In an Often Hostile World, Children of Queer Parents Need Strong Family Narratives

A lesbian couple with their baby at the beach.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

LGBTQ parents often struggle to help their kids navigate a world where almost everyone still assumes that their families follow a traditional model. Sometimes we’re around to see this friction in action. For instance, a few years ago a waitress somewhere in Oklahoma assumed that my husband and I wanted two separate checks—since we must each have been the parent of one of the two young girls at our table! Other times, we find out about the assumptions later and wonder how the adult who was thinking in that “traditional” mode interacted with our child. One of my daughter’s swim coaches asked me whether my “wife was as into swimming” as I am—even though she had seen me working out with the LGBTQ adult swim team that occupies the pool after my kid’s team.

It turns out that there are useful resources for helping queer parents talk to their kids about our families—especially about how they’re formed. Over the past few weeks, I had a couple of conversations with Lisa Schuman, who runs periodic workshops for such kids, over a wide range of ages, about how she helps kids and parents prepare for a less-than-understanding world. “My workshop plants the seeds as early as we can to give our children the tools they need to tell their birth stories,” Schuman says.

Schuman came to the LGBTQ community’s concerns from a different, if related, field. She’s a social worker who has been involved in counseling and assisting people who are dealing with fertility issues in their efforts to form families. Her bio showcases a long involvement with organizations involved in egg freezing, and assisted reproductive techniques more generally. In those capacities, Schuman, who is herself an adoptive mother of three, came to understand that families that were created in non-traditional ways often needed therapy to help them through processes that others often didn’t understand, and that they too struggled with.

Over time, Schuman hit on the idea of helping people on a broader scale. She developed a group practice and began working with a “team of coaches and therapists” who specialize in both reproductive assistance and adoption.

Kids who originate in these non-traditional families all have something in common, but their stories have crucial specificity as well. There are important distinctions between the children of straight parents who needed a surrogate, twins raised by a lesbian couple who used a sperm donor, kids who are adopted from another country by a single dad, and children who are adopted through the foster care system. How do these kids acquire and develop the tools they need to thrive in a society that doesn’t always understand or accept their families? When do they take it upon themselves to “teach”? When do they confront? When do they just dismiss ignorance and walk away?

Schuman has decided that the stories of kids raised by LGBTQ parents are related in ways that make a workshop for that group a smart idea. She’s seen the explosion of LGBTQ families firsthand. When she spoke at a gay and lesbian center about 15 years ago, “Four people showed up. Just a few years later,” she told me, she presented to “an overflow audience of more than 100.” At that point, she hit upon the idea of sifting the LGBTQ-parented kids out from the others and giving them the opportunity to learn from and share their stories.

“My workshop is designed to teach through several activities and direct instruction,” Schuman explained. A recent daylong session went like this: The parents and the kids were separated from each other, and each group had its own sessions. Some of the kids were adopted, while others had stories that involved egg donors or sperm donors. In this case, the kids were on the young side—all under 10. (That’s not always the case; teenagers are sometimes involved.) After an ice-breaking activity, the kids do some role-playing to prepare them to deal with encounters with folks who may be ignorant, or downright hostile, regarding their family situation. Will they turn away, or provide information and education? Dealing with these issues before they surface is designed to make the real-life version less stressful and potentially productive. Over the course of the workshop, the material moves “from the more general to the more specific and personal,” Schuman explained.

The children also spent time drawing images that reflect their thinking about their families, and express the ways they’re feeling. Kids vary in the ways they find comfort. Some enjoy drawing and doing purposeful arts and crafts projects, while others take to role-playing more naturally. The workshop is designed to expose them to various means of self-expression. The parents, meanwhile, engage in activities of their own to help them better understand the kinds of situations their kids might be pitched into, and to be able to help them respond—either in the moment or later, if they’re not around when an encounter takes place.

Schuman and her team of coaches and therapists strive to create the tools that these families need: to develop a bond within the family, and to figure out how to construct (and maybe defend) their emerging family narrative. The parents and their kids are separated for most of the session, but are then brought back together for a concluding session during which the kids, if they’re so moved, can discuss what they’ve gleaned from the day’s activities. Typically, there will be a couple of kids who haven’t said much during the day, but in whom the seeds of empowerment have already begun to germinate. They may then begin to express their feelings. Others won’t feel comfortable doing so until some time later.

The goal is to empower the families to define their own origin story, so that they can feel empowered to share it in the wider world. As Schuman put it, “We developed this idea to help kids disclose their birth stories to friends and families, and to anyone they want to. At some point, it’s really their story to tell—not their parents’.” Yet by fostering a strong bond around each family’s unique history, workshops like Schuman’s facilitate the creation of a biography that parents and children alike can build, and then transmit to others who have earned their trust.

It’s a practice I wish I’d known about when my own kids were younger. There’s a lot of wisdom in this thoughtful, intentional approach to some of the challenges that non-traditional families face in a society still uncomfortable with us.