Thinking Souls: Interview with Abigail Garner

Shannon Gibney interviews Abigail Garner, who became a writer to tell a certain story.

Abigail Garner

Although there has been plenty of discussion about whether writers are born or made, Abigail Garner’s story presents a third option: that writers are made of necessity. Garner wrote her book Families Like Mine: Children of Gay Parents Tell It Like It Is (HarperCollins, 2004) in order to give voice to an experience that was not being heard. An unlikely writer, Garner considers herself a communicator first and foremost, and recommends that all those who have a story to tell embrace delusion if it is in the service of the telling.

SG: How has your book been received during the two years it’s been out?

AG: I think for people from these families, it’s very validating because one of the common experiences is feeling isolated, feeling like you’ve gone through something that no one else has.

A lot of parents won’t read it. I think they feel “Why would I need to read it when I’m already experiencing it?” Then someone says, “This was given to me as a baby shower gift, and it’s been on my shelf for two years. I was convinced that I really didn’t need to read it, and boy, did I. Wow, I had my eyes opened!” That’s how I know that people aren’t reading it – people who then come back to me with an open heart and say, “I finally read it. Mea culpa.”

SG: What are some of the ways they say that their eyes have been opened?

AG: The assumption is that navigating homophobia is unique to them, but cannot be experienced by someone who is not LGBT-identified. And they don’t see their children as having a sexual orientation in any way. For many of these parents, had they believed that their children would face homophobia, they wouldn’t have become parents in the first place. So, this forces them to listen to those voices that they’ve suppressed in order to get them onto the path of parenthood.

The message in the book is not to say, “Don’t have kids.” But it’s to say, “Our growing up experience can be so much better if you have an awareness.”

SG: What are some things that parents can do to in order to make it better?

AG: A sensitivity to how sons and daughters are constantly coming out every day, and that kids, depending on their developmental stages, are going to be comfortable about being out in different ways and different times. It’s not a political issue for them – it’s not an issue of shame. It’s a matter of safety. And so you’ll see this sense of safety have some cycles to it. A big marker for one is Matthew Shepherd’s murder, because it got so much media attention. It’s in a sense terrorized all of these children, because the next question is, “Is my family next?” What is the factor, what is the thing that made that man get killed? No one can make sense of hate crimes, but when a child can’t make sense of that, they get the message, “Well, to be on the safe side, I’m not going to be out about this at all.”

So, I saw a wave after October of 1998, of more parents asking me questions about, “Why are my kids suddenly more ashamed of who I am?” When in fact, they were just being more careful about who they told, because they had a reminder right in front of them that there were consequences.

A classic example is when to have the rainbow sticker on your car. You can have fourth graders who are totally fine with that – they love it, and they point it out to their friends – and then suddenly, in eighth or ninth grade, they want to take it off or cover it up. And the parents say, “I’m not going to stop being who I am just because you’re ashamed of me.” When in fact, the kid is just saying, “I want to get through the school day, and when you drive up with this bumper sticker, I can’t.” But that communication can’t be articulated because there just aren’t the words when you’re 13 to say, “Look, it’s not about who you are. It’s about my survival, day-to-day.”

SG: It’s really interesting to me how this book came about. You were already an activist; did you feel called to write the book?

AG: I felt like I didn’t really have a choice. Because I was doing speaking, and there came a point at these lectures where people were holding money or credit cards, asking “Where’s the book? Where’s the book?”

SG: How long were you doing that?

AG: My first speaking gig was volunteer, facilitating a panel in October of 1995. And the first time that I really stepped up and said, “I want to be out about this,” was facilitating for a support group at the Bridge for teens who had gay parents. So then there was this ripple effect of people saying, “I think there’s this support group at the Bridge. Let’s talk to the facilitator and have her coordinate a panel.” That was at the first Rainbow Families Conference, when it was 50 families in a church basement, basically. So, I started to do it officially when I got a lecture agent in 2000. And a year into it, there was just this expectation that of course there was a book, because why else would I be an expert? And that’s when I learned that in order to be taken seriously at a particular level, I did have to have a book.

I still don’t necessarily think of myself as a writer. I think of myself as a communicator. In this case, a published book was the way to go.

I started to hear my own stories made anonymous and repeated back to me, as if they were folklore. I have grown up feeling like I was invisible, like my stories didn’t matter. So I felt like I was being made invisible again, but in another way. Like, “Your stories matter, but who you are doesn’t. So we’re going to take all these cute, insightful gems that you’ve been telling over and over again, and we’re going to say, ‘Oh, I heard this from this young woman who has a gay father,’” yet never put it in the context of me. And it’s not about me being possessive about intellectual property of anything, it’s about me saying, “Look, that was me. I lived that. And to take that away from Abigail Garner is to make me invisible.”

