I was sitting in a small bar in Tokyo with my partner Kelly. Rainbow stickers lined the window arch looking down onto the neon lit street. The tiny bar accommodated about eight people but was packed with over fifteen women passing drinks between them in an orderly way that belied the squash. The women threw discrete glances at us, the obvious newbies in the corner.
I observed the subtle visible codes I’ve come to recognise fondly as markers of safety. The gentle female energy, unfixed body language, traces of gender play; rolled sleeves, crew-cut hairstyles, the occasional piercing. Familiar cues amongst an energy I couldn’t read. It was too quiet and polite, there were signals and gestures that I was not conversant with, my verbal access was impeded by a language that was foreign to me. It pulled me in. Was this room the expression of a place where my Japanese-ness and queer-ness neatly located the same place?
Having watched my feature documentary Gayby Baby, the bar owner Mamiko connected with me on Facebook. She was bursting with excitement that I was coming to Japan and asked me to come and speak to her group with a name that translated to “Japanese Lesbians Trying to Have Children”
Drinks in hand, everyone squeezed in around our table. All eyes were on me. Being half Japanese, it was as if I was an embodiment of their future children. Here, now, Japanese legislation does not allow lesbian couples access to reproductive technologies. I felt dizzy like I had travelled back in time to offer the courage needed for my own conception. I am an emblem of hope.
The women leant in and quietly probed “Where can we find men that won’t suddenly decide they want to be fathers? Should we live secretly? When should we tell our children that they have a donor?” “If I am the non-biological mother, how will I have a connection to the child?”
Wanting to be helpful I fleetingly considered offering Kelly’s sperm count as a practical gesture, but settled instead on my classic script of reassurance and validation. Like most wannabe parents, they needed to know the families they would create would be good enough, if not great.
“The one beautiful thing about our families” I continued…“ is that we are wanted. We are the result of much deliberation and love. We are raised by a parents and a community who fought for the right to have us”. I leant back so Mamiko could translate my message… And caught myself.
I was five days late on my usually clockwork period. With a casual willingness to have a baby, Kelly and I had become increasingly relaxed about contraception.
I felt a latent discomfort rise... Maybe I was an imposter here. How could I continue to preach the grand benefits of our families if I carelessly abandoned the strengths of my family of origin in the creation of my own family? Heteronormativity was surreptitiously pulling me into its bind.
I love Kelly. It’s big deal to finally have met someone who you can imagine building a family with. Yet when we are together, when we walk down the street, sit in a café, swim at the beach - my queer identity is invisible and laid open to misinterpretation. I have hustled for public acceptance - within both het and queer circles, of my cultural queer-ness. It sets an uncomfortable twinge in my gut that the misreading of me will be amplified even more by my choice to parent with a man. Not childhood, teenhood nor my twenties had warned me of this juncture where my heterosexual relationship was becoming louder than my queer and queer-spawn identity. If I let the wave wash over me and do nothing, my queerness will be rendered invisible.
Will my children and I be exiled to the loved but generalist “friends of queers” float at the Sydney Mardi Gras Parade? Will I be handed a T-shirt spelling out“Ally”? Will we be blended into an endlessly proliferating and hybridising category of the LGBTIQ…RLZ squared? Or worse still – will my children fall off the acronym all together?
I’m not ready to free fall out of the queer community. My script about my family of origin rubs too much and too little against the family structure I am creating.
Our world is obsessed with the kind of inheritance that is bound by ancestry and biology. My cultural queer-ness may be diffused out of existence, but me and my children will look and be accepted as Japanese. Yet while my Japanese biology has always been visible, for me, these visual markers and the assumptions they create are a trojan horse.
Growing up my script for curious strangers went; “I’m half Japanese/ half English… No, my father is Japanese... Ah no I don’t speak Japanese… Because I don’t live with my father… I actually have two mothers. Well… they were living in Japan and they met a man, he became their friend. He helped us make a family. No he is not a ‘dad…”
This script stumps strangers in its tightness. It is so replete with non-normative relationships and so casually told that I could skip off before the stranger could formulate questions about typical daddies.
