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Maya Newell is a Gayby Baby
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“For the first time in history, every gay person can expect to have a family.”
Conversations
17 September 2015

Maya Newell is a Gayby Baby

Interview by Nathan Scolaro
Photography by Toby Burrows

Nathan Scolaro on Maya Newell

My idea of family used to be quite specific. A mum, a dad, one or more kids, all living together in a house. They’d have some pets maybe, a car or two, a TV room and a dining table. And there was this defining experience, mostly for the children, of growing up together, of “being raised,” to the point where the children were then old enough to create the same foundation for children of their own. Binding these relationships and experiences together was the ever-present, never-questioned ingredient of love. And I found that incredibly comforting— still do today—to have that certainty of love from family members.

But it was this thinking, this view of family, and the joy and comfort attached to this view of family, that made coming out as a gay man quite difficult for me— and difficult for some of my family members to understand. Not because they or I felt shame or had any prejudices against gay people, but because it meant, in all our ignorance, my end of the family line. We had no exposure to gay people with children, no understanding. It wasn’t familial love as we knew it.

My family’s views have fortunately shifted since then. But it’s taken a while. And it wasn’t until I had this conversation with filmmaker Maya Newell that I came to appreciate why. Maya is the child of same-sex parents, and has spent a good part of her early 20s immersing herself in the lives of families like hers to throw light on the experience of growing up a “gayby”—an experience we hear so little about in mainstream culture.

She never set out to make a political documentary. She merely wanted to capture the humanity of same-sex families, to colour in the picture, and to show us there’s joy and love and heartbreak and screaming there much like there is in every other family. It’s an important message, not just for the gay rights movement, but for any family that struggles with having to fulfil a particular norm. Because, as Maya reminds us, there is no norm when it comes to family. Each unit is different, and that is something to be celebrated.

We at Dumbo Feather first learnt about the film Gayby Baby, which is set for release in mid-2015, through Good Pitch2 Australia. It’s Maya’s first feature documentary, produced by friend Charlotte Mars—an impressive feat for two women in their mid-20s—and has an exciting outreach program in the works that will give teachers around Australia tools and knowledge to better educate young people about same-sex families.

When I speak with Maya on Skype she is in the Northern Territory making films with Aboriginal communities. I am compelled by her vibrancy and warmth, and it’s immediately clear this is someone who lives and tells stories with heart. Throughout the chat I find myself smiling often, shoulders dropping with relief. I realise we’ve entered a new era as Maya crystallises the reality for gay people today—that we too can love and build families of our own. And we too can raise kids to be extraordinary.

This story originally ran in issue #42 of Dumbo Feather

NATHAN SCOLARO: What does family mean to you?

MAYA NEWELL: Well, for me “family” doesn’t have one, all-encompassing definition. It’s the little things, you know? It’s laughing and teasing your brother in the back seat of the car on the way down the coast, or it’s fighting over something really insignificant but not wanting to back down. It’s jumping in bed with your mums in the morning and having a cup of tea and toast. It’s a child having a tantrum in the middle of a supermarket and being dragged along the floor by their mum who’s completely had enough of it.

[Laughs].

As a documentary filmmaker I spent the past three years observing families and parenting. And family is in all of those nuances, in the lacuna of everyday life. I had this one beautiful moment when we had that crowdfunding campaign for Gayby Baby. We made these little postcards, ‘cause it was quite interactive, and invited the audience to draw pictures of what family means to them. And Gus, who’s one of the characters in the film—he was 10 at the time—drew this amazing photo of this little kid and adult pointing at each other, yelling at each other. That’s a family!

[Laughs]. I love that. What you’re picking up on here is the fact that experiences define a family.

Yeah. And I think with the making of this film that was our approach. We decided very early on that we didn’t want to make a political film told through definitions and facts. We wanted to take audiences on an emotional, intimate journey and show that family is a nuanced experience. This meant we would sit with families for months, years even, and really get to know them, feel the family dynamics. We didn’t just want this to be a black-and- white picture of gay parenting.

There’s a lot more resonance this way, we can see ourselves in the stories.

Right.

This story originally ran in issue #42 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #42 of Dumbo Feather

If I think about all of the moments in film that have made me rethink an idea, it’s been when I’ve connected to something personally.

