Although it was over a decade ago, Lori Ross still remembers the feeling she had at a Toronto drop-in program for queer parents with young kids. “I was basically going back into the closet,” Ross said, describing the pronoun game she played to avoid mentioning that she had a male partner at the time. “It was advertised as a space for queer moms, but it was so clearly a space for women who were parenting with other women. It was obviously not a space for me.”
Her then-toddler is now a teen, and Ross has a second child, who is six. As an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health and a leading expert on bisexual health, she has found her experiences as a new mom corroborate the research in this area.
Ross told HuffPost Canada that when she accessed spaces that were for the queer community more generally — not parenting-specific ones — she often felt most comfortable and accepted among transgender parents, because they too sometimes face challenges of erasure.
“Nobody’s making assumptions about anyone’s gender or sexual identity. For me, those were much friendlier spaces,” she said.
The poorer health outcomes found among bisexual and pansexual individuals are the products of stress and stigma built up over a lifetime. As Simon Fraser assistant professor Travis Salway told the House of Commons during a 2019 committee study on LGBTQ health, “minority stress gets under our skin, into our bodies and into our minds. The stigma lodges itself there and slowly kills us from the inside.”
Bisexual and pansexual people often face distinctive challenges. They may have the burden of repeatedly having to come out, if they’re in a mixed-sex relationship; feeling guilty if their current relationship or appearance means they benefit from the privileges of being straight-passing; and facing stereotypes about their sexual orientation being a phase. Invisibility is the issue that comes up most in studies. “That translates into a lack of access to community-specific parenting supports,” said Ross. And these supports are needed.
Destiny Delmar of Calgary has a 7-year old and a 6-year old, and is raising them in a multi-generational co-parenting community.
Delmar identifies as pansexual ― or queer when she can’t muster the energy to explain that pan, for her, is about “hearts, not parts—I like people for who they are as people, regardless of how they identify.”
She told HuffPost Canada that she has found, “casual homonegativity is pretty normal, especially in parenting circles.” People tend to assume Delmar is straight and will make disparaging comments about the LGBTQ2 community in front of her; for instance, saying a child with lesbian parents is misbehaving because they lack a father figure. Delmar constantly feels she doesn’t belong in mainstream parenting spaces.
“I don’t think straight parents have to explain their lives the same way non-monosexual parents do,” she said. “I find part of the queer experience is having to justify decisions and partners and basic everyday life to society. It’s mentally exhausting at times.”
Delmar said she has a very affirming queer community, and is proud to be raising her kids with an awareness of privilege, diversity and gender norms. In fact, research led by Mount Holyoke University assistant professor Corey Flanders found that bisexual parents are more likely than other parents to raise their children with a wide range of gender socialization practices, challenging norms about everything from the gender-based division of chores to classing colours, clothes and toys in gender-specific ways.
While many non-monosexual parents, like Delmar, eventually find community, some are still looking for the places they feel at home. Laura Castle is the founder of the LGBTQ2S+ parenting group Rainbow Families YYC, and told HuffPost Canada that after their first playgroup, she received a message from someone who wanted to know “if bisexual people in families that appeared straight were welcome. They had gone to other LGBTQ2S+ community events and felt excluded.”
Castle said the group wanted to come out strongly in support of all of their members and was prompted to pin a post on the group’s Facebook wall:
“All LGBTQ2S+ parents are welcome at playgroup! There is not a singular queer parenting experience. Our life experiences and privileges intersect in ways that makes each experience unique.”
Alaina Shadlock admitted that she was put off at first when she heard a mom at the Rainbow Families playgroup talking about her husband. Shadlock, who lives in Calgary with her wife and their two toddlers, wondered why that mom wouldn’t be at one of the city’s many programs for straight parents instead. But when Shadlock became aware that some queer families get read as straight, and how uncomfortable they might feel in queer spaces, she couldn’t stop thinking about their experience.
“Having someone explain to me that a woman married to a man can be at a queer parenting group even though they don’t appear queer definitely changed things for me,” she said. “As a parent, I need to constantly challenge my beliefs and biases and do better for my kids than I had so they can be more open, loving and accepting people than the people in the generations before them.”
WATCH: Understanding your child’s LGBTQ+ identity.