kid Is Gay is parents saying, “My kid just came out, and maybe I’m fine with it, but are they going to have a family some day? Am I going to be a grandparent?” A lot of parents look forward to being a grandparent some day, so I think there can be a lot of anxiety around that. You have spent your child’s whole life envisioning how their future is going to unfold, and then their coming out can seem to throw a hitch in that. What do you want to say to those parents?
Sarah: Yes, that story was so common in the people we interviewed, across different generations. They came out, and their parents were upset or surprised and immediately followed up with that question: “I’m not going to be a grandmother? So you’re not going to have children?” I guess I just don’t feel like that is the most helpful follow-up question to ask seconds after your child comes out. That is a conversation to have later along the line, but they should also know that this is a time in history where it is more possible, and therefore more likely, for anyone to start a family regardless of their sexuality or gender identity. Clearly, it’s your child’s life to live, but you certainly do not have to write off dreams of being a grandparent when your child comes out.
The other thing I want to say is that, while the idea of your child becoming an LGBT parent may seem so different, it really isn’t! We saw that the experiences of the people we interviewed in their relationships with their parents weren’t all that different from any other couple or family: you want someone who can help with the babysitting, someone to be there to support you in your everyday life. You don’t need to limit what you think is possible, because no path is closed off.
Authors of Pride and Joy, Rachel and Sarah Hagger-Holt are lesbian parents with two young children. Rachel is a clinical psychologist and Sarah works in charity communications. Together, they have previously written Living It Out: A Survival Guide for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Christians, Their Friends, Families and Churches.Follow them on Twitter @LGBTparentbook