It’s intentionally simplistic, built and refined to convey that in our families biology sits apart from parentage.
I have come to realise that the distance between Australia and Japan was a safeguard to the unit my mothers created from scratch. Should my bio father Shotaro have changed his mind about his agreed role in my parentage, Australian and Japanese laws at that time would have favoured a 50% custody cut. Biology was, and still is, king.
I met the prospective mothers on a visit to Japan with Kelly, but had foremostly intended to spend time with Shotaro.
He is a Zen Buddhist. He welcomed us to his modest home dressed in white robes. The house is surrounded by snow-capped alps, steaming onsen baths – a filmmakers delight. Mahito, my half-brother is twenty-five, tall for Japanese with a softly expressive temperament. He hugs me impulsively, emotively and then retreats to help his mother Harumi make tempura. With google translate and charades, we talked for hours.
Biology separated from family is curious. I placed my hand up to mirror Mahito’s, traced Shotaro’s angled jawline and then my own, inspected the quality of his greying hair, the fanning spread of his eyebrows – mine if I hadn’t given in to vanity. On the last two times that I’d met Shotaro – ten and twenty one years old, I remembered that our thumbs bent back at a right angle, making him, and maybe me, a good shiatsu masseuse.
After three days spent with Shotaro’s family, they drove us back to Sakudaira Station to catch the Shinkansen to Tokyo. Shotaro sat next to me in the backseat, and mid journey, he gently held my hand. He didn’t acknowledge our entanglement, but just looked out the window. His grip was not overbearing nor sentimental, but warm and loving. It reminded me of some quality in men I have chosen to be amongst. A quiet masculinity that did not need to be asserted or centrefold. In that hold the definition of “donor”, or “bio father” felt too empty, too simple.
Shotaro, the person, is more than a ‘generous man’, a ‘gene’ or a sentence to put curious minds at bay. Getting to know this man who really does strangely look like me, is not going to send me into a spiral of desire for a “daddy”. I am an adult, laws had changed, he was not a threat to our unit anymore.
I felt a step closer to defining a relationship that the English language has not yet imagined. He is just Shotaro, the relationship is known to us.
That night he posted a photo of us on Facebook with a comment that his daughter had come to visit. The title ‘daughter’ felt inaccurate, false. The post was instantaneously met by a congratulatory stream of hearts and exclamations about our exact likeness.
His relationship to me needed no proof or work to be seen as a legitimate. It felt bizarre that Shotaro did no parenting but could be recognised as such. Yet the connection is undeniable. I want my queer culture to generate this undeniable recognition.
How is our cultural heritage transmitted across generations?
My connection to Japan is not simply genetic. When my mother Liz was two weeks old in 1961, my English grandparents who set sail to Tokyo. There is a photo of Liz clutched in her mother’s arms on the pier with her maternal and paternal grandmothers looking wistful and dejected that their first granddaughter would be raised in a faraway land. Liz grew up in Japan until she was ten, my uncles and aunties speak Japanese. I was raised on nato, miso soup, soba, umeboshi plums. Culturally unique foods grounded my biological gap.
One of my earliest memories is Liz, Donna and I striding down Oxford street at Mardi Gras dressed in kimono as a “GAY-SHA” family. I had a painted white face as a Maiko shuffling in small steps towards the never-ending finish line. My elaborate black wig piled up high and heavy on my head. It was the days when we could pause to rest our weary legs by the barricades, unwrap a sandwich and munch as the show passed by before hitching a ride onwards with a passing float. Decades later, I bore a similar weight lugging my camera up Oxford street chasing a young wrestler, no sandwich stops in the 2000’s.
For me growing up Mardi gras was one of those events where all that was invisible was there to see and touch.
The invisibility imposed on my parents’ relationship by a heteronormative culture meant they needed to work hard make their culture visible, safe and honoured. I want to keep this culture visible, safe and honoured for my own children and children everywhere. Can it stand to be diffused and transformed?
