LGBTQ individuals and families are beautiful, kind, complex, and can experience trauma, just like any family. What is unique to LGBTQ families is the added layer of stigma and fear of discrimination. What happens if we seek help and acknowledge that we aren’t perfect? Will we get the help and support we need, or face unjust criticism? Lara Lillibridge is the daughter of LGBTQ parents who dealt with trauma and mental illness at home. In her new book, Girlish, she shares those experiences and opens the door for honest conversations about the resilency and love of our families.
In this episode, we’re going to discuss trauma, mental illness, and abuse in our families. If that is triggering for anyone, this may be an episode to skip.
Meet the Guests
Lara Lillibridge sings off-beat and dances off-key. She is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College’s MFA program in creative nonfiction. In 2016, she won the Slippery Elm Literary Journal’s Prose Contest, American Literary Review’s Creative Nonfiction Contest, and was a finalist in both Black Warrior Review’s Nonfiction Contest and Disquiet’s Literary Prize in Creative Nonfiction. Lara resides in Cleveland, Ohio. Connect with Lara Lillibridge at www.laralillibridge.com or on Twitter.
Recent Blog Posts
Emily: In this episode we’re going to discuss trauma, mental illness and abuse in our families. If that is triggering for anyone, this just maybe an episode to skip. It is not unusual to hear people talk about LGBTQ parents and their children like we are just your average normal family. Our families are just like yours. We’ve talked on this podcast about how sometimes LGBTQ families really are different in a way that expands our definition of family, incorporates queer culture into our very fabric or just generally is pretty awesome, but there’s a reality out there. In some ways, our families are just like other families with heterosexual parents. We also deal with mental illness, addiction, trauma, and abuse, among other challenges. So obviously not everyone living with mental illness or addiction are necessarily harming their children, but it’s not always sunshine and roses in any family and for LGBTQ parents and their children, layers of stigma and isolation and fear of discriminatory intervention can cause some to not seek help. So this isn’t easy to talk about, but it is important. To talk with me today is Lara Lillibridge, author of the new book “Girlish: Growing up in a Lesbian Home” and advocate for open discussions of trauma and abuse within the LGBTQ community and beyond. To get started, I am going to ask you the question I like to ask all of my guests, who is in your family and how was it formed?
Lara: My parents, my mother and father, divorced when I was under two years old and the reason they divorced is that my father was involved with other women, which my mother wasn’t okay with. And the reason I have to say that is because most people assume that my parents broke up because my mom was a lesbian, or I think there’s extra interest in the cause of my parents’ divorce. At any rate, my mom was a single mother at that point with my brother and I, he’s 18 months older than I am. So she had two kids in preschool and she went back to college and in college she got involved in the feminist movement of the 70s and at that point in time she started exploring her own sexuality. So she has been with my stepmother since I was three years old. They’ve been together now over 40 years. So when I say my parents, I mean my mom and Pat and when I say my family, I mean my mom, my Pat, my brother, my father moved to Alaska when I was four and although we did have contact with him, we didn’t see him on a day to day basis.
Emily: So something that I noticed in some of your writing and how you described yourself in some of your writing is using the term queerspawn, which is a term that I also really like and identify with. So what is then one of your favorite things about being queerspawn, about having this LGBTQ family or growing up in the community?
Lara: Oh, I didn’t actually meet many other queerspawn until after my book came out. The few times that I would meet someone that also had lesbian parents in particular, it was like meeting a long lost cousin. So exciting. And we had in many ways more in common than some actual biological relatives because our family systems had so much in common belonging to this group where when you meet someone new, you have this instant connection. It’s very cool. But beyond that, one thing that I think is really wonderful about growing up with queer parents is that I don’t think I have the inherent prejudices that most Americans have about sexuality and gender. And I think that that has really helped me in life.
Emily: That very much resonates with me. I really like that description of connecting with a long lost cousin because that is definitely how I felt. And even now, even working with Family Equality where I’m meeting LGBTQ families and people with LGBTQ parents all the time, I still get that thrill of like, I have gay parents too! I still get so excited. So were you out about your family when you were growing up in your community? Were your parents out in your community too?
