Written by Sandiso Ngubane
One of the oldest and perhaps most illogical perceptions of queerness is that it curtails one’s ability to start a family. In fact, much of society’s long-standing disdain for homosexuality is centred on the idea that it threatens the survival of the family unity and family values.
In the context of a society where women-headed households and single parenting is endemic, it’s rather puzzling that the value of father-mother-child traditional family structures suddenly becomes sacrosanct where queerness is involved.
See, values, dear reader, are not the product of any structure – be it cultural, religious or otherwise. They are the culmination of what we consider to be of value. Is someone’s inherent right for self-determination not of value?
Teaching this as a value to her child is how one Neo Masekwameng approaches parenting. The Johannesburg-based pansexual single mother is raising a nine-year-old child assigned male at birth. “Masande once asked me when he can be who he wants to be,” Neo says of her child’s profound query, to which she responds daily by creating a safe space within which Masande is able to express himself without trepidation. “He likes playing with wigs, and I let him do that. He knows he can do that because of the safe space, and the people I surround myself with.” While Neo has always understood herself to be queer, Masande was conceived while she was in a heterosexual relationship in her late twenties.
“I now know that I can’t survive in a heterosexual situation but I had no apprehension about having Masande. I was 28, in a relationship. I was happy and I was ready to have him. He wasn’t an ‘oops baby’. I’m now the primary caregiver, but his dad is also very active in Masande’s upbringing.”
Neo adds that she believes in family. “I want that for myself, and I am open to having more children in a queer relationship.”
While for some queer people, raising their own biological children is an option, starting a family means a lot of different things for many different people. Alternatives include surrogacy and adoption, which entrepreneurs Mokhele Diutloileng and Jabu Fakude chose.
It’s been four months since the couple got back home with their bundle of joy Lesedi but life without him now feels “unimaginable”.
“We often ask ourselves what it was like before him because he has changed our lives completely. Becoming parents has been such a wonderful and fulfilling thing,” Mokhele tells Exit.
The couple met as colleagues, developed a friendship, started dating and eventually married – a strong foundation for a relationship they both feel made the adoption process much easier than it could have been.
“The process was quite straightforward,” the couple said. “We went through Johannesburg Child Welfare, but there are also private options. For us, we were in no rush to have a child. We wanted the process to take a natural progress. We went through orientation with ten other couples and two individuals. We were all treated with great respect, sexuality notwithstanding.”
Jabu adds that they chose to go the adoption route because they believe giving a home and family to a child who wouldn’t otherwise have one is something worthwhile. This is especially true for those who, like them, have the resources to provide said child with the necessary opportunities to flourish.
While baby Lesedi is just shy of two years old, I asked Jabu and Mokhele if they had any trepidation about schooling for their child who will go out into a world where his family could perhaps be considered unconventional, raising questions from teachers as well as other children and their parents.
“Not at all,” Mokhele responded. “We are not worried. We also know people who have walked this path before us, so that makes it easier. We have people to learn from. For us, we are not bothered by how other people perceive us. That’s how we handle life. Even when we are out shopping and maybe holding hands when people stare it never occurs to us that they are looking because we are queer.”
This level of self-awareness and comfort in one’s truth is how the couple approaches child-rearing. It’s something that is covered in the psychometric and similar processes and assessments that parents hoping to adopt a child have to go through.
“The advise from Child Welfare is that we should be open with our child,” Mohkele shares. “As soon as they are able to comprehend, we have to be able to let them know: you are adopted but we are your parents and we love you. From the beginning, you have to be open and educate the child, because that empowers them. Even if someone says ‘but you’ve got two dads’ that will empower the child to see that as something positive and not out of the ordinary.”
“So, it’s important that we make Lesedi understand that his normal is normal for him; in the same way normal means something else to others.”
Rodney and Shawn Malone, the parents of six-year-old Xavier were together for four years before they made a decision to start a family – something Rodney says had not been a priority for him prior.
However, for Shawn, having children is something he wanted “for as long as I can remember.”
He adds: “I think I told Rodney on our second or third date that we were not on the same life path if he didn’t (want children). I was 33 at the time, and I wanted to start a family by 40, so no time to waste.”
“He told me his life path on our first date,” Rodney corrects. When the decision was made to start a family, Rodney and Shawn, who are American citizens, could not get married at the time. This was prior to June 2015 when the US Supreme Court struck down all state bans on same-sex marriage. “My biggest concern was around what legal protections we would have as a family,” Rodney says.
Today, Xavier is in a school where the couple’s family structure is “unremarkable”.
“There are several other gay and lesbian couples with kids there. It really seems to be a non-issue,” Shawn says.
From the on-set, the couple wanted their son in a school with values that aligned with their own in order to make sure it would not become a hostile environment for little Xavier as a result of who his parents are. “I can fight my own battles, so I wasn’t too concerned about how I would be perceived,” Rodney explains. “The school would have had a big problem on their hands if they said or did something slick to my child based on my existence in the world.”
From the surprising ease of Mokhele and Jabu’s adoption processes with a public institution, to Neo’s single motherhood and Shawn and Rodney’s positive experience with their son Xavier’s school; the parents interviewed for this piece seem to have comfortably settled into parenthood.
Sure, this might not be a reflection of the experience of queer parents everywhere, but it is encouraging to see examples of what the homophobes the world over have tried to convince the world is not possible. Contrary to their view, family values are not the exclusive domain of traditional family structure“ Children grow up thinking who they are is normal until such time someone else comes along and starts asking questions,”