In 2010, Graham (see photo above) and his older brother Michael became two of the first children in the Australian state of New South Wales to be adopted by a same-sex couple. The kids had been removed from their birth parents when Graham was 5 years old. He could communicate only through a rudimentary language of vowel sounds and hand signals, symptoms of the neglect he had endured.
The documentary film “Gayby Baby,” which will have its world premiere on April 29 at Toronto’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, shows how far he’s come since being adopted by his dads Matt and Pete. At age 12, he’s finally learned to read, if slowly, still stumped by words such as “Tuesday” and “ravioli.” His dad guides him to slow down, stop guessing, and sound words out. Graham may not have been born into Matt and Pete’s lives, but they are his parents.
He is one of four preteens profiled in the film, which tells the story of growing up in a same-sex household from the perspective of the kids. Also featured are Gus, 11, whose fascination with American wrestlers conflicts with his moms’ pacifist values; Ebony, 12, who dreams of making the leap from bedroom-mirror pop star to a performing arts high school; and Matt, 12, who’s struggling with his Christian mother’s belief in a church that preaches being gay is a sin. Questioning an adult’s faith in Christianity, he says, “is almost like telling a child that Santa doesn’t exist.”
The film’s director, Maya Newell, spent four years working on the film, quietly observing these children of gay parents. The results affirmed many of her own feelings about growing up with two moms. “When I was in primary school, I was really proud of my family and I bragged about having gay parents,” she recalls, calling over Skype from her native Sydney. “I was like, I am going on Mardi Gras floats and you’re not! There was a lot of social capital about having gay parents.” It wasn’t until high school that she grew more private. “I didn’t want to tell everyone,” she says. “I just wanted to tell people as I became good friends with them and I trusted them.”
It’s a dynamic reflected on-screen. When a career change requires Matt and Pete to move Graham and Michael to Fiji, they have a talk with their boys about who to tell their family story to. This selective openness was familiar to Newell, who has written about her mother playing along with a butcher’s assumptions that she had a husband at home. She compares it to a coming-out experience. “When you come out, you have to bear yourself naked for the world and let everyone in on your secret and if you don’t do that you’re not ‘proud’ enough of being gay or being a gayby,” she says, using the slang term for the children of gay parents introduced by Abigail Garner in her 2005 book “Families Like Mine." “But I really liked the concept of letting people come in.”
During a parent-teacher meeting, Graham’s teacher asks where his “real” parents are. “That’s one of the No. 1 questions,” Newell says with a sigh. “And I suppose in terms of dads they might assume that neither of them are.” Newell’s donor father was a Japanese friend of her mother’s who is now happily married. Every year, he received a Christmas card that included a photo of Newell, documenting how much she’d grown. “My parents are both Caucasian,” she says. “My moms are both blonde hair, blue eyes. So I was always assumed the adopted child. Where are your real parents? You look Japanese. I just say they’re both my real parents.”
After the film’s premiere, Newell hopes to take the film into schools, working to build teachers’ confidence in discussing a more diverse range of families. “Some teachers don’t know how to talk about gay families, so they don’t,” she says. “And therefore you have kids in all these classes who have to tell their story of the whole gay history to their friends.” She hopes parents bring their own children to see the film, judging it appropriate for kids 10 and up.
What has Newell herself learned from making the film? Parenting is hard work, no matter what orientation you are. “If everyone across the conservative-leftie divide on this issue came together and said, we shouldn’t be talking about who should be allowed to parent, we should be talking, for anyone, about how to be a good parent, because it’s really hard!, we could probably get a lot further in the discussion.”
“Gayby Baby” premieres at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 29; additional screenings at 1:00 p.m. on Friday, May 1, and at 3:45 p.m. on Saturday, May 2. Tickets are $15 and are available here