Speaker 3: No, first of all, I was born in 1973 and my parents got together around 1976 so this was really a different place in society from where it is now. My parents were absolutely completely closeted and it was a secret that we were told from a very young age. We could not tell anyone. We had to lie about who pat was. We said she was my aunt or I said she was my godmother, but I couldn’t remember who I told which story to. And then people would confront me and say, is she your aunt or godmother? And I’d say, Oh, well, she’s both, she’s my auntie. I definitely knew from a very young age that my parents had lost jobs and could lose jobs if people found out that they were gay. When I was in seventh grade, a girl at school outed me to the school. And from that point I didn’t have to keep the secret anymore, which it was incredibly painful. That was one of my worst years of my life. I was Lara the Lezzie and I was just made fun of constantly. But after that year, I didn’t have to keep the secrets and there was a relief in that. When I was in my twenties, my parents moved to Key West, which is a very gay friendly community and they were out and I moved down there as well. And my brother did too. And we were all out and I could say to someone, my mom’s lesbian, and nobody really cared. And that was incredibly healing for me. And to me, my biggest regret is that my parents couldn’t be out when I was a child because I think that could have really positively impacted my growing up, and my brother’s as well and their own happiness. You know, it was hard for them to lie at work about dating or having a boyfriend or all of that stuff too.
Emily: Yeah, absolutely. I grew up in Massachusetts with lesbian moms and was out with my friends. We were out in the town that we were in. I was out at school, but one of my moms was not out at work. And it was very much that fear of that insecurity of what if anybody finds out? What could happen? I could lose my job. And so whenever I would visit her, I knew I had to be careful about how I talked about who was who and what was happening at home. And so I was aware of that need that protection. Sometimes people seek in staying in the closet in some ways. And in other places that I’ve been in in my life, I have also been closeted about my family. And it is always, even for a short amount of time, it doesn’t feel good. Sometimes it can feel safer, but it doesn’t feel good.
Lara: I find as an adult, lately I’ve been more comfortable with my family. I find when I play, I call it playing the Pronoun Game because my mother’s named Pat. So I can make it sound like she’s a man quite easily in conversation by just calling her Pat instead of calling her, she, and when I do that, it tells me more about the person I’m speaking then a reflection on my family. To me it means that this is a person that’s not ever going to be in my inner circle. This is a person who hasn’t passed the test, so to speak. And that shift I found empowering in terms of my own view of myself and my family is that I’m not always out of because of shame, but I’m not always out because this person doesn’t deserve to know me on that level. I don’t know if that makes any sense.
Emily: No, it completely does. All the time I would use neutral language. That’s a really nice way to put it. And I think I actually really like thinking about that, of getting to decide when and what somebody gets to know rather than my censoring myself or it being a thing of fear or worry or concern about how others will react. I liked that sense of, it’s actually me controlling this, having some control over my own story and what I choose to tell people. So I really want to talk about your book as well and in your book Girlish and other articles you write about abuse and mental illness and other stressors and trauma in LGBTQ families. Why is it important for you to talk about this topic and even to share it in a book?
Lara: The first reason is that when I was the kid, not having the ability to talk about it with anyone made it so that I was just churning all of my feelings and my adolescent brain and I certainly didn’t have any answers. People internalize it. Children, particularly anything that’s negative that’s going on in their house. And I think it’s so important for kids to know, if your parent has mental illness or alcoholism or whatever, it’s not your fault and you’re not the only one. And there’s nothing wrong with you. And more than that, there’s doesn’t mean that your family isn’t still valid. If we only are allowed to show perfect, happy families, then you’re saying that other families are less than. The definition of dysfunctional, or one definition, is functioning in pain. And I think a lot of families are functioning and pain, heterosexual and queer families. It’s not a problem that is relegated to just one group. There’s real strength and freedom in having someone else say, I know how you feel and I feel that way too. In writing my book, I’ve had many readers reach out to me, both queerspawn and from heterosexual families, and they have said how much it’s meant to them to see something that resembles their family on the page and to just know that they weren’t alone. And they weren’t the only ones who felt this way. And that’s the internalization that I was talking about, that you, you have these feelings, like you might be incredibly angry at your parents, but you still love your parents. You can have all of these conflicts inside. And if you think you’re the only one that feels that it’s easy to think that you’re a bad person or that there’s something wrong with you when really it’s just a very human response.
Emily: Yeah. Our families are not perfect. As much as sometimes I know I wanted other people to believe that, I was not perfect. My family was not perfect and it was really hard for me to talk about that outside of queer spaces and especially queerspawn spaces. For you to then write a book and really be sharing it out so widely, that’s a leap to take. That’s a risk. Did it feel risky or just like this is a story that that had to be told and it felt natural.
