Two exquisite new memoirs show the breadth of experiences that fall under the umbrella of LGBT parenting. One asks us to reflect on what it means to be a mother or a father; the other shines a light on a gay father and his daughter in the era of Harvey Milk.
Stuck in the Middle with You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders, by Jennifer Finney Boylan, professor of English at Colby College and a New York Times bestselling author, tells of Boylan’s experiences as both a mother and a father, including her time in between, as “both, or neither, like some parental version of the schnoodle, or the cockapoo.”
This is not a story about the details of her gender transition, however. Boylan has done that elsewhere (in her She’s Not There), and says that she wants to expand the narrative about transgender people beyond just hospital procedures. “Being trans—and sustaining a family—is about everything that comes before that moment, and everything after. That’s where the story lies,” she explains. (For much the same reason, I weary of stories about prospective lesbian moms trying to find sperm.)
Instead, she shares with us the challenges—and triumphs—she, her wife, and her two sons faced during her transition. Along the way, she explores what it means to be a mother or a father in today’s world. She observes, “Surely, if we make room for the mutability of gender, we have to accept that motherhood and fatherhood themselves are no longer unalterable binaries either.”
Boylan, who has written both fiction and memoirs, infuses her book with levity, warmth, and novel-like dialogue. Between the chapters on her own family are transcripts of conversations with friends on their own upbringing and/or parenting—friends such as New York Times bestselling author Augusten Burroughs and Pulitzer Prize winners Richard Russo and Edward Albee.
Boylan’s brilliance is that she not only shows us what her particular experience as a transgender parent has been like, but also helps us to reflect upon the whole venture of parenting in general. Transgender parents and prospective parents will be strengthened by her story; anyone who ever doubted transgender people could be good parents should doubt no more; and parents of all gender identities and sexual orientations should find much to ponder about parental roles and expectations.
Alysia Abbott’s Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father, tells of the author’s childhood and young adulthood being raised by her single gay father in 1970s and 80s San Francisco. Her father, Steve Abbott, was a poet, author, editor, and a leading figure in the New Narrative poetry movement. After he died of AIDS-related complications in 1992, Alysia began reading his journals, and eventually interwove them with her own memories to create a compelling tale that is part history, part memoir, and part coming-of-age story.
When she was three, Alysia Abbott’s mother died in a car accident. Alysia could have gone to live with her aunt, but her father insisted he wanted to raise her. A year later, in 1974, he moved with her from Atlanta to San Francisco, hoping for a fresh start in the “post-hippie,” gay-friendly Haight-Ashbury district.
This was the San Francisco of the burgeoning gay rights movement, Harvey Milk, food co-ops, and a nascent gay literary scene, which Steve Abbott helped grow as a poet, editor, and organizer, rubbing elbows with luminaries such as Judy Grahn and Allen Ginsberg.
Yet he struggled to support his daughter both financially and emotionally, to be there for her while also writing his poems, organizing community events, and seeking a partner for himself. She charts both his failings and his strengths with compassion. “If he was sometimes a failure as a parent, he was always a noble failure,” she writes. “He tried to do what he thought was best even if he didn’t always know what ‘best’ was or how to achieve it.”
Some of his struggles were personal; but as Abbott notes, “It wasn’t easy being a single gay father in the 1970s. . . . There were no models. For better and for worse, my father was making up the rules as he went along.”
Abbott looks at herself just as honestly—her adolescent moods, rebellions, and struggles to fit in among classmates from one mom-one dad families. While she loved her father and his queer friends, she remained closeted about her family at school, and “learned to move between both worlds.”
When she went to college in New York in 1988, she relished the chance to “discover and create” herself, away from the tensions of living with a struggling gay writer in recovery. Throughout this time, however, she and her father continued to exchange letters, never severing their ties.
She shows us the denial she experienced about her father’s AIDS diagnosis and the resentment she felt at having to care for him while trying to finish college. Underneath that, however, was fear that she would lose him, he who had been the one constant presence in her life.
Abbott has given us the gift of insight into a little-documented time in gay parenting history and a little-seen perspective on the AIDS crisis, wrapped in a thoughtful and heartfelt personal memoir. Although she is straight, she rightly insists, “This queer history is my queer history. This queer history is our queer history.” Queers, and our children, should be thankful she has shared it with us.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), an award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBT parents.