All the ways that we are queer mamas of color

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

by Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz

I love being a queer mama of color. I love parenting, coparenting, and being a tia/auntie and an integral part of raising the children that have been in my life at various times and for various reasons over the years. Being a queer mama of color, in all of the ways that we are queer mamas of color, means that we have to talk about race, immigration, disability, class, gender, gender identity, and sexuality. We have to name these things because they shape how, where, when, and why we parent. Issues of privilege and oppression impact the choices we have and our access to everything from economic resources to community spaces and resources.

As a household of queer and straight women of color, all of whom have either birthed and/or raised children, it is our experience that parenting must be a collective undertaking because of institutional oppression. It’s a multigenerational and interdependent endeavor where economic resources, access, labor, support, and engagement with young people must be shared. Together, my partner and I parent in the context of community, biological family, and chosen family. Each experience is different, but each experience has been quintessentially queer, feminist, and people-of-color centered.

Ten years ago, my partner and I moved to Silver Spring, MD. We were intentional about choosing a neighborhood that was multiracial, multigenerational, mixed class, and not a gentrified gayborhood. When we moved to our neighborhood we were the only out queer family on a street lined with town houses and mixed income apartment buildings.

Over the course of our fourteen year relationship, my partner and I have always been very open about our queerness, mostly because we have had the privilege of living in urban and progressive places. Our move to Silver Spring was no different. We were open about being a couple when curious neighbors would ask if we were sisters or roommates. For quite some time, many of the kids in the neighborhood thought that we were mother and daughter because I often refer to my partner as Mami, a term of endearment that can have two meanings in Spanish. In addition to actually meaning mother, it can also be used lovingly among friends and family.

To say the least, we have had some interesting conversations with the under-ten crowd in the neighborhood about the fact that we are not mother and daughter but that we are a family. Those conversations provided us with some great teachable moments with young people about how all families are different and that there is no one way to be a family. Many of the young people in our neighborhood live in multigenerational immigrant families, so this became an opportunity for us to talk about all of the ways that people make family right where we live.

Over the years, our home has turned into a community center for many of our neighbors, as well as for progressive activists in the Metro DC area and around the country. We not-so-jokingly call our home “Hotel Silver Spring,” because it’s a place where multigenerational, multiracial, genderqueer, cross-disability, and mixed-class people come to be whoever they are in the world. Yet there is always one overarching guiding principle to how we live, love, build, and organize in this space: while the door is always open and ready to receive all who pass through it, discrimination of any kind will not be tolerated here. Hotel Silver Spring is a space for listening, learning, engaging, and reaching a deeper understanding of oneself and the world around us.

The young people around here seem to intuitively get how we roll at Hotel Silver Spring! Over the years, we have become the house that all of the parents and grandparents tell the young people to go to if they have lost their keys or skinned their knees. We have opened the door on many occasions to a young person who had just fallen off their bike and was bleeding. The first thing out of their mouth is usually something like, “Abuela told me to go to your house if there was something wrong and she was still at work.” Of course each skinned knee is bandaged with care and each young person is sent back out in the world to do it all over again!

Within our Middle Eastern, Latina, mixed faith, mixed class, biological family with a range of experiences around class, immigration, and disability, queerness has opened up the possibility for young people to understand family, love, community, and commitment in bigger and more complex ways. For example, last year my partner and I took a vacation with her immediate family. This is something that we have done in the past, but now my nieces are getting old enough to really articulate what family means to them. On the second day of our trip our eight-year-old niece engaged me in a conversation that went exactly like this:

Niece: “Titi Lisa…are you gay with Titi Lisbeth?” Me: “Yes, for almost the past 14 years.” Niece: “Some people think that is weird.” Me: “So what do you think about that?” Niece: “I think that everyone should be able to love who they love.” Me: “I couldn’t agree with you more mi amor.”

After I almost melted over the way she asked the question, “Are you gay with Titi Lisbeth?” I reflected upon the fact that my nieces only have LGBT aunts and uncles. My sister-in-law’s only sibling is a gay man who lives in New York. Queerness is a very intimate and real part of my nieces' lives. It’s something they knew even before they could articulate it in words. The best part of this particular conversation is that my niece is now at an age where she is asking questions and expressing her own opinions in very loving and conscious ways. Homo/bi/transphobia is intolerable to her because she knows that she is deeply loved by the queer people in her life.

As we know, parenting doesn’t always happen in the context of biological family. Over the past twelve years, my partner and I have coparented our godson who just turned fourteen. Our godson and his mother are chosen family which means that none of us are related by blood. Also, none of us have, in any configuration, been partnered in the past. Since the age of four or five, our godson has been steadfast in his insistence that he has three moms. As a matter of fact, this assertion became abundantly clear at an early age.

At age four we were in the supermarket and happened to run into a friend from kindergarten. I introduced myself as a friend of the family. He had a meltdown in the grocery store right there in aisle six! Until we got home and I was able to calm him down, I didn’t understand through all of the tears that he was pissed that I referred to myself as a friend. He told my partner and I directly that we were his moms—and more specifically his godmothers—and that he didn’t want to hear the word friend in reference to us again. It’s been like this for the last twelve years.

It is true that queer people of color often play an important role in our families, communities, and neighborhoods—as connectors, mentors, support systems, leaders, and active participants in the life of our communities. We have long histories of building bridges of understanding by making sure that no one gets left behind. We open our doors, our hearts, our lives, and our love in the name of justice and beloved community. We are often a fundamental part of the fabric of our communities—and in whatever ways we are out or not—we bring all of who we are to making our communities stronger and more interconnected. There is so much of our collective histories and legacies as queer people of color that tell this story so beautifully and powerfully in communities all across the country. Just ask the elders in each neighborhood and inevitably they will be able to bring forward the names of queer people of color who are making a difference block by block, neighbor by neighbor.

Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz is a cofounder of intersections/intersecciones consulting.

This blog is part of Strong Families' Mama’s Day Our Way blog series. Strong Families is a national initiative led by Forward Together.  Our goal is to change the way people think, act, and talk about families.