For more than a decade, three gay families have allowed documentary filmmaker Julia Ivanova to follow them at close range as they’ve built their households through adoption, surrogacy and co-parenting in Nova Scotia and British Columbia.
My Dads, My Moms and Me, Ivanova’s new documentary, is an intimate look at the home lives of these gay parents and their teenage children – their good days and their bad days, their closeness and their challenges. There is 13-year-old Jack, adopted by dads Drew and Randy in Vancouver and struggling as a teen. On Nanaimo’s Protection Island, 16-year-old Zea is co-parented by her gay dad Steve and her two lesbian moms, Wendy and Cory, as she battles a chronic illness. And in Halifax, fathers (and hockey dads) Scott and Darren are raising their 12-year-old twins Ella and Mac, conceived through surrogacy.
Ivanova began shadowing the families when the teens were babies with her 2007 documentary Fatherhood Dreams, released two years after this country legalized same-sex marriage. That work and her new film serve as a modern family update on the popular British documentary series Up, which followed the same children over many decades, charting the unexpected course of their lives. In Canada, Ivanova’s book-ending documentaries hold up a mirror to this country’s shifting cultural values around what makes a family. Gay parenthood was largely uncharted territory when Ivanova shot her first film in 2006. When she approached Canadians on the street in Vancouver for their opinions, people appeared tepid about LGBTQ families, wondering on camera about whether the children of gay parents might grow up confused, damaged or “turn out gay."
Catching up with the families and their teenagers, the new film is a response to these prejudiced fears: Ivanova reveals the kids are alright. More than anything, My Dads, My Moms and Me telegraphs the boring normalcy of these families – their dinner table fights; the fathers’ nostalgia for their bubbly toddlers, who are now moody teens; their big hopes for their kids’ futures (the filmmaker plans to return periodically to the families in the coming years). Ivanova spoke with The Globe and Mail about My Dads, My Moms and Me, funded by the Telus Storyhive Initiative and screening at the Vancouver International Film Festival Oct. 3, 6 and 11.
You’ve said your film is a retort to Canadians who didn’t trust LGBTQ parents following the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2005. What is that retort?
It was very soon after legalization and few people knew any of these families but everybody had an opinion, of course. Ignorance is the reason why there is fear. Questions common in 2006 and 2007 were whether same-sex parents would provide an environment where children would feel safe and loved. This documentary shows how people you never met, from communities you may not have access to, live. These children are exactly the same children with the same issues in relationships with their parents as any teenager.
Vancouver fathers Drew and Randy adopt their son, Jack, now 13. In the first film, he’s a happy toddler. By the second, he’s a sulky 12 year old who hates school, won’t get out of bed, plays video games all day and fights constantly with Randy. Why was it important to show growing pains in LGBTQ families?
Our goal wasn’t to show a perfect picture but the real picture. Most parents go through this period of intense sorrow and suffering. You invest so much in your child. Then, because of the child’s period of growth and also your own mistakes, for several years you have this negative relationship with your teenagers. I felt that most parents would relate to this.
In Halifax, Scott’s family feels very cookie-cutter: There’s a cottage, hockey practice and early-morning runs to Tim Horton’s. What were you hoping to convey with this family?
I emphasized that they are carrying this nuclear Canadiana with them. In some ways, it’s showing a finger to certain people who don’t consider them an equally valid family. I wanted to have a conversation with middle class, middle-aged Canadians who never met children of families of same-sex parents.
In Nanaimo, four-year-old Zea is very stoic about her unconventional family of two gay moms and a gay dad. “It’s not confusing," little Zea tells you. “I’m the luckiest ever because I have the most parents.”
Zea was an exceptionally bright child who always shared her views. By the age of 16, she is deeply compassionate and sensitive toward the feelings of others. This family unites over health issues; it’s a huge testament to this very unusual family with two mothers and one father who is very involved.
The gay dads in your film said they were unnerved by people stopping them in the street to ask, “Where’s mom?”
For Scott, a gay father with twin newborns, it could feel exhausting and intrusive. On the other hand, Scott chose to be a single father through surrogacy, one of the first in Canada. When his newborns became very well-looked-after toddlers, Scott changed the perceptions of many who came in contact with him and his children. He became a true ambassador for fatherhood by gay men.
