Yes, I Did say Wife: Life as the Token Lesbian Mom

In my life as a psychology professor I used to talk quite a bit about tokens. Given that I was a prejudice and stereotyping researcher I wasn’t talking about the fair. The literature on tokenism (yes, that is a term) originated as an effort to understand the experience of  the lone racial minority in majority environments, but it extends well beyond race. If you are the only one of your kind (with respect to race, religion, sexuality, gender…. the list goes on) in a group, you are a token.

The research on tokens reveals that (surprise, surprise) the experience is an exhausting one. As the lone point of reference for your kind, there is a tremendous pressure to represent your group well. Even the task of representing your group “well” is overwhelming, because what does “well” mean? Does it mean accurately or favorably or aspirationaly? And then there is of course the impossibility of any one person serving as a stand in for an entire group. It’s a set-up. Unfortunately, it’s also just the way it is. Categorization is one of the primary ways that our brains make sense of information, so until people having significant interactions with people who are considerably different from them becomes the norm, tokenism is here to stay.

So, how does this relate to me?  Well, because I am THE lesbian Mom. (THE in the only one sense, not the be all and end all sense). Although we are blessed to have more than a handful of gay couple friends with kids in our very own town, the bulk of our interactions are with people for whom we are “the lesbian couple with kids”.

This token thing is new to me and I can’t say that I like it. I’m not entirely new to being the only one of something in a group, but I am new to feeling the pressure to represent. I’ve been the only out lesbian all sorts of time and I am frequently the only vegetarian at the table and I was even the only non-racial minority in my last department (making me the token white girl!), but none of these experiences have felt like this one. There is something about being a Mama with a wife that is different.

Likely due to the fact that how our family is perceived will have real relevance in the lives of our boys, I find myself much more attentive to how I am presenting myself. As the only gay family at Yogi’s school and the only lesbian Mama in my Mom’s group, I am hyper conscious of the fact that there is some weight on my shoulders. Not just the weight of creating the best environment for my own boys, but of functioning as the only gay family that many people in my community know. As a notoriously low self-monitor, all of this analysis is wearing me out. Now I can be quite consumed with the minutiae of my interactions with people who are close to me, but I have no experience with being concerned with what acquaintances think. Suddenly I practically have a checklist:

  • Am I being friendly and approachable?
  • Am I communicating in a way that lets people know that they can ask me questions about my family* if they have them?
  • Am I being straightforward about the structure of my family without being “in your face” (whatever that means)?
  • Am I responding to questions in a way that lets Yogi know that these kinds of questions are routine and nothing to be ashamed of?

I guess what I’m saying is that life as the token lesbian Mom is exhausting. The weight (no matter how much of it I create myself) is heavy. It makes me even more grateful for the spaces in my life where I’m not the only one. Within our church, our gay parents group and even our neighborhood we are blissfully part of the herd. I am thrilled each time I see or meet a gay family because I know that their very presence is helping to make life easier for Yogi and Monkey.

Is this another example of my tendency to get analytical when I’m anxious or have you felt this way?

* I’ve had more than one Mom ask me for ideas about how to respond to their child’s questions about why Yogi doesn’t have a Daddy.

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16 thoughts on “Yes, I Did say Wife: Life as the Token Lesbian Mom

  1. Oh my god. OH MY GOD. I relate SO much. You are not the only one. I also wonder if I’m being “too sensitive” or overly analytical about this, but it’s real. And it IS exhausting. It’s a hard line to walk. I feel like I’m always holding this tension between wanting to be open so ppl feel comfortable asking questions and I can normalize my family for them, and wanting to tell everyone to mind their own g-d business, thankyouverymuch. Why does it seem that gay families are everywhere and yet nowhere? Xo.

    • “I feel like I’m always holding this tension between wanting to be open so ppl feel comfortable asking questions and I can normalize my family for them, and wanting to tell everyone to mind their own g-d business, thankyouverymuch.”

      Exactly! Also with you on the everywhere and nowhere. It’s crazy. At least we’re all in this together.

  2. I will never know what you face on a daily basis, but I will say that I’m quite embarrassed for my straight “friends” out there. What *do* you tell your child when s/he asks why Yogi and Monkey don’t have a dad? You tell him/her that all families are different. You say that some families have a mom and a dad. Some have two moms. Some have two dads. Some have one dad and no mom. Some have no parents at all…. Really, people, really?!

    Also to say that I think you are THE Lesbian Mom in *my* book. And I’m ever so grateful that my daughter will grow up knowing that her cousins have two moms and no dad. And that’s okay.

    And finally to say that you are fabulous and that you need not overanalyze. That you most certainly represent your minority well and that I’m sure that you and your WIFE are helping others to open their minds to “different” families.

    Stepping off my soap box now…

  3. great post, i loved reading this.
    you are right…it is exhausting. and being the “token” in so many spaces also makes me all the more grateful for communities that include other two-mom (and two-dad) families.

  4. I just want to take this and smack it right on my site. I’ve been mulling this over with respect to our daycare and your checklist is my LIFE. Seriously. I’m starting our own little blog carnival. So you’ll see something from me soon. We need a body of work on this!

  5. I think about this sometimes, too. When people finally do recognize Nutella and I as a couple and thus, Curly’s moms, I do have a tendency to think I have to act on my very best behavior and be a “good representative.” Every time I use the word “wife” I am highly aware and wondering what the other person is thinking. It just happened this morning at Curly’s new school. I wish it didn’t matter.

  6. I agree… I think as lesbian mamas we are all tokens within our own separate communities. Shorty and I have been feeling this more and more now that we’re out and about with a baby in tow… We tend to get a lot more questions and end up having to present even more information about ourselves and our family structure than we normally would, in order to prevent general confusion.

    In addition to being the token lesbian moms, we’ve also been the token LESBIANS to many people for many years. I have friends whose parents came to our wedding and made comments about “checking this one off the bucket list- how many times can you say you’ve been to a lesbian wedding?”

    So yes. We get how it feels! Love this post.

  7. I love this, yet am somewhat sad that you are still a token! We are thankful that Bugaboo and Memphis will grow up with Yogi and Monkey as friends. I also love that they will see that Yogi and Monkey have two wonderful moms and that is nothing out of the ordinary. Much love to all four of you 🙂

  8. Yes. I/We have definitely felt this way too! Thank you for articulating it all so well. I feel like I need to bookmark it and read it over and over again to remind myself that we are NOT actually the only ones.

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  10. Right there with you, completely! The best thing is when we find others like ourselves and the heaviness of being THE token becomes somewhat lighter. I often have to be reeled back in from “over-doing it” and trying to be a shining example of the perfect mom, wife, citizen, etc so that people see all THAT before they see lesbian. It is a tangled web we weave in being true to ourselves while fulfilling the roles others expect of us (of course I mean that literally and figuratively).

  11. I guess, even when put in the position to be the token, I just don’t think about it. I am who I am, I love who I love and you can accept me or not… but now you have me thinking!!

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