After Marriage, Family Conflict

I am a long-time (i.e. 20 years) LGBTQ parenting activist and academic. For the past 20 years I have assisted queer and trans people to bring children into their lives and have carried out research, education and advocacy related to the systems and institutions that impact LGBTQ people who parent: adoption systems, assisted reproduction, schools, legalities regarding parental recognition, etc.  I have created spaces for LGBTQ people who are parents and those who are interested in parenting to come together to discuss, and sometimes debate, significant issues (eg. anonymous sperm donation; immigration policies and LGBTQ families; family law reforms) or to gather with others to share information and strategies. I also work as a mediator with LGBTQ people who are in the process of becoming parents, and those who are experiencing family conflict.

In this work, and through all these years, I have insisted on a framework that resists normalization (see Epstein, 2005), a framework that acknowledges LGBTQ people’s desires to have children but resists the idea that parenting requires a disavowal of queer sexuality or a distancing from the queerest parts of our communities.  I have argued, in fact, that our children benefit from being around sexual and gender diversity and from the radical nature of queer activism and histories.

This position has been easier to assume in Canada than in the United States, because in Canada legalities regarding parenting are separate from marriage rights.  This means that parental recognition is secure without marriage.  The recognition of  “same-sex” common law relationships probably had a bigger impact on LGBTQ parents than did the legalization of marriage. We are also fortunate in Canada to be moving towards family law reforms that at least begin to recognize the complexities of LGBTQ family configurations. Our current struggle in Canada is for adequate and straightforward parental recognition for multi-parent families, for trans parents and for those who access assisted reproduction to get pregnant.

This is not to say that the struggle for same-sex marriage was not a contested one amongst LGBTQ communities in Canada.  The symbolic significance of marriage and the tenacity of the heterosexual nuclear family model are still with us. The struggle for marriage dominated the agenda of our national advocacy organization for several years, and, as you say in your CFP, it diverted energy from other pressing issues. However, it was difficult at the time for people who were dubious, resistant, worried or hostile to the marriage campaign to speak up about this, partly because of the homophobic backlash the campaign generated. And our resistance was not organized.

We have now had legal same-sex marriage for more than 10 years in Canada.  And I find myself currently conducting research on LGBTQ family conflict.  Having spent 20 years helping people have children, I am now witnessing the conflicts that arise when they do.

The first phase of this research project has involved interviews with family law lawyers, mediators and psychotherapists who work with LGBTQ people.  I have been talking to them about what they have witnessed historically, and are currently witnessing, in relation to LGBTQ family conflict. They are describing interesting, contradictory and complex dynamics.  For example:

• Some people are embracing the narrative of traditional marriage, waiting until they are married to have children, and referring to their “wives” and “husbands.”

• Lawyers are seeing unprecedented numbers of multi-parent and polyamorous families seeking to write legal agreements between several adults who are collectively parenting children.

• Some people are attempting to subvert the state’s intervention in their personal lives by opting out of the financial obligations and commitments that come with marriage (or common law relationships of more than two years) by writing agreements that maintain economic independence of partners.

• Some people are choosing the “beta relationship,” a trial relationship that is assessed before the two-year mark (the time at which financial obligations kick in) in order to avoid the restrictions of the law.

• Lawyers report high conflict separations and divorces, particularly between lesbians with children.  Various explanations are offered for this, including the huge investments of time, energy and expense that can go into having children.

• Lawyers also report lesbian separations and divorces that result in a deepening of relationships and a strengthening of communication between ex-partners.

• Conflicts between biological and non-biological parents continue to occur, with biological parents drawing on conventional homophobic narratives to argue for their greater attachment to children.

• Conflicts with sperm donors also occur, with narratives of “good news fathers” and “the need for a dad” being drawn on to argue for greater involvement of male donors.

• Trans custody cases are currently the most painful and ugly legal situations, with trans parents at risk of losing contact with children. Transphobia, on the part of ex-partners and the legal system, plays a huge part in these cases.

• The “community” often plays a significant role when LGBTQ people are in family conflict.  There is often a sense of “betrayal,” and a perceived need to take sides. This can sometimes result in isolation from community supports, and a lot of anguish.

• Some people want to separate their sexual/romantic relationships from their parenting relationships, i.e. to live with a partner but not parent with them.  The law does not account for this very well.

I would like to use the opportunity of your conference to reflect on these dynamics of LGBTQ family conflict and to explore the narratives people draw on when they are in conflict and how the paradigm of marriage and the assumptions of the heterosexual nuclear family are contributing or shaping these narratives. I want to raise questions about the conversations we need to have, the resources we need to create, and the skills we need to nurture in order to approach family conflict in a way that recognizes and makes space for the array of LGBTQ family configurations and desires, creates openings to separate parenting from partnering, and moves away from the presumptions of heterosexual marriage and the nuclear family model.

Epstein, R. (2005). Queer Parenting in the New Millennium: Resisting Normal. Canadian Women’s Studies—Lesbian, Bisexual, Queer, Transsexual/Transgender Sexualities 24(2- 3), 7-14.


Part of panel What's Actually Happening After Marriage? LGBTQ Couples and Families
October 2, 2016, 14:15–16:00