Gayby Baby: A Film, A Columnist and A Banning. Whose Afraid of Marriage Equality?
by Philippa Bateman for Good Pitch Australia
Here, I look at what the documentary Gayby Baby and it's release, revealed to me about where we are in Australia on marriage equality. Not where we should be.
The film was conceived and directed by 20 something Maya Newell, herself a gayby baby raised by lesbian mothers who’ve been together for 30 years. Producer Charlotte Mars, on the day of Good Pitch, described herself (and I paraphrase) as coming from a “divorced heterosexual family”. (Much like myself, Charlotte).
An observational documentary about four kids and their families, Gayby Baby is told from the point of view of eleven and twelve-year-olds. The kids are all compelling individuals greatly loved, and cared for, by their parents. Their life experiences are recognizably ordinary: they play and fight with siblings, worry about school, fail and succeed, have obsessions that cause their parents anxiety; they have hopes, dreams, insecurities and troubles like every human on the planet. The only point of difference is that the kids, in this film, have to navigate the prejudices of others about their same–sex parents.
Maya Newell has always said that her intention in making the film was not to make a political statement, nor did she want to be the “poster child for gay families”.
The film I wanted to make shows the reality of being in a gay family. It raises this idea, that we shouldn’t be arguing about who should be allowed to marry, but we should be asking everyone, gay, straight, or otherwise, how do we maintain healthy and secure and committed relationships in order to raise any children. It’s really just not as simple as having two people of opposite genders. Parenting is hard.
The filmmakers hope was always that audiences watch the film and understand that these families are much like any other. In this day and age, and when 72% of the Australian population support marriage equality, you wouldn’t think that a filmmaker would have to make that point, but the journey of this film, within Australia, suggests they do.
The Daily Telegraph and a Decision by the NSW State Government
In August 2015, The Daily Telegraph ran a front-page story “Gay Class Uproar” with a bonus blog by columnist Piers Akerman—"Gay Push Should Be Kept Out of Schools".
Akerman was in a frothy paternalistic rage about Burwood Girls High School (BGHS), Newell's alma mater, screening Gayby Baby during class time. So affronted was he by the film's subject matter that he stooped so low as to lecture Ebony, a twelve-year-old girl in Gayby Baby, on a basic dictionary definition of ‘normal’ and letting her know: "Statistically, you are not in a normal family, no matter how many LGBTIQ-friendly docos you may be forced to watch by politically driven principals”.
In Akerman’s view, the screening of the film in class time was evidence of a brainwashing plot by the Burwood Girls High School headmistress, influenced by the ‘left-leaning Teachers Federation’. It also, he believed, revealed the weakness of a minister who should have “reprimanded” the principal for her failure to understand that schools must remain “apolitical places” and comply with department policies.
Akerman went further, demanding that the NSW Minister for Education, Adrian Piccoli, be sacked. The upshot of it all was that the Minister banned the film during class time in NSW. (For another view about why Piccoli may have bowed to pressure from the Daily Telegraph, see Crikey article here).
At the time of the banning, neither NSW Premier Baird nor Minister Piccoli had seen the film. The NSW State Government defended their decision by asserting that Gayby Baby was not part of the curriculum.
A Television Debate
(Note: This video is no longer available online)
The same day of Akerman’s blog and the subsequent banning, there was a discussion on Channel 10’s The Project, between Alex Greenwich, introduced as the “openly gay Member for Sydney” and Presbyterian Minister Mark Powell (his sexual preferences were not stated which I think is a pity).
There were two moments in this debate that caught my attention. The first was that Mark Powell, apparently the prompt for The Daily Telegraph story, had NOT seen the film.
Back up. If he hasn’t seen the film, but it has gay people in it, and those gay people parent children, ergo the film must be political and have an agenda? Yes, according to Powell, because he complained that the documentary was “part of a larger initiative by the gay lobby”, with “an agenda to push political issues in our schools.”