When I’ve been taken through a human journey and something in that has prompted me to reflect on my own experience and reconsider how I look at it. So it hasn’t been pushed upon me. I haven’t been told what to think. That’s the way, I believe, change happens: by letting people make up their minds themselves. A lot of storytellers dismiss the power of that kind of subtlety.

What’s one of your strongest memories from childhood?

There are so many! I’m actually really interested in how we remember things and what we remember. How you never can be too sure whether it’s the photograph shaping your memory or the experience itself. And unfortunately I had some fairly obsessed parents that took a lot of photos of me! They cursed me to a lifetime of uncertain remembering!

But anyway, I remember as a child I loved pink. Barbie was my most adored friend and I’d make my parents play fairies with me and mummies and babies in the bath for hours on end. I’ve been thinking about those experiences a lot with the film obviously. And I imagine it was probably incredibly disappointing for my parents—who spent their lives trying to subvert gender stereotypes—that there I was demanding twirling pink dresses! On my third birthday my mums actually asked my friends and family to buy me trucks and carparks—I suppose they were using me as some sort of experiment. And I woke up thinking, I’m getting fairy wings, I’m getting this dress, I’m going to be a princess. I was so utterly disappointed and horrified when I started unwrapping the presents I screamed. It was such a strong impression. You know how you remember those distinct moments of trauma? I was crying, distraught. It was such a scene for my parents.

[Laughs]. It really backfired!

Yeah, and I ended up transforming the carpark into a multiplex fairy castle. My mums were like, “Okay, society has infected her.” They never tried to inflict that on me again!

At what point did you realise this story—of growing up with gay parents—was one that needed to be told?

I think for a while now, probably over the past five years in particular, we’ve heard a lot of media, a lot of politicians, a lot of public figures speak very strongly about gay families, particularly through the lens of gay marriage, which had so many people yelling across tables. And one of the main arguments that comes out of these discussions, particularly from politicians, is that marriage is about kids. And kids deserve—they need—a mother and a father. And that not having a mother and a father might harm them in some way. And inflict some sort of damage. After several years of hearing people yell at each other and not really get anywhere, I was like, “Well, there’s evidently one voice missing from this discussion. The children.” It’s not like we’re living in the Dark Ages. Gay couples have been having kids for many years. In fact, we’re in a gayby boom. I’m 26, the daughter of two women. And I’m not by far the eldest gayby in this country. Or in the world for that matter. So I suppose I saw that gap and thought, I’m a filmmaker.

I’m going to show you how it is.

Tell the stories that haven’t been told. Create some understanding.

On a personal note I thought the film would be a tribute to my parents and other gay parents of their generation. They were pioneers at the time.

There weren’t sperm banks readily available to lesbian couples. There were no laws that allowed gay couples to have children. It’s only been in the last couple of years that our country has recognised same-sex couples at the Office of Births, Deaths and Marriages. So I wanted to pay my respects to the people who have paved the way to get us to where we are today.

And you know, growing up with other gay families, I have all these toddlers, 10-year- olds in my social network. And I just thought, Wouldn’t it be so amazing for them to be able to watch a film that I would have loved to have seen as a child? A film that would validate their type of family, that would reflect their lives, give them something to relate to. Lots of people who grow up in heterosexual families take it for granted that they can turn on the TV or open a book and have some semblance of their family represented. There are broken families, divorced families, mixed-race families. Just not gay families. But there was this one moment where I went to the cinema and saw The Kids Are Alright, which is the first feature fiction film to represent a gay family in cinema. And I came out strangely upset. And I was about halfway down the street when I realised that I’d never seen my family on the big screen before. It was a really big moment. The more of those stories we see, the more kids will feel that their type of family is acknowledged and accepted.

Is that what it was? A feeling of acknowledgement when you saw this movie?

I think so. This is maybe a slightly more complicated conversation, but I would say that there are lots of kids in gay families who have spent a long time saying, “No, my family’s the same as yours. It’s the same as a heterosexual family.” Because they’re recognising that a family is just one or two adults bringing children into the world. But there are actually really distinct differences. Of course there are! There are really distinct differences between every family. Between families of different cultural backgrounds, families of different income levels. I hope we’re at a point in history where we can say, “Well, we’re not the same. We’re different!”

