Gay Dad Life

One Gay Dad's Response When Asked: What Makes a Family?

While a panelist at an LGBT event, Salim Stephensen was asked a tough question: what makes a family? Here's his response.

As a gay parent I'm occasionally asked to take part in panel discussions at LGBT events. These are common in London's business district (where I work) as the big firms place increasing emphasis on diversity – and rightly so. Anyway, I took part in one the other day at Deutsche Bank which was moderated by my friend and fellow gay parent, Tuvia Borok.


Tuvia introduced the audience to the panel of five gay parents, all pretty senior legal and financial professionals, with me, a humble paralegal, perched on the end at number six. I always get super nervous sharing the panel with these folks!

Tuvia kicked off the discussion with the first question to the panel…

"What makes a family?"

It was such a big question I didn't know where to start. Cue nervous panicking. Cue buckets of sweat. Cue heart-thumping.

There was a moment of silence, only a few seconds but long enough for my head to fill with jumbled up thoughts, all trying to make sense of each other and give a coherent answer. Imagine the feeling of bees swarming inside your head – each bee a different thought – pulling each other's wigs off and scratching each other's eyes out, all trying to be the prevailing thought. This is exactly how I feel when I'm faced with public speaking. I really need to sort that out!

Mercifully, Tuvia looked to the panelist next to him, Gary Crichlow, for an answer first. Gary began with something along the lines of his family being like every other despite having same-sex parents.

Although it was a great answer, it wasn't how I'd interpreted the question. I thought Tuvia was literally asking us how we would define the concept of family. If I were to ask myself what makes a family, my answer would be love.

But then my mind drifted back to a conversation I'd had recently with a guy I'd met through mutual friends at a barbecue. Just in case he reads this, let's call him Archie (I love that name).

Salem (fair right) at the panel discussion

Archie told me about his brother. Halfway through the conversation Archie mentioned in passing that his brother wasn't actually his biological brother, but rather his best friend who he'd known for about six years and who he thought of as a brother. I couldn't help but think: 'He's not really your brother then'.

I didn't want to be dismissive. People who are so rigid with definitions are the same people who would probably, for example, say that I'm not a 'real parent' because I didn't become a father in the traditional way. Or perhaps these same people would say that the American egg donor I used for IVF is my son's mother. Of course biology dictates that she is, and I'm sure she's a wonderful woman, but I never met her! I would never consider her part of our family alongside granny, granddad, aunty etc. To be called "mum" you surely need to be present, right? Doesn't that title need to be, for want of a better word, earned?

But then, who am I to say how these titles work? How could I, someone who believes a family only needs love, then turn around and say to myself that Archie's brother is not his brother? This guy has obviously been very much present and loving.

I tuned back into the panel when I heard Tuvia's voice again. It turned out he wasn't asking every question to EVERY panelist, and by the time I'd formulated a half-decent answer the subject had moved on! I did still participate in the subsequent topics but I think by then I'd loosened up a bit (nothing to do with the big glass of wine I'd been guzzling whilst waiting my turn).

But this first question did stick in my head long after the evening was over. I checked the Oxford dictionary and it broadly defines family as having a biological element. In fact I was surprised at how dated it was, citing male and female parents in its example. But I suppose that's the key – we need to move with the times. For example, the term 'woman' is thankfully now broadening to become 'cisgender woman' and 'transgender woman'. Of course there are still people, mostly the older generation, who would unfortunately say that a transgender woman is not a 'real woman', but we need to be steadfast in our inclusive ideas and the use of our language in order to promote progress. Besides, I personally should be open to a broader definition of family, not only because I'm now a parent, but because members of the gay community have traditionally had to find their own family after having been shunned by those they grew up with.

So… what makes a family?

I suppose the answer involves adjusting our interpretations of these traditional concepts. In other words, I think my instinct was right – the people we love, and who love us in return, are our family.

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