Randy and Drew dealt with the question about the whereabouts of Jack’s mom with humour. As a newlywed gay couple, the men looked like stereotypical straight men – like heavy haulers from Fort McMurray. They were enjoying the confusion their family was creating in the heads of people on the street.
What difficulties did these families face in their communities?
Randy and Drew felt a double-faced attitude from neighbours on their suburban street. People congratulated them with the adoption but only one neighbour invited them into her house in four years. They were also not able to make friends in their community of gay men. Their lifestyle was so mainstream heterosexual with the focus on their toddler son. Fathers Steve and Scott also commented that they are kind of in between two communities and not fitting in either of them well, being parents and being gay men and having children as the central interest in their lives.
Why was it important to show that these fathers fought hard to have babies?
They wanted these children, they overcame the obstacles. Most gay men of their generation were not entertaining the idea of parenthood. Coming out as gay meant going through the process of grieving and accepting that they would never have children. In 2019, the situation is different. Many younger men in committed relationships talk about their desire to become fathers. It hasn’t become much easier to implement but the freedom of thinking and doing something about the dream of fatherhood stopped being a crazy, unrealistic dream.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The families, in their own words
The Globe asked the families of filmmaker Julia Ivanova’s new documentary My Dads, My Moms and Me how the climate has shifted for them since their participation in Ivanova’s 2007 film Fatherhood Dreams, released shortly after gay marriage was legalized.
“I remember the first time Zea called both Wendy and me some baby version of ‘mom’ in public. I realized with both pride and some nervous fear that the shoe-store staff and other customers now knew without a doubt that we were two lesbian moms. I also remember how we three parents used to saunter into parent-teacher interviews, or meet-the-teacher night. We knew our family was different, but we felt we had every right to be there and to be supported. For most teachers, it was new back then. Now, so many students are out, bringing a youthful queer culture right into their schools. It was amazing to arrive at Zea’s high school [in June] to see a huge rainbow flag at the front door. They were hosting the district-wide gay-straight alliance barbeque. – Cory, mother of Jazz, 26, and Zea, 16, whom Cory co-parents with her partner, Wendy, and the daughters’ father Steve, in Nanaimo.
“We have wonderful, accepting friends at the children’s school. There are also a few parents who do not really speak to us, or, if spoken to, do not speak back. They could have an issue with our 'gayness’ or two men parenting a child. The climate has shifted, but not enough: men having children are still a novelty. On a positive note, we have had parents tell us that our situation – two men raising children – has forced them to have a conversation in their families that they otherwise would never have had, with children coming home and asking why our children have two dads, or where their mother is. All great conversations.” – Scott, father of Ella and Mac, 12, whom he parents with his husband, Darren, in Halifax.
“We have dealt with very little prejudice or judgment from strangers or people that we know well, in terms of raising our son. The concern that keeps us awake now is general parenting stuff related to having a teenager. The emotions that he expresses may have roots in being raised by two men, or in being an adoptee. We have made efforts to show Jack that other families like ours exist and also live lives free of prejudice.” – Randy, who parents his adopted son Jack, 13, with his husband Drew in Vancouver
“People are no longer surprised when they meet our queer family. Usually they take it in stride and it is not a big deal. Previously, a lot of people were surprised and awkward with us. The issues we still have today include school and other forms that we constantly have to revise before filling in to make it work for our families. There is still no good vocabulary to explain our relationships as co-parents and close family members in a way that is meaningful to other people. Travel to many other countries is completely out as it would be unsafe; we are definitely on alert in other places and are more apt to not be out (this is true in smaller towns in some parts of Canada, too). Regressive politics around the world mean there is always an undercurrent of fear. I know that we can’t take what we have for granted.
The legalization of gay marriage in Canada, while an important milestone in its own right, did not have a huge impact on our queer parenting since we are a three-parent family and this change of law did not impact our legal rights or legitimize our family structure. Also, we had been parenting for a decade already with both kids born before that happened so the legalization of gay marriage is only one factor among many that strengthened awareness of queer families and made parenting easier for us.” – Wendy, mother of Zea, 16, and Jazz, 26, whom she co-parents with her partner, Cory, and the daughters’ father Steve, in Nanaimo.
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