Family

All in the Family

I was supposed to be a lesbian with a wife and some kids. What I got was so much better.

A white picket fence.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by JannHuizenga/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

This piece is part of the Radical issue, a special package from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

Once, I had my whole life planned out. I would be an entomologist. I would have a big family, like the one I grew up in, with cousins in the double digits and giant family holidays. I’d have multiple kids, some biological and some adopted. There were minor adjustments over the years, of course. I narrowed the number of children down from my initial plan to have a kid for each doll I owned (27 daughters and three sons), and I changed the gender of my hypothetical spouse when I realized I was a lesbian at 14. Otherwise, the plan went forward.

After college I met my current spouse—an annoyingly assimilationist, but somehow anti-marriage, apparent butch lesbian. We began a fun, casual relationship of intense, late-night debates. In retrospect, I see that my pro-marriage, anti-assimilationist stance was just as contradictory. Eventually, in 2014, I married my soulmate of debate and contradictions, I got accepted into graduate school, and a few months later we were contacting fertility clinics. My dyke power-couple dream looked well within reach.

Not long after, everything changed: My spouse came out as a trans man, my doctor discovered stage 4 endometriosis, and almost nothing made sense. Then, about a year after the Obergefell decision legalized same-sex marriage, the Pulse nightclub shooting happened. Every bone in my body shook.

I know my queer history. I know how many times bars and clubs have simultaneously been safe spaces and sites of great tragedy for the queer community. Now this. I always knew marriage equality was largely symbolic, but I had hoped it could indicate a step toward making things better for all of us. After Pulse I no longer thought that. Maybe it was just the shooting. Maybe it was a combination of that and everything else that was going on. But my normal-life goals started to seem not just silly but downright irresponsible. I needed to be taking care of other queer people, not thinking about being acceptable to straight people. How that would manifest in my day-to-day reality, I wasn’t yet sure.

I was in a dark place after the shooting. After a laparoscopic surgery and several rounds of fertility treatments, painful symptoms returned with a vengeance. I decided to get a hysterectomy. Graduate school was exhausting. A malfunctioning PCR machine, used to amplify segments of DNA for research and diagnostic purposes, gave me panic attacks, but my career was the one thing I felt I had some control over. My relationship was stressed by health issues and my husband’s transition. I was still a lesbian, but I didn’t want to lose the support of my best friend. I needed to find a way to have both.

My husband, Evan, and I had previously opened our relationship to casual encounters. He’d dated a couple of other girls, and I’d hooked up with a mutual friend. We decided going back to that was a good way to see if I could find an outlet for my lesbianism. It wasn’t perfect, but we wanted to try something.

That’s where Mandy came in. She was a long, loud, energetic, no-nonsense trans woman often seen in summer dresses and a hat full of activist pins. She frequented our favorite queer-friendly dive bar. She and Evan would get into friendly arguments, she talked me through the emotions of my upcoming hysterectomy with more empathy than most, and she helped us both through Evan’s transition. I developed an attraction to her, which Evan encouraged me to pursue. The goal was a safe, casual encounter.

After graduation I kept in contact with Mandy, and we grew closer. I got my hysterectomy in Massachusetts, accepted a job as an entomologist in California, and Evan and I were on our way. Then we learned that Mandy needed an address. A trucker at the time, she mainly lived on the road but had lost her official mailing address after a bad breakup, and so we offered to let her use ours and live on occasional weekends in an extra room in our house. She and I made our relationship official, and suddenly I had a girlfriend and a husband.

Eventually Mandy left trucking and moved in full time. It took some getting used to, at first. There were logistics to work out in terms of bills, decorating choices, and levels of PDA that would be comfortable for everyone. There were also bigger questions like how would my introvert husband handle another person living there constantly? Where and when would I sleep? And what would we do about children? Evan and I had talked about fostering even before my hysterectomy, and this seemed like the right moment—but what about Mandy? We contacted a queer-friendly agency and, nervously, explained our unusual situation. The agency asked to meet us, then told us if we still wanted to go forward with certification after a waiting period they would accept us as three foster parents.

The time went quickly and, within a week or so of the deadline, we had an email describing a queer 17-year-old needing emergency placement. We knew we had to accept. We set up a meeting with the teen, the social worker, one biological aunt, and the director of the agency. At the end of the day we made our decision and emailed the agency to say that we were absolutely interested. The kid was placed in our home about a week later.

There were a few bumps in the road, but we soon began establishing a relationship with our foster kid. After three months we spoke to the social worker about adoption and then had that conversation with our teen. Things have been going so well that the agency is requesting that we take another LGBTQ teen as soon as we can. We’re considering moving to a bigger place.

All of this isn’t what I imagined. I didn’t imagine a husband, a relationship with more than one person, or starting parenting with a high school senior. Still, here I am, and I believe things are better and make more sense than they did before. I’m not fighting to make myself acceptable or waiting for a society that wasn’t designed for people like me to tell me it’s my turn to be useful. I’m building a life with people I love and who’ve been with me through many difficult and meaningful moments in my life. I’m parenting in a way that’s structured and rewarding. My family is queer, unexpected, radically loving, and hopeful. We help and care for each other and build our family where we can, expanding with each addition, whether it be through each other’s extended family (including the kids’), close friends and friends of family, lovers, or anyone else who appears in the broad web of connections we’ve made. My extended birth family taught me the value of that, and I’m taking it and making my own queer version. My family is brave, active, growing. I am proud of it.

Somehow, in the process of losing so much of what I wanted, I found exactly what I needed.

Read all of Outward’s special issue on Radicalism. And queer your ears with a special radical-themed episode of the Outward podcast.