The lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) charity Stonewall estimates there are more than 20,000 children in the UK currently growing up in families with same-sex parents.
Parents Rachel and Sarah Hagger-Holt, from Rickmansworth, have been together for 15 years. After being unable to find a book that relates to LGBT family life the couple decided to write their own, Pride and Joy: A Guide for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans Parents.
While Sarah says that LGBT families are becoming more mainstream and more visible in the media, it is still seen as unusual and their family’s experience still feels a little different.
As our legal system catches up and social acceptance adjusts, being an LGBT parent undeniably comes with a separate set of challenges, which the book sets out to face.
“The first section looks at how people become parents, the second section is much more about how you interact with schools and health visitors or whatever it is, how you are out and about in the world. Then the third section is what it means in terms of gender, the nuclear family and those wider societal issues and in the end we wanted to take it back to questions of identity and the idea of preserving yours.
“It also looks at parents who have continued to be politically active, whether that is regarding LGBT rights or anything else, and how to do that and continue to hold that identity. For example Herts Pride is a really family friendly event and that’s growing as more LGBT people become parents.”
Rachel and Sarah had a civil ceremony at the old Watford registry office on December 5, 2004, the first day it became legal in the UK. They now have two daughters who are six and eight years old.
During their children’s lifetime the law took another step forward and finally allowed non-biological parents within civil partnerships full parental rights.
“We wrote the book not just to help and encourage others, but to provide a bit of insight into what’s it like to be an LGBT family today. It’s very conversational, almost like a dinner table with lots of people chatting and sharing their stories and experiences.
“We realised there must be lots of other families in a similar situation and we wanted to bring those experiences to a much wider audience, because when we grew up there weren’t any role models at all. There weren’t any same sex families or LGBT parents in the media or TV, it’s starting to change but still you might not necessarily know other families like your own. We need to recognise how much has changed, legally and socially.
“We started it a couple of years ago, initially we reached out to people we knew but then, thanks really to social media and organisations like Stonewall, every day we were getting emails from people with their stories.”
I was curious to know more about their own story and the biological circumstances of their family. Sarah explains that each had been pregnant once and that they co-parent with a gay couple who are each the biological fathers to their children.
“Biology is a thing people are very interested in and it’s in some ways significant to us, but most of the time it’s not. We get asked lots of questions and lots of assumptions are made about who is ‘properly’ related to who.”
I wondered how people’s attitudes varied between adoptive parents of same sex and heterosexual couples, but Sarah admits: “I don’t know.”
She explains: “I think it’s just more obvious if you’re a same sex couple. So people ask more questions or make more assumptions. Many adoptive parents said the experience and particular challenges and issues are so all-consuming, that you might have more in common with adoptive parents however they identify, same sex or not. For example taking a child into your family when they’re older.”
In this vein I asked Sarah whether it was common for her or for Rachel to be asked quite personal questions about their family, from people or in situations in which it may not be comfortable for them or an appropriate topic.
She tells me: “We don’t anymore; every now and then yes. Most of the time people see what they see and accept what they find or get on with it. People can get quite anxious about how they are perceived, but a lot of the time people are getting on with their lives.
“That said, there are families who have experienced very negative or dismissive attitudes from teachers or social workers. So that still goes on but I think a lot less than in the past.”
Neither of the two are trans women, but the book also covers the experience of transgendered parents. Sarah explains to me how they went about ensuring they included and represented this experience.
“We were really conscious that quite a lot of the context we had was focused on lesbian and gay families, but the voices of trans people weren’t bring heard very much. That was where links with organisations like Stonewall really helped us. They helped us to find people.
“Within the stories are so many differences. One of my favourite interviewees was a woman called Justine who had transitioned from male to female when her children were teenagers in a very traditional part of Northern Scotland.
"Her story is remarkable in that despite no one in the community having encountered anyone trans before, they rallied round and were really supportive and she’s gone on to be a bit of a role model for others.
“It isn’t all controversial or doom and gloom, it’s just people working out how I do the best by my children, myself and my family. The approach has been us coming to this not as experts but, like everybody else, people who are muddling through family life. So we were very open with people coming to us with their experience.”
Pride & Joy A Guide for LGBT Parents by Sarah and Rachel Hagger-Holt is published by Pinter & Martin.