“And that’s okay.”

And that’s a much more helpful message, I think. So when I watched that film it was the nuances of what two women are like when they’re interacting as parents that really struck a chord with me. It was the difference in gender equality that you grow up with, it was the perspective on gender you have in this environment. To see all those things on the screen, it was validating—in a way that I’ve never experienced before. You kind of go, “Oh, that’s my world!”

I’ve spent many years marching in the Mardi Gras parade in Sydney, and it’s been an event that is more exciting than Christmas in my family. We’d get to dress up and parade down the street, and have people clap and cheer us on. It was the best day in the world. It was one day where I didn’t need to worry about anyone in the playground who might say something bad about my family. Because you’re the centre of attention. The gay community is incredibly good at supporting each other, having tight-knit relationships and making everyone feel like they’re part of the family. And I think what’s really exciting is that we’re kind of on the cusp of a whole new era of the LGBTI story and what that community means.

How so?

Like, when my mother, Donna, told my grandmother that she was a lesbian, my grandmother was dismayed that she would never have grandchildren. I think this is a common assumption. But  we have now moved into an era, in the West at least, where being LGBTI is not synonymous with being childless.

For the first time in history, every gay person can expect to have a family, and those kids, us, we are the youngest and newest members of the LGBTI community.

We’ve still got some way to go in this country for gay rights. Has the political impact factored into your filmmaking at all?

As I said, we didn’t want the film itself to be overly political. But obviously the message we communicate is important. And that’s been about saying, “We need to have a shift from thinking about marriage equality as an issue just for the couples.” It’s also an issue about families, about kids, and so our impact strategy is about transforming the dialogue around that issue to incorporate the reality. Lots of the negative rhetoric around this whole issue is, “Oh, but the kids would turn out terrible.” We’re saying, “Well, here are the kids, let them tell you how it is. Why don’t you be the judge of whether these kids are worse off than kids being raised by heterosexual married couples?”

How did you come to meet the children you’ve been documenting?

We had quite a long process actually. I suppose you call it “casting.” In reality what that looks like is me going and meeting lots of generous and incredible families across the country and hanging out with them for a month or two and seeing if there was something going on in those kids’ lives that felt like it could be a story worth following. Which was really quite an amazing job. I became the older adopted sister in about six families. Just to hear what it was they wanted to say was so rewarding. An important thing when you’re telling any story is to make sure you’re telling the right story, and that all the voices are being heard. So we did a callout through the gay community. Many of them I knew. And like I said before, the community’s really good at connecting. And they have big hearts for justice and want a better world for their kids. So there were lots of people putting their hands up. We went and spoke to all kinds of kids about what their experiences were.

For the first time in history, every gay person can expect to have a family, and those kids, us, we are the youngest and newest members of the LGBTI community.

And were their experiences similar?

There were definitely similarities.

Really, this is just a film about four kids who are growing up, who are struggling with growing pains, and in some ways most of the drama comes from the fact that the rest of the world is challenging their parents and questioning whether these kids are at risk. I’d say most gaybies experience some form of discrimination growing up. We have to know when to hide their families and when to expose them. Every person you meet, you’ll kind of go, “Is this a person I can tell about my family? Or is it something I should maybe not mention?” I think that that’s probably the same for a lot of gay people. “Should I come out to this person or is it something I should wait a couple of days to tell them?” Kids are automatically doing those things, sussing out people. They’re very intelligent. They have a lot of agency. And they know how to keep themselves safe.

They have that instinct

And interestingly, most children growing up in gay families are often very fluent in the process of IVF and the most contemporary reproductive technologies. They’re able to explain their situation of birth in a very matter-of-fact way. It’s just how they came into the world. I found that really interesting. Many have a lot of insight around the fluidity of gender and a sophisticated understanding of gender equality. Because they might have a butch mum and a femme mum or a camp dad, and so their ideas around what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman are really developed. In a way, the film touches on these things.

So maybe a good way to explain this is through Gus, he’s working out what it means to be a man being guided by his two lesbian mothers. And he loves wrestling. He is obsessed with Sean Michaels—the buffest, toughest, boofyest wrestler of them all. And his mothers are wondering whether that’s really the best male role model for their only son.