Growing up, and even now, Donna, my non-bio mum and I could not rely on recognition of our relationship. We have had to articulate our relationship and then prove it to many dubious onlookers. Some people felt the need to offer commentary on how Donna and I looked alike. We’d happily accept their positive reinforcement of our bond, flash knowing grins to one another, proceeding by making sarcastic comments like “Yes I really do have your eyes Donna”. We loved catching people out in their desperate need to link parentage to biology. But my inheritance is so clear to me = my class consciousness, pull to creativity, love of being alone, politeness to waiting staff and taxi drivers, my choice to be a vegetarian, my hot rage at inequality… the list goes on. So rarely is this observed and noted by outsiders. Like my relationship with Donna, my cultural queer-ness is hidden in stories and cannot be properly captured by gayby baby scripts. They are complex nuanced and full of emotions that cannot be easily articulated.
At my 3rd birthday party, my love of pink, fairies and princesses was cause for an intervention. Liz and Donna asked our friends to gift me with typical boy toys. Cars, dinosaurs, blue trucks and a Thomas the tank engine lego. Photos of that day relay circles of traditional “boyish” collateral splayed around a rather distressed child. I settled the imposition by making my carpark into a multiplex fairy castle.
The Tuesday lunchtime on the third week of high school was the day I chose to ‘come out’ to my new friends about my family. It was not until I sat down, that I realised how unnerved I was. My shaking hand emphasising how much I cared about, and was uncertain, how these new kids might respond.
I sat with my grandmother, lemon meringue pie and a floral tablecloth between us. It was days before the postal marriage vote closed, I had been leading the campaign in central desert with friends, but realised it was unclear how she would vote. I sat, my heart in my throat, listening to her concerns about ‘the kids’. I slowly and carefully explained how me, Donna, Lisa weren’t different to the ‘other gays’ and why I needed her to vote YES. A very different conversation to ones I had in campaign mode.
The question I am grappling with is less peripheral by the hour; when I have children, their Japanese heritage is a given, but what of them will be queer? How can I make our culture felt, seen and lasting? What edits do I need to make to evolve the script I have used for my family or origin, so I have a script about family that can serve me for new chapters in my life?
For some, facing their gay-ness is tricky, but for me the opposite is true. The toughest thing is trusting my love for Kelly and imagining a family together that does not look like the one I was raised in. Luckily, I get to choose how I do that. One way to address this inherent problem of being in hetero relationship with homo family values is to make some intentional adjustments.
Queer spawn parenting Manifesto
1. In our families children are usually much deliberated over, loved and wanted. Plan children carefully – it is a privilege.
2. Think about family expansively. Continue the re-definition of family as a place beyond biology - as the people that raise us.
3. Be creative with terminology and titles to describe the evolving relationships within your family. Encourage and introduce your child to non-binary titles of affection – first names, or chosen substitutes
4. Over-communicate at all times – there is no such thing
5. Be careful of modelling typically gendered behaviours in the home. Promote critical thinking and gender diversity as rule of thumb.
6. Dress up always.
7. Create a community of uncles, aunties, chosen family and challenge the deemed superior nuclear family model.
8. Raise feminist children who are able to identify and critique sexism wherever it arises.
9. Teach your children to protest and stand in solidarity for equality, equity and all human rights.
10. Teach your children to question everything. Even you.
11. Teach your children the history of queer rights, and paying homage to those who came before and the valuable lessons they taught us.
12. Potlucks and other community gatherings are mandatory. Show your child the power of sharing food and mutual aid!
13. Let your children know how they came into the world. Let them know all the ways children come into this world.
14. Hang with grandparents and older members of your community often. The strengths of a queer upbringing can only be passed down if us kids can embody them across the marked lines of sexuality. Despite the romance of a queer parent resulting in a queer child, who then grows into a queer parent again – it’s just not the case. And so it is up to us, children of LGBTIQ parents, to find a way to make our proverbial genepool survive. Not because we are queerspawn trying to dominate or rainbow wash, but because our families, through struggle and sheer ingenuity, have built something worth replicating.
Edited with support from Jen Skattebol. Manifesto contributions from Sadie Epstein-Fine + Maeve Marsden