For Queer People, Mother Means Family

Getty / Dia Dipasupil

For better or (hopefully not) worse, most of us have a mother. But in an age when concepts like “re-mothering the inner child” and “mother hunger” are openly discussed, mothers are more than just an individual. Mothers are simultaneously a concept, generations of relationships, a role, a sometimes-mix of blessings and constraint, and a real-life person all rolled up into one.

For queer people especially, relationships with mothers can be challenging – disownment, conditional love, and the pressure to conform are the cornerstones of many people’s relationships (or lack thereof) with their mothers. And for the many queer folks who chose to pursue parenthood, starting their own family can come with the fresh challenge of expensive fertility care, navigating a maze of insurance regulations, discriminatory adoption policies, and a less-than-welcoming healthcare environment.

But there are also unique ways that queer people relate to – and re-create – motherhood. In 2018, FX’s hit drama series “Pose” brought queer ballroom culture to the mainstage, and along with it, a different kind of motherhood.

An exploration of New York City’s ballroom culture of the late ’80s and ’90s, “Pose” follows Michaela Jaé Rodriguez’s Blanca as she becomes the founder and mother of House of Evangelista. The term mother, as it’s used here, means something very specific, and is particularly important to the histories and lives of Black and Brown trans women. Being Mother not only meant leading her house to success and belonging in ballroom, but also meant that Blanca took on the responsibility of mothering young queer people – many of whom were disowned and frequently homeless.

“Pose” is fiction, but Blanca is representative of many queer people’s experience with chosen family and ballroom. In an interview with the Washington Post, LeeLee James, mother of the Royal House of LaBeija Colorado chapter, said that ballroom houses were “the epitome of safety . . . of being taken in when no one else wants you, when no one else sees you, and being held in a space long enough to heal and continue your own journey to accomplishing your goals.”

Lately, though, the ballroom language of “Mother” has spread beyond Black and Brown queer communities. In a recent headline, The New York Times boldly declared: “Gone Are ‘Daddy’ Days. These Are ‘Mother’ Times,” noting how many straight pop stars and actresses were being referred to with the endearment. It’s not uncommon to see people on the internet declare pop stars like Taylor Swift or Demi Lovato as “mother.”

While usually well-meaning, this doesn’t always sit well with people who have had to navigate finding their own mothers in a world that has not been very maternal. As LeeLee James told the Washington Post: “It is a disservice to just pick and choose the parts of ballroom culture that people find beautiful while ignoring the histories of pain that have led to that culture being the beautiful thing that it is.”

In addition to being a queer term meant to describe a the head of a chosen family group, the idea of motherhood often means something different to queer people who choose to have biological children. Even the idea that a mother is necessary to starting a family misses the ways that queer people relate to and have their own children. Though often (tragically) associated with traditional femininity and cis womanhood, there are many trans and gender nonconforming people who choose to experience pregnancy and parenthood.

Probably one of the most well-known queer parents, Trystan Reese and Biff Chaplow, have three children. Two children were adopted, and in 2017, Reese gave birth to their third child. Reese told CNN, “I’m OK with my body being a trans body. I’m OK being a man who has a uterus and has the capacity and capability of carrying a baby. I don’t feel like it makes me any less of a man. I just happen to be a man who is able to carry a baby.”

In Reese’s 2021 book “How We Do Family: From Adoption to Trans Pregnancy, What We Learned about Love and LGBTQ Parenthood,he pushed back against the idea that kids need a mother and father at home – and the joy of raising children as a gay father.

Butch and masculine lesbians, too, challenge expectations around parenthood, gender, and what family looks like. For example, Chicana lesbian feminist and writer Cherríe Moraga’s 1997 memoir “Waiting in the Wing” offered a queer view of motherhood before the legalization of Marriage Equality or gay adoption. Later, Moraga’s 2019 memoir “Native Country of the Heart” explores the death of her mother. More recently, Ari Fitz’s 2018 mini documentary “My Mama Wears Timbs: A Short Documentary on Motherhood & Masculinity,” was a beautiful exploration of masculinity, maternity photo shoots, and celebration.

All told, the word “mother” carries unique, nuanced, and often deeply emotional connotations within LGBTQ communities. The way queer people relate to motherhood, parenthood, and family is never universal. But, often, it is beautiful.

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