Lara: It felt right. I mean, it was utterly terrifying. In the book, the first draft wasn’t so terrifying because at that point you can’t imagine that anyone else is ever going to read it. And then the next stage you write and you revise and you think, oh, maybe on the other side of the country there’ll be a person that I’ve never met and will never see at the grocery store that will read my book. And that’s okay. But the idea of your next door neighbor reading the book is much more terrifying. But I felt it was just so important. The story was inside me and it was coming out into everything that I wrote and I knew that as a writer I needed to write the story and be done with it. We can all only tell our own stories. The numbers of people that are growing up in queer families is in the hundreds of thousands. We need representation. We all need to be able to open a book or turn on a television show or go to a movie and relate to it and feel like we can see ourselves in the characters and see our family members. Memoir requires honesty and there was no way I could write about mental illness without also talking about my parents’ sexuality and the pressure of having queer family and feeling like it was my job to be a bright, shiny, happy example of how wonderful it is to be raised by lesbian parents. That’s something that I know a lot of queerspawn feel.
Emily: Oh yeah. I absolutely myself and I’ve talked to so many people that feel that, you know, I’ve heard it termed a poster child that needing to have both the external and then internal pressure to be this. I would just want it to be this model kid and I had to achieve and I had to succeed and be happy and be so thrilled with how wonderful my parents were at all times. So you experienced that and how was it impacted by what you were experiencing at home? That reality that everything wasn’t bright and shiny all the time and you didn’t necessarily feel bright and shiny all the time.
Lara: Yeah, I really did not have a happy childhood and I always felt like the story people wanted me to tell was not the story that I was actually living in. That was a myth that they wanted me to create. And on the other hand, I didn’t want to hurt other queer families by being honest. So there’s this real dichotomy there. This understanding that if I say that I had an unhappy childhood, there are people that will use that is a weapon against all queer families. But on the other hand, I didn’t want to create another myth here. You know, being real and letting people relate to you is one way I think to break down prejudice against people.
Emily: Yeah. And I imagine there’s families of all different makeup who feel that same because even broadly that’s not discussed. And I think especially in LGBTQ families. When I would think about what seeking help meant for people, it didn’t feel like help, it felt like a danger. And it shouldn’t.
Lara: I’m in a position where it’s safe for me to be open. Not everyone is in that position. And that’s why I thought it was important for me to take those risks and to start the conversation.
Emily: Were there times when growing up or before you started really telling your story that you wanted to talk more about it or you wanted to seek some sort of intervention and you didn’t, or maybe you did?
Lara: I really was desperate for some kind of help, but I didn’t know how to get it. And even when my parents tried, like they took us to a family counselor, but I felt like anything that I said to this heterosexual man, he was just going to tell my parents. So I didn’t tell him really anything, which was sad because it was a waste of my parent’s money. I really could have benefited from having a queerspawn support group where we can talk honestly to people without any fear of repercussions. Childhood wounds so many of us in so many different ways. And when you can talk to someone else or you can read something, it really helps you feel less alone and that can give you the strength to be more the person that you want to be. So I just feel that these conversations are vital really for everyone’s mental health. The few people that have criticized my book in terms of the content have been heterosexual women that say, well you need to clarify that not all lesbians are mentally ill. And you know, lesbians understand that not all lesbians are mentally ill. Queer people and queerspawn and even younger people younger than myself get it. The younger generation seems less tied to stereotypes, but the older white women say to me like, you need to make sure that everybody knows. And I kind of reject that because if a man and a woman have a child and the man is an alcoholic, we don’t assume all men are alcoholics. The assumption that you have to defend it is sort of saying that you personally do lump everyone into one category and you don’t view people as individuals.
Emily: I just would hope that at this point in 2018 there is enough representation and out people in the news, in the media that we’ve gotten past that point. But I know that is something that I certainly have thought about for many years and was the only person who was out about having LGBTQ parents in my town. There was nobody else that I was aware of for many, many years. And so when I was the representation of queerspawn for my peers for a long time and for my teachers too. With that extra attention came that pressure to be like, well we just gotta be great all the time because the second we’re not great, we’re under that microscope.
Lara: And that to me is why marriage equality is so important. If families don’t have to live in fear of being dissolved, then it’s safer for the kids. And it’s happier for the kids. And right now, all these people that talk about being worried about the children of queer families, they should be fighting to legitimize queer families so that the kids don’t have to be afraid. But of course they don’t do it that.
Emily: Yeah, absolutely. The safe guards, in theory – I think reality is different – but in theory there are supposed to be safeguards to maintain family permanency and to take children out of spaces that are unsafe or for people to seek help and have their health care cover what they need, their counseling or whatever it may be. And that should be there for everybody. And if you want to help make sure that kids are safe and happy and healthy, support families. There’s already these myths and in some places and communities, even up till today, there are stigmas and prejudices and discrimination against LGBTQ people. And then adding on top of that an LGBTQ person or parent who also is dealing with substance abuse or alcoholism or mental illness, all of that just sort of adds another layer that can be a barrier for intervention and help. We already know that LGBTQ people and especially transgender people statistically do not feel as safe and comfortable just going for a doctor’s visits, for going to regular checkups. So never mind saying that they need some intervention or need some help. It’s just added layers of barriers and stigma to our families. So what should be done? What are some of the steps that either LGBTQ families, our community, and even broader, can be doing?
