Yesterday, my friend Kate and I spent a whole day at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, seeing a range of panels on writing about history and family. One of these panels was with author Ginger Briggs, about her book Staunch. The conversation centered around topics such as family violence, child abuse, drug addiction, and the institutionalisation of children.
Unsurprisingly, this was very emotional territory. By the time the panelists had talked about their work, and the moderator opened up the floor to questions, I was feeling an intense sense of vulnerability, and grief for children past an present.
People had questions about how we can help children in abusive situations, protect them from the harm of institutionalisation, and also about the ethics and practicality of writing about these delicate and hugely important stories.
Then one man on the opposite side of the small theatre leaned forward in his seat and said very earnestly, “I think so many of these problems come from the fact that we have moved away from the traditional family. Children have the right to a mother and a father, and when we get people purposely bringing children into the world outside of that family unit, things start to go wrong -”
As soon as he got to the phrase “traditional family” my heart rate started to quicken, and as he went on I could feel my skin begin to burn, my stomach sour, and hands tremble. I could see that the panelists wanted to respond, but were being polite, so I said in the firmest, clearest voice I could summon through the torrent of emotion flooding through me, “I just need to interject, here.”
I held up a picture of my son (the one I have on the lock screen of my phone), and continued.
“This is my beautiful, precious son, who is extremely happy, and deeply loved. For you to suggest that his mothers, who wanted him more than anything, and moved mountains to bring him into the world, are somehow abusing or depriving him is so deeply hurtful and offensive to me that I don’t even know how to express it.”
I went on to say something about how the idea that men and women have inherently different things to offer their children based solely on their gender is based on patriarchal, misogynist ideology that is completely outdated and erroneous, but by then the blood was rushing so loudly in my ears that I couldn’t even hear myself anymore.
I was aware of almost nothing but Kate’s hand on my back, and the sensation of having a body too finite to contain all the emotion it was experiencing. I was shaking uncontrollably.
The session came to a close, and lots of people said kind and reassuring things as they filed out of the room. Then, as we got up to leave, the man approached me.
“I’m sorry you’re so offended,” he began unpromisingly, “I just think that there’s an ideal for how families should be.”
“I agree,” I replied, “but I think we have different ideas about what that looks like – my son has a safe home, good food, parents who love him, and a broader community around him who love him too. He’s going to have an excellent education, and every opportunity for success in life. Whether or not one of his parents has a penis seems pretty irrelevant to any of that.”
He continued as though he hadn’t listened to a word I’d said, and had merely been waiting for a pause long enough for him to begin again, “It’s a matter of biology. You need a man and a woman to make a child, and they should both be there to raise him.”
I tried to object to this, as did Kate, whose rage I could feel like an independent entity, a whole other person closing ranks with us against this man, but he ploughed on.
“I mean, I’ve got gay people in my family, and some single parents too, and I accept them, but you just can’t say that their situations are ideal.”
“Look, I disagree with you. And I think you should spend some more time with those members of your family and get to know them better.”
He ended with another bland fauxpology, and stalked awkwardly off.
Infuriatingly, I started to cry.
Kate shepherded me to the car where she hugged me and I cried some more as the adrenaline rush subsided. We sat there for a long time, til I stopped shaking, and could laugh at some funny videos of her kids.
I’ve spent today in a bit of a come-down daze, trying to process that experience. There is so much about this man’s position that I just don’t understand.
How can he truly believe that a divine little ball of potential and delight like my son should not “in an ideal world” have been brought into existence?
How can he arrive at the conviction that families like mine cause damage to children, and lead to violence and abuse?
How can he have the sheer gall to approach me and say these things to my face?
I can only surmise that he feels threatened. Men of his white, middle aged, conservative ilk draw their sense of personal importance, and their immense social power in no small part from the systems that the heterosexual nuclear family upholds.
My family is a living, working demonstration that those systems are becoming more and more irrelevant.
Of course our existence frightens him. We’re actively proving that his is non-essential.