Gus, blond, fair-skinned, with a delicate nose, stares transfixed at the TV screen in his bedroom as men in leather boots and skin-tight trunks clothesline and bodyslam each other until one can pin down the other for three counts. The winner, with a sweaty, bedraggled mane and shining bronze biceps, holds up a championship belt. “More than every single grain of sand in the world,” Gus states matter-of-factly. “That’s how much I love westling.”
Gus’ mom worries about him, about the example professional wrestlers set for her son. She worries about how rough Gus and his little sister Rory play when they try to imitate the wrestling moves, and how Rory inevitably ends up hurt and crying. His other mom does, too. Rory and Gus were conceived via sperm donor, Gus explains. Although low levels of testosterone in the family hasn’t kept Gus from developing an obsession with championship wrestling so typical of young men.
Gayby Baby is a simple glance into the life of Gus (age 10) and three other children, Ebony (age 12), Graham (age 11), and Matt (age 11) as they deal with the transitions and heartache of growing from childhood to adolescence. The only thing that makes their stories stand apart from any other childhood is that these children are being raised by gay or lesbian parents.
Director Maya Newell (TWO, Growing Up Gayby) was raised by a same-sex couple herself. In the heat of Australian debate over how and whether to recognize same-sex unions, she saw a tragic silence in a crucial area: nobody was giving ear to the children. Enter Gus, Ebony, Graham, and Matt.
Even though Matt has a father, he loves mom’s new partner and is learning to vocalize and fight for her right to be with the person she loves. Graham’s dads decide to keep their relationship private as the family moves to Fiji for work, since the local culture tends to look unfavorably upon such unions. Ebony’s moms are sacrificing everything they can to help her get into an arts-focused high school for next year, but the family struggles with depleted finances and a baby brother prone to seizures and extended medical issues.
The fascinating thing about this documentary is how unextraordinary these children are, how similar their joys and sorrows are to my own childhood. Raised on the other side of the world in a conservative, heteronormative family, I saw these same struggles. My brothers loved wrestling, and my parents worried about how much we all roughhoused. I had friends with recurrent health issues that affected every part of family life. I stressed out over auditions, just like Ebony does. I was raised in a religious family, like Matt, and started learning to deal with questions and doubt when I was about his age.
In many ways, Gayby Baby is nothing revolutionary or exposing or even interesting. Except that human people, especially children, are so interesting! Children are such a perfect window into both insecurity and perfect confidence, into love, hate, passion, and conviction.
The most convicting aspect of how their lives differ from mine growing up is the extra baggage they have to deal with - not because their parents are same-sex, but because of how their society reacts to that. Ebony is stressed about starting high school, like any normal kid, but she dreads the looks and whispers from the kids when they find out she has two moms. Graham is assigned to write a paragraph about himself and his family, but has to filter every thought because it’s “not the right time,” according to his dad, for people at school to know about their same-sex union.
Their parents cuddle and yell and fight and give selflessly just like my parents, just like all parents. After watching this film, I did not have the feeling that same-sex couples parent any better or worse than heterosexual couples. Rather, I thought, Man. Being a kid is hard. Being a parent is hard. All the time, no matter what.
I work with children, and I get to watch them interact with their caregivers. I see moms, dads, grandparents, babysitters, nannies, aunts, and uncles. Straight and gay, religious and nonreligious. I see sweet hugs and temper tantrums, kisses and swats. More than who takes care of them, I see kids either wilt or thrive on how they are cared for.
If Gayby Baby makes any concrete assertion, it is a very similar one. Kids can tell when they’re being loved and cared for. In a world where every family deals with brokenness and difficulty, the real question is, are we loving and family-building through it all? As Australians and those of other nations continue the fight for (and against) recognition of same-sex marriages, partnerships, and parents, this quiet documentary lets the kids talk for a change. And, unsurprisingly to many of us, they don’t sound much different from the way kids have sounded since the beginning of time.