Lara: You know, it all comes down to what can we do? And for people that are not from queer families, the first thing to do would be to treat people as individuals, to give them space, to be human and to make mistakes and to have problems, just like you would any other person. I think that groups that encourage or connect queerspawn and queer families are hugely important. And the Internet is wonderful for this. I think it’s easy to be strong when you can feel the support, even invisible support of other people behind you. And I think the more that we tell our stories outside of the queer community, there’s some people that need to hear things three or four different times. They need to hear the same message, some of them a hundred times before it sinks in. But also in writing my book, I’ve had people say to me, I didn’t have lesbian parents but I had a mentally ill mother and I related to your book so much. So now that’s a connection. This is someone who would not have thought she could relate to a child of a lesbian. But because we both had bipolar parents, we connected so strongly on that, that she was then able to revise view on lesbian parents and able to see them more just like everyone else.
Emily: In one of your articles, you would describe it a little bit more that you are a parent now. What has it been like seeing your parents as grandparents?
Lara: My parents are really wonderful grandparents and my children adore them and that’s been very healing for me. And talking to friends that are also parents, but not queerspawn, but have had mental illness in their families,, they’ve said the same thing. That it’s very healing when you’ve had a tumultuous relationship with your parents to see them being kind and loving and wonderful to your children, in a way that perhaps you always wanted for yourself. It really smooths over a lot. My kids are very sweet in that they don’t see why anyone would care that they have two grandmas and because they’re that one step removed, it’s not a reflection on them at all. And in a lot of ways that helps them be representatives for the queer community because they don’t have the fears that I had because they’re one step removed. But they have the love and the acceptance of, these are my grandmas and they love me and they’re great and they come to my birthday parties. When they talk to their friends, they’re like, oh, you know, this is Nana and Grandma Pat. And they don’t act like it’s a big deal. So then their friends don’t act like it’s a big deal. And then their friends’ parents are afraid to act like it’s a big deal. And you know, I feel it. It’s like throwing a rock in the water and the ripples continue much farther out than you would expect. So for me, there’s two levels of happiness there. Both the healing of seeing my parents be such loving grandparents to my children and then seeing my children just so accepting and helping spread acceptance just through being their own little happy selves.
Emily: Yeah. Do you talk with them at all about your experiences or growing up or about mental illness?
Lara: Yes. On both. Now that my kids are older, they’re 10 and 12. So my 10 year old just this week said, when you were a kid, did anyone ever use gay slurs at school? I was like, okay, do you have no idea? Like it was in song lyrics. It wasn’t even considered offensive. We do talk about my stepmother’s mental illness, particularly as they get older. Sometimes she says things that are inappropriate and sometimes she says things that are just plain mean. And I want my kids to know that it’s not their fault, that that is not a reflection on them. It’s not anything that they did. And so we do talk about it. And I also talked to my parents about it, about, okay, I need to be able to trust you that if you were in a bad place to not come around the children. We all get in bad places. Sometimes as parents, we all have days where we’re short tempered and just have no patience and sending the kids to go play at someone else’s houses. There’s nothing wrong with that, you know? So I do try and advocate for my children within my family.
Emily: What are some of the other things that you really wanted to communicate in your book or in your other writing that we haven’t talked about or feels is really important for other LGBTQ people? Parents and those who interact with our families to know?
Lara: In writing my book, I tried very hard not to put judgments onto the page. I wanted the reader to be free to come up with how they felt about the different people in my family on their own. And in writing the book’s structure I chose, which is third person, allowed me to give I think a more well balanced view. And the fact that people from all different walks of life have said that they could relate to it and then I had a lesbian friend tell me that stepmother was her favorite character in the book. And that means that I didn’t paint her too harshly. My goal was to just show us as flawed human beings. None of us better than each other, but you know, everyone’s struggling and I think that that kind of naked honesty is really where we find human connection.
Emily: I think that’s fantastic. Thank you for writing this and thank you for sharing this and getting the conversation started in lots of people’s homes but also on this podcast and for listeners of the podcast because it is important and it’s real and it’s part of our families. Girlish is available to order on Amazon and Barnes and Noble and indiebound. Lara, thank you so much for talking with me today.