I’m guessing that Powell assumed that marriage equality is the “larger initiative” but no-one here named it. The “agenda”, I’m also guessing is, from Powell’s perspective, about pushing the idea that same–sex parents can be married and have kids and SHOCK, they're not unlike different-sex parented families who are raising their kids. That might be a problem for him if he believes that only a man and a woman should raise a child.
What also didn’t come up during the discussion is how Powell was, allegedly, very unhappy about the cutback of his scripture classes at Burwood Girls High School and turned his attention to Gayby Baby.
Powell presented himself as a spokesman for teary, traumatized girls and outraged parents who didn’t want their children to be forced to watch the film or wear purple. When Powell was asked to define what constitutes “heaps” (his word) of complaints about the screening of the film during class time, he dodged the question—twice. (An FOI by Fairfax revealed that the number of complaints to the Premier and Cabinet were greater against the banning of the film, than the complaints against the film).
The prefects of Burwood Girls High School, and other students, were confused and dismayed by the apparent hypocrisy about banning Gayby Baby during school hours. Why, they asked, is it that no-one objects to other films screened? Or the annual 80-minute religious seminar? Or Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop’s speech? All within scheduled class time.
The students didn’t assume that the films or seminar or Bishop’s speech exist to proselytize and nor do they assume that they or any of their fellow students are obligated to agree or disagree, approve or disapprove, like or dislike. Ditto a screening of Gayby Baby.
On their Facebook page, the BGHS prefects published a statement, expressing disappointment at the media coverage and their pride in supporting diversity: “We are proud of the leadership our school shows in supporting all views and the right for all people to be accepted.”
And that was the point sadly missed by all the so-called adults on the other side of the debate. One thing is certain, the principal of Burwood Girls High School, the teachers, and the parents must be doing something right because these girls think for themselves.
Why 'Normal' Matters
The second moment that made me sit up watching this debate was when Alex Greenwich was asked what kind of impact the film would have had on him if he had watched it when he was at school. He said:
"It would have given me a really strong sense of affirmation that if you’re gay, you can have a family, get married and you’re normal like everybody else."
Greenwich went on to say: “Young LGBTI people are one of the highest risk groups for suicide and mental illness” and “What this film is about is that kids from rainbow families or that kids that are same sex attracted are normal and this is an important message to get into schools.”
For kids ‘normal’ can and does matter. Being an outsider isn’t easy; it suits some personalities (usually when they’re older and/or celebrated for being successful mavericks of some kind when outsiderness has a caché but rarely when you’re a kid). Forced to feel like you don’t belong because your family doesn’t align with convention sends an ugly message. Kids that are made to feel different—like it’s a bad thing—by their peers, and school authorities, coupled with the implicit signs society sends them: you are not “one of us”, can feel alienated, and ultimately, vulnerable to hurting themselves and putting at risk their promise and potential. It’s true of all kids who are exposed to this, not only the kids of gay and lesbian families who are ostracised or stigmatised. That’s never been good for society—now or into the future.
The Problem with 'Normal'
At the same time, the word ‘normal’ when talking about how people live their lives is problematic. In the film, twelve-year-old Ebony worries that she’s “not normal”. Piers Akerman’s opinion piece pivots clumsily on a literal definition of ‘normal’ which he then uses as a blunt instrument; Alex Greenwich claims ‘normal’ as desirable in describing same-sex families because to not be ‘normal’ is to somehow be excluded from the social contract.
Sexual orientation and sexual preferences don’t make people ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’; and as many a highly educated psychiatrist will tell you—there’s no such thing as normal when it comes to living as a human being. And if you want to marry and raise children, it’s important to know you can, although not everyone wants to get married or have kids and it doesn't always work out (not for every straight person either). That said, having the choice—at least, in principle—is what's important.
The Alternative View When it's Not Alternative.
Mark Powell, on The Project: If we’re in a really good educational environment and we want to create and develop critical thinking, why don’t we show the film in one hour and then show an alternative view in the next hour, and help girls decide.
Alex Greenwich’s response: We get that alternative view every single day of our lives when we’re told about hetero-normative relationships and what does that do to a kid who’s in a same sex parented family and told that they’re not normal? Or been raised by a single parent or a grandparent.