So, once I heard those little things repeated back, I thought, “I have to document this.” And that’s where the column came in. The pitch that I made, originally, to the gay press, was to say, “There are all these children who still pick up this magazine, out of habit, because that’s where we have some community. And regardless of our sexual orientation, we’re still looking for a place to belong in there. I create that space. I’m this bridge now between these very different worlds. And now, there’s a concrete reason why they can pick it up and feel welcome.” That column sporadically got picked up by a number of markets. It was locally in Minneapolis for two years.

At the time, I was really interested in writing a book. But the reaction I got from a lot of people at the time, was, “Well, what are you going to say, besides you’re here? Or, yay, gay parents!” So, the column became a sounding board to test a lot of the ideas, and what floated well, and what had resistance, and truly gave me a way to find my voice and experiment with that.

SG: What were some of the strategies that you used to write this book?

AG: Whenever I write, I have to reassure myself that this is not my last chance. And that’s one of the most effective ways for me to edit well.

I have an idea, and I have a lot of different ways that I can illustrate that idea. I have 25 stories from my life, and other ones that people have told me, to illustrate that, so what are the best ways? I write all of those down, and then find ways to hook it back to the idea that I want to be demonstrating. And then, as that stuff starts to make sense, I push everything else below a page break. So, ultimately, I have that section that makes sense, and then there’s all this other stuff that may be used for something else. Basically, every column, every essay, every chapter that I’ve written, has these fragments and ideas and suggestions underneath the page break. Some stories can be used to make several points. So, if it’s not being used in one point here, I can save it for something else.

Outlines don’t really exist to me. I never know where I’m going when I write something. My book is very much formatted like little columns, because I have subtitles all along. And sometimes I’ll be working on something and say, “This just isn’t coming together.” And all the sudden I realize it’s because I created my own limitations, and that’s the way that I framed it, with the title. Suddenly, I change the title, and boom! Everything fits together more.

SG: Do you consider yourself part of a literary or writing community here? How do you think of yourself?

AG: I started out becoming part of the media because media weren’t paying attention to my population. So, I remember making a few pitches when I was 20 or 22, saying, “No, here’s how we fit into this landscape. Here’s a features story option,” and the reaction was, “Oh, we did a story on gay dads in 1985. We already did that.” So that’s one of the reasons why I became a columnist, to prove that there were other things to write about other than, “Yay, we exist!” So, then I became the reporter. But then, once the book came out, I was a source, and then reporters were coming to me. So, I didn’t really think of myself as a journalist, even though I have been called that. I have no journalism background, although I definitely explore the ethics constantly.

At the time when I was working on my book, and I was really involved with the Loft, I wrote in the studios there, and I felt very much a part of a writer’s community. But, being a communicator first, I felt like that was starting to define me too much. Because everyone says, “Well, what are you working on next?” When, I haven’t thought of myself as an author who’s going to crank out all these books. Again, I thought of myself as someone who needs to say something about children of queer parents, and this is how you do it.

I heard “What are you writing next?” and thought, “Gosh, I don’t know!” And when I really looked at it, I thought, “That’s everyone else’s expectations. And there are so many ideas that have been given to me unsolicited about what I should be working on next. I feel like for now, I’ve said what I need to say.”

It was a weird experience going from being a beginning writer at National Writer’s Union, with the chapter, and getting a lot of advice ahead of time, that I really felt almost delusional about getting. Going to a day-long workshop about how to negotiate a book contract, when I had 1,000 words published so far, anywhere in the world. And I’m sitting there going, “Okay, so this is what I need to know with my book contract.” And most people are sitting there going, “What’s your plan? What are you working on?” As if I need to have some kind of book to come to this workshop. But my idea was, at the point when I need this information, if I don’t have it it’s too late. And was true. By the time I had a book contract, I knew what I was talking about.

So, I had to risk being seen as delusional sometimes. As a writer, you have to have vision. And you have to have enough confidence in yourself to be able to think of yourself that way.

SG: Where do you think you got that confidence?

AG: I think it came from my upbringing. The idea that in order to have any kind of self-respect, I had to dream somewhere else. Quite frankly, Broadway musicals were a big part of that – to be that starring role, where everything was going to come together, and everything rhymed perfectly. That was what I held onto, that there was something beyond junior high. I think it also comes from being around a lot of gay men, who loved fabulousness. If they weren’t already completely fabulous, they were well on their way.