Then we’ve got Ebony who desperately wants to be a famous singer. She lives out in the western suburbs of Sydney and she really wants to go to Newtown Performing Arts High. She wants to go because she’s an amazing singer but she also wants to go because she’s heard that Newtown is a gay oasis where she’ll never have to come out because everyone will be so accepting and loving of her family.

Wow.

We’ve got Matt who is 12 years old. He comes from a very religious family. And every week when they go to church the priest tells his mums that they are sinning against god and he’s thinking, Why should I believe in a god when they’re damning my mums to hell? which is a very legitimate thought. But he’s wrestling with his faith. I think a lot of priests and religious figures probably underestimated this new era of children and how they see the world. So the documentary raises lots of issues and common experiences that kids in same-sex families face every day.

You mentioned becoming incredibly close to some of these young people. What was that like, immersing yourself in their lives?

I think that’s the best thing about making documentary  films: that you get to have this beautiful one-on-one time with another human, you get to really know them and follow them around like the invisible shadow—to the point where it can be quite annoying. There are little moments in the film where everyone’s saying, “Maya! Go away!”

When you spend so much time with someone they become part of your anatomy. They become part of your social world. So I’m constantly calling up the kids seeing how they are, how the families are. I hope these are relationships that will continue throughout my whole life. And I think that if you make a film that everyone is proud of, because the way they are represented is authentic, then the relationships continue.

I’d be worried if you made a documentary about someone who you didn’t want to be friends with afterwards.

I make films about people who I’ve got a lot of heart for.

Has the process illuminated aspects of your own experience? What’s the journey been like for you?

That’s definitely one of the joys. That in making this film, in telling their stories, I’ve been able to travel back into my own childhood and think about the change that has potentially happened or not happened in my own life, and reflect on how having gay parents has shaped me as a person, and, you know, what the value of that is.

How long have you been working on it?

About three years.

So you’ve seen them grow up, many of these young people?

Yeah! I mean Gus was 10 when we started filming with him and he just turned 14! So he’s a little man now. I kind of feel nostalgic about his younger years. And it got me wondering what parenting is going to be like for me. I feel like I’ve already done it to an extent, but got all the good parts. I didn’t have to do much of the hard work. In a way I’ve spent four years studying parenting, which is quite a unique thing. I don’t think many parents would get to analyse parenting in that way before they have a child.

That’s true! So do you feel equipped?

Definitely not. But I’ve got all respect for anyone who wants to be a parent!

Well, I think regardless of whether it’s a man/ woman, man/man, woman/woman thing, parenting is just incredibly hard. But the biggest realisation is that yes, your parenting skill is very important, how you discipline, the rules you set, the connections and the relationships you establish within your family, that’s all so, so important. How you build a family and the values you instil is important. But the thing that surprised me is that as parents you’re also dealing with very unique, individual personalities that are sometimes not what you’ve created. I just think it’s the most incredible thing that you would give birth to a child and then they’re already this little person, with all of this personality, before you have even made any attempts to shape their lives! I don’t think we give enough to the agency that young people have to forge their own paths, to become their own people.

It also made me think about the importance for each of us to embody both masculine and feminine qualities. I’ve been thinking a lot about becoming a father one day, but as a gay man it’s hard to perceive, and it’s taken me a while to realise that I can actually play the mother and the father roles.

That’s really at the crux of this film. We have this idea that femininity is related to women and masculinity is related to men. But gender actually stretches across both sexes. I believe it’s our social and cultural evolution that has made these defiant distinctions between them.

When I was a child I saw two very powerful, individual women who mowed the lawn, who cooked, who took me to sports training, who sang me lullabies before I went to bed. They both did those things.

They shared the roles. So I grew up knowing that being a woman wasn’t a predetermined path. I could be whoever I wanted to be. I could act, dress, learn and talk how I wanted, and befriend and kiss who I wanted. That, to me, is the greatest gift you can give a child. And as long as we continue to think that men do masculine things and women do feminine things, then it will be very hard to pave the way for a gay family. For any family. And for any person.

You’re right. Not everyone is there yet, though. There’s still a lot of judgement. What do we do with that?

Every child deals with the conflict of “otherness,” of feeling different in some way. I think I need to say here that I grew up in a west Sydney school where half the staff was gay and when I went in the Mardi Gras parade, I bragged about riding on the lead float with mountains of glitter and everyone was jealous. ‘Cause they all wanted to go on a float in the Mardi Gras parade. So I had the luck of growing up in an incredibly accepting area of Sydney. But for lots of kids—like, for example, the kids in the film—it’s always something on your mind. But it also makes you grow and your understanding of the world grow, which is why I would say a lot of kids in gay families have a very developed, mature way of seeing the world.

Gender actually stretches across both sexes. I believe it’s our social and cultural evolution that has made these defiant distinctions between them.

What do you love about documentary filmmaking as a tool for storytelling?

I love that you have this opportunity to sit in a quiet, intimate space with someone and really speak with them heart-to-heart. You get to share moments with extraordinary people; they open up to you. You are completely immersed in all of their senses. You can create a situation where the viewer is sharing in the most intimate moments with people who they would never in their life get to sit down and have that experience with. I love being able to create those connections, unite different ways of thinking, tell someone’s story.

The news is pouring really horrifying, sensational stories from all around the world into our living rooms every day. And we never know whose version of events is being told, whose truth has been favoured. With documentary we have this opportunity to connect with the real world and express coherent, thought-out narratives about how things actually are. It shows the nuances as I said before. I think as our media directs more and more disastrous, superficial stories at us, the need for hearing those stories of hope or really getting to know real people around the world that represent various experiences becomes more and more significant.

If you could put this documentary in front of anyone who would it be?

When we stood up in front of the audience at Good Pitch, Charlotte—the producer—and I had this moment where we were like, “What do we want to do with this film? What is the change that we want to make? And how does change happen?” I think one of the big things that really would affect the lives of kids in gay families does come back to legislation and policy. In our country there’s a range of discriminatory policies affecting gay people. Marriage equality is probably the most commercialised, but there’s also policy around adoption, around surrogacy, and a number of other areas that, if improved, would really make a difference to people.

So we stood up there at Good Pitch and said, “If anyone can find us a personal connection to these politicians, we would love to sit down with them, especially those that might be unsure about their decision around marriage equality or other policies that relate to gay rights, and we’d like to screen the film to them and their family. In a really non-threatening, private way.” As I’ve said, this film was conceived in a place of wanting to move away from the politicised, crazy debate around marriage equality. And I’d like to stick to that.

I think it could be really powerful to have politicians screen the movie in their homes with their families and let them engage in a discussion about family.

You must be really proud of the work.

Yeah. This is my first feature documentary. And it’s been a really enlightening, beautiful journey to follow something for so long—to be committed to it and to watch it grow. So I’m proud that we have finally finished it. And I’m incredibly proud of the way that we did it. It’s very hard to get a leg up in the Australian documentary film industry, and we crowdfunded $100,000 at the very beginning, which literally came from gay parents and other people who cared about the issues throwing in 20 bucks each. I’m proud we have a community behind us that has been so supportive and wants this film to happen. And have continued their support throughout the whole making of the film. I’m proud of the kids ‘cause they’re so brave and continue to grow into exceedingly beautiful human beings. And I think for myself, I’m so relieved and happy that I was able to make a film that all the families are really proud of. That’s probably the biggest challenge: sitting down for the first time and showing them a rough cut of the film. They are the hardest audiences.

Totally. You’re putting their lives on the screen.

But that was a really big part of our filmmaking process. We really wanted the families to be a part of how they would be represented. From very early on they were watching cuts of the film, even commenting. We would negotiate what were good things to include, what were not. And I feel like that collaborative manner of filmmaking is really important to my practice. Because they’re the ones with their lives on the line, right? They’re the ones who for three years of their lives have had someone follow them around and reveal their deepest, darkest secrets. And they’re kids! It’s important that they feel proud of this film when they’re older, especially when they’re becoming adults. I think for a lot of filmmakers that’s not the priority.

It’s wonderful that it is for you. Have there been role models for you as a filmmaker?

In the making of this, Charlotte and I created our first production company, Marla House, which has lots of meanings, but in the language spoken in Central Australia, which is where I’ve been doing a lot of work lately, it means “girl house.” And I think we both feel very inspired by a lot of the female filmmakers who have paved the way. There’s Agnes Varda who is a French feminist film director, part of the French New Wave movement. She made some moving films and documentaries and at the time was the only girl in the gang. For this film, I’ve looked to my mothers as enormous role models. Many of the ideas that are prevalent in this film come from these two very strong women who raised me.

What’s your message to gay families?

For anyone, I think probably the simplest and most powerful message is just to be proud of your family. That’s what’s at the heart of this film. It’s a film about diversity, about celebrating difference.

Every family is different. The sooner we acknowledge that, the sooner kids with gay parents or divorced parents or single parents or trans parents will begin to feel more comfortable and celebrated in all spaces.

Ebony, one of the kids in the film, she’s 12, when I asked her what family was, she said: “The people who make you who you are today.” So they get it. We just need the rest of the world to catch on.

How do we do that? How do we make these ideas more widespread?

Something we are very happy about from the Good Pitch experience was the opportunity for this outreach program. We aim to circulate the film in the education system, in particular in primary schools across Australia. At the moment we have a system where most teachers probably wouldn’t be openly homophobic. They wouldn’t say terrible things about gay families. But because they’re not equipped with the information to explain gay families or explain reproductive technology in a child- friendly way, they just ignore it. They don’t say anything at all. They pretend that it doesn’t exist. Which means when hard questions arise it’s up to the child to do the work. For example, one of the kids in our families, she was in kindergarten, and the teachers got chickens and eggs to hatch in class. And the eggs are hatching and the teacher’s like, “Well, you know everyone, you need a rooster and a hen to make the egg.” And one of the boys put his hand up and said, “Miss, that’s wrong. Josie has two mums and she exists. She didn’t need a mum and a dad.” And the teacher went, “Well… uh … er…” She had no idea how to answer this question, right? Of course for Josie, she had just been outed in front of her whole class, and for the next month everyone was coming up to her, saying, “How can you have two mums when you need a mum and a dad?” Josie was a little unequipped to answer all of those questions, which meant that she just didn’t want to go to school for that period of time. So as I said, all children have the right to have their family systems reflected in their education.

And it’s not a big ask. I think as part of the outreach of this film we would like to go around the country and do really simple, free teacher training sessions with staff members about how to talk about gay issues, the terminology to use, how to talk about transphobia, homophobia and diverse families. Generally give them information that would just make a big difference to lots of kids.

I love this idea of taking the issue beyond the film.

That’s what the whole Good Pitch model is about. How do we marry films with campaigns of change, with philanthropists, with NGOs and social enterprises that will be able to make a difference? Because film is unlike any other medium. You can create a personal connection, an emotional connection with people over issues about our existence. In the old model of storytelling and filmmaking, we would finish the film and it might go to a cinema and then it might go on a dusty shelf for life. Good Pitch puts the power back in a filmmaker’s hands to say, “Well, we’re entering a new age of filmmaking and we can create the change regardless of what happens with the traditional distribution avenues.”

What gives you hope for the gay rights movement? Both in Australia and around the world.

There’s so much hope. There are so many people who are finding their voices, who are able to articulate the situation for others in a really compassionate way. And there are older generations who are passing on amazing advice to younger generations on how to speak up and how to feel comfortable about being who they are. Pride movements are growing all around the world. I think it’s just a matter of time for equality. But I don’t think we can get complacent on the issue either, just because we think it’s inevitable. We’ve got to keep up the discussion. We’ve got to remember there are still people in the world being imprisoned or given a death sentence for being gay.

One of my friends who’s a gayby—he’s 32—said when he was growing up he had a lot of trouble in the playground, got teased a lot, his whole family were in hiding. He used to tell people one of his mums was an aunty. But he had this beautiful line where he stops at the end of the interview and says, “But now it’s going to be a great time to be a gayby.” And I thought, Yeah! All of these kids growing up in this beautiful bright world that’s moving towards diversity and acceptance. It is a great time to be a gayby.

Nathan Scolaro

Nathan enjoys getting elbow-deep in sentences, pressing and pricking them like a Chinese doctor until the blood is flowing just right. He hails from Western Australia, where he first experienced the joy of putting together a magazine, and now indulges his love of thoughtful, life-giving storytelling by bringing Dumbo Feather to life once a quarter.

Photography by Toby Burrows

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