GAY GRAND- MOTHERS OF CANADA
The study explores some of the gifts, losses, and hopes that Canadian lesbian grandmothers held out toward their children and grandchildren in 2005.
There were 18 study participants, aged 41 to 73—most between 55 and 65. Fourteen were grandmothers through their biological children; four became step-grandmothers through the children of a lesbian partner. Twelve were in committed lesbian relationships—all but two sharing the grandparent role with their partners. All met with Ms. Patterson for in-depth discussions regarding aspects of their experiences as lesbian grandmothers and their reactions to the law legalizing Canadian same-sex marriage.
Mixed legacies of non-conformity
Gay women who came of age between 1950 and 1985 were forced to hide their sexual identity or adopt very unconventional family patterns. There were no celebrity role models, no legal protections, and few, rarely spoken words even to name what it was to love women. The paths of becoming one of today’s lesbian grandmothers were many. Most required creativity; all required courage and risk.
None of the participants grew up in circumstances that would have supported being a lesbian. Girls were channeled into heterosexual marriage through a life-long training process, the absence of visible alternatives, and warnings of dire consequences—poverty, social exclusion, loss of children, violence—if they didn’t conform.
• Traditional heterosexual marriage was most common. Twelve of the 14 biological mothers had their children within this setting. Most of these women didn’t come out as lesbians until the mid-1980s or later, when their children were teenagers or adults.
• Resisting marriage and motherhood was a second, less common response. These women became grandmothers through their partner’s children. They had not expected to be mothers but found that they cherished the step-grandmother role.
• Living openly as a lesbian mother within a supportive countercultural community was the least common strategy.
Creating families, losing families
Since identifying as lesbians, each of the women pioneered in constructing non-traditional families, but this often came at a heavy price. Ties, even to one’s own children, were tested and sometimes broken. Most went through times when they were estranged or on very strained terms with one or more children. The mothers’ coming out was often doubly resented, because it happened at the same time that the mothers left their marriages, and was seen as causing the break-up.
In the end, some ties became stronger and were even enriched by the experience. Some remained damaged, and some were lost.
Looking to the future
None of the women in the study believed that their grandchildren would be harmed by having a lesbian grandmother. They believed that, to the degree that they were allowed to function as grandmothers, they had much to offer. They felt proud to have been a model of self-acceptance and self-realization, providing their grandchildren with a picture of healthy, successful non-conformity.
Even more important was the belief that having known and loved lesbian grandmothers would help the children accept human diversity—making their adult lives easier and richer in our globalized society.
For more information:
• grai.org.au - 2005 Canadian research paper by Dr. Serena Patterson on the experiences of 18 lesbian grandmothers
• thestar.com - same sex marriage
• apadivisions.org - related articles - British Columbia