Indeed. But get rid of ‘normal’ and ‘not normal’. Maybe another way of talking about kids who grow up in same–sex families, and same–sex couples who want to marry and have children is not to say: "Be normal, just like us" but “We’re different, just like you.” Come on in, you’re another member of the complex and magnificent experiment that is life.
Other Voices, Other Lives
In Maya Newell’s pitch on the day of the Good Pitch event in 2014, she said she wanted to make the film because she had never seen her family, or others like her own, on screen: “Our narratives are just not out there.”
Take that in, and sit with it for a moment, because it’s important. When I think about even the brilliantly written, long form drama shows that take risks (and I love), hetero-normative families remain dominant. Consider: Mad Men (serial philanderer dad and punitive, chain-smoking mum but straight); The Good Wife (a power couple marriage of convenience due to high profile husband’s early on philandering with prostitutes and friends of wife but straight), True Detective (happily married detective who’s absent from home a lot and has zipper problem but straight), Breaking Bad (devoted family man turns crystal meth maker because he's dying of cancer and doesn't have medical insurance... but straight), The Sopranos (criminal killer Mafioso dad but straight), Weeds (widowed, pot-dealing single mother but straight).
You get the picture. That's exactly what Maya Newell and Alex Greenwich are talking about. It's also what Hollywood and American film culture are focusing on right now: the lack of diversity. It's a problem—for everyone, and has been for a long time.
I read a wonderful piece in Variety this week by Guest Columnist, Roberta Kaplan, the lawyer who represented Edie Windsor, a woman whose real life story mirrored that of the eponymous character ‘Carol’, played by Cate Blanchett, in Todd Haynes’ film. (Variety, if you don’t know, is the US movie industry bible, the trade magazine where deals are analysed, the rise and fall of executives ruthlessly scrutinised and box office figures thrown around like glitter at Mardi Gras. They're hard–arses and not given to fringe concerns).
Recently, Variety has been running editorially with what to do about all the white, straight men in Hollywood. Not that there’s anything wrong with these guys, it’s just that there’s so many of them and so little of anyone else. In key decision making jobs, in stories on screen, in lead creative and financial roles on both sides of the camera. Diversity has become the issue du jour in Hollywood and in that broader context, Kaplan’s article argued the value of bringing more LGBT-rights stories to the screen.
Kaplan won a case in 2013, for her client Edie Windsor, then 86 years old, asking that her marriage to her same–sex late partner be legally recognized. The case paved the way for the equal rights of gay people to marry in all fifty states of America. When Kaplan was asked by the US Supreme Court justices to explain why the American mainstream were so much more accepting of gay men and lesbians than they used to be, she said that it didn’t have as much to do with lawyers, politicians, lobbyists or the constitution (as was suggested) but “the newfound moral understanding of many Americans that gay people are no different than anyone else.”
Carol, and other films that tell stories of the LGBT history and experience are important, Kaplan writes, "not only because they help LGBT kids and teens better understand their history and community, but because telling our stories helps all Americans understand that their gay friends, neighbours or family members want exactly the same thing as everyone else; to have, as Justice Anthony Kennedy put it, “the same status and dignity.”
It was in the spirit of this realization that same–sex marriage was legalized in America. Australia isn’t there yet and we are poorer as a society for it. What Justice Kennedy of the US Supreme Court grasped and simply articulated is that marriage equality, in essence, is about respect and human rights.
For those of us who get that, here's the thing Australia: we’ve waited long enough. It's time.
Photo: Louise Eagleton, re-printed here courtesy of Good Pitch Australia
This is an opinion piece written for the Good Pitch Australia Blog, 28 February 2016. It is re-printed here courtesy of Good Pitch Australia and the Shark Island Institute. Related stories: LGBTI Rights: Gayby Baby and Larry Kramer,Larry Kramer: The Disruptor, Flashback: When Australia Led the Way (About public health policy and personal stories during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s-90s)