Avi Magidsohn is a 56-year-old trans father of two adult daughters and two young sons, whom he raises with his partner Lainie. He works in the Toronto District School Board’s gender-based violence prevention program. Magidsohn shared with HuffPost Canada his family’s public adoption story, their values, and what it means to raise Black boys at this time.
My partner Lainie and I met in 2001, she had two children from a previous relationship, who were six and nine at the time. All of this was before I transitioned, so we met through a listserv for Jewish lesbians. My partner is white, I’m Black. When we went out with the girls, no one ever thought we were together.
The adoption experience for a queer couple
I always wanted to be a parent. I loved being around kids; did the babysitting/camp counsellor/coach thing growing up. Always planned for biological, as well as adopted kids — my mom always talked fondly about the kids who got absorbed into her family growing up and I wanted the same.
I had been exploring both adoption and conceiving biological children before Lainie and I met. I tried conceiving through insemination using donor sperm, then frozen sperm, then a round of fertility drugs.
I tried for three to four years and wasn’t able to get pregnant. I had always wanted the experience of pregnancy and childbirth, so it was difficult to let that go. However, more than that, I wanted to be a parent of a child from infancy, so I moved forward and we began the adoption process.
At the time that we were beginning the adoption journey, it was very difficult for queer people to adopt internationally. It was not really something we were interested in because the cost was so prohibitive and we knew there were lots of kids here who needed families. I was interested in private adoption because it was easier to be matched with a newborn. However, so many private adoption agencies in the U.S. are connected to Christian organizations; the likelihood of being accepted as a queer family was low. We decided to adopt from the Children’s Aid Society (CAS).
When we were going through CAS courses for prospective adoptive parents, the staff repeatedly said that they look for the best match for the child, not the best match for the parent(s). However, sitting in rooms with eight heterosexual couples, three queer couples and two singles, it was hard not to feel like you were competing with more “traditional” families.
I have heard that queer/single people feel like they are matched with children with higher needs, and I don’t doubt that this sometimes happens. I also know that sometimes children with higher needs are placed with these families because the families have lived experience of successfully dealing with hardships or can focus more attention on supporting the child.
The reality of public adoption is that there are no kids without trauma — be that physical, psychological, sexual, impact of substance abuse, family history of mental health issues, and/or developmental issues. The very process of adoption is traumatic, as it involves at least one (and often several) separations and disruptions to attachments the child has formed in previous homes and communities.
I had worries about public adoption because of the stories people and the media tell about the kids who are in the child welfare system. Also, I thought that we would not be able to adopt a very young child. But public adoption was a really amazing experience. And now we have this blended, multiracial family.
Part of the reason I wanted to adopt an infant was because I wanted to induce lactation, so that I could nurse and have that bonding experience. Happily, it worked — well, our youngest son arrived with four teeth, so that was a very abbreviated nursing experience!
How family supports identity
Four years ago, I transitioned. Our daughters were wonderful and totally supportive. Our eldest son, who had been very bonded with me since the time he came home, struggled to understand. Initially he seemed fine and at ease with everything. But a few months after we told him, he had a huge emotional grief reaction on his 10th birthday.
Since then, he has been pretty great. He was so proud of me the first time I used the men’s washroom! He used to call me “mama” or by my previous name. Now he calls me Avi. He refers to me as his dad with other people but does not call me dad when talking to me. Our youngest son had not problem at all and right away began calling me Poppa.
So it was then about configuring family. We became invisible, “oh, you’re just a straight family,” which was not what we wanted, as a queer family. It was really hard for my partner, because she’s a lesbian; that’s her identity. We’ve worked really hard to be still connected to the queer community.
When we adopted, we were two women. But I do know of people who have adopted as trans. I’ve been working with Children’s Aid Society in my role at TDSB’s Gender Based Violence Prevention Program. Just last year, we developed training for child welfare around homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia.
As the adoption workers are learning, I’ve heard good things about the adoption journey of trans parents. I hear better things from transmasculine people than transfeminine people, because [transmisogyny] still exists out there. For transfeminine people, transphobia works so strongly against them that this can only add levels of stress, scrutiny and oversight. Child welfare agencies are only now doing focussed work on addressing homophobia in their agencies’ policies and procedures. Until they have a deep grasp on this, the work they are trying to do to address transphobia will continue to lag behind.
In my job with TDSB, I work with a lot of young [LGBTQ] people, including trans and non-binary students, providing social work support. With those who are interested in parenting, we talk about egg retrieval and freezing sperm. But I also reassure them by saying that, off the top of my head, I know five transmasculine people who had pregnancies after transitioning. It’s no longer an anomaly. There are so many ways to create family.
Raising young Black men
Interestingly, both our boys have fallen into the traditional patriarchal view that I am the “boss” of the family and the person whose words matter more than their mother’s. It has been a shock for us how deeply this traditional view of family is embedded in society: Two kids who spent their whole lives raised by lesbians and feminists fell into this patriarchal trap, within months of my transition. We try to fight it on a regular basis with minimal success.
For our boys, what we’re grappling with most right now, as parents, are all the questions around raising young Black men in this world. One of our sons is on the autism spectrum and has an intellectual disability; the other has Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. These are two kids that will likely come into contact with law enforcement, through no fault of their own.
How do we navigate that? Given recent events, my partner has been suggesting we go to the police station preemptively, so the officers understand who our kids are before any possible encounter.
Sometimes my youngest son says, “The police are our friends and they’re going to help us!” I try very hard to not make my face contradict this.
Watch: For Black families, talking to kids about race starts early. Story continues below.
Our oldest son is a sweet loving kid who is now struggling with the fact that his mother is white and white people are the ones everyone is angry about. How does he balance that out? We’re trying to open interesting discussions.
I talk about my own experiences with the police, as a Black man: being pulled over or being stopped because I fit the description of some guy. It’s been happening exponentially more since I transitioned. I don’t know why I never thought about what that transitioning would mean, in that regard: “I’m going to be a Black man in the world, that’s going to be fun because the police are going to notice me more and stop me more.”
When a police officer stops us, I say, “This is what’s going to happen, this is what you need to do.” My oldest son’s like, “I’m going to tell him, he can’t do that!” At this point, they’re just mad. On one hand, we’re raising them to advocate for themselves. But in this situation, we’re telling them to “take it.” They say, “I don’t understand.” Well, I don’t understand either, I don’t like it. But that’s what is going to keep them alive.
It’s hard. There are a lot of images in the world that tell them who they are supposed to be as young Black men. We’re trying to counteract them. I don’t want to bury my sons.
What makes us happy is that our sons are very sweet kids. They’re loving. I mean, at home, they treat each other like crap. But in the world, they’re wonderful people.
One time, our eldest son was mad at us. He’d gone out, then come back. I was ready to yell at him, but he told me, “I went out to put some flowers on the ghost bike.” It’s a memorial in front of our house, for a teacher who was killed, and I did grief support for that teacher’s kids. That love and compassion for others is in there.
Our younger one can be a handful; when he blows, he blows. But he has this ability with animals, big ones love him. Horses, cows. I say, “Dude, we need to get you into farming.”
Dreaming for a better world that his sons deserve
I want my kids to do more than keep their heads down and survive, I want them to thrive. And sometimes that means that, you know, when we’re out and they’re mad, they’re gonna tell me very loudly and that’s OK.
As a Black parent, at this point, I just want my sons to have a future. I want them to live to adulthood and beyond, and not have anti-Black racism destroy their goodness and gentleness.
If they are gifted with a future, I want them to be free to be their most authentic selves and live lives that give more than is taken.
I hope they will respect the land and the creatures on it; that they will love and be loved; that they will learn that pain is a gift that teaches us humility and resilience; that it is more important to have integrity than to be liked; that interdependence is more valuable than independence; and that you must live the life you are given to the fullest, so you have no regrets at the end.
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity
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