I was in fifth grade in 1985 when I realized I was being raised by lesbians.
A classmate whispered to another girl as I worked as a lunch monitor in the cafeteria, “Her mom’s a butch.” Her face twisted in disgust as she gestured with her chin to a second-grader eating alone at the end of the table.
“Get outta here! Her mom’s a lesbo? Yuck!” The freckle-faced fifth-grader pretended to hurl all over her lunch tray.
I turned to them, confused. “Butch don’t mean lesbian!” I thought of my Millie, who we referred to as our “aunt” though she shared a bed with my mother. She would grab the brim of her Kangol and say: “Yo soy butch.” The way she said it, it was like she was dancing salsa but just with her shoulders.
“Yes it does, stupid. What do you think it means?” The girl rolled her eyes at me and kept talking to her friend.
I stared down at the cold cafeteria food. Seconds earlier all I had wanted in life was to take a bite of that pepperoni pizza, but I had lost my appetite.
I was raised in a gay relationship in 1970s and ’80s in New York City, long before “Heather Has Two Mommies” hit the mainstream in the ’90s and just a few years after the American Psychiatric Association took homosexuality off the list of mental disorders in 1973. Of course I did not know that then. All I knew was this was my family and I loved them.
Millie met my biological mom in 1978, when I was 2. She took me in as her daughter, and that was that. Being raised by two women was normal to me despite the fact there were no families like mine anywhere around me, not in my neighborhood in Brooklyn and certainly not on TV. The nuclear family was the norm but I did not consider my family different or unusual until that day in the cafeteria. I see now calling Millie our aunt was a way to stave off any questioning and harassment.
I do not remember how or when we started calling Millie our “aunt,” but it did not keep me from making her Father’s Day cards complete with a cardboard tie and collar when June rolled around. And with good reason: When I was obsessed with basketball, she fashioned a hoop out of a rusty tire rim, nailed it to a splintered piece of plywood and put it up in the backyard. Then she bought me an official Spalding basketball.
When I came home from first grade and told her I was being bullied, she took me out to the backyard and taught me how to how to throw an uppercut and a jab.
And when I became obsessed with bikes when I was 10, she built me my rainbow bike. It had one yellow wheel and one blue, the body was a glittery purple, the seat was white, and it had peeling foam on the handle bars. I found out later that she collected parts from friends and neighborhood junkyards. I rode that bike like it was a king’s chariot.
That experience in the lunch room was my first experience with homophobia, but it was not my last. As a tween, a girl once told me “You’re dirty like your lesbian moms.” All because a boy liked me. I punched her in the face and dared her to say it again. She did not.
When I left to boarding school at 13, I did not tell anybody about my family. I convinced myself I just did not want to deal with it. What would people say? How would they treat me? It was hard enough to be a brown scholarship kid from the hood in that white, wealthy school. I did not need to add this to the mix. Truth is, I was carrying my own shame.
Earlier this month, Parents Magazine released its first magazine cover with gay parents, Shaun T., a fitness mogul and his husband and business partner Scott Blokker, with their twin babies. As expected, conservatives lost their minds. The controversial activist group One Million Moms launched a petition campaign against the magazine, with the tagline: “Sign our petition if you are offended by Parents promoting a same-sex couple on the cover of their February 2019 issue. One Million Moms is giving you this opportunity to voice your disapproval of the magazine’s attempt to normalize same-sex parenting.”
I am a queer woman, raised by lesbians, raising my daughter with my butch partner. It means the world to me to see the model of love I have known since childhood finally acknowledged on the cover of a parenting magazine.
I thought I was doing a good job of teaching my daughter to be open-minded and inclusive until she came home from kindergarten several years ago saying, “That’s gay. That’s nasty.” I did not scold her because she was far too young to understand what she was saying. Instead, I made it a teachable moment. When I asked her what she meant, she shrugged. She had heard a classmate say it and was parroting him.
I told her what gay meant in simple terms: It is when a boy loves a boy or a girl loves a girl. She stared at me curiously. I asked her if she thought my brother, her favorite uncle, was nasty. She shook her head emphatically. “No, I love Tio Tio,” she said.
“Tio Tio is gay, so when you say gay is nasty, you’re saying he’s nasty.” She sobbed as she apologized. I pulled her into my chest and consoled her, reminding her she was not a bad girl. “Remember that love is love, and love is beautiful.”
By the time I met my partner in 2015, my daughter, then 11, and I had countless conversations about homosexuality and my own queerness. We were at a woman’s music festival in Michigan when I met Katia, and I knew I had to tell my daughter right away. We are super close, and I do not hide such things from her, especially since I had been raising her as a single mom.
We were on a walk and she was marveling at ferns that carpeted the ground when I asked her: “What if I told you that I like a woman?”
“I know you’re queer, Mom,” she said in that exasperated adolescent tone.
“What if I told you I met a woman I really like and want to get to know?”
She stopped and smiled that supernova smile of hers that takes up her whole face. “You like Katia, don’t you?” I laughed and nodded.
She threw her head back and squealed, “Finally, Mommy,” and she threw her arms around me.
So one night, as we were eating dinner, I asked her, “Have you told anyone?”
She looked at me and asked, nonchalantly: “What? That you’re in a lesbian relationship?” She scooped some pasta into her mouth and blinked at me.
“Yeah. I mean, you don’t have to tell anyone. I’m just …” I stammered. I could feel the shame burning acid in my throat. We internalize this stuff, whether we want to or not.
“I’ve told a few of my close friends. The other day I told a boy off for calling another kid a [f-word].” She smiled. “I told him love is love.”
I think back to the child I was in that cafeteria and wish there had been a magazine as audacious as Parents Magazine available to me then. I would have learned early homosexuality is normal, and there is no shame in it, no matter what anyone says. We are like any other family, raising our children, trying to do right by them, teaching them to be good people.
The other day, my fiancee and I went to see our girl, now 14, in her acting debut at her new high school. Afterward, my daughter introduced us to her friends. “This is my family — my mom and her fiancee. They’re getting married in the spring!” she squealed happily.
“Ooh, can I come to the wedding?” one of her friends asked, his face bright with excitement.
This is what love looks like, love is love. Period.
Vanessa Mártir is a New York City-based writer and educator. She is currently completing her memoir, “A Dim Capacity for Wings,” and chronicles the journey at vanessamartir.blog. Mártir is the creator of the Writing Our Lives Workshop, which she teaches in New York and online. Visit vanessamartir